What the Body Knows

By Kathryn Ray

In the beginning was the Word…In it was life, and life was the light of humanity…And it was in the world- the world that through it came into being-but the world did not recognize it….It came to its own, but its own did not receive it. It came to its own, and its own did not accept itThe Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us. (John 1:1, 3-4, 10, 14) 

“We can’t find anything wrong with you,” the doctor said in a tone probably intended to be kind. It still filled me with frustration and despair.  I was 20 years old, and I had been exhausted for weeks. The doctors had no real answer. They fell back on familiar doctor scripts—“Reduce stress. Maybe take up a new hobby.” 

I knew the exhaustion that comes from stress. I knew that this answer was not right. And with every piece of advice from that standard doctor script, I felt less and less heard. I started to doubt my own experience of myself.

Was the Word ever farther from being truly known than when it became flesh and dwelt among us? Could God ever be more elusive than by assuming that most mysterious and strangest of forms—the human body? 

The philosopher Elaine Scarry writes, “To have great pain is to have certainty; to hear that another person has pain is to have doubt.”1 My experience of my body is the realest, most immediate thing in the world to me. But for those I turn to when my body is in distress, that experience is like a distant galaxy, dimly seen and barely understood. 

The doctors could run all the blood tests, but they could not feel my distress. They could only have faith in me when I said I knew what stress feels like, and this wasn’t it. But doubt came more naturally.

According to the opening of John’s Gospel, it is the Word that brings all things into being. The Word creates and creates, but that is not enough. So it comes rushing into the world in a body, as if to say, “I’m here, I’m here, just like you!” As if the Word too, longed to be heard, longed to be seen. 

But when the Word took on flesh, the world did not understand it. The Word took on a body, and it was harder for the world to receive it. As if truth was not supposed to speak to us through the experience of one body to another. As if the Word couldn’t be truth if it could only be received by believing someone else.

A few weeks ago, a leaked draft of a Supreme Court decision indicated that Roe vs. Wade, which guarantees the right to equal access to abortion, may be overturned. The issue of abortion holds this incredible power to command not only attention, but the deepest of emotion. It has the power to eclipse so many other pressing issues, to effectively shape elections for decades. 

And I continually ask myself, what gives it that power?

Childbirth is both the avenue of life and one of the most physically dangerous, even deadly experiences a human body goes through, both for the one being born and the one doing the birthing. Very few experiences affect the human body so deeply and irrevocably as gestating and bearing new life. When someone says “something is wrong” when they are pregnant, the response. “It’s probably just stress” can have deadly consequences.  

The shadow of death shrouds the origins of our lives. We know this in our bodies and our collective memory. But we have different ways of encountering that knowledge and understanding it. And we come to different conclusions.

I can no longer contemplate giving birth without thinking of my friend who gestated and birthed a child into the world with such joy and weeks later collapsed and died because the labor had weakened her heart. 

As a rule, I don’t perceive events that happen in this world as divine punishment. So  I was shocked to find myself suddenly praying, “God, why was she punished for bringing this baby into the world?” 

It is a memory that lodged in my body. It is a fear imminently real to me, because I can imagine it happening to me. And you may not know that fear in your own body, but it will be no less present if we are having a conversation about reproduction.

Reflecting on where the strength of our emotion comes from and acknowledging the rawness is the only way we can approach this conversation honestly. Oftentimes, arguments around abortion will appeal to an experience of one’s own embodiment that is assumed to be shared when it is not.

You don’t know my friend who died. You can’t know how that grief sits in my body. I don’t know what you have been through, what comes up for you in this conversation. But I suspect it’s equally strong. It makes this conversation even more raw and vulnerable. 

And when it’s vulnerable, it’s so easy to do what those doctors at the hospital did—fall back on familiar scripts, political talking points, arguments from old debates. Words from a different conversation, with some different body. Sometimes, Scripture itself can be wielded as a shield to protect ourselves from the raw vulnerability of encounter with the Word made flesh.

Those scripts prevent us from truly seeing and hearing the Word emanating from one another.  They become walls to shield out the reality of our vulnerable, mysterious bodies, which utterly depend on one another to be seen and to be known.  

I wonder why the Word would take on flesh when our bodies make us such strangers to one another. I can only imagine it was to teach us that we find salvation by listening to the wisdom of one another’s bodies. It’s a truth we cannot directly access, but must receive by faith.

 A Word become flesh inspires us to believe in the power of our bodies to speak life and truth. We cannot fully live unless we speak our truth, and have it honored. We cannot fully thrive unless we honor the Word in our bodies and in one another’s. 

As we continue to face the ripples of the COVID-19 pandemic, we know more than ever that our bodies are interdependent. My well-being is bound up with yours. We are only as strong as the community with the fewest resources.

We only heed the call of Christ made flesh as deeply as we bear witness to the Light that shines in the bodies of those who live in those communities.

I think back to that day in the Cleveland Clinic and the young doctor trying to be so understanding while giving advice I knew was wrong. I wish he had said, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what’s going on. But I believe you when you say it’s not stress.”

In these times of such vulnerability, this is what I seek: to listen and to recognize that gleam of the Word that shines in your body, to receive its story as a sacred guest. For your body holds a thousand sacred words. I have faith that a Word has pitched its tent in your body, just as surely as a Word has pitched its tent in mine.

So I keep listening. I listen deeply to the story in my own body. In those moments when I feel like my body is tossed in the tempest of public debate, I strive not to let those winds disconnect me from my own sacred body and its knowledge.

We need each other’s bodies; we need what they know. If the light of the world once took on a body, it is a light that continues to shine on in our bodies. A strange, mysterious, beautiful light—that at the end of the day, can only be received by faith.

`Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 7.

Reverend Kathryn Ray was ordained to Christian ministry at Ellis Avenue Church, a racially and economically diverse Alliance of Baptists congregation on Chicago’s South Side. She currently serves as Pastor of Discipleship at North Shore Baptist Church, an American Baptist congregation in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago.

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