Napping and Other Such Spiritual Disciplines

In my personal season of harried new motherhood and this corporate season of Lent, I’ve struggled to find spiritual practices that work – that are honoring to such realities as an infant waking up an hour earlier than I had hoped and yet responsive to the Lenten invitation to slow down, recognize my pitiful human condition, and receive God’s life.

I would have liked to dedicate an hour each morning to silence and prayer, or commit to prepare food for the homeless once a week, or retreat for a weekend to our favorite monastery. Instead, God has been challenging me through some less conventional disciplines – like napping, sleeping in, and sitting on the couch.

Me and baby Oliver on day 1 of his life, already practicing the spiritual discipline of napping.

Me and baby Oliver on day 1 of his life, already practicing the spiritual discipline of napping.

The sad truth is that I find these things hard to do. It’s easier for me to work myself into a foaming-at-the-mouth to-do-list-checking frenzy than to drop everything when the opportunity actually opens up before me and rest. It’s actually physically hard, if not impossible, at times. My eyes will pop open in the morning an hour before the baby usually wakes up and I’ll think, “Oh good! What can I get done?” By the time the twenty things I could do have run through my head, my pulse has accelerated and that drowsy, “I could go back to sleep” feeling has disappeared. My body is tense and I can find no comfortable positions in bed. It takes all I can muster at these times to resist the never-ending call to do more and instead will my breathing to slow, matching it to that of my sleeping husband’s beside me.

It is an embarrassing plight in which I find myself – to find it mentally and physically difficult to rest and sleep. In this way, these activities serve me well as spiritual disciplines. They require me to recognize my humanity and succumb to the blessed groggy truth that the world goes on spinning without me, that the Lord sustains all of life and will sustain mine, even If I don’t get around to cleaning the floor this week (or maybe even this year). To rest, I often have to quiet the monkeys in my mind in the same way I do to pray. I have to tune my mind into my breath, my heart beat, and my heavy bones. I have to surrender to the present.

My other favorite new spiritual discipline is sitting on the couch holding the baby while he sleeps. Usually I’ll put him down to nap on his own, but every once in a while, especially when the monkeys in my head have eaten too many sugar cookies and have invited their friends over to play, I remain seated on the couch, letting my baby be my spiritual director. Drink in my tender new life, he beckons me with his translucent, veined eyelids. Quiet your mind by counting my tiny toes. Come taste, see, smell my fuzzy head, and know in your body that gave birth to mine the utter goodness of the Lord.

 

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Economy of Abundance

Grapes waiting to be crushed.

Grapes waiting to be crushed.

I went to St. Procopius Abbey last weekend expecting to attain profound spiritual insights during times of stillness and silence. Instead, I stumbled into one of my deepest lessons during a walk on the monastery grounds, when Greg, the abbey winemaker, invited me to join him and some other volunteers in crushing grapes to make wine.

In the woods outside a large green shed which serves as the monastery workshop we assembled our gear – 1,700 pounds of freshly harvested grapes grown on site, sugar, yeast, a water hose, a scale, large plastic barrels, sulfite spray, and our bare feet! Greg and his crew have tried using machines to extract the grape juice in the past, but found that the old-fashioned method of stomping on grapes with your feet actually works best at separating the skins, seeds, and juice.

After spraying the grapes and our feet with water and sulfite to kill bacteria, we were each assigned barrels of various grape varieties. Since I am carrying a rather unwieldy baby-belly, Kevin, another jovial volunteer, steadied me as I let my feet sink into 98 pounds of fragrant purple concord grapes. The other volunteers joked that I was doing extra work by making wine for two, though I countered that it was actually the opposite – my extra baby weight gave me an advantage and they were getting a two-for-one deal – two people stomping the grapes instead of just one.

Ninety-eight pounds of crushed concord grapes.

Ninety-eight pounds of crushed concord grapes.

Outside on this mild fall day in “God’s great cathedral” of the forest, I sunk my toes quite literally into the extravagant, unmerited abundance of the harvest. Though someone did the hard work of planting and tending the vines, in all truth, the profusion of plump fruit dripping off of them is a gift. And when God gives, it’s not in a measured, controlled fashion – “one for you, two for you, three for you because you worked extra hard.” No, he gives exorbitantly, over-the-top, even more than we can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20). He gives until we have overflowing barns and vats brimming with new wine (Proverbs 3:10), so that it would be unthinkable not to call your neighbors and friends over to share in the plenty.

