Fleshly, Fleshy Spirituality: A BidNite Sermon (Audio Available)

Sermon by Rev. Diane Rollert, 24 January 2016

Congratulations to Shoshanna Green, winner of the Bidnite sermon topic raffle. After many years of buying raffle tickets, her persistence finally paid off.

When Shoshanna first asked me to preach about fleshly, fleshy spirituality, we both wondered, given our monthly themes, where the topic would fit. Somehow, we agreed that this month’s theme of laughter was our best bet. Fleshly, fleshy spirituality, laughter.  Well, you know what came into my head… After all, where do religion and spirituality seem to struggle more than when it comes to dealing with sexuality?

“No, no, no,” Shoshanna said to me. “I’m thinking about our bodies and the challenge to live a truly embodied spirituality. Sexuality is just one aspect of the bigger picture.”

In my first years here, there was a member of this congregation named Jane Hugessen. Sadly, she and her husband, Andy, died many years ago. They were both very beloved here. Jane suffered from a lung ailment and had to carry oxygen with her everywhere she went. Even as her body deteriorated, she never let it slow her down. I remember Jane participating in a workshop one weekend. Everyone around her was dancing and singing. Jane couldn’t move, so we placed her in the middle of the circle. She sat there, regal as a queen, smiling beatifically upon us all. That, to me, was pure embodied spirituality.

Jane also had a wicked sense of humour. She could be quite bawdy and never hesitated to yell out to me during a service, like a drunken patron at a comedy show. One Sunday, as I was about to begin the offering, she yelled out, “Tell a dirty joke!”

Now, you have to understand, I am very aware of the limits that constrain me as a minister. You know I love to use humour to make a point, but I’m also cautious about how far I go. There are jokes that make me laugh despite myself, that are too lewd, gross or insulting to ever tell while standing here before you. When Jane died, I seriously considered how I might finally fulfil her request for a dirty joke. In the end, I made my apologies in her eulogy. Jane would have loved it, I know, but I just couldn’t do it. But today, given this strange confluence of flesh, spirituality and laughter, I am finally going to fulfil Jane’s request.

Want to hear a dirty joke? A man fell in the mud.
Want to hear a clean joke? He took a bath with bubbles.
Want to hear another dirty joke? Bubbles was his neighbour.

Groan…. Yep, that’s pretty bad and pretty tame.  Call me chicken.

The thing is, though, a lot of humour is about our bodies and sexuality. When we first started talking about laughter this month, we explored humour’s cultural aspects. Every culture has its own sense of humour, and we know how hard it is to get the jokes when we don’t share the context. I was recently talking about this with one of our elders, and I asked her if she thought there was anything that people found universally funny. “Maybe jokes about sex and the bathroom?” she offered. As one blogger writes, “Bodily functions, are a good subject to turn to when telling a joke to people from a variety of countries. It’s even the subject of the oldest joke known to humanity.” (I’ll let you look it up. Just google, “oldest known joke”.)

Psychologists explain that we often find these things funny because they make us nervous and embarrassed— and yes, at least one study shows that people in the US are more likely to tell sexual jokes than anyone else. But it has struck me how often the stand-up comics I see on popular TV, whether from the US, Canada or the UK, (and probably Québecois humour too) are so focused on bodily functions, including sex — often to the point that it seems as though we are ridiculously disgusted by our bodies and our sexuality. It makes me wonder about our discomfort with our fleshly, fleshy selves.

Of course, this isn’t really anything new. It’s just a modern spin on an ancient problem --  in the West at least. Think of Plato and Aristotle who taught that the physical can never be the ideal. In other words, you could say, the spirit or the soul is better than the real, fleshly body that contains it. The physical, Plato argued, was only an imperfect shadow of the realm of the spirit.

Consider all the religious traditions that have long placed the cultivation of the spirit as something to be nurtured separate from the body. You could call this“disembodied spirituality”` The list is long. There are many traditions that seek to sublimate or suppress our natural human tendencies, our animal instincts, in favour of the transcendent. Both Christian and Buddhist nuns and monks explain that they take vows of celibacy in order to focus on the transformative that rises above earthly desire.

The Hindu ascetic tradition of Brahmanism calls for a denial of all bodily comfort in order to transcend samsara, the continual dying and rebirth of reincarnation; in other words, to ultimately escape being in a body of any kind. Early Christianity, Taoism and Sufism all had ascetic traditions of bodily denial. Early Buddhist accounts described the body as “a repulsive source of suffering, of nirvana as the end of bodily senses and desires.” In much of Christian and Islamic tradition, the hereafter is considered immeasurably more important than the physical world.

In the twelfth century, the Rabbi Moses Maimonides wrote, “Make no mistake, you have the potential to greatness, your soul, which is incorporeal, knows only the Divine, but it is placed in a body which is turgid and dark and weak with all kinds of carnal desires. It is because of the flesh that you sin, it is because of the flesh that you err.” John Calvin said basically the same thing several hundred years later.

There is a long history of Christian perspectives on the body as the source of humanity’s spiritual downfall. Think of Adam and Eve being banished from the Garden of Eden to suffer a bodily existence that includes the introduction of pain in child birth. Think of the virgin birth, or the cardinal sins that include lust and gluttony.  

Even one of our great UU heroes, William Ellery Channing, who led the Unitarian movement in North America in the early 19th century, was a great believer in physical denial. He was often mortified by his own “shameful passions” and spent hours doing the equivalent of push-ups and taking cold showers. The early North American Unitarians, reacting to the evangelical and charismatic fervour of the Great Awakening (the second one), were wary of passion of any kind. They preferred the life of the mind.

