catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 13 :: 2005.07.01 — 2005.07.14


Meat, spirit, strawberry, Terri Schiavo

Clicking around the Internet a couple of days ago, I read a blog entry about Terri Schiavo?s recently-released autopsy report by a person I can usually count on disagreeing with. It was basically evasions and name-calling and grasping at straws?the writer picked up on sentences that the person writing the report had made in the interests of total accuracy, and inflated them into a sort of admission that Mrs. Schiavo could have been A) still conscious and B) ushered into her diminished condition by her husband. For example, the autopsy report stated an examination of Mrs. Schiavo?s bones seemed to rule out that they?d been broken; however, it went on to note that osteoporosis had changed the bones? composition, and the only way to be completely certain of their original condition would be to look at scans taken before the osteoporosis developed. The bloggist took this as confirmation that Mr. Schiavo?s violence against his wife was covered up by osteoporosis. And when it came to the meat of the report, the disturbing (or confirming, depending on your preconceptions) revelation that Mrs. Schiavo?s brain had atrophied to half the size of a healthy woman?s, the bloggist, who began her post bragging she?d read all 39 pages of the autopsy report, danced away from the report altogether, quoting people who opposed removing the feeding tube as saying they didn?t believe in such a thing as a persistent vegetative state, and that there was a distinct possibility that even with her diminished capacity, poor Terri could still have suffered pain and agony when the feeding tube was removed.

Beneath all the yelling and belligerent certainty that was, and is, encamped around Mrs. Schiavo?s unhappy story there lay a truly puzzling question about the mind-body-spirit split, one that didn?t play out along expected lines. One of the traditional religious ways to think about body and spirit is to see humanity as ghosts encased in meat?our wispy souls inhabit these gross, lumbering bodies for a time before being snatched away by gracious death to dwell forever in spiritual bliss. The other view is more materialistic?human beings are meat all the way down. If the meat is no longer living, the human being ceases to exist?whatever it is that makes us tear up at sentimental movies or surrender the last helping of banana pudding we?d really been jonesing for to our sister or fall in love is not extractable. Once the meat is gone, the person is gone. For good.

What was curious about the Schiavo controversy is that people who had the fiercest convictions seemed to have switched sides. The almost-invariably religious people who were adamantly against removing the feeding tube came across as believing physical death would utterly destroy Mrs. Schiavo?as far as I know, nobody in that camp made reference to the spirit at all. Improbable as it seems, it was the people who supported removing the feeding tube who talked about the mercy of freeing Mrs. Schiavo?s long-suffering spirit from her suffering, atrophied body or speculated that her spirit had departed from her body years before.

This unexpected turn of events illustrates how complicated our feelings about the borders between mind, body, and spirit can be, particularly when we aren?t raging against people we feel are monstrous and inhuman. Even those of us who feel the personality is in some way detachable?the essence of who we are will survive the death of our bodies and persist eternally?may feel a bit confused and uncertain when we hear about personality changes that stem from physical causes: the demure, religious young woman who, following a head injury, becomes a hard-drinking, promiscuous party girl; the life-long deacon whom Alzheimer?s changes into someone foul-mouthed and ill-tempered. If the spirit exists independently of the body, how can it be altered by mere physiological changes? Could the materialists be right to believe personality is shaped by the chemistry of mind and body rather than eternal, ethereal spirit, that to believe otherwise is to be pathetically deluded meat?

It?s no wonder, then, that many Christians over the centuries have simply jetisonned the body altogether. The president of this movement would probably be Bishop Berkley, who took the daring step of throwing the entire material world overboard as well?for Berkley, what we take to be the world, and the body, is actually a series of sense impressions God funnels into the individual spirit, like a mother bird feeding babies in her nest. Berkley is the uncredited grandfather of the movie The Matrix and maybe a distant cousin to many of the denominations and sects who think disease is an illusion curable only by prayer. Certainly traces of his thought can be found in contemporary evangelicalism: a lot of us prefer to behave as though the body doesn?t exist. We don?t ever want to talk about sex?try bringing up the subject the next time you?re with a group of evangelical friends?and the attitude many churches promote toward eating suggests we think food gets teleported into the void as soon as we swallow. We know fellowship dinners and coffee cakes feed the spirit, but we haven?t quite made the connection between eating and obesity, heart disease, diabetes, etc.

