The Physicality of Spirituality



My Dear One,


This has been a very physical week. Which is to say, concerns of the body have been forefront in my spiritual journey, leading me to reflect a bit on just how physical our spiritual lives are most of the time.


The week started with a day spent last Sunday at a Celtic festival. My DNA packs a strong Scottish and Irish component and every now and then those particular strands call out to be reconnected to their homeland. It was a bit of a stretch. I was walking around on solidly Texas soil. The food vendors were common carnival fare. Honestly, it wasn’t the best Celtic festival I’ve ever been to - then again I’ve only been to two now so perhaps I just hit the jackpot the first time. But the sounds of Scotland and the dances of Ireland and the fact that some big, bearded guys in kilts were tossing heavy things around a field was just enough to get my fix. I left longing for more and am grateful it looks like 2020 will take me back to Iona, Edinburgh, and the Highlands once or twice for the real deal.


Tuesday night saw my younger son’s last football game of the season. They lost. It wasn’t their year. But he had fun because he was out there, pushing and blocking and running. As his dad, I was mostly glad he didn’t get hurt this year. A couple of other kids on his team weren’t as fortunate. Why do we do this, I wondered at times. Why are humans so drawn to using our bodies to compete, to push ourselves to our limits? There is something very, very deep within us, something certainly at the soul level, that needs to see what our bodies are capable of in order to have lived a fully human life.


Wednesday night I talked to my aunt who recently learned she has cancer. It is a kind with a high cure rate and there is reason for hope despite its advanced stage. Her husband, my uncle, died from cancer years ago. His was the first funeral I ever led, in just my second year of seminary. After talking with her, I walked next door and presided over a Poetry and Music Mass for my faith community. We recited the poems of people like Joy Harjo and David Whyte and sung the songs of people like Passenger and Chris Renzema and considered the presence of God in things that aren’t conspicuously trying to be holy. We then gathered around a table and ate bread and drank wine, these deeply physical acts whereby Jesus’ spirit becomes present. I sent them out with this blessing, a poem from Hafiz titled “Two Giant Fat People”


God and I have become like two giant

fat people living in a tiny boat.


We keep bumping into each other and

laughing.


This is one of the best descriptions of humanity’s relationship with God I’ve ever come across.


This weekend I went out for a beer with a couple of old friends, the mild intoxication an ancient means of the celebration of friendship. I am looking at the grey which is winning the battle over my beard a bit more every week. I recently had one of my grandfather’s old cowboy hats redone. I took a picture of me wearing it. Not only did I see my grandfather’s hat in the photo, but I was surprised to also see my father in the lines around my eyes and the contour of my mustache. I am connected to them both through some brown felt and a familiar pattern of wrinkles and facial hair. I am caring for my stepfather as he ages and witnessing anew how time can be incredibly cruel to our bodies and minds. Relationships are spiritual expressions embodied in physical form, even when the form of that person has long ago passed on from this world, lives several states away or lies before you in a completely unfamiliar manifestation.


In the Great Commandment, Jesus calls us to love God with all our Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength. All four of these are inherently physical expressions of love, but the word Strength of course stands out. By Strength, Jesus means our Life-Force, our full power and expression. This is an inherently physical act, as most forms of love are. When our baby cries, we pick her up and hold her close. When we fall in love we show this by holding hands and touching lips. Making love to someone, in its true and fullest form, is a deeply spiritual experience. When we need to remind someone we love them we cook and share food. When someone we love is ill, we take care of their bodies when they cannot. The entrusting of the gentle, loving care of a human body to another human body is the primary expression of Love.


The physicality of spirituality is inherent in the Christian faith. We worship a human being (something unique among the major faith traditions). This child was born among livestock and placed in a feed trough. He was immersed in a river and wandered a desert. He cured people’s physical/spiritual infirmities. He washed our feet and asked us to remember him by eating a meal together. His body was tortured and executed in gruesome fashion. His corpse rose from the dead, emerged from behind a large rock, ate some fish with his friends, and ascended into heaven. The story of Jesus is thoroughly, from beginning to end, the story of a human body, “word made flesh.”


And I write this by the flickers of a candle’s flame. Why did I light the candle? Because that’s what we do to signify the presence of a spirit that is not physically present. It becomes signified by a physical light, by fire, by warmth.


Too often, I am afraid, we think the way to encounter the spiritual comes by ignoring or stripping away the physical. This is a grievous error. We don’t become more spiritual by transcending the physical. To the contrary. We become more spiritually aware by becoming more aware of the physical: this body, this fire, this breath, these hands, those lips, this hat, this wine. Do not seek to encounter the divine by denying the human. God longs to be encountered in and through the things of this world, “on earth as it is in heaven.”


Me and God - two giant fat people in a small boat, bumping bellies and laughing as we nearly bounce one another over the edge and into the water.


Life in The Way is a joyful dance, even when toes occasionally get stepped on. The best we can hope for is to hold one another close for a song or two, to feel the warmth of another presence pressed against our own, arms wrapped around one another, swaying together to the sound of a string rubbed by a bow, dancing the dance of life, the physical and the spiritual, not separate but same.


following The Way,

Rich



“Two Giant Fat People” is reprinted from The Gift: Poems by Hafiz, the Great Sufi Master, by Daniel Ladinsky. Copyright © 1999 by Daniel Ladinsky. Available for purchase here.

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