I’ve seen the following quotation floating around the Internet and attributed to C.S. Lewis: “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” Thankfully, folks at both Mere Orthodoxy and First Things have demonstrated that Lewis, though a Christian Platonist, did not make this statement. I personally found their conclusion a relief, as the quote’s dualism reflects a Gnostic perspective rather than a Christian one.
Despite being debunked, the quotation remains popular among Christians. If you do a Google search for it, you’ll find Pinterest-worthy images with these words splashed across dramatic clouds, far off galaxies, or, my personal favorite, the ghost-like forms of a father and child walking down a path as they enjoy a bodiless existence.
This quote’s popularity reflects the current confusion around in Christian circles regarding the proper understanding of the body. This inclusion can be found both in evangelical churches, in which I was raised, and in mainline Protestant churches, to which I now belong as an Episcopal priest. Several books over the last few years have addressed this confusion. NT Wright did a marvelous job of distinguishing between Christian and Gnostic thinking about the body in Surprised by Hope (2011). Matthew Lee Anderson of Mere Orthodoxy wrote about the importance of the body to our spiritual lives in Earthen Vessels (2011). And now in her new book, Embracing the Body: Finding God in Our Flesh and Bone (2015), Tara Owens offers a remedy to this spiritual malaise, based on the tradition of spiritual direction.
Owens explores what it means to take seriously the words we recite every Sunday: “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” While these words roll off our lips rather easily, for most Christians this belief runs quite shallow; rather than letting gratitude for our bodies and the Christian hope for their redemption sink into the marrow of our bones, too often we operate out of anxiety, fear, and distrust of the body. Owens explores on the one hand the theological heritage we have received — the implications of the Incarnation for our bodies, the attention and care Jesus gave to the bodies around him in need of healing and wholeness, and the Church’s condemnation of Gnostic thought as heresy. On the other hand, she notes the perennial suspicion the Church has shown towards the body. Owens describes the latter as a sort of “autoimmune disease” in which we treat the physical itself rather than our sinful nature as the source of infection (15).
While I wished that Owens’s remarks on views of the body throughout Church history were more expansive, particularly on Augustine (see Zachary Guiliano’s post from last week) and on Protestant perspectives, I appreciated her observation that the Church has struggled to relate rightly to the body in just about every era. Gnostic denigation of the body is not a relic of the past; it is alive and well today, and it is just as much of a heresy now as it was in the second century.
The irony of a book about the importance of the physical to our spiritual lives is that we can read it in a disembodied way, finding at the end new thoughts to contemplate but no real change in the way we relate to our bodies. Fortunately, this irony isn’t lost on Owens. To combat this, she draws on her experience as a spiritual director and offers a “Touch Point” at the end of each chapter. The Touch Point gently guides the reader through a spiritual exercise with a physical dimension, whether a prayer walk, prayers involving controlled breathing, or an Ignatian reading of Scripture. Spirituality that ignores our physical nature cuts itself off from an important source of wisdom: “Our bodies are an integral part of our selves and tell us what we most deeply believe — even when our minds and hearts are telling us otherwise” (45). Our bodies have something to tell us; they are not always reliable messengers, but they often give us signs that we ignore at our peril, and Owens encourages her readers to become more attuned to their bodies in the light of God’s presence.
Perhaps the best way to encounter God through our bodies is through corporate worship, and Owens contributes beautiful reflections on how Anglican worship involves the body, particularly during Holy Week. She recalls one Maundy Thursday when she arrived at the evening service tense and upset at her husband for making them late. Their church observes footwashing on Maundy Thursday, and this physical practice brought Owens into the story of Jesus’ humble service to his disciples in a new way, reframing her feelings towards her husband as he washes her feet:
The unexpected heat of the water on my bare feet jolted me into corporeal presence. I was utterly in the moment, experiencing each touch of my husband’s hands — and living the juxtaposition between that moment and the moments leading up to the service when I had rejected and denied him. In the wash of water over skin, I was stepping closer to the incarnation, living in my body the sensations of Maundy Thursday rather than just agreeing in my mind or feeling in my heart the reality of Jesus’ story. (73)
As I read about how transformative this practice was for Owens, I couldn’t help but recall my first Holy Week. I was already very familiar with the stories of Holy Week, but that year for the first time I was invited to wash the feet of a friend and allow mine to be washed, to kneel before the cross in veneration, and to sit in the darkness of Christ’s tomb until new life broke forth, as lights and flowers and bells and singing announced the good news of his Resurrection all around me. This attention to the physical dimension of worship drew me to the Anglican tradition and continues to sustain my spiritual life.
Owens’s book has reminded me of how essential this dimension of worship is. Our liturgy acknowledges the physicality of worship when it paraphrases Romans 12:1: “Here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee.” Perhaps this verse is the best retort to the Gnostic quotation misattributed to Lewis. We realize that we are both body and soul, and Owens teaches us how to know God more intimately through our bodies and not just our spirits.