I learned the same thing taking a walk later through the monastery apple orchard. The branches groaned toward the ground under the weight of so many apples, and on the grass I could not take a step without squishing the overripe fallen fruit already being devoured by worms, bugs, birds, and deer. Amidst this jubilant harvest riot, where even the smallest creatures have their share, the nearly $4.00/lb. organic apples that Whole Foods sells seemed ridiculous. So many juicy apples waiting to be enjoyed freely, yet our economy rations and labels them as a commodity for those who can afford it.

It is inevitable that we participate in the market economy, unless we want to live as hermits or in isolated communes in the middle of nowhere. But this weekend, I was refreshed to step out of that economy for a little while and participate in a different kind of economy, God’s economy, where generosity is the currency of choice and the cost of partaking in the abundance is “free.”

The Power of Dirt

Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Though the Ash Wednesday saying rightly evokes repentance and humility by reminding us of our mortality, dust is not only a symbol of death. As I have come to realize in delightful new ways this year through poking around in my garden dirt, dead and decaying matter is a powerful source of life.

It is a ridiculously obvious fact that we humans have known since the discovery of agriculture, but something that I as a city-dweller still find wondrous: throw some tiny seeds in dirt, and, with some sunlight and water, they grow to produce delicious edible wonders! In a truly miraculous way, that brown and unassuming dirt, the bedrock of the food chain, sustains our lives.

Starting a garden this year has been therapeutic for me, not only because I have gotten to witness these small everyday miracles of creation and eat yummy vegetables, but also because of my contact with dirt.

It is good for us to touch dirt – not just as a way to symbolically acknowledge our mortality. Dirt is powerful on a physical, cellular level.

Enjoying the dirt and trees of the cypress grove in Colombia.

Enjoying the dirt and trees of the cypress grove in Colombia.

The power of dirt is something that therapists often utilize. When I was getting acupuncture for fertility issues at a Chinese medicine clinic, one of the student doctors there told me to regularly touch dirt to tap into the fertility of the earth. On a recent visit to Colombia where we walked through a cypress grove, our guide told us that people often come to this grove to walk around barefoot, touch the trees, and discharge static energy from always being around electronic gadgets.

It may sound like “new-age” fluff, but it makes sense too from a Christian perspective. God breathed his life into creation, and it means that each created thing – humans, animals, plants, water, sunlight, dirt – somehow resonates with the energy of the Creator. Even rocks, Jesus said, have the capacity to cry out God’s praises (Luke 19:40).

We often spiritualize this knowledge of God’s divine energy in creation. Spending time in creation is good for the soul, we say. But I think it is also good for our bodies, which are inextricably connected to our souls. When we come into physical contact with the goodness of creation – though playing in the dirt, through a walk in the forest, through an ocean swim – something shifts in the energy of our bodies, in our very cells. We are re-attuned to something basic in life. Like receiving the imposition of ashes at the start of Lent, we become more aware of our humanity – not only of our impending deaths, but also of our lives and bodies, which are sustained in the power and love of God.

 

The Messiness (and Wisdom) of the Birthing, Lactating Body

A female figure in birthing position - perhaps used by women in some ancient society to aid them through birth.

A female figure in birthing position – perhaps used by women in some ancient society to aid them through birth.

Being a pregnant, birthing, and eventually lactating, body is a wonder, but also complicated. While I marvel at my body’s innate abilities to bring forth and nurture life, sometimes the experience feels too physical. Too sticky, smelly, bloody, gooey.

As I prepare to birth, breastfeed, and take care of a newborn, I am coming to terms with this overwhelming physicality. Childbirth books describe labor as this time when the body completely takes over. Birthing women need to surrender to the primal force of the body in labor, which one woman says is like being plastered to the front of a train going 150 miles per hour, scared you’ll fall off any second, but learning that surrender is what keeps you on board. In birth, the logical mind retreats, and laboring women’s consciousness descends into the uterus. Every ounce of energy is focused on what’s going on there.

