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Rev. Amy Ziettlow

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Treating the Body as a Sacred Home

Posted: 01/20/11 09:11 PM ET

I currently call Louisiana home. Despite my not being a native Cajun, I know to sprinkle file powder in my gumbo, to wear any color but white to a crawfish boil, and to smile with pure joy when someone brings a King Cake.

The season of King Cakes begins with Epiphany on January 6th. An oval-shaped ring of pastry, King Cakes celebrate the journey of the Magi, who traveled from the East to worship the Christ child and who then must relinquish control over their travel plans and return home by another route in order to avoid the murderous King Herod. A small, plastic baby Jesus lies hidden somewhere in the cake for us searchers to find. If you find him, you must bring the next King Cake. The colors for the icing tend to be purple, gold, and green to symbolize the royal colors of the 3 Kings. Heated debates occur over which bakery has the best icing and filling, and somehow your preferences speak volumes about your character. Do you prefer white creamy frosting or a simple glaze of crystalized sugar? Do you stick to a traditional filling or add cream cheese, or fruit, or even chocolate or Zulu filling, which features coconut in honor of the New Orleans Zulu parade where they throw coconuts? For a native, the "best" King cake reminds you of home.

I love them all so I find myself wondering in the swirl of cinnamon, icing, and baby Jesus, how am I supposed to lose weight when I am eating all these cakes!?!?!?

For losing weight is what we are all supposed to be doing right now, right? Most New Year's resolutions reference our bodies, whether the goal is to eat more vegetables, eat less sugar, exercise more, or lose 10 pounds. The dawning of the New Year lifts a mirror to our lives, calling us to reflect upon the ways we are and are not at home in our bodies.

To varying degrees and on varying timelines, most of us fall short of our resolutions concerning total body makeovers. Others of us become obsessed and lose all sense of ourselves and others. Watching the tragic journey of the character Nina Sayers in Black Swan, we see how the pursuit of bodily perfection and control can enchant, isolate, and drive mad an individual who is not at home in her body and who cannot see her existence outside of a mirror. Eventually, the woman in the mirror kills her. As her shame and disgust for her body, for her mortality, and for her very humanity grows, she imagines herself transforming into a swan: feathers, webbed toes, and talons. I use the word "disgust" and "shame" thinking of Martha Nussbaum's reflection in Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law, where she concludes profoundly that we ...

"are deeply troubled about being human -- about being highly intelligent and resourceful, on the one hand, but weak and vulnerable, helpless against death, on the other. We are ashamed of this awkward condition and, in manifold ways, we try to hide from it. In the process we develop and teach both shame at human frailty and disgust at the signs of our animality and mortality." (336)

In hospice care, I am surrounded by the inescapable limits of the body that culminate in death: the ultimate limit of our human bodies. I am fascinated by how the words we use to talk about death communicate our disgust with ultimate limits. When I served as a hospital chaplain, staff never used the words death or die. A patient was "discharged" or "expired" or "passed." I find all three terms fairly disgusting, considering they are also words used for bodily functions and fluids from menstruation to ejaculation to flatulence to rotting food. How telling that when our bodies reach the ultimate limit, attaining utter imperfection, we attach shameful, gross words to the event: expired, discharged or passed. Our words reflect our fear and discomfort with the reality that our human home is a body that is vulnerable and limited. Our human home dies.

Day in and day out, hospice team members travel to local homes with the goal of assisting patients to feel at home in their bodies. For many of those we serve, their bodies may feel quite alien, uncomfortable, unwieldy, and painful. As they lose control of basic body functions, such as eating, toileting, bathing and breathing, the body can feel like a burdensome, run-down shack and not the sacred home that it is. I use the word "home" in its best possible connotations: a place of safety and security, of warmth and acceptance, of comfort and deep identity.

For example, Ms. D. died last week and one source of pride was her hair. In her 90-some odd years, she never missed a hair appointment every Friday, and our team was careful to plan their visits to her home accordingly. The nurse and chaplain who attended her death gently prepared her body for the arrival of the funeral home. The chaplain took comb in hand to style her hair. Now, Ms. D. is dead and as far as we know she has no idea what her hair looks like, but in life having perfectly styled hair made her feel at home in her body and thus at home in the world, and so our team attended to her hair.

Through serving in hospice, I have witnessed how every body, whether healthy and vibrant, scarred and fragile, in control or infantile, is sacred, created in the image of the divine, and deserving of the opportunity to feel at home. Like the Magi, who encounter the divine and thus return home by a creative and unexpected route, I see how simple actions such as a touch, a song, a smile, even the gentle styling of hair, can be sacred and send someone home by a different route.