THE BLOG

Naked in Church

11/05/2011 08:19 am ET | Updated Jan 05, 2012

When I was 20 years old, a friend of mine was working on a photography project. As a women's studies major, she wanted to engage women in the process of creating photographs of themselves. The results would be a mixture of portrait and self-portrait. Marlene would be the photographer, but the subjects would be involved in the creation at every step. In principle, I thought this was a good idea. But collaboration with me proved difficult. I was an impossible subject. I loathed photographic images of myself, and I couldn't think of a single photo of me that I would want taken. After much conversation, we decided to do a photo session at the local coffee shop where she and I often went to write. When the proof sheet was ready, I looked at the photos with hatred. All of them were bad, I said. Not a single one did I want on display in the art building. We tried again along a creek bank where we sometimes walked. Again, I loathed the results and rejected them. Perhaps my dislike of the photographs was a form of youthful self-consciousness, akin to narcissism. But the fact was that I wanted out of this project, and I started thinking about how to tell Marlene.

Meanwhile, I was in the middle of significant changes. I was discarding the religiosity of my adolescence and trying to find something new. I was in and out of poor relationships with men, struggling to demand of them thoughtfulness and kindness. I found it harder than perhaps I should have to imagine myself as worthy of goodness. At root, I was trying to envision new and better ways of loving and being loved.

One day, Marlene and I were sitting in the lounge of our dormitory, discussing dating, when we struck on an idea. We decided to continue the photography project in the little chapel where I had been going for more than a year, alone, in an attempt to pray. Every morning, often before sunrise, I went to this little chapel for about an hour. It was an ongoing disastrous experiment that probably did the better part of killing my capacity for prayer for two decades. I spent the hour fighting sleep and chastising myself for dozing. I didn't know what prayer was, and attempting it on my own for such a long period of time meant that I was cultivating mostly self-disgust.

Marlene and I decided to take the camera to this chapel and photograph me naked. The idea was electrifying. We both felt startlingly alive as we contemplated it. But we were following the thought reflexively, without words for why. Perhaps I was seeking to put together the disparate parts of myself -- the spiritual and the physical. I was in need of forging a union. I had a body that I did not know well, that seemed unreal to me, not an integrated part of myself.

This separation, which seemed like such a given, was unsatisfying and destructive. I was not good at being in the world. I didn't taste, touch, smell, hear, touch or experience touch well. I didn't know the natural world at all. Distant from my physical being, my ability to experience the world was thin. I knew, instinctively, that I wanted more. This wanting led Marlene and I to Melby Chapel early on a gray February day, where we knew there was a lock on the door.

The chapel was empty and quiet when we arrived. We carefully locked the door. The chapel held a few pews, scattered copies of the Lutheran Book of Worship and a few Bibles and hymnals. At the front were a pulpit, a table and a three-paned stained glass window. The light through the window was thin, and the chapel was cold. At first, I kept my clothes on.

As Marlene and I started photographing, I asked myself where I wanted to be. I curled up in front of the altar. I stood next to a plain cross on the wall. I stood in the crux of the stained-glass window. These were all places in the tiny chapel where I had never been. The surfaces and spaces were all new despite the fact that I had been coming there for a year. When I stepped out of my clothes and left them in a pile on the pew, I started to shake.

I went through the same series of photographs as before. I went to the altar and curled up. I stood next to the cross and in the stained glass window. Earlier in the project, Marlene had photographed our friend Diane, a pagan, naked in front of her potter's wheel. She was smeared with clay, utterly exalting in fleshiness. Being a naked Christian seemed harder, to say the least. I felt I had to extract my body from the narrowest margins of my life. I had to force into juxtaposition a cross and my own body.

My skin prickled with sensation. The cement floor pressed into my knees. My hands grew cold touching the wall. Nothing I touched had any softness in it. The cross and I stayed apart as if magnetically repelled. Yet for all the coldness of the room and for all its lack of welcome for my naked self, I could now feel profoundly a yearning that I hadn't known was there -- a yearning for warmth, for vulnerability, for the chapel to see me naked, to see that I dared, for once, to bring my whole self to church.

This time, when the proof sheets came back, energy and electricity pulsed through them. I felt that I had struck upon a new power, something I was just beginning to perceive, but that I sensed would reverberate. What I had struck upon was perhaps a possibility buried deep in Christianity itself. The gospel, writes Gerard Loughlin, "has always been a story of carnal desire and erotic encounter." God longs for flesh, for humanity, longs for the connection and so, for the sake of love and desire, takes on flesh. A piece of that was what I found when I dared the chapel to see me naked.