The Marvelous Gift of the Body

Caryatid who has fallen under her stone by Auguste Rodin

“It is customary to speak of “the indomitable human spirit” as that which carries man through crises like this, but the body surely merits more attention than it usually gets. Not the trained, beautifully conditioned body of the athlete, but the weak, underfed, and ordinary body with which we are all endowed. It was under the daily regimen of work to exhaustion in the camps, under the constant torture of hunger and cold, through hurt and pain, distress and disease, weariness beyond all comprehension and endurance, beyond belief, that I came truly to understand and appreciate the catechism truth that man is a creature composed of body and soul.

[. . .]

What came to me in the prison camps was a tremendous respect and love for the poor old body. It was a body that bore the brunt of all the suffering, though the soul might well experience anguish. And it was the body that had to sustain you, for all the strength of will and determination a man might have. It was the body that felt the sting of the wind, the bite of the cold, the cramp of aching muscles, the raw lash of cracked and bleeding flesh, the gnawing agony of hunger in the belly, the soreness and numbness of overtaxed sinews. Frostbite and stomach rumblings, swollen feet, running eyes, chapped lips and battered knuckles, sprains and cramps, and aches and bruises– all these the body patiently endured through the long, long days of labor in the driving snow or freezing rain or spring muck of the Far North, and yet somehow it always managed to get you through one more day. It was the body that underwent the suffering, felt the agony, and carried the heavy weight across its shoulders of this daily passion and slow death of inhuman work. I had always in many ways taken the body for granted. As a youth, I had played at many sports and excelled in some, like baseball and boxing. I had been a scrapper/ I had always wanted to outdo everyone, to be the best, be the strongest. I could take punishment, and I could dish it out. During my early years in religious life, I had even tried to outdo the legends of the saints in fastings and penances of every sort. But I did it not so much as to punish the body or attain perfection, as to prove to the world and to myself how tough I was. Yet it was only now, when each day ended in exhaustion and the body cried out for every extra minute of rest, every little respite from work, every extra crumb of food, that I came to appreciate the marvelous gift of life God had given man in the resources of the human body.

The intimacy that exists between soul and body is a marvel of creation and a mystery of human existence. Yet we do wrong to think because the soul will be judged after death while the body crumbles in the grave, that this mortal handful of dust is any less a gift of God, any less noble or beautiful than the immortal soul. It is in the body that we exist and work out our salvation. It is in the body that we see and take delight in the beauties of God’s created universe, and in the body that we ourselves bear the marks of Christ’s passion. The mysterious interplay of body and soul is an essential characteristic of our human nature.

[. . .]

What we tend to forget, though, is the very folksy truth that God by his Incarnation took on a human body. We don’t often stop to reflect on the most basic meaning of this doctrine: that God, too, knows exactly how it feels to be cold, or tired, or hungry, or sore with pain, because he, too, has had a body.

[. . .]

In the Incarnation God came to know for himself what a thing is the life of man, what a work of his hands is this creature composed of body and soul. From the dark of the womb to the black of the tomb, through childhood to manhood and the last, slow long-drawn-out agony of dying, he has known for himself what it means to live in a handful of clay, to feel the cool touch of mother’s hand on fevered flesh, to tasted the salt of sweat and tears, to hear music and birdsong and the vilest of insults, to stumble and fall, be bruised and mangled and torn. He cried out, at last, as have all of us at one time or another, to be spared any more burdens or suffering. The Incarnation, in short, meant that God became man, like us in all things, says Saint Paul, except sin.

[. . .]

Just as his resurrection is our victory and triumph over death but does not mean we do not have to die, so his passion has redeemed our suffering but does not mean we do not have to suffer or feel pain. Yet his example has taught us how to look upon our suffering in a new way and so to look upon our body in a new light.”

from He Leadeth Me by Walter Ciszek, S.J.

I don’t remember reading this chapter my first time through this book. I guess it didn’t make a very strong impression. Or maybe it was just that I read the book while in the middle of my own physical endurance challenge of the first trimester of pregnancy and so it didn’t quite hit long-term memory. But this time it really floored me.

It’s funny considering that I didn’t remember that my first time through was when I was pregnant with Lucy that as I read this chapter last night I was thinking of the way pregnancy has made me aware of my body as nothing else has or could. Body as gift, body as a marvelous creation. Both my body in its capacity to give life, to nourish and protect new life as it grows, and the marvelous life that grows so perfectly, so hidden, the complete person unknown but nonetheless beloved and cherished.

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