Hello, everyone. I appreciate the invitation to blog a bit with you, and apologize for starting later than planned. I took some time last night to look over some of your recent conversation, and was taken with something Jim said recently. Watching someone play a hymn on the piano, he writes that there was â€œsomething about the physical activity combined with the hymn that seemed perfect to me.â€?
Iâ€™ve been struck by similar instances in which a physical act has seemed loaded with far more meaning than merely the accomplishment of a specific task . . . I say â€œmerelyâ€? because I think we so often think of our bodies as mechanical tools, useful for collecting sense data and by means of which our will/mind skoots around. This is the point at which itâ€™s easy to slide into debates about mind-body dualities (or modalities or constantly reintegrating fragments), but Iâ€™ve got something else in mind.
A few days ago, my husband and I were out mountain biking on the trails around Sundance. I was there to have fun, but also to test some gear [digression: I have been searching for the perfect mountain bike pedals â€“ ones that allow me to get my feet out quickly should I need to bail, but which donâ€™t allow my feet to bounce off the pedals on steep and very rocky technical descents. Iâ€™ve literally tried dozens of configurations, from the latest in clipless technology to older styles of clips & straps that havenâ€™t been seen in 20 years. Iâ€™ve been disgruntled with everything]. I had put a pair of â€œbear-trapâ€? pedals on my bike â€“ large, steel pedals shaped like horseshoes (and almost the same size), with giant sharp spikes for gripping shoes. For the first hour I was in bliss. Even on the fastest, wildest descents (rocks, pits, stump-jumping, etc.), my feet stayed firmly planted. And because my feet were without clips or clipless restraints, I could get a foot down at a momentâ€™s notice. Better yet, I was clearly out-performing my husband in both speed and finesse (piratical laugh), and I hit a moment where I was very much in â€œflowâ€?, the place where my body found it possible to accept as an [extension? modulation? integration? expansion?] of itself the bike, the trees, the rocks, the wind. I even had that hyper-attuned awareness that made me look toward sounds (you do have to watch out for leaping deer and the odd stray moose at this time of year) before I was fully aware of them as sounds.
Musicians, dancers, athletes â€“ all have felt that moment of â€œflow.â€? But I have found myself thinking about such experiences in a very specific vein. I am currently working on a Renaissance poem in which a couple of fascinating theological strands are being developed. In overt contrast to contemporary 16th and 17th century Christian doctrines on the place of the body in relation to the Divine Nature and Will (most such insisted on the body as the thing that needs to be transcended), this writer seems to be suggesting that the body is somehow central to certain kinds of spiritual knowledge, and that there is a special form of grace within such imbeddedness, something that transcendence would erase . Christâ€™s spiritual beauty is conceived of as being fully realized only in embodiment, a kind of blooming which made possible the moment of pollenation for eternal life. Given the even more radical LDS position, that God has a body which is somehow central to the continuation of light and truth, I wonder what, exactly, is it that bodies provide by way of spiritual knowledge? There seems to be more at work here than merely matrixes of contrasts (pleasure/pain, etc). While I think we would all agree that the body includes, in a crucial and inescapable sense, oneâ€™s beliefs, habits, and entire context, what enlightenment does it produce? Thatâ€™s the first question Iâ€™m tossing onto the conversational table.
For my second question, let me return to my mountain biking experience. Remember, I said that for the first hour I was in bliss. For the second hour, I should have been in hell. It turns out that the great drawback to the bear-trap pedals is precisely what makes them so great: those giant sharp spikes that jab into the bottom of shoes, holding feet firmly in place on the platform of the pedal.
I donâ€™t usually think of climbing as the dangerous part of any given ride, but on the day Iâ€™m telling you about, there had been rain off and on for hours. The trail was mostly dry, but had these curious places where moisture spread across areas of â€œquicksandâ€? (where hard trail gives way to sinking dust holes that can jarringly slow your momentum). What happens is the moisture on top of such dust holes doesnâ€™t immediately soak into the dirt â€“ it spreads out, and behaves like a sled might on an ice sheet thatâ€™s suddenly sinking. To put it another way, those thousands of water molecules sitting atop the quicksand can momentarily behave like a bucket of bearings (the combo is a function of water molecules spinning and fluffy dust sinking), so when you hit them, even a really grippy tire can slip and slide. So as Iâ€™m powering up and around a sharp turn on a particularly steep bit of trail, I hit this configuration of moisture/quicksand, and my tire slides 3-4 inches to the left . . . which is where the cliff happened to be on this extremely narrow path. I am in mid-leap, hoping to get clear of the bike as I go down, when my brake lever catches my jersey, and the bike and I go down together in a flurry of flying rocks, sticks, and leaves. As you might expect, I was covered in bruises. Worse, I had dozens of superficial slices all over my arms and legs thanks to those spikey pedals. But the most dramatic result consisted of two deep puncture wounds in my right leg, which were bleeding profusely. Nothing was broken, though, so I got up and we continued on. The bleeding soaked my sock, my shoe, and after another twenty minutes of riding had gotten smeared pretty much all over. I was looking dramatically gruesome (teens passing us on the way down were wildly impressed). What is surprising to me is that, given the abruptness with which my â€œflowâ€? experience had been interrupted, the pain in my legs and lower back did not prevent it from returning. In fact, and this is what I find odd, I became even more acutely aware of the details of my surroundings even as I continued to experience that [extension? modulation? integration? expansion?] of my body and its surroundings.
So here is my second question: within a theology that posits bodiliness as part of the Divine Nature, what is the role of pain? What would be lost if pain were lost? What gained? Iâ€™m interested in this partly because of something Paul Brand wrote about when reminiscing about his work with lepers â€“ leprosy is partly a degeneration of pain receptors, resulting in the inability to make judgements about where the body is in space and time (people burn off fingers and toes, donâ€™t realize an infection is eating away at an ear, etc.). Brand points out that there is a sense in which the loss of pain is the loss of entire worlds. C.S. Lewis has a slightly different take on this. What thoughts do you all have?
Heavens! Iâ€™ve gone on much longer than I had intended. To make up for being so long winded, Iâ€™ll keep subsequent blogs to 3-4 sentences.