Your Body has a Story: Narrative Repair as Spiritual Practice

When I was thirteen, I crashed on a tumbling pass at gymnastics practice. The injury to my left elbow was severe. During my grueling recovery, I was frustrated with my seemingly slow progress back to health. The doctor decided to tell me that in the emergency room, he almost had to amputate my arm. The dislocated limb had cut off blood flow to my hand, and they struggled to revive my pulse. I could have one arm, but, against the odds, I have two. 

The new piece of information didn’t change the trauma to my elbow. It changed the story I told about my elbow trauma. And that changed my life. To this day, I live as embodied gratitude, knowing that my left arm is a gift. 

Ever since that moment in the clinic, I have reflected on, crafted, and told my body’s story. I see this process as spiritual practice. I see it as one pathway to a more embodied faith and life.

My body has a story, and it’s part of God’s story. 

Pádraig Ó Tuama says our world is “interested in being comforted by the damp blanket of bad stories.” He goes on to call for, conversely, “stories of belonging that move us towards each other, not from each other; ways of being alive together.” He boldly wagers, “This is what will save us. This is the work of peace. This is the work of imagination.” God’s story, Christ’s story, our stories are great stories. Weaving the stories of our bodies into the fabric of our faith with imagination for peace sounds quite a bit like the work of the church to me. 

My newest book, The Embodied Path, is a book born out of the story of my elbow and how it changed my faith life. It is a book of body stories that work to deepen our belonging and our sense of being alive. In our often-disembodied church and society, claiming our bodies and sharing their stories can bring narrative repair to individuals and communities. 

Embodied spirituality is biblical. The creation of our bodies took time and contemplation, mud, and breath. God knit us together in our mother’s wombs, one cell at a time. In Genesis 1, God creates humans in God’s image, looks at them and calls them very good. God takes on a body in Jesus and becomes fully human. The Word becomes flesh. 

In the Gospels we see Jesus building a body-centered ministry, healing and restoring bodies with compassion and mercy. He understands how the Empire values some bodies and crushes others. He weeps and bleeds. Power seeps from his spit. On the cross, Jesus feels abandonment by God in his body as he dies. Then Jesus’ body resurrects, finds his friends, and allows Thomas to explore his fleshy wounds. 

So why is the church so afraid of bodies? And how can inhabiting our bodies more deeply be a courageous act of faith? 

Greek culture used to think of the human body as a source of admiration and pleasure. That shifted with Plato and the Stoics, who deeply influenced Western thought, including the formation of the early Christian Church. Stoics were skeptical of the body, valuing lack of passion as the highest virtue. The mind’s job was to control the body and suppress emotion. Plato said sacred love was that of the immortal soul, and profane love was that of the body. He did not believe the senses inform the soul. 

Mind–body dualism considers the body something to be transcended. Self-control, lack of emotion, living in the mind, and denying the body became the goal of spiritual enlightenment and divine favor. As James B. Nelson writes in Embodiment, “Women are identified with the body, and men with spirit.” The highest place in society was held by elite males– politicians, and philosophers– who worked in the mind. Women and laborers were inferior, bleeding, breastfeeding, and working in the body. 

Plato and the Stoic’s influenced the Church fathers like Jerome, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin, who were skeptical of their libido as one example of their bodies overriding their minds. Fear-driven lists of thou shall nots and cardinal sins abounded, leading to repression and suppression of the body. A Christian ethic that celebrated suffering, self-denial, and self-control was born and lives on. We could not be too loud or take up too much space. Pleasure and desire were stifled. Bodies were seen as unruly things to be controlled. This dualism remains alive today in our mind-over-matter mentality. 

Yet mind–body dualism is simply not working. Our bodies are wise, and we can only override their signals for so long. Trauma happens to our bodies, so that is also where the healing needs to happen. By inhabiting our messy, powerful bodies, we can contend with both the trauma that has happened to us and the trauma we have inherited. When we love and tend to the bodies we have been given, when we use our senses and bask in what our bodies can do, we honor our creator. Living in and from our bodies is a prayer of thanksgiving for life. 

We can cultivate an embodied faith practice that stands in opposition to mind–body dualism. Once a day, take three slow, conscious breaths as prayer. Our breath can deepen the connection between our minds and our bodies and between our inner lives and the world around us. Feel the Spirit moving in and through you. 

Once a day, move your body with great attentiveness as prayer. Hold your coffee mug with both hands and close your eyes. Step outside and shine your face at the sun. Lay with your legs up against the wall and allow the floor to hold you up. Remember you have a body and give thanks. 

Set aside some time to do reflective writing about your body. Choose a body part and write some memories that you have around that body part over the years. Take some time to thank your body and appreciate it. What is your body’s story?

These simple practices are a place to start. Grab The Embodied Path and accompanying Faith Guide. Work through it with folks in your life and in your faith community. Check in with your body and allow it to tell its story as spiritual practice and narrative repair. The more moments we can show up embodied, the more hope we have of living into healing and wholeness in our communities and churches. 

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