If childbirth demands our 110% bodily presence, childcare is no different. This is where part of me throws back  its head and wails objections. The fact that men’s and women’s bodies are designed such that childbearing, breastfeeding, and some of the most intensive aspects of caring for a newborn fall to women seems unfair, in some ways. Why is it that this little life that we created together demands more from me, more out of my body, than from my husband’s? Why must I be the one to wake up in the middle of the night to nurse, to lose sleep? (I really like my sleep, and all those warnings about never getting to sleep again after the baby is born are probably what scare me the most!) While the intricate connection between my body and my child’s is something I cherish, on another level it feels like too much. Too attached, intertwined, enmeshed.

There are ways to reduce and balance out the weighty childcare burden that mothers carry. My recent Her.meneutics post on attachment parenting addresses this. At the same time, this does not mean that we can escape the truth and wisdom of our bodies. For some reason, God designed women to have a kind of intimate, physical connection to their children that men don’t have. I think it will take me a lifetime of being a woman and a mother to figure out what that means.

In the meantime, I am still learning to trust my body. I believe that the way our bodies are created, the ways we experience connection to others through our bodies, is something to embrace, not resist. Being a woman’s body, being a mothering body, especially in an age when the role of women and mothers is constantly contested, is indeed complex. But I will try to take the advice of a dear friend and fellow mother who urged me to put aside the intellectual objections when Baby comes. “Just be present in the physicality,” she said – in the gooey, sticky mess of having a child. I am sure this will teach me more than any abstract wonderings ever could.

God at Your Back

Yoga reverse prayer

In an impromptu yoga session recently, our leader, Ann, urged us to become aware of our back-bodies. We usually focus attention on our front-bodies, Ann said. It is the side of ourselves we present to the world, the side we examine closely in mirrors, the side we make sure is well put-together. But our back-bodies, Ann said, is a side we don’t often dwell on. As such, it is an entry-point into the unknown.

What do our back-bodies know that our front-bodies don’t? Well, for one, we can’t see from behind. In front, we keep a vigilant lookout on the world. But our backsides are vulnerable, unguarded, an open door to things unseen. Maybe that’s why we can sense things with our back-bodies that our front-bodies can’t. We feel the stares of others drilling into the backs of our heads. The hairs on the backs of our necks stand up on end when we sense danger.  We feel a tingle down our spines in the presence of beings from the spiritual realm. In short, our back-bodies have a keen sense of things unknown and unseen.

Maybe, as Ann suggested to us, our back-bodies are a place where we can find God – the unknown, unseen whisper of a God who showed himself to Elijah not in wind, earthquake or fire, but in “a sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19). How does one hear “sheer silence”? Perhaps Elijah did not hear God’s presence with his ears. Perhaps he heard God in the nape of his neck, in his shoulder blades, in the liquid spaces between his vertebrae.

As I was lying on the yoga mat, bringing my awareness into my back-body, feeling myself being held in the palm of the ground, I recalled Psalm 139. The psalmist says to God, “You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.” The knowledge of being hemmed in by God, behind and before, was something beyond the psalmist’s grasp. Yet perhaps he knew it in his back-body as he was lying on the earth, feeling his weight being supported by the God who laid the earth’s foundations.

Jesus in Flesh and Blood

When a prayer minister asked me to look into the eyes of Jesus recently, something interesting happened. I couldn’t picture Jesus’ face in my mind’s eye very well, but instead I began to see the rest of his body before me – his chest, shoulders, arms, legs, toes. Though we know it as a theological fact, it was startling for me to realize that Jesus has a physical body!

Jesus and Doubting Thomas

Brugghen: The Incredulity of St. Thomas

The Gospel accounts witness over and over to the physical reality of Jesus’ risen presence – eating fish on the lakeshore, breaking bread with the disciples who were walking to Emmaus, telling Thomas to touch the wounds in his side. But don’t we often still imagine Jesus as some kind of disembodied spirit or floating head when we pray to him? When I was able to picture him as a flesh-and-blood body and sense the reality of his physical presence, it was such a gift. I pictured myself resting my head on his chest, Jesus placing his hand on my head and blessing me. As embodied creatures, we long for God to be near, so near that we can touch him. There is something unspeakably comforting about being in somebody’s warm, breathing physical presence.

