Seasons of the Soul
Body-Words of Love
Listen, whatever it is you try
to do with your life, nothing will ever dazzle you
like the dreams of your body,
longing to fly while the dead-weight bones
toss their dark mane and hurry
back into the fields of glittering fire
even the great whale,
throbs with song. ~ Mary Oliver, from "Humpbacks"
Over the last several months I have been training to teach yoga. I began the program because I have practiced yoga for many years and longed to dive more deeply into it. I expected to fall in love with my own body even more in the process; what I didn't expect was how much I would fall in love with other people's bodies as well. As I walk around the studio and students are in their various poses I see the incredible variety in body types, shapes, sizes, flexibility, and bone structure. My training involves hands-on adjustments, which are less about "fixing" a pose and more about either offering a deeper experience of it or providing a sense of loving presence with a student through a shoulder rub or simply laying my hands on their back.
When students are in savasana, or corpse pose, which is always the final pose in any physical yoga practice, I go around and place my hands gently on their heads one at a time and I offer silent blessings for them and their bodies. I don't know most of their stories so I ask for healing in whatever is keeping them from being fully alive and fully present to their beautiful physical selves.
When I was twenty-one, I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, a degenerative auto-immune illness. The only other person in my life I knew with this disease was my mother and it had ravaged her body. I was devastated. I felt deeply betrayed by my body. In an auto-immune illness the immune system begins to attack its own tissue. Six years later I had to take a year off from work and go on disability because of the pain and inflammation. That was the year I first walked into a yoga class and was one of the paths I took back to loving my body.
Sexuality isn't just about our sexual relationships with another person, but about our capacity to engage in intimacy with the world through our physicality. Theologian James Nelson writes: "Our human sexuality is a language as we are both called and given permission to become body-words of love. Indeed our sexuality—in its fullest and richest sense—is both the physiological and psychological grounding of our capacity to love."
Body-words of love. That phrase takes my breath away. How do I allow my very body to become the fullest expression of love and tenderness in the world? This body with its aches and its loveliness. This body that has experienced searing pain. This body that will one day become dust, but also sprang from my mother in a burst of desire for life.
In all the attention we give to the perfection of the body in our culture, we undermine our capacity to become body-words of love. We forget that we are called to both the joy and the sorrow woven together. No surgery can excise our mortality. No procedure can remind us of our sheer giftedness, gift given to each other. The effect of our obsessions with our bodies is that we grow in our distrust of our physical selves.
Christine Valters Paintner, Ph.D., is a Benedictine Oblate and the online Abbess of Abbey of the Arts, a virtual monastery without walls offering online classes in contemplative practice and creative expression and pilgrimages to Ireland, Germany, and Austria. She is the author of eight books on monasticism and creativity including The Artist's Rule: Nurturing Your Creative Soul with Monastic Wisdom (Ave Maria Press) and her forthcoming book The Soul of a Pilgrim: Eight Practices for the Inner Journey (Spring 2015, Ave Maria Press). Christine lives as a monk in the world in Galway, Ireland with her husband of twenty years.