My Body, my Blood (Part I)

One Sunday at Eucharist I was pondering once again the meaning of the Body and Blood of Christ. To say that it is a mystery is not to dismiss curious minds and inquisitive queries, but rather to point to something that transcends words or any human understanding. In fact it is only a mystery that can touch our deepest existential reality, because we too are a mystery even unto ourselves.

Anyway, this one particular Sunday I again allowed my spirit to encounter Holy Mystery in the Eucharist. And my thoughts wandered, as they tend to. This time thoughts turned to the Theology of the Body (TOB), a series of catechetical talks given over several years by Saint Pope John Paul II. Several questions have puzzled me over this magnum opus of the\is Holy Father. First of all, the first popular interpretations of the Pope’s TOB insights focused exclusively on marriage and sexuality, creating the impression that our bodies are only worth theologizing about when we become sexually active. Once I explored the TOB on my own (with the help of a dear friend) I discovered that it is about much more than what happens in the marriage bed. A second, way more urgent question, emerged: how come it has taken us 20 centuries to reclaim the sacramentality of the body, something so powerfully communicated in the Word made Flesh? Our human body was good enough for Jesus of nazareth. This very Lord who is the reason for our Church, whose bodily gift of self in the Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith, took on our flesh in the womb of a woman’s … body. How come we have so ignored the radical implications of this truth when it comes to our bodily comfort level? How come we now need the TOB to return us to this fundamental message in the Incarnation?MotherOfTheEucharist2

The sovereign God took on human flesh and redeemed us through the human flesh of Jesus Christ, thus revealing the capacity for the human body to make visible the invisible God. In Christ Jesus the physical and the spiritual were reunited as one. Despite this amazing Good News Christian history has had an abominable track-record in honouring the human body. At varying times we have degraded the body, chastised the body, dismissed the body, even blamed it as the source of all evil, in particular the female body. In light of the Incarnation, and despite St. Paul’s summons “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” (I Cor. 3:16 & 6:19), such a track-record could be considered deeply heretical. Given this dubious legacy, it is refreshing to re-read Katrina Zeno’s presentation at a TOB conference in Rome a few years back in which she said:

As human persons we do indeed have a very specific nature, an embodied rational nature, which perhaps could even be called a sacramental nature. At all times and in all places our embodied human nature is created by God to point to something beyond just the material. We are not relative only to ourselves and to our acquired goods and pleasures. On the contrary, “the body, in fact, and only the body, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine” to cite one of the most frequently quoted passages from the theology of the body (Audience 19, section 4). Our bodies are created by God to be living sacraments, to make God physically present in the world through our words and deeds. (Zenit, Nov. 14, 2011)

We speak of transubstantiation when referring to the ordinary food and drink of bread and wine being transformed into the Body and Blood of Jesus at the Eucharist. I find it fascinating that women engage in a type of biological “transubstantiation” every time their bodies grow another human being, The new life generated by the marital union is literally fed by the mother’s own body and blood.

ElizabethMaryIn her yes, Mary became first in offering to the world God’s holy body and blood through the birth of her son Jesus, our Messiah and Lord. Through God’s gift of growing new life in her womb and nourishing it with her own body, every woman knows something about the mystery of transforming ordinary food and drink into new life – a profound Eucharistic transformation, culminating in the great Eucharistic Sacrament of the Incarnation of God’s own Son Jesus. Have we really tapped the sacramental significance of this glorious and mysterious wonder of biological transubstantiation called pregnancy? God deems both male and female bodies worthy sacramental vessels, capable of transforming ordinary food, ordinary events, and ordinary situations into the radiance of the risen Christ present and active in the world.

Without negating the reality of sin, our bodies are created to be living sacraments; both male and female bodies are created to make God physically present in the world through our words and deeds, in the same way as our Lord Jesus Christ revealed. According to the Theology of the Body, we make God in Christ present every day when we make giving ourselves to another a gift of love, mercy and beauty. Long before any of us end up in the marriage bed, and those who never do this in a marriage bed, we gift the world with our very selves in the quality of our love, our compassion, our forgiveness.

