I have never really been comfortable in my body. I’m much more comfortable with words.
There’s a cardboard box of old journals in my closet, eighteen years worth of words spilled out of my brain like the battered journals spilling out of the ripped box. I write everywhere – before work, after work, at two in the morning, on the floor at the movie theater, in between church services, at the bar on slow nights. I write overtired, hungover, on my birthday, during Christmas break. Words sometimes bubble out, and sometimes they’ve got to be dragged out – but when they don’t come easily, I go hunting for them, because if anything can save me, it’s words. Ideas clutter up my soul like the books that I compulsively buy and stack on my bookcases until they spill out onto the floor – big ideas, ideas I don’t have clear words for, words that tip out of me barely formed, too many words, too many adjectives, a thousand words when three words would do.
Existential dread? Write it down. Relationship issues? Talk it out. Religious confusion? Argue it away. Distant from God? Pray about it. Write it down, or read what someone else has written down. My brain is full of anxious cats, hungry and restless, and if I could find the right words for the anxiety or shame or fear, I could possess all the negative emotions in a cage of words and by naming them, I would trap them and be free.
Words are safe, and words are, above all, not my body. My body is not to be trusted – “the flesh” is dangerous, worldly, sinful. When I need to discover truth, the last thing I should do is listen to my body. The flesh has feelings, a Christian author admonished online last week, kill them. The flesh is the enemy, the Church tells us. The mind is what can save us.
I’ve taken that to heart. Words could sort out my life; could discover God; could connect people; could heal relationships; could cure anxiety; could find the meaning; could fix it.
Words had to be the answer.
Nine years ago, I took my angry-atheist self to L’Abri, a small Christian intentional study community in the UK, to spend the winter wrestling with words.
I was sitting at the fireplace with Elizabeth Grace on a cold, damp winter day. The huge old English Jane Austin-esk house didn’t have any central heating, so the students spent our time curled up next to the fireplaces, wrapped in hats and blankets. I wore a lot of long underwear and fingerless gloves that winter, like a newsie or a hipster. Elizabeth Grace haunted the manor house with a fierce, mystical presence, and I was reading anything that stood still – Hitchen and Dawkins and I and Thou and Islamic love poetry and Ellen Pagels and even a little of N.T. Wright. I was trying to prove that God did or did not exist; that the Gnostic Gospels should have been included in the canon; that the universe itself was God; that the Bible was riddled with errors therefore… I was kind of trying to prove anything. I wanted something settled, an idea that was officially True or Untrue. I was filling up journals, writing down everything, and arguing with everyone.
That day, I was playing with pennies on the sooty hearth and rambling, trying to link ideas together. Every time Elizabeth Grace had a response to my arguments, I had another argument ready.
“Maybe thinking won’t get you there,” Elizabeth Grace said suddenly.
It shocked me into total silence. What the hell, Elizabeth Grace.
What else would get me there?
If thinking wasn’t the answer, what was?
If words couldn’t save us, what could?
But in England, as winter shifted into spring, and my journals filled up, and my list of “completed books” got longer and longer, and the wheels in my brain whirred and whirred and whirred – I hit the end of ideas, and I gave up for a half-breath. For a half-breath, I wondered if “thinking wouldn’t get me there.”
And there was God.
I don’t have words to describe what it’s like to give up on words, and to find God waiting at the end of the world you had meticulously organized on paper.
I saw God in daffodils and under Orion in a midnight field. I met God holding an old monk’s very soft hand in a candlelit chapel. I met God feeding chickens, eating Cadbury eggs on Easter morning after a long Lenten discipline with the brothers and sisters at the monastery. Mowing the lawn, there was God. Listening to Spiegel im Spiegel, there was God. I smelled incense and tasted bread and I sung old Psalms that rang in my body.
Spring in England, nine years ago, was a rebirth. I found out that I am not a thinking machine. I am not my words. I am a body.
And when God wanted to speak to us, God didn’t send words. God wanted to look us in the eye.
Jesus came speaking, but Jesus came speaking in a body.
The Word became Flesh, and dwelt among us.
