Resolving the physical-spiritual, body-mind conflict seems to me devastatingly simple.  My answer goes like this. Without physicality, we have no ability to perceive or know anything, including all that we call "spiritual." Ideas, apprehensions of God, insights, feelings, mystical visions, responses to other people and the world, prayer, words, memory, movement, deciding, creating -- all of these arise from a spectacularly complex dance of cells, mitochondria, breath, nerves, bone, blood, muscle. When this dance stops, so do we and all of our perceptions. If we must have a pair of opposites, that pair is not physical versus spiritual, but physical versus dead. Not body versus mind, but body versus dead.

Of course, the churches have long posited ongoing being after death, and there are accounts of near-death, "out of body" experiences. But near death is not dead. Dead is another story, and we won't know how it goes until we get there. Most people don't like to hear this. Many reply to me, in obvious dismay, "You mean that's all?  Only the physical?" 

Most people are too polite to go on and say what they're obviously thinking: that I am a sadly unspiritual person. But they're hardly to blame, because misunderstanding and denigrating physicality runs through the history of the churches and Western culture. Socially, all the way back through the medieval period to classical Athens, a gentleman was one who did not need to work with his hands, did not need to live by the sweat of his brow. On the other hand, the Greeks gave us the Olympics. But the oiled bodies out there throwing the discus didn't include Socrates and Plato.  The Olympics were for the gorgeous young, but the serious business was what their elders sat and talked about in the academies. So we speak of "higher" education, and many of us still secretly look down on "sweat of the brow" jobs.

Part of our 21st-century American problem with physicality is that we largely relegate it to the gorgeous young -- and to the not-so-gorgeous non-young trying to look young through exercise, diet, and cosmetic surgery. In American culture, adult physicality has shrunk to include only two categories: exercise to prevent what we all know is going to happen to our bodies, and sexuality. So long as we force adult physicality into these two small categories, we cannot begin to explore or understand what physicality has to do with religious practice and insight. Which is curious, because religious traditions, including our own, have told us repeatedly that what we call spiritual perception always springs from physicality.

Religious traditions, including our own, tell us to fast or sit or walk or dance, to close our eyes and breathe deeply, so that our perceptions will open and change. They tell us to sing or chant or be silent or kneel or prostrate ourselves as we pray, and our perceptions will open and change. The way to the apprehension of God, they insist, lies only through the physicality that we are.

Over the millennia, many Christians writing about religious practice have spoken sternly of subduing the body. But this subduing can be best understood as a collection of practices designed to call us back from greed, from burying our need for God under the glittering stuff in the shop windows of every age. And also back from lust, from burying our need for God in sexual fantasy. We forget that the ascetic practices of the past were done as much to quiet the part of our physicality we call the mind as to quiet the part we call the body. It is essential to remember that much of this Christian writing was done by celibate, mostly male, monastics who blamed the difficulty of paying attention to God on the feared and largely unknown female "other" -- much like Adam insisting that it wasn't his fault. So far as I know, few female monastics in earlier centuries obsessed about the distractions of men. On the contrary, many wrote about intimate perceptions of God in richly sexual terms.

This leads me to the deepest reason that no Christian should be beguiled by those false opposites of physical versus spiritual and body versus mind. At the heart of Christian belief lies the statement that God's Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Became what we are in order to be intimately with us. Became flesh.

I think that the 17th-century Christian humanist painters got it right in those opulent, crowded ceiling paintings full of glowing, plus-sized angels, whose rosy flesh spills from their skimpy drapery as they reach down to draw us closer to God. You can get here from there, they seem to say. But only in the way God got to you: in and through the glorious, embarrassing, spectacularly complex flesh.


This article was first printed by Hungry Hearts, a quarterly journal published by the Office of Spiritual Formation of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and is reprinted with permission.

Judith Rock is a writer and lecturer and leads workshops on the relationship of movement and language.  She worked for many years as a professional dancer and choreographer. Her first novel, a historical mystery set against the background of Huguenot-Catholic conflict in 17th-century France, will be published in 2010 by Berkley/Penguin.