Embodied: the practice of wearing skin

D56H22 Paper doll graffiti in a public street - Rome

Paper doll graffiti in a public street – Rome

My women’s small group is working through Barbara Taylor Brown’s excellent book, An Altar in the World. This week we’re on chapter three: the practice of wearing skin, or incarnation. On pages 37-38 BTB writes

For instance, I can say that I think it is important to pray naked in front of a full-length mirror sometimes, especially when you are full of loathing for your body. Maybe you think you are too heavy. Maybe you have never liked the way your hipbones stick out. Do your breasts sag? Are you too hairy? It is always something. Then again, maybe you have been sick, or come through some surgery that has changed the way you look. You have gotten glimpses of your body as you have bathed or changed clothes, but so far your equilibrium has depended on staying covered up as much as you can.

[…] This can only go on for so long, especially for someone who officially believes that God loves flesh and blood, no matter what kind of shape it is in. Whether you are sick or well, lovely or irregular, there comes a time when it is vitally important for your spiritual health to drop your clothes, look in the mirror, and say, ‘Here I am. This is the body-like-no-other that my life has shaped. I live here. This is my soul’s address.’ After you have taken a good look around, you may decide that there is a lot to be thankful for, all things considered. Bodies take real beatings. That they heal from most things is an underrated miracle. That they give birth is beyond reckoning.

Considering that I routinely call “time-out” on my prayers during toilet breaks, I can’t say I was running down the hallway, slinking free of my clothes in a rush to get to the mirror in my old bedroom to take Mrs Taylor Brown’s advice. It’s not that I thought God would be offended – from the Garden of Eden it seems he leans towards nudism, after all – but praying naked is, uhm, weird.

Still, I was the one who recommended we read the book, and I thought I should at least give it a shot. So, with a dose of optimistic scepticism (when you’re sure as hell hoping God will prove you wrong) I parked myself in front of the mirror, mid-dress, and had a bit of a survey.

Now, I’ve never given birth, but I have healed from three operations (one to remove an ovarian tumour; two more to check if the cancer had returned). The scar runs from just above my (now mostly destroyed) navel to just below low slung denim level. When I look down at my stomach, it looks a bit like a butt. I’ve been overweight my whole life, so there is, generally speaking, a lot of cushioning and stretch marks to contend with. I never tan above the elbow or the knee. My hair is too thin. My feet are too big. My hands are mannish. Did I mention my stomach looks a bit like a butt?

Cautiously, I wobbled my body and thought, Lord, I bless you for everything that’s shaking (it was a lot).

When I had stopped being blessed that way (it took a second or two longer than I would have liked), I decided to be more specific.

Lord, I bless you for this scar, and that I still have a working ovary left. (This one was difficult, as my biological clock is doing double-time and I’m petrified time will run out.)

Lord, I bless you for these stretch marks that prove, if nothing else, I have always had more than enough to eat (and much more candy than I deserved).

Lord, I bless you for my small boobs. At least they’re not in anyone’s way.

Lord, I bless you for my big butt. Supposedly it’s a sign of fertility.

Lord, I bless you for my big hands and my big feet. They get shizz done.

I looked a little bit closer still, at the stuff you never seem to see on movie screens: hair follicles; areola; freckles; nail beds; wrinkles; veins shining blue and purple through pale flesh; dry heels; bony protuberances. I looked at things I had disliked for a long time. I looked at other things I had uneasy truces with. I gave it all another wobble. Then I said thank you and went about the rest of my morning routine. It felt in no way transcendent.

But, later that day, when I was hanging up the washing standing on a lawn yellowed by winter, into a bright blue sky preening like a cat for the lack of foliage to distract from it, I blessed God for the withered lawn, the dog poo on it, the bare branches, the chirpy little birds that occasionally poop on our clothes, the neighbour’s barking dog, even the neighbours (big concession). I blessed God for being able to do laundry, which is silly, but I did it anyway. I blessed God for my family (almost all of them!) and my friends. I blessed God for my church, even though spiritually speaking it is covered in pustules that even WebMD is loathe to identify. In telling God “thank you” for the entirety of my wobbly bits, I felt at peace with the world’s wobbly bits.

Jesus didn’t shy away from wobbly bits as a rule; quite the opposite, really. Not only did he encounter people’s spiritual wobbly bits – tax collectors, prostitutes, even, heaven forbid, Samaritans – he encountered their physical wobbly bits, too: leprosy, menstrual flow, blindness, lameness, muteness; even death, four days gone. How did he encounter them? He spit into dust to make a paste; he stuck his fingers into ears; he touched a man’s tongue; he put scales over Paul’s eyes; he reached out, he helped up, he washed dirty feet. This is part of why Mark is one of my favourite gospels: Jesus was both thoroughly human, and thoroughly divine. By the time we hit John, its author has gone to great lengths to airbrush away all but the most pertinent divinity. But Jesus’ feet remain dusty from walking long distances, and one could argue that those dusty roads were just as necessary for his calling as his baptism in a river or his death on a bloody cross.

We are a stubborn bunch. We are supposed to see in every person the image of God, for that is the likeness in which everyone, even recalcitrant neighbours, are created; but we get stuck on the external before we even reach the interior world. So perhaps then we could start there: by accepting external wobbly bits. Acne. Hipster fashion. Hairy legs. Hairy arms. Hairy whatever. Or no hair. Big people. Skinny people. Black people. White people. People whose race we are uncertain of, and feel too uncomfortable to ask about (why are we uncomfortable?) People who have the same best features we do; people who have the same worst features we do; ourselves. Perhaps if we can scrape up the forbearance to see every body as one of God’s addresses, we will also find the courage, the empathy and the resilience to go knock on that door, hoping to be invited inside.

“Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us ‘beloved’.” Brennan Manning