Even if we concede that, yes, it?s possible the body might actually exist, we still don?t have to like it. The logical response to the belief the spirit will live forever is to prefer the immortal spirit to the insubstantial body, prone as it is to death, starvation, drowning, immolation, cancer, heart disease, stroke, tuberculosis, leprosy, arthritis, migraines, shingles, shin splints, acid reflux, that fungus that attacks your toenails, erectile dysfunction, athletes? foot, psoriasis, pink eye, and a weakness for strippers and cheap tequila. And yet the writers of the epistles don?t take a particularly pro or anti-body stand. True, Saint Paul remarks that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, but he also insists that we glorify God with our bodies, whatever that might mean. He clearly has no patience for efforts to debase the body in order to glorify the spirit?he condemns sex with temple prostitutes, as though there?s no wall of separation between the pure spirit and the meat that imprisons it. Don?t you know your body is the sanctuary of the Holy Spirit? he asks us. And the answer most of us would give is, no, it really isn?t quite as obvious as you make it sound. There seems to be every reason in the world to cherish and worship the body, and there also seems to be every reason to hate it and abuse it and wish it would go away. Could you draw us a picture of the relationship between flesh and spirit, maybe with a pie chart or two? And don?t forget to include a couple of paragraphs of instructions, maybe with a clause about how to treat people who are in a persistent vegetative state. A full sentence would be even better.

This is the point where I?m supposed to provide that moment of clarity and guide the readers who haven?t already abandoned the essay to some kind of rational, intellectually satisfying insight. I don?t know if I?m ready for that, though. The idea that the spirit merely inhabits and controls the body, like a kid in a giant robot in a Japanese cartoon, doesn?t seem quite right to me?I remember reading something to the effect that I don?t just have a body, I am a body, and that struck me as insightful. Scripture suggests my experience of eternal life will be physical as well as spiritual?I?m baffled as to how this works, but apparently being resurrected involves a spanking new body, not just the spirit escaping from its mortal prison. This seems connected to my realization that physical activity affects my personality, the aspect of myself I?d generally associate with the spirit: I?m most pessimistic whenever I?ve gone a few days without exercising. And there have been moments during songs or sermons or prayers when my body and spirit have participated together in a spiritual insight, a physical sensation of thrill that radiates from the back of my head down my spine. On the other hand, I can?t say I really live as if I believe something about my body is eternal. I weigh about 100 pounds more than I did when I graduated from high school, and one of the reasons I got that way is that I?m not really conscious of my body: it might as well be just a vehicle that carries my mind around from place to place. I suspect that isn?t the ideal Christian approach.

Strawberries were on sale this week, and I was picking through one of the cartons we bought the other day, sampling. I ate a couple that were fine?white on the inside, a little sour, with an al dente bite?and then I tasted the perfect strawberry. It was sweet and tart and melting and fragrant, and, even though I?ve scorched most of the taste buds on the front part of my tongue with black coffee and hot pizza, it filled my mouth with color and sound. For a couple of seconds, the puzzle of body, mind, and spirit made sense to me: strawberry pulp on the living tongue wouldn?t have meant much without the mind to ponder, and spirit, whose function usually baffles me, seemed the catalyst, the essential element to fuse body and mind together. And the part that wanted to praise.

I can?t blame Terri Schiavo?s parents for looking at their daughter, who was breathing, moving, making sounds and what seemed to be eye contact, and seeing a woman on the verge of waking up. Nor can I blame the husband for looking at her and seeing little more than an animated body: babies born at the time of Schiavo?s accident have now reached the stage in their development where they?re passing the tests to get their drivers? licenses, and the family is still waiting for Terri to make a single, unambiguous effort to communicate. But I hope in the future, when this problem divides another family, in their grief and anger, these people will remember that life is a mystery no medical equipment can accurately measure, intimately connected to the body and yet more than the body. I hope, in their certainty, they?ll look on their afflicted loved one with humility, assaulted by the poverty of their definition of life (I can only imagine my son lying restlessly in that hospital bed, bloated, glazed, head lolling, his each throaty grunt seeming like a blocked attempt to communicate, even if I?m eighty percent convinced they come from his body, not his mind), making any decision with a sick sense of awe and fear, knowing they?re on holy ground, weighing questions that only God can know the answer to, excruciatingly aware of their ignorance and need for grace.

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