In one of his Lenten sermons a few years ago Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher of the papal household, urged all of us to offer our bodies and blood as a daily Eucharistic sacrifice and gift to the world, thereby transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary presence and action of God: “Let us try to imagine what would happen if also the laity, at the moment of the consecration, said silently: ‘Take, eat, this is my body. Take, drink, this is my blood. A mother of a family thus celebrates Mass, then she goes home and begins her day made up of a thousand little things. But what she does is not nothing: It is a Eucharist together with Jesus! A [religious] sister also says in her heart at the moment of consecration: ‘Take, eat …’; then she goes to her daily work: children, the sick, the elderly. The Eucharist ‘invades’ their day which becomes … Eucharist.” (Zenit, March 12, 2010)

CupBlessingEvery time we drink the cup of blessing that we bless, we share in the Blood of Christ, thus committing ourselves to be poured out in love for others. Every time we eat the Body of Christ, we are called to offer our own bodies in sacrificial love for the healing of the world. Daily gifts of self to others redeem relationships between men and women, as well as with creation and with God, whether in the marriage bed, in school or workplace, at the recycling depot, in the dance recital or the communion procession. Our body is an integral expression of our personhood, thus affirming creation as male and female in the divine image as “very good.” It is thus that we glorify God in our bodies, male and female.

An earlier version of this reflection appeared in the Prairie Messenger, June 11, 2014

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I was a rather plump child in elementary and high schools, awkward in this mass of flesh and organs called my body. I endured relentless teasing about my obvious un-sporty physical shape. Having only a few friends, being picked last on sports teams in Phys. Ed. and never wearing trendy clothes resulted in physical, social and emotional shyness and withdrawal. It was thanks to generous parental affection and care, and some very positive, enjoyable social experiences in the ballroom dance community and formative youth events in church circles, that the scars of these demeaning treatments remained surprisingly minimal.

It was not until I met my husband Jim that I entered a more comprehensive and intentional exploration of the connections between the physical and the spiritual. I was drawn to Jim’s profoundly earthy spirituality, deeply rooted in prairie soil and in working the land with nature’s gifts instead of industrial manipulation. I learnt quickly about the socio-political implications of such a connection when lived out radically and publicly.

Our Cochin Farm , home for 25 years.
Our Cochin Farm , home for 25 years.

We were not comfortable in adopting unquestioned middle class, materialistic values in our self-identity and lifestyle, nor did we think of farming as agribusiness. The rebel in us both pushed us into counter-cultural choices, so as not to enslave ourselves. The prison of modern living looked more suffocating than the time-consuming and labour-intensive activities of hauling water from the lake, growing and preserving our own food, and chopping wood for cooking and heating – all very earthy, bodily activities. We gardened organically and sold vegetables at the local farmer’s market. I learned all about preserving our winter supply of food and about baking bread in the wood stove, things that were not part of my upbringing. Taking charge of our own health through lifestyle choices paid off in more ways than economically. We shared a deep underlying freedom and a sense of creative accomplishment at knowing that we did not “need” the electrical gadgets and ready-made foods of a fast-paced consumer society. Our home became a nest with rich, wholesome food for body and soul in which grew three beautiful children which God entrusted to us. I never felt so alive in my body as in those years of hauling water, chopping wood, making fire, growing and preserving food.

With a husband committed to the land, who refrained from manipulating its fertility and polluting it with chemicals, it was evident that we would adopt the same approach to our combined human fertility.  Roman Catholic Church teaching regarding family planning fitted with our choice, but this was not our primary motivating force, and the validity of that teaching became clear only over time.

