My Flesh Faints for God

O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” – Psalm 63:1

What does it mean to want God so much that we feel it in our bodies, to the point where we would cry out, “My flesh faints for you!”?

What comes to mind first are the ecstatic experiences of the Christian mystics. Consider St. Teresa of Avila’s account of a seraph piercing her heart with a blade of love, causing sublime body-spirit pain:

The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa by Bernini, Basilica of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome.

The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa by Bernini, Basilica of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome.

I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it…[1]

God’s love was so real for Teresa that she felt as if her entrails were afire. Wow. Can’t say I’ve ever experienced that in my life.

I have experienced my flesh fainting for God in the form of a deep yearning in my bones to pray through movement and dance. Sometimes, especially when I am going through painful or complicated emotions, words just don’t cut it. Sinking into a deep silence and allowing my soul to be still is sometimes what I need, but at other times I need to tell God with my body how I feel.

In these times, I let my mind take backstage and give my body permission to move freely. Sometimes I wrap my arms around my core and crouch in fetal position. Sometimes I reach brokenly with my arms, clench my fists, or throw up my hands. Sometimes I twirl around and feel my body opening up to some movement of life and spirit just beyond my mental grasp. Often, my body prays in a way that my mind could never express, and leads me closer to my heart.

I can think of one other way that our flesh might “faint for God.” It is when we become painfully aware of the gap between what our bodies are, and what our bodies ought to be. Paul writes to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 5:4):

For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.

We feel in our flesh and in our spirits that there is more to this life than we know. Even our bodies are destined for greater glory than we can imagine, when one day what is now decaying and dying will be “swallowed up by life.” In the meantime, we wait with joy, hope, and longing, and our flesh, too, faints for God.


Waiting for the Body

Modern medicine has stripped the body of the sanctity and mystery with which God endowed it. Instead of seeing people (body and soul) as “fearfully and wonderfully made” and knit together by God in their mothers’ wombs (Psalm 139), we treat the people as separate from their bodies and approach the body as a machine. I have been guilty of this mindset.

When I started getting an odd pain in my left ankle a couple years ago, I initially ignored it, hoping it would resolve itself. When it continued and worsened, I went to an orthopedic doctor, who told me I had tendonitis and to wear orthotics and then to use a walking boot. When that didn’t help, I went to another doctor for a second opinion and got an MRI. This doctor concluded that my navicular bone was swollen (I know – “What??”) and prescribed physical therapy. To make a long story short, I searched left and right, up and down for the source of my pain and the solution to fix it. I tried everything short of surgery, from anti-inflammatory drugs to chiropractic adjustments to acupuncture to prolotherapy injections. The only thing I didn’t try was waiting. Actually, I was forced to wait, because the pain didn’t go away.

Looking back on the first year or so of having ankle pain, I recognize a poisonous attitude which hindered my ability to respond well to the pain. I was treating my body as if it were a car that had malfunctioned. I just wanted a mechanic to tinker around a bit, oil it up, and get it running again the way it used to. In my mind, my body was “broke.” I was dead set on doing whatever it took to “fix” it. Since it wasn’t getting fixed, I was angry and desperate – you can’t get a new body the way you can get a new car. But that’s what I thought I needed – just a replacement part, or some kind of easy tune-up.

But what if the body is not an “it”? What if it’s a “thou” (in the words of Martin Buber[1]). Flora Slosson Wuellner calls the body our life companion.[2] Our body is part of our self – a self which is made in God’s image, not just a machine to be used. Our bodies receive and register things that our conscious selves cannot. Our bodies may register the pain of a traumatic event through headaches or unusual pains, even if our conscious selves cannot bring that event up in our memory. They may manifest anxiety or stress through an outbreak of acne, or indigestion. If we stop treating the body simply as something to be fixed, but rather as a part of our self that communicates valuable knowledge about our experiences and our identity, then perhaps we would approach illness and pain in a completely different manner.

There are, of course, often legitimate physical causes for bodily ailments. For my part, I am suspicious that Cipro, an antibiotic drug in the fluoroquinolone category that I took for an infection two weeks before the pain started and which is known for causing spontaneous tendon ruptures and tendonitis (I wish my doctor had told me that!)[3] was the instigator of my ankle pain (again, another case where modern medicine does not properly honor bodily wisdom but instead intervenes with solutions that often cause more harm than good).

Even though my pain may have had a physical cause, however, I try to catch myself when I have the urge to run around like a chicken with my head cut off trying this and that treatment, looking for any possible fix. I still experiment with different treatments to try to relieve the pain and return back to my previous level of activity. But I am learning not to expect my body to always respond to treatment in a direct cause-effect, mechanistic way, nor to expect everything to suddenly be all better in two weeks. To be sure, God can work miracles, and maybe He will gift me with a quick, complete healing.

But maybe God also wants to teach me, in the midst of the pain, to wait for my body, to be gentle and patient, and to listen to this oft-ignored part of myself. I hope one day, whether the pain is gone or not, I’ll be able to truly acknowledge my body as a valuable and wise life companion whose rhythms and processes cannot fully be dissected by modern science, but rather are fearfully and wonderfully sustained by God.

[1] See Martin Buber’s book I and Thou (1958, New York: Scribner).

[2] Flora Slosson Wuellner, Prayer and Our Bodies (1987, Nashville, TN: The Upper Room).

[3] For more about the dangerous effects of Cipro and similar drugs, click here and here.