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Archive for January, 2012

Embodiment

Two weeks ago George had a loop recorder—a medical device about the size of a large thumb drive—planted in his chest.  The general idea is that this thing is going to record what’s happening to his heart during his weird fainting spells, so that the doctors can figure out what’s going on and how to treat it.  After more than a year of tests and questions, it seemed to both of us like a good idea to try this next step.

The process began with the drive—five hours to Kelowna.  Once there, a surgeon slit George’s chest open, after which he inserted his fingers under George’s skin, prying it away from the underlying tissue to make a pocket.  Into the pocket he inserted the recorder, and then sewed him up.  The whole operation was very like what I do to a chicken with garlic cloves, except that the chicken is not alive and watching.  But very like a chicken in that if you don’t remember that the garlic will make a bulge in the skin, you might make the pocket too small. So what was supposed to be an insertion turned out to be more of a shoving and stuffing.  When I do this to poultry it is usually past caring.  But George’s local anaesthetic ended up being too localized for sufficient detachment.

I myself was sitting just outside the room listening to all of this.  It took about an hour, during which the woman on a gurney a few feet away moaned constantly as she recovered from surgery.

Between the driving, the moaning, the slitting, and the stuffing, the whole experience felt just a bit too embodied.  I can’t tell you how glad I was to eat some dinner, down some drugs (Tylenol 3 for George, chocolate for me) and crawl into our hotel bed.  I think we were both asleep before 8 that night.

I’ve always felt that embodiment is really important.  When I do spiritual direction, I emphasize learning to trust the gut reaction, the flash of intuition.  I try to listen to the still small voice that speaks through the tightness of my chest, the roiling of my stomach, the little headache just behind my eyes.  Embodiment isn’t some airy-fairy new age spiritual concept, it’s the frank recognition that the physical body knows things that the mind sometimes can’t, sometimes doesn’t want to know.  The Holy can speak through the flesh, if we just listen.  But the downside of embodiment is—well, it’s just so inescapably physical.  The limitations and humiliations of the flesh are multiple.

We learned that yet again when we returned to the clinic the next day; we needed to know how and when to activate the loop recorder manually.  The technician was a youngish woman, both informative and officious.  The patronizing edge to her instructions aroused a rage in me that is still not extinguished: I kept wanting to scream, Do you have any idea who you’re talking to? (When I complained about this experience later at the church potluck, I heard from my elders that they are regularly treated as if they were mentally defective rather than just old.  I recognized with a slap that I treat them that way too.)  (Later I also realized how we’d loaded all our pain and frustration into this difficult encounter, poor young woman.)

Embodiment.  In addition to the joy of the carnal and the wisdom of the flesh, there’s the loss of capacity, the insults to the body, mind, spirit.

It is the joy and the horror of the Christian story that the Holy, the Infinite, the Love at the Centre of the Universe, the God-as-you-understand-God, has chosen to experience the finite life of flesh.  The Christmas traditions show Christ as the child of powerless, impoverished refugees.  As best we know, he came to adulthood as a manual laborer in an occupied country.  When the gospels catch up with him, he’s itinerant and penniless—and certain of God’s presence within him.  Yet there is no record of him ever screaming, Do you have any idea who you’re talking to? Never does he reject the realities of embodiment.  His divinity does not cancel out his humanity; it does not give him a “Get Out of Jail Free” pass to skip by the insults of human life.  Instead, he freely chooses them, not out of some misguided martyrdom but as an inescapable part of the path.  His life is the profound recognition that vulnerability, not power, engenders love.  It is embodiment, most particularly the limitations that come with fleshly existence, that connect us to each other.

Karen Armstrong says it like this: …nearly all the religious traditions put suffering at the top of their agenda.  We would rather push it away and pretend that the ubiquitous grief of the world has nothing to do with us, but if we do that we will remain confined in an inferior version of ourselves. (12 Steps to a Compassionate Life.)  And Richard Rohr cautions those drawn to “spirituality”: We have created a terrible kind of dualism between the spiritual and the so-called non-spiritual…(but) these seemingly different worlds are and always have been one.  We just couldn’t see it until God put them together in one body we call Jesus. (http://www.cacradicalgrace.org/ Daily Meditation, December 30, 2011.) To be truly spiritual is not to evade or ignore the body but to inhabit this life completely.

Incarnation: becoming flesh.  Becoming a thing rocked by pain, subject to decay and limitation—and capable of love.

One effect of our meander through the medical world has been a deeper sense of humility.  There’s just no way around it; the health care system is designed to strip us of our (erroneous but oh so comforting) claims to independence and self-reliance.  When we are taken into the system, we become suffering bodies like all the other suffering bodies, often without the grace of privacy or empathy.  Losing my protective coloration of competence forces me into greater reliance on the Holy, draws me more deeply into compassion.

Another effect of this cardiological journey has been deeper reflection on the aging process.  It’s become clear that our relationship to the world of medicine can no longer be the simple Do this and you’ll be fine of our younger years. It’s become, Do this, and it will help for a while; then do that; then something else.  And some day there will be nothing left to do.

When the end is clearer/nearer, daily reality becomes either a struggle against the inevitable or a deep commitment to live out each day of holy incarnation for the sheer joy of being alive. Oh my dear brothers and sisters, oh all matter and spirit joined in joyous breath: for this great, good and limited life, for the frailty that traps us and the love that binds us, let us cry out thanksgiving.