Scriptures tell us that Jesus in his risen, tangible physical body is at the right hand of the throne of God interceding for us. Which means we can’t really touch him right now. He is physically absent.

But then again, he isn’t. His church, in all of our motley, colorful, jumbled living and breathing mess, is his physical presence on earth for now. It’s frightening to think that Christ turned it over to us to be bearers of his physical presence to the world. Yet it’s also exciting and beautiful.

Jesus gave his body for us as a broken, bleeding, crucified sacrifice. He continues to give his body for us through the elements of the Eucharist and through the physical presence of the church. Are we able to receive him as a body? Are we able to receive him through the embrace of his body the church?

Our Bodies Need Other Bodies

Parent-child sleepingIn American society, the prevailing notion is that infants should sleep alone, so they learn to fall asleep on their own and don’t get too “dependent” on their parents. But, Meredith Small points out, in all parts of the world besides North America and Europe, infants sleep with their parents (co-sleeping). In Small’s book, Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent,[1] she draws on biological evidence to show that infant bodies need adult bodies. Indeed, infant biology illuminates a deeper theological fact – we all need other bodies in order to be at home in our own bodies, and in order to be fully human.

An extraordinary thing happens when mothers and babies sleep together, researchers found. Babies take on the mother’s breathing rhythm and move through light and deep sleep levels together. In the lab, when a mother’s brain wave pattern shifts, the baby’s does too. When she moves into a lighter sleep stage, the baby follows. This process, Small writes, is called entrainment. Newborns “are born with neurologically unfinished brains, and they don’t develop the ability to easily navigate types of breathing until they are at least three to four months old.”[2] In other words, newborns learn how to sleep by co-sleeping with their parents. A baby who sleeps alone can gradually manage to navigate the sleep phases on its own, but the process is much easier when an infant can “benefit from the external metronome of parental breathing.”

Infant sleeping isn’t the only aspect of embodied life that involves entrainment. We learn to make facial expressions by watching our conversation partners when their emotions change. We learn to dance by catching the physical energy of others in the room and mimicking the movements of our parents and older siblings. We learn how to be physically close by responding to others’ touch with matching pressure and feeling. My friend Pam, a psychologist and massage therapist, talks about transmission or resonance, where the therapist picks up the emotional energy of the client through bodily contact, or vice versa.

In these and so many other ways, we need other bodies around us in order to learn how to be at home in own bodies. As I heard in a recent sermon, our bodies were made for bonding, for connecting us to other people, particularly to Christ and his body the church. Without the positive presence of other bodies, we get a bit lost, and don’t quite know how to relate in our own bodies. You can see this most starkly in children who either were neglected or physically abused – they move about awkwardly and timidly, hunch their shoulders, and keep their heads low, as if afraid to let it be known that they are bodily present in the room.  On the other hand, when children are touched and held often in ways that respect their personhood, they thrive. I’ve heard from a family that co-slept with the last couple of their children that these kids seem much more confident in their bodies than their children who slept alone.

What does this mean for the body of Christ? How can we learn to be more at home in our bodies together, and pass this on to our children? For one, I wish that congregations would make it okay and good to express ourselves with our bodies in worship. Let’s start incorporating dance into our services and making space in the sanctuary where people can move about freely. Also, let’s not be afraid to touch each other. If the grandpa in the wheelchair looks like he needs a hug, give it! He doesn’t bite!  Sometimes our strict regard for personal space keeps us from that human connection that can only happen through physical touch. Finally, let’s create spaces where we can process through difficult issues and pray together not just with our minds, but also with our bodies. The workshops I led for my old church are a good starting point.

Our bodies need other bodies – not only for the hugs and warm fuzzies. Christ came in a body and rose from the dead in a body to show us that our bodies matter dearly to this whole enterprise of seeking God’s kingdom and restoring a broken humanity. If we cannot learn to be fully present in our bodies, we cannot be fully human.


[1] 1998, Anchor Books.

[2] P. 130

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