Somehow it would seem that in most religious traditions, the body is a hindrance in attaining an ultimate connection with the divine. You can’t get there until you let it all go. Then again, (as Jorge N. Ferrer, professor of religious psychology, writes,) there are plenty of examples of embodied spirituality within the same religious traditions that appear to be disembodied. Consider the biblical creation of the human being in the “image of God”, or “the Word become flesh,” or certain traditions of Buddhism that strive to attain Buddha-hood within “this very body,” or the Jewish religious traditions that include prayers for all bodily needs, or the radical embrace of sensuality in the Sufi poetry of Rumi or Hafiz — to name a few from a very long and sometimes esoteric list. Add to this list the many Indigenous expressions of spirituality that place the body in the centre, from smudging to sweat lodges, to sun dances.

I wonder how often we, in our post-modern understanding of Unitarian Universalism, still live with this dichotomy of body and soul. I keep getting this sci-fi image of humans who have become brains that really don’t need or care about their bodies. We love to talk, to argue, to debate. In worship, we love the word, but to be physical, to move, to dance, to use our bodies, that challenges us.

I’ve often been in awe of those traditions that do have clear rituals for all aspects of life — and this is something that can be dangerous to say in our context. In orthodox Jewish tradition, for example, women separate themselves during their menstrual periods. How sexist and terrible we might say, but how beautiful it can be to allow for a special recognition of the body’s cycles. In Islam, Muslims pray five times a day in a very physical way. This can seem so foreign to us, this idea of submitting to God by kneeling and bowing multiple times.

Shoshanna asks, ”What would it mean to see the body not as something to be transcended as we attain spirituality, but as something transcendent in itself?” There’s an assumption here that we are a people seeking spiritual transcendence. But if we are caught in our very rational minds, where is there room to honour, to celebrate, and to love the bodies we have been given and to see them as something transcendent in themselves?

There are traditions that do see the body and spirit as whole. Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson writes that there is a “stream of Jewish thought [that] has always insisted that the spiritual manifests precisely through bodies, that people are not disembodied spirits; we are basar ve-dam, flesh and blood, an inextricable fusion that constitutes God's crowning glory. These sages taught that body and soul are interlocking aspects of a full mature human being and that both of them are necessary vehicles for holiness and godliness in the world. As transcendent as aspects of God may be, much of God is also immanent. God is to be found in each and every flower, in every breath of air you take, in the people who are sitting next to you, and in a world that God has made for us. ‘The world laughs in flowers,’ says Ralph Waldo Emerson.” Yes, that’s the rabbi quoting Emerson.

The rabbi also writes, “It is said in … the Talmud, "Rabbi Elazar said, [people] should always see [themselves] as if holiness resided within [their] intestines." Imagine how the world would be and how we would treat our bodies if God were encountered not only in immaculate cleanliness, but in the really earthy objects through which we live our lives. What if we trained ourselves to value the holiness of our intestines?” (I love this.)

Or, as Salman al-Oadah writes about the relationship of the body to the soul in Islam, “What worth does the body have without the soul? It is a mere corpse, no matter how powerfully or beautifully it is constructed. If the soul departs from it, it becomes a wasted husk.  Its beauty can only be realized in partnership with the soul.” He adds that prayer, fasting, charity and the Haj can all be shallow physical practices if body and soul are not fully engaged.

I think also of Indigenous spiritual practices that always connect physical ritual with the Great Spirit and the Great Circle that connect all things

But what if you strip God, the Great Spirit or the soul out of spiritual practice? What if you strip out the prayer that gives thanks for the holiness in our intestines? What if you live without proscribed bodily rituals? How do you then perceive the body as transcendent?

This is our challenge. I submit that we are as easily embarrassed and uncomfortable with an embodied spirituality as we are with a disembodied spirituality. We have work to do here! If we seek transcendence, then we may need to seek meaning that connects with our bodily functions and actions. We may need to create our own physical rituals that have some greater purpose beyond the physical actions.

I could easily say that of course we can live a spirituality that celebrates the body as much as the mind. Just engage your body more. Be thankful for all that it does for you. Be mindful of its beauty, of the amazing way in which we are created and formed, how uniquely we become who we are. Say a prayer of thanksgiving for everything your body does, right down to your intestines and allow yourself to be aware of every molecule that holds you together. Feel the vibration of the universe that envelops you. Be grounded in this form, feel the ground beneath you, feel the air around you. Laugh. Love. Sing. Take action and do justice in the real, physical world.

But that’s the easy answer, and it doesn’t really work for me. Whether I focus on all spirit and no body or all body and no spirit, I’m left thirsting for something more. This is my where my crises of faith most often lie. I crave a spirituality that is fully integrated, body and soul. I know it’s going to take more than a lifetime to get there.

So I’ll ask you what I recently asked myself, “When was the last time that you just let yourself go crazy and danced with abandon?” Because that’s my God-spot, the place where the physical meets the divine. And if you can’t dance, when was the last time that you let yourself be surrounded by other dancing bodies, like my dear beloved Jane, holding onto her oxygen tank and smiling as if she were the most transcendent being ever to live?

Jane, this one’s for you:

What do you call somebody with no body and just a nose?
Nobody knows!

Thank you for joining me in the mystery.
Amen. Blessed Be. Namasté.

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