“...In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don't love your eyes; they'd just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them...You got to love it, you! And no, they ain't in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed. What you scream from it they do not hear. What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give you leavins instead. No, they do not love your mouth. You got to love it. This is flesh I'm talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I'm telling you..." (Toni Morrison, Beloved, New York: Penguin, 1988, p.89)
I've been doing a lot of emotional house cleaning of sorts lately. I mean, that seems like a good thing to do during Lent. And one of the things I've been thinking a lot about lately is my body.
In the Byzantine Church we believe that worship should be a sensual experience and not just an intellectual one. We kiss icons and light candles. We chew the squishy wine-soaked bread the priest drops into our mouths during Communion (or cruchy bread if it's during the Pre-Santified Liturgy). We chant (sing) the entire Liturgy or listen to others chant. We stand and bow and during Lent do full-bodied prostrations. We breath in the heavy scent of frankencense that the priest incenses throughout the church several times during the Liturgy. We gaze upon icons of the Holy Mother, the Pantocrator, and various events in the lives of the two of them. Frankly, as someone who has a difficult time processing sensory input because of CFIDS/ME, I'm often exhausted by the end. But in a happy sort of way.
It was this sensual element that drew me to the Byzantine Church from my evangelical Protestant upbringing. And it has helped me in my journey to integrate my body into my identity. Shown me that God loves my body so much that He becomes bread and wine that I injest so that He can become part of the very mitochondria of my cells.
Of course, that is not the message I had growing up. In the last few weeks, I've begun to appreciate the unrelenting attack upon who I am as a physical being. The more I think about it, the more I understand how my body and my mind/soul became separate. My body was clearly bad. It was fat and therefore clearly not reflecting the "victorious life in Jesus" my evangelical Protestant upbringing said I should have nor the healthy body my doctors bullied me about not having. It developed sexually too early when I finally had to start wearing a bra when I was nine years old because my breasts were large enough to fill a C cup. It was ill and hurt in ways laboratory tests could not explain.
But in my heart I was desperate to be a good girl. To follow the rules. Since my body was bad, I had to separate it from me. There was my deviant, disobedient body and my ever so obedient mind/soul craving what I understood to be "normal." There was my heavy, broken, hurting flesh, and my active, dynamic, bubbly mind/soul longing to be free from what has become, in many ways, my own Abu Ghraib.
As I’ve begun to appreciate the cultural, familial, medical and sexual violence done to my body, I’ve been able to integrate it into who I am as Michelle.
Who is fat.
And has a beautiful smile.
And soft, luscious skin.
And voluptuous curves.
And large, droopy breasts.
And a jiggly ass.
And a heart that breaks.
And hands and feet that hurt.
And a brain that thinks too much.
A body I want to protect. And nourish. And feel. Not be drafted into, or even actively enlist myself into hating.
A body that, like Baby Suggs, holy, in the above quote from Beloved, says, I got to love.
Each day during Lent we say a special prayer by St. Ephraim of Syria that includes the line, "Grant to me, your servant, a spirit of wholeness of being..."
And indeed, during this Lent, God is answering that prayer in profound ways.