Sermon: Our Bodies, Ourselves

2018 June 3
by Rev Ana Levy-Lyons

My dad is a philosophy professor and sometimes for fun he writes philosophical children’s poems. This is one of them:

 

Sometimes I feel like a wee tiny elf

Curled up inside me and watching myself,

Watching my arm throwing snowballs or rocks,

Watching my feet disappear in my socks,

Seeing my legs dangling down from a tree,

Sometimes just wondering which part is me.

For I’m not my knees or my elbows or toes

Or even my eyes or my ears or my nose,

I must be the elf that is curled up inside

Using my body as someplace to hide.

 

This poem is written in the voice of a child, as if it’s a child talking, and it suggests that the self is something separate from the body. Our bodies are just cars that our selves ride around in, looking out at the world through two holes we call eyes.

 

But, no offense to my dad, I don’t think any actual kid feels this way. I don’t know for sure, but I get the sense that children feel that their bodies are them. Babies, in my experience, tend to feel that even their mothers’ bodies are them. It’s only as adults, and only as adults in certain cultures, that we get a sense of separation from our bodies – and our bodies become something that we have rather than something we are. Thomas Edison once said, “The chief function of the body is to carry the brain around.”

 

Christianity has done a lot to perpetuate this idea. Some Christian traditions strictly separate the spirit from the flesh – according to the apostle Paul, the body is the main source of sin and it is our job to “crucify” the flesh and its passions. This gets into some of the territory that Takako was preaching about. Christian ascetics would starve themselves and even whip themselves to try to subdue their own bodies. But this stuff is not just the domain of the Moonies or Christian extremists. This tradition was continued by the Puritans in the American colonies where congregants had to sit on hard, wooden pews, men and women on separate sides, listening to four-hour sermons and getting smacked with a rod if they fidgeted too much or made noise or fell asleep, which they often did. Denial of the body was a religious ideal. The body was just a problematic container and the spirit, the self, the elf was curled up inside.

 

The minister William Ellery Channing talked about the prevailing Unitarian attitude towards physicality in his famous 1819 sermon, “Unitarian Christianity.” He said:

“[Unitarians] lay no stress on strong excitements. …We do not judge the bent of men’s minds by their raptures, any more than we judge the natural direction of a tree in a storm. We rather suspect loud profession, for we have observed that deep feeling is generally noiseless, and least seeks display.”

 

We modern day religious liberals are heirs to this tradition, and although we don’t get whipped if we make noise in a service, if you visit most UU services in this country, making noise is a faux pas. Although sermons are not four hours, they are still spoken sermons that address themselves mostly to the intellect. We are expected to sit still and silently listen, then go away and perhaps discuss the sermon politely with our friends. The extent of physicality in our services is usually the act standing up for hymns and then sitting back down. We do a little better here at First U, mostly thanks to Adam and our music program – but we still have a ways to go before we are inviting in the full being of our community.

 

There’s this sense that true spirituality is silent and still. And that we need to shush the parts of ourselves that are loud and active and rowdy; the belly laugh and the funky dance; the parts that are creative, messy, fleshy, flowy. Computer geeks sometimes scornfully refer to humans as, not software or hardware, but wetware. That frightening liquidity is what the Puritan heritage tells us to purge.

 

This is one of the pillars of white supremacy culture and patriarchy as well. The dry intellect; the disembodied spirit is lifted up as the mature, evolved, white, masculine ideal. Physicality is for people of color and women and children and the poor. The authorities of the dominant culture are so afraid of the power of this physicality unleashed, they are forever trying to control these people’s bodies for them. Imprisoning them, determining their sexual and childbearing freedoms, policing their physical expressions during the national anthem, their clothing, the tones of their voices. Women get turned into sexual objects whose humanity is erased. All these people become just bodies that need to be disciplined.

 

This policing and exclusion, this forced division of body from spirit impoverishes us all. It alienates us from the fullness of who we are. It separates us from the body of the earth – the mother of all of us — so that we can do violence to her without even feeling the pain. It separates us so radically from one another and distorts reality so utterly that our society can find reason to tear children away from their parents at the border. The severing of body and spirit is a mass disassociation from life itself.

 

Our bodies are not just a storage locker for our souls or a storage locker for our brains. Neither are they toys for the entertainment and pleasure of others. Our bodies are a sacred expression of our humanity on this earth. No matter what physical limitations we may have or however the aging process has changed us, all of our bodies have beauty. All of our bodies have wisdom. All of our bodies have strength and energy or we wouldn’t be sitting here right now.

 

This is not to say that embodiment is always simple or happy. Bodies experience pain and abuse and sickness and frailty that don’t match our sense of who we are. Our bodies betray us, and they don’t look or feel or function as we wish they would no matter how hard we try … and the betrayal sometimes grows more painful as we age. Sometimes in response to trauma we have to separate our self from our body as a matter of survival. And our bodies die, and at the moment of death many of us pray fervently that the spirit, the self, the elf is indeed separate and can continue a life of its own.

 

All of this, too, is real. In profound ways for good and for ill, our bodies are ourselves. And for a community to welcome a diversity of selves means to welcome a diversity of bodies and bodily expressions. Humans are blessed with a kaleidoscopic array of ways of looking and talking and singing and moving and praying. Regardless of what, if anything, lies at the end of this journey, this life is lived out through a physical, three-dimensional space. We’re all moving through it in unique ways. Sometimes, as Takako taught us, our bodies have wisdom that our minds do not. So let’s speak our minds, speak our hearts, and speak our bodies in equal measure. Let’s march in the streets and dance in the pews and give thanks every day for everything we’ve been given, the imperfect with the perfect, the joys with the oys, earthy with the angelic. An embodied spirituality embraces it all.

 

And so on behalf of religious liberals everywhere who are the inheritors of body-denying traditions, I say to William Ellery Channing and Thomas Edison and their ilk: “Thank you for your many spiritual insights and contributions to knowledge. But the time has come for us to cut loose from your dry brain consciousness. We have a new consciousness. The time has come for us to honor our bodies as holy, in all their shapes and sizes, abilities and struggles, illness and wellness; colors and sexualities; our quietude and our loudness; our tears and phlegm and laughter. We will embrace the physical messiness of life and hold hands until the moment we die.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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