There’s no “Word of God” outside of the overtired body of a Man too tired to even wake up in a thunderstorm in a rowboat on a lake. The body matters. The bleeding hands matter. The dirty feet that Peter longed to wash matter. The fish that smelled good to Jesus on the shore after His resurrection matters. The wine that was Jesus’ blood but was also just wine matters.
Jesus comes eating and drinking, feasting and fasting, praying and laughing, smelling perfume and tasting food at Simon’s house.
Jesus comes as a whole body. Jesus comes as flesh.
What God wanted to say was much more than words.
Thinking can’t get us there.
I fasted for Ash Wednesday this year.
I don’t always do that. But in the years since England, I’ve lost track of my body. I’ve stopped talking to her, or maybe stopped listening to her. Fasting isn’t necessarily a way to punish our bodies, but to listen to them – to take a breath from mindless snacking and eating and munching and put our ear up to the door, and be very still, and listen to our body instead of plunging ahead as if it’s just a vehicle for our brains.
I construct my imaginary self out of ideas, paper castles that dissolve when it rains.
I mistakenly think that I’m made of words.
I forget about my bare feet that love to touch the dirt; my taste buds that love milkshakes maybe more than anything; my gut that needs leafy greens to feel strong and clean. I forget about my body that loves to stand still and listen to water coming down over rock; to touch dry leaves before they’re turned into dust by the wind or feet; to spot birds over and under and everywhere; to smell a campfire and to smell like a campfire; to drink water from a water fountain when you forgot to bring your water bottle.
I fasted last week to remember that I am a body.
My stomach rumbled while I walked up to get ashes on my forehead.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. My pastor smudged burnt palm branches on my head. Last years’ triumphal entry is today’s dusty forehead.
You are a body, and your body came out of the earth, and one day it’ll be earth again.
There is a smallness to being a body that words can try to hide.
The best and most true words are the ones that bring us back to our bodies, and remind us that we’re small.
The best words – song lyrics, poems, sermons, novels – bring us to what is very small, very human, and settle us in there, like sliding into our favorite pair of jeans. We feel that the smallness is true, that the smallness fits us. There is humility and safety in smallness, in ashes on our foreheads while our stomach rumbles. There is a humility in the Bread and Wine that’s just a loaf and $5 bottle bought from Kroger. There’s humility in the fact that sex is sometimes awkward and silly, that some of us bite our fingernails, that one day our bodies will start to fail and we’ll stop remembering words, just like we had to learn words as kids.
But dust that was created by God. Dust that is valued by God – the same God who, in a literally dusty corner of the earth, took on a dust-made Body to be with us.
You are so small, Beloved, and so loved.
You are so human, Beloved, and once, I was too.
You will die, Beloved, and so did I.
I washed the ashes off my forehead when I got home, and sat on the couch looking at my latest journaling. I had a lot of papers piled up. I was working through a particularly knotty problem in therapy, and there were piles and piles, literally, of papers, with words on words on words.
I want to leave my words behind for a breath or two.
I want to fast from words this Lent.
We don’t fast from food because food is bad – food is wonderful, delightful, delicious. Food is necessary and nourishing. Food brings us together as a community, food holds stories from our families and cultures, food gives us strength and brings us joy. Words aren’t necessarily bad, either. Words are nourishing, sustaining, binding, necessary. Words help us see ourselves, love our neighbor, fight injustice.
But sometimes words can obscure, instead of illuminate. Sometimes words can take us out of the world, instead of drawing us deeper into it.
Sometime words can’t get us there.
I am fasting from words, because my body is good, and created by a God who didn’t scorn human bodies but took one on, too, and who meets me in my flesh, not outside of it. I’m walking, eating, drinking, singing, smelling, and breathing as a whole, flesh-bound human this Lent, because my whole flesh-bound self is beloved by the God who made this earthy, dusty body and loves me in it, not outside of it. I’m fully human and God doesn’t disdain that. I’m dust, and Beloved. I’m human, and God meets me here, in this human, fallible, dust-made self. My body is not something to escape, but to center down into – and know that God meets me here, ashes to ashes and all.
On Tuesday, I leave for pilgrimage on the Via di Francesco, the Way of St. Francis in Italy. I won’t be writing on my Patheos lectionary column or this personal blog during Lent, and I won’t be on Twitter. I might be around Instagram a little bit on the road as my schedule permits, though, so stop by!