Tara and I spent a wonderful lunch together in Denver over a year ago and, yes, we totally talked about Doctor Who. But she also poured out her dream and her process for this very book. It was a long road to see it come to light and I believe it’s a powerful book for our time.
Tara is a marvellous woman: trust worthy, strong. If I had a spiritual director, I’d want her to be someone like Tara. Considering the damaging theology that some espouse, claiming that our souls or minds are more important or more spiritual than our bodies, this book seeks to reclaim the body in Christian theology, language, and practice. Wise, erudite, loving and tender, Embracing the Body will bring true healing and wholeness to our theology of our physical bodies as a church. Tara Owens is the perfect guide for this holy journey. I’m excited to introduce you to this book and also give away two copies!
Bristled. Burnished and brown. Baby-soft. With each cheek, I pressed my lips in deeper. With each person I became a little bolder. I looked into eyes shining with hope, heads bowed with heaviness. I wrapped my arms around those who were weary. I stood in tip-toed excitement to receive each one.
Earlier that morning, I was conscripted, deputized as a makeshift monk. In this community of artists and wanderers that I had called home for the week, I was asked to be a stand in for the holy. I listened carefully as our chaplain explained what I was to do. In a blessing of these who bring beauty into the world, each would approach with a request. In the manner of the pilgrims to the Greek Mount Athos, also known as the Holy Mountain, on approaching a monk, the traveler would call out, “Bless me.” In return, I would acknowledge what already is—that they are chosen and called by God—by responding, “The LORD blesses you.”
“Then,” my chaplain said, “we will kiss them.”
I struggle to find words for the joy that sang through me on hearing those words. The surge of delight I felt was disproportionate, sudden and thrilling. While I recognize that most people, when faced with the prospect of kissing the cheeks of more than fifty near-strangers, would not be filled with excitement, I’ve been thinking, teaching, wrestling with and writing about the wonder of embodiment for more than six years.
In today’s context, we’re rarely given the opportunity to touch others in blessing, let alone get close enough to kiss them. But the act of embodying love, of reaching out of our imperfect, sweaty, awkward humanity to touch the trembling, holy, grace-infused stuff of another is a place of sacrament. As I touch you with my lips, I give form to love. As I lean close to bless, we insist together on the holiness of creation—even as we feel and know its limitations and vulnerabilities.
I’ve blessed people with oil before, marking them gently with the sign of the cross. I’ve rested hands on bowed heads, pressed my palm over a heart. I’ve supported cupped hands as they asked for God to fill them with His love. Until this particular day, I’d never kissed others in blessing, only in greeting, and then only with the anxious fumble of one who grew up in a culture devoid of these ritual greetings. Do I kiss once? Twice? Three times? I never know.
But now I am the moment’s monk. As each artist, each pilgrim comes with their brave petition—Bless me—and I unconsciously move toward them, grasping their shoulders, holding them in the surety of grace—The LORD blesses you—I am the one kissed by love.
Assured of our common humanity, the tenderness of skin and lips and hope and blessing, I have embodied Christ, watched Him spill out of others and into me. I have fallen in love again and again with each face, and the kissing has become a needful thing, something that is right and good and true. It is a reversal of Judas’s betrayal, and embodiment of not my will but thine be done, and a release into all that they are and all that I am and all that God is in and between and through us.
This is how we begin to create community with our bodies. Not with kissing (although there is great wisdom to be gained in reflecting on Paul’s suggestion to greet one another with a holy kiss—Rom. 16:15, 1 Cor. 16:20, 2 Cor. 13:21, 1 Thess 5:25, 1 Peter 5:14), but with an attentive awareness of the tenderness of our very selves, the softness of flesh, the hope of movements toward redemption, the aching flaws of bodies that age and ail.
What would it mean to attend to one another’s bodies as if they were our own to receive and bless? Not objects to control, but members of ourselves, whose gifts and griefs are as real as our own. To make safe spaces for the grace of touch—a kiss, a clasp, a hand on a shoulder or arms that encircle—is to create a culture of body that embraces mystery and material together. These spaces, held open at once by our God and our bodies, speak safety—I see you, I feel you, you can relax now, you are safe—and incarnate the presence of God, whose love can move through us to bring healing and wholeness.
This is the kneeling of the body of Christ, together as a community. In kneeling, in blessing, we put ourselves in the most vulnerable position possible. We expose ourselves to hurt, we risk betrayal. We open the softest parts of our flesh to others and the world, and we do it with radical trust not that we will be saved from hurt, but that God will move through our vulnerability to bring the power of Christ into the world. This is the kneeling of Christ in Gesthemane, a kneeling not for himself but for the redemption of all, an opening of a way of return to the One who loves us all the way to death.
This is the risk we must take with our bodies, our selves. We must offer a hand to the one we fear to touch, a shoulder to the one whose load seems impossible to bear. These aren’t metaphors, we have to get up and move, to let sweat and smell make us uncomfortable, let words become meals shared and savored, let the promised prayers become bedside vigils beside the cots of the dying.
This isn’t a list of things to do, another heavy requirement of a life of holiness. It’s isn’t anything further from you than the next deep breath, the way the air fills your lungs and oxygen rushes through your arteries to sustain life. We are meant to live this incarnate life together, and, however dysfunctionally we do so, it is the togetherness that lets the blood of Christ flow freely, doing what our own blood does so well: it brings sustaining energy, washes us of what is wasteful; it gives us rhythm and movement, maintains warmth and holds us open to what is needed; it defends against what will infect, closing wounds so that the life within can heal and make new.
These are things to recognize in our life with Christ and with one another, not manufacture. The wonder of kneeling, of blessing, is that it is something that we receive instead of produce, it is not what we earn but what we make known.
Tara M. Owens, CSD is the author of Embracing the Body: Finding God In Our Flesh & Bone, published by InterVarsity Press. She’s a spiritual director with Anam Cara Ministries, and the senior editor of Conversations Journal. She lives with her husband, Bryan, their daughter, Seren, and their rescue dog, Hullabaloo, in Colorado. She loves Doctor Who, red velvet cupcakes, and Jesus, not necessarily in that order.
Leave a comment on this post for a chance to win one of two copies of Tara’s book. And a pot of homemade Meyer Lemon curd because Tara is awesome like that.