"You will be a better mom because you are a theologian, and a better theologian because you are a mom."

Is it true? In this blog, I explore the interplay and intersection of motherhood and theologianhood.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Body is for Loving

 (Mama with the boys, who get held a lot!)
This Easter season, coincident with the aches and pains of parenting, has given me the occasion to reflect a little on the body. The Catholic teaching of the resurrection may be one of the hardest parts of the faith to understand, but of course, it's also one of the most important.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states in paragraph 997:  "In death, the separation of the soul from the body, the human body decays and the soul goes to meet God, while awaiting its reunion with its glorified body. God, in his almighty power, will definitively grant incorruptible life to our bodies by reuniting them with our souls, through the power of Jesus’ Resurrection."

That's right, the soul goes to meet God, but this separation of the body and soul is not final. The body and soul will be reunited. But what exactly is a "glorified" body? One thought might be to associate the glorified body with a perfect body. In other words, we might think that a glorified body would reflect our ideals of the human body - perfect symmetry, straight teeth, glossy hair and whatever. That's why I find it so interesting that one important aspect of Jesus' resurrected body is his wounds. Given the scourging at the pillar, the crown of thorns, the carrying of the cross, the crucifixion, and the piercing of the lance, we can surmise that Jesus' body laid to rest in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea was in pretty bad physical shape, far from the ideal human figures we label as perfect.

And yet, even in his resurrection, Jesus retains the wounds of the cross--maybe not of the scourging  but at least of the nail wounds and the piercing in his side. Doesn't that scriptural detail just turn our conventional notion of the perfect body on its head? I once mused to myself that maybe everyone's glorified bodies will bear the marks of the crucifixion. Imagine that a glorified body would exhibit something like that which seems so obviously to be an imperfection or a blemish.

Well, maybe we won't all bear the marks of the crucifixion in our glorified bodies. But nonetheless, I think it is a good reminder of the purpose of the body while we are here on earth, and that is to love and to serve God. The people who love and serve God on earth may not have the "perfect" bodies according to our current conventional standards. Those bodies may not be thin or attractive. They may not be healthy or free of pain. They may not be strong or sturdy. Rather, those who love and serve God on earth will likely already suffer the physical consequences of this service.

I first thought of this years ago, when I heard of anthropologist Dr. Susan Sheirdan's work analyzing the skeletons of 5th and 6th century Byzantine monks in Jerusalem. In a recent article from Notre Dame Magazine, Sheridan says that “When we pulled the bones out we found the legs were really pathological.” In what way? Biomechanical analysis indicated that the monks had knelt a lot; bones rubbed against bones at the knee, and the big toes fused as a response to repetitive stress. In other words, the monks' constant prayer left actual physical marks on their skeletons. Wow.

One response to this finding is to reflect on why the monks would have sought or endured such suffering, so extreme to the point of leaving marks on their bones still evident a millennium and a half later. But another response is to say - gosh, if their skeletons look like that, what about the beauty of their souls! Because as Christians, we believe that our actions leave marks not just on our bodies, but on our souls. These monks' skeletons can be seen as useful analogical tools to help us meditate on the body-soul connection.

So what would someone find with my skeleton 1500 years later? I can honestly say I would be proud if they found my knees showed evidence of constant kneeling, but I am no monk. A biomechanical analysis of my skeleton would probably show the signs of parenting - all those aches and pains I am feeling right now. Maybe my left hip bone would be slightly lower than my right because of constantly holding a baby there. Likewise, my left wrist and left index finger might show the marks also of having borne continual stress. Maybe my spine would seem to have been a little compressed from wearing a sling or ergo.

 (Baby Maia in sling)

These physical ailments are not to be praised by our society, which sees every imperfection as a problem, and oftentimes, a problem that should be healed or at least have the pain eased by medical treatment. And indeed, there is something praiseworthy in trying to preserve our health if we see it as instrumental in loving and serving God. So we should try to take care of our bodies and aim for health in order to do God's will. But such physical health and the goal of long life for its own sake cannot be seen ends in themselves. And in fact, even injury and illness are wonderful opportunities to love and serve God by offering that pain to God, uniting it with Christ's passion for the good of others in the world. Injury and illness may disfigure and weaken our bodies, but they can also increase the beauty of our souls.

(Dad with baby Eva... and yes, Dad has back problems too)

The body is for loving, and sometimes the love of God and others will leave marks on our body; of course, I think of the minor physical effects of pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting because that's where I'm at right now. The demands of busy family life may prevent the perfect health associated with ideal exercise patterns and nutritional eating. Pregnancy's routine of "gain 40 lose 30 pounds" may result in some degree of exasperation.Carrying kids around seven days a week, 52 weeks a year might compress the spinal column or lead to a hip imbalance. We may even have scratches or bruises from kids accidentally hitting us.

