catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 5 :: 2011.03.11 — 2011.03.24


The weight of dust

I don’t dust often, but when I do, I remember something I heard somewhere, at some point: that dust is primarily composed of dead skin.  From dust we were created, as we’re reminded on Ash Wednesday, but the return to such stuff isn’t only in the future; it’s always already in progress.  Every swipe across the bookshelves with an orange-scented cleaning rag is occasion to remember, as are the more serious reminders: illness, disability, death.

I understand the need to emphasize our ephemeral nature.  We are, after all, short-lived creatures.  Whether rich or poor, strong or weak, we’re all destined to become food for worms.  And yet, our detachment from the flesh can go too far.

Based in a small Michigan town, Thomas Lynch is a writer and funeral director who has equally strong opinions about both art and undertaking.  In one essay called “Gladstone,” he takes to task those well-intentioned folks who would seek to assuage the aggrieved by emphasizing the body’s insignificance as “just a shell.”  He writes,

…To suggest in the early goings of grief that a body is “just” anything rings as tinny in its attempt to minimalize it as it would if we were to say it was “just” a bad hair day when the girl went bald from her chemotherapy.  Or that our hope for heaven on her behalf was based on the belief that Christ raised “just” a body from the dead.  What if, rather than crucifixion, he’d opted for suffering low self-esteem for the remission of sins?  What if, rather than “just a shell,” he’d raised his personality, or The Idea of Himself?  Do you think they’d have changed the calendar for that?  Done the Crusades?  Burned witches?  Easter was a body and blood thing, no symbols, no euphemisms, no half measures.  If he’d raised anything less, of course, as Paul points out, the deacon and several others of us would be out of business or back to Saturday Sabbaths, a sensible diet and no more Christmas.

Lynch recognizes that an appropriate view of the body isn’t just a matter of having the right thing to say at a funeral, but a profoundly theological matter that relates to our biggest questions about where we come from, where we’re going and what is the substance of our salvation.  Barbara Brown Taylor, another rurally-based essayist, takes on these questions, especially the last, in her book An Altar in the World.  She writes,

What is saving my life now is the conviction that there is not spiritual treasure to be found apart from the bodily experiences of human life on earth.  My life depends on engaging the most ordinary physical activities with the most exquisite attention I can give them.  My life depends on ignoring all touted distinctions between the secular and the sacred, the physical and the spiritual, the body and the soul.  What is saving my life now is becoming more fully human, trusting that there is no way to God apart from real life in the real world.

As Brown Taylor goes on to explore in her book, beyond what we believe, our theology of the body has very real consequences for what we do.  Our walking, our driving, our dining, our resting, our lovemaking, our learning: all of the things we do in this world compose the very substance of who we are, no more and no less.  And all of our efforts to rise above this earth through so-called “spiritual” activities will never make us anything other than human, which opens up a very embodied vision for human wholeness lived out before God in very everyday things.  As Brown Taylor writes, “Anything can become a spiritual practice once you are willing to approach it in that way—once you let it bring you to your knees and show you what is real, including who you really are, who other people are, and how near God can be when you have lost your way.”

The Creator God is one who activated human pleasure and calling, and the Redeemer God is one who is with us in our suffering, not symbolically, as Lynch points out, but in person.  In every practice from dusting our own skin off the nightstand to burying the body of our beloved, there’s the potential to recognize the Sustaining face of God, whose breath brings life out of the mud and resurrected bodies out of the grave.

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