Incidentally, three Ottawa doctors were recently in the news because they are refusing to prescribe the pill because of medical concerns. The doctors are asking: is pregnancy a sign of illness or health? They point to the negative effects of hormonal contraceptives as listed with the product information: increased risk of cardiovascular disease, headaches, breast tenderness, breakthrough bleeding, decreased libido and mood swings.They contend that pregnancy is a sign that a woman’s reproductive system is working as it should. So why, they ask, should they assign medication carrying such health risks to someone who is in fact healthy? (Prairie Messenger, Feb. 12, 2014)

Even without being completely swayed by the contraceptive culture, I was embarrassingly ignorant about the inner workings of my reproductive system until I learned to observe my body symptoms with the help of Natural Family Planning (NFP). Curiosity replaced embarrassment as I became greatly intrigued with the realization that so much of my bodily functions occur completely without my interference or knowledge. I developed a sense of awe as I grew into an intimate relationship with my body through observing the signs of its cycles. I regarded my fertility as a gift to cherish and work with, rather than a liability and a burden to manipulate artificially or to get rid of.  Already back in 1977, in  her small book entitled Women`s Challenge: Ministry in the Flesh Sr. Timothy Prokes, SSND, echoed both these insights:

For a woman who is attuned to her basic rhythms, the menstrual cycle is not an infirmity or “curse” but a gift, enabling her to participate in the vital intercourse of daily life with greater understanding. (p. 31, Prokes, 1977)

Living in harmony with our natural body rhythms reaped its own rewards. With every conception I joyfully claimed my bodily role as co-creating with God ababy-in-hands beautiful new human being. The challenge to discipline our sexual activity according to our combined fertility — wishing to achieve or to avoid pregnancy — brought deep, long-lasting experiences of mutual respect, commitment and maturing marital love, forcing us to communicate and collaborate as we shared the times of sexual avail-ability and the times of abstinence. In turn, developing communication skills and fostering mutual respect of our bodies regarding family planning helped to weather relational storms over the years. The relational demands of Natural Family Planning deepened our personal and couple development: demands in the areas of communication, self-esteem, self and mutual respect and freedom, confidence in our ability to learn and grow. Besides, our choice for a chemical-free method of family planning mirrored the non-chemical, organic, approach to working the land. Jim always said: “I don’t believe in putting chemicals on the land; why would we chemical our bodies to render them infertile?”  We experienced a growing into one’s body as mystery and as the place of God’s own Holy Spirit: “Surely you know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is in you and is a gift from God. You are no longer your own. God paid a great price for you. So use your body to honour God” (1 Cor. 6:19-20).

It is of vital importance to realize that emotions and unresolved issues get stored in our bodies, and if left un-transformed can play havoc with our physical health. Equally important is the fact that our health is further jeopardized by sedentary lifestyles, material comforts and poor eating habits – all ironically encouraged by a money-hungry, industry-driven consumer culture, making us blindly drift away from the responsibility to care for our God-given bodies because God’s Holy Spirit dwells there.

With my friend ivan.
With my friend ivan.

I am still on the plump side, downright fat according to fashion standards and dieting plans. But such standards have little bearing on my self-image anymore. Besides, my solid physique is a desirable one in many developing countries as it represents wealth and abundance. I make sincere efforts to keep my spiritual and emotional health firmly connected to my physical health. I`d like to think of my solid body build as reflecting a solid spiritual build, and the extra fat helps me tolerate more cold than Jim can who is downright skinny. I have been the same body weight for over 20 years and even now with a less labour-intensive lifestyle, remain physically active. The Dutch genes still make me prefer the bicycle to go grocery shopping!

Every day I am grateful to feel at home in this body which has enjoyed an amazingly steady green light for overall health and fitness even though some aging signs are beginning to appear. From intimate involvements with others, I also know that not everyone is gifted with the kind of health I have taken for granted but no longer dare to. I am truly fearfully and wonderfully made, praising God that I can honour this gift of my body through healthy living. I pray for the grace to live my remaining, and possibly declining, days in the same gratitude that flooded my being as I wrote this reflection.

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