(Even an "easy" childbirth, like Patrick's was, is not so easy on the body)

These physical blemishes do not have to be seen negatively. The bodies we have are made for the work we do serving God; they are not made to be passive displays of perfect beauty. And the physical imperfections are positive if they are bringing us closer to God by having us share in the passion of Christ. These wounds are the wounds of Christ, and those wounds remained, not simply on a skeleton as with the monks, but even on Christ's resurrected body.

(And a quick delivery like Robert's can be even worse.)

So too, I do not think our glorified bodies will find us all looking like fashion models, perfect in every conventional earthly way. Though our aches and pains will cease to ache and pain, the physical marks that resulted from our service to God may remain because these very marks are associated with the glorification of our bodies. If we are offering our daily work to God - whether or parenting or praying or teaching or even suffering - then the physical blemishes we incur as a result are spiritually significant. They increase the beauty of our souls and help us move closer to that final glorified body.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Habit of Fasting

On Good Friday, my dear husband returned from his holy hour(s) at the church to find us in the kitchen at lunch time. He happened to walk in while I was lecturing one of them about not interrupting me once I've started eating. They have this tendency to ask for food, and after I've gotten them all situated and sit down to eat my own lunch, they decide that they desperately need something else (sometimes whatever I've prepared for myself). Clearly, I did not want my collation interrupted, and he quickly jumped in to assist aforementioned hungry child.

I'll just skip the intervening hours of the day and note that by dinnertime, my irritability and impatience, expressed tentatively in the lunchtime lecture, were now well-established. I was annoyed with everything - the constant mess, the constant noise, and a general dissatisfaction with you-name-it. The Good Friday service at church (stand-kneel petition-squats while holding a 30 pound toddler) and my earlier time spent meditating on the passion did little to cheer me.

So while hubby and I were in the kitchen later in the evening, I was angrily complaining about something-- maybe that you couldn't even tell I had vacuumed a mere six hours earlier-- he timidly asked me if I was planning on fasting again tomorrow.


I think it was the sound of my own raised voice that convinced me I had failed on my Good Friday fast. But it could have also been Jeff's kind reminder that "Your mortifications aren't supposed to mortify everyone else."

See, for the past maybe six years, I've been substituting the Ash Wednesday and Good Friday fast with some other non-caloric related fast on account of my being pregnant or nursing (or both). This year, however, I decided I should try despite the six-month old nurser, and apparently my relative success on Ash Wednesday made me arrogant about my fasting potential for Good Friday.

The truth is, I'm out of practice. But even more than that, I've never really been in practice, that is, I've never really developed a habit of fasting, and by that I mean, the Catholic relative fast (one full meal, two collations not equaling a full meal). So why did Jeff ask me if I was planning on continuing my fast to Holy Saturday?

Well, ironically, I'd been doing some research about the historical developments of the Lenten fast in the United States, which originally was held to the canonical regulations with total abstinence and relative fast for the entire season of Lent. Soon came the "workingman's indult" allowing for partial abstinence (meat at the principal meal, excluding Fridays) during fast days for manual laborers and their families. This was eventually extended to everyone, given the difficulty of determining who qualified for the indult. Then, during times of war (WW1 and WW2 and immediately following year), fast and abstinence rules were suspended by the pope for people in the countries at war, presumably because they had sufficiently penitential hardships in availability of food. In the early 50s, the Lenten fast ended at noon on Holy Saturday. But then the magisterium decided to change it to ending at midnight between Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. So this is why Jeff had asked me if I planned on fasting through Holy Saturday, which I actually had been considering until that moment of humility. It wasn't until 1966 that Lenten fasting was reduced to the two days of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday with the understanding that the faithful would choose some other individually selected Lenten sacrifice for the rest of the season.

Why does fasting seem so hard for us Catholics that only do it twice a year? One reason is that we only do it twice a year. Imagine that you didn't run all year long, but then on Ash Wednesday decided to compete in a 5K. It would probably be a little difficult too. But if you run three miles a day for every day of Lent, running a 5K on Good Friday would not be as challenging. Similarly, some Catholics may have the experience of their Lenten penance (e.g. giving up coffee or chocolate or whatever) not seeming so difficult by the end of Lent.

The language of virtue can be helpful here. Since the 12th century, members of the Church have spoken of the virtue of penance. Such a virtue is a habit of amending for sin, which is an injustice against God. Virtues are strengthened by repeated acts; the virtue of penance is strengthened by acts of penance, that is exterior acts that express interior contrition, which is also an act of the virtue of penance. Repeated acts of penance make it so that the virtue becomes "second nature."

If fasting remains something that Catholics in the U.S. do only twice a year, we can expect it to be hard, never really to become second nature for us. Being difficult is not really a bad thing; it even has potential to make it more meaningful as penance for us. But on the other hand, if the difficulty of fasting prevents us from being kind and charitable to others, this may actually inhibit the meaning of that penance. And that's why it could be a good idea for me, at least, to practice fasting a little bit more often. Anyone want to join me for some Ember Day fasting after Pentecost?