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Body and Soul

Many saints of the Church’s history appear to have had contempt for their own bodies. The mortifications to which they subjected their flesh are incomprehensibly grotesque to Christians today. It is hard to reconstruct the cultural milieu in which these mortifications had meaning and purpose. There is a lingering disdain of the body still evident in most branches of the faith, and it is problematic. For too long we have viewed our faith as just a head-trip. We Christians need to take better care of the rest of ourselves, and to embody our spirituality more fully.

It turns out that correctives to this problem can be found in the mystical tradition. The early 16th century Spanish Franciscan lay brother and medical doctor, Bernardino de Laredo, wrote an elaborate treatise about the way God manifests in the inner workings of the human body. In his “Ascent of Mount Zion”, working within the constraints of physiology at the time, Laredo taught that self-knowledge begins with understanding how God dwells and works within and through the organs and processes of one’s body. Physiology was Laredo’s interpretive key to a mystical theology of the incarnation of God in the Christ. By knowing the body in contemplation, one could directly experience this incarnation, and through it know God. By attending in great detail to one’s physical suffering, whether self-inflicted or not, the mystics could enter into the experience of Jesus in his crucifixion, and through it could join him in spiritual union with God. For these mystics, the body was a precious gift in which God lived, moved, and delivered them into divine presence.

Perhaps the mystic with the most radical experience of God’s presence in the human body was Hadewijch, a 13th century Dutch member of one of the women’s lay religious communities called the “beguines”: “I desired that God should be with me so that I should be fulfilled together with him… he came to me himself and took me completely in his arms and pressed me to him. And all my limbs felt his limbs in the full satisfaction that my heart and my humanity desired. Then I was externally completely satisfied to the utmost satiation.” Hadewijch and Jesus Christ had orgasms together, it would appear. While this seems wildly salacious today, it was just a point on a continuum of physical ecstasies experienced by mystical Christians in that era. Despite the Neoplatonic division of the physical from the spiritual that infected the Church, there always have been Christian mystics who kept body and soul together through keen, cultivated mindfulness.

A mindful kind of Christianity incorporates the body in prayer. It starts with a present awareness of our physical condition, our bodily sensations, with warm, caring, non-judgmental attentiveness. Here is pain in the arm: exactly what is that pain like? From exactly where does it radiate? Here is the sensation of the chest swelling with breathing in; here is the sensation of the belly relaxing when exhaling out. Observing the body with loving, intense interest is a powerfully effective way to train oneself in mindful prayer. Beginning and ending prayer with body awareness is a way to ground the practice in the here and the now. It is a way to celebrate the divine gift of our physicality.

I regularly experience a kind of physical ecstasy in mindfulness prayer, a bodily thrill of releasing the ego, sensing the physical presence of the divine Presence, and knowing the Knower. Whenever I have this sublime experience I find myself wondering why I don’t go there all the time! But I have come to understand that the value and benefit of mindfulness practice is not just to be found on the mountaintop. It is a spiritual practice that, over time, suffuses everything I do… physically and mentally.
Website: JIMBURKLO.COM Weblog: MUSINGS Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

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