I met Sister Helen in 2009 when she initiated me into the practice of spiritual seeing. She taught me to look inward and to find something there other than my own self. Sister Helen is a Carmelite nun. Movement is difficult for her, and as a meager return for giving me her time, I arranged for a friend to teach her yoga stretches that might ease her body. For my own homework she had me read Psalm 139, in which the psalmist praises God for the magnificence of his creation, the human body.
"You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful to me."
It was a challenge to find joy in God's creation that December. Christmas was coming too soon, the sky was low and heavy and I had a head cold. The least thing I imagined was myself "wonderfully made." The previous Friday, I had sat with a friend, talking about betrayal and the end of a love affair. I bummed her cigarettes, a habit kicked 10 years earlier. Now, bleary-eyed, I gnawed on self-disgust like a rat going at a discarded Happy Meal. At the entrance to the building where Sister Helen had her office, newly installed hand sanitizers eyed me with suspicion as I passed.
"O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways."
The psalm is attributed to David, from the time he was anointed king of Israel. It is a sublimely beautiful song of praise, an acknowledgement of God's power and wisdom and, I thought at the time, a cry of thanksgiving. For a couple of months I read it aloud each morning. It enveloped me as the winter progressed like a warm, spring cloud because perhaps God saw beneath the tar-wrecked lung cells to the pink healthy tissue I'd had as a baby, to the goodness obscured by my sin.
I believe now, after thinking about Psalm 139 and attending Wesley Seminary in Washington, D.C., where I subsequently enrolled, that I was wrong. God does not love us despite the ugliness of our disease. God loves our nicotine stains and our alcoholic carbuncles, our Kaposi sarcomas and our thunder thighs. He loves the sinner's heart as well as the virtuous action. He loves us because he sees and loves the whole kit and caboodle that is us.
I began to I discover this understanding of God's desire for us -- it was not part of my childhood -- among many religious, including Hare Krishna friends and one of my professors, a priest of Eastern Orthodox religion. "Sin" in the Orthodox tradition is a "sadness" to be healed, rather than an evil to be excoriated. God became man, my professor said, that "man might become God." Our human hearts love as best they can, and in this we are divinized. The Krishna devotee, likewise, turns to Krishna in complete and sincere devotion, and finds himself loved by God.
Do you not know your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body - 1 Cor. 6:19-20
Our bodies are gifts to take joy in, to treasure, to love. And we can only love our bodies as ourselves if we love honor them as they are. Embracing our fleshy corporosity as an exquisite temple of God's own breath represents the inching of the soul toward God. Our self-examination is courageous because it is so painful. It is founded in openness to the waves of hurt and brokenness that everyday break over us. The fourteenth century English mystic, Julian of Norwich, describes what it is like to recognize one's own hurtness. She has a vision of Christ crucified:
"I saw the body bleeding copiously, the blood hot, flowing freely, a living stream, just as I had before seen the head bleed," she writes. "I saw this in the furrows made by the scourging . . . " (Julian of Norwich, Showings)
Many of us would rather contemplate the Christ of Christmas than the one of the Passion; the luminous infant rather than the torn man. Julian refuses to look away from "that brokenness, or to assign it a meaning that would enable her . . . to avoid facing up to its disturbing truth," writes Douglas Burton-Christie in the journal Spiritus. In loving our own broken bodies as sacred temples, we love them as God does, as Julian embraced the body, "bleeding copiously." When we gaze on the blood and spit, when we truly see and articulate our sins, then our shame and sadness become real and we can love them.
I began to practice yoga seriously in the year following my first meeting with Sister Helen. Week upon week, I contorted my middle-age body into pretzel poses. Coming into a yoga position became the playground for self-acceptance. The fabric of who we are is not Vogue airbrushed perfection, but the meaty, rumpled, graying corporality that is God's image. We are each clothed in our own "Christ crucified," and we must refuse to look away from our brokenness.
Embracing the body is one step. Soon we come to acknowledge as well the physical and spiritual hurt of colleagues and neighbors. Suffering is everywhere, but it's difficult to see. I look into the face of a grimy homeless man on the corner of 15th and K Streets downtown, fenced in by the gray-flannelled legs of equally broken lawyers marching by. I don't look away.
A different version of this essay was printed in the St. Alban's Chronicle.