by Jane E. Vennard

When I was a child I didn’t think about my body; I simply lived in it. Running and jumping and skipping, mountain hikes with my family and playing in the ocean’s waves were simply glorious. What was there to think about? I didn’t express gratitude for my body. I didn’t judge it when my first attempts to ride a two-wheeler knocked me to the ground. I just got up and tried again. I remember the feeling of wonder as I was finally able to ride to the end of the block. I remember thinking, “If I can do this I can do anything!”

What changed? Why did I begin to think about my body? When did I start to compare my body to others and always come up lacking? I think it was when I saw pictures in magazines and heard my friends and relatives talk. They always referred to the bodies of others, not their intelligence or about how well-read they were. They did not describe their kindness or their creativity. It was always their bodies: “She has such a pretty face. Too bad she is fat.” “She is so tall; it will be hard to find a boyfriend.” “His acne ruins his good-looking face.” “She is so wrinkled for her young age. I hope I never look like that.” “She is so beautiful; it puts the rest of us to shame.”

Gradually I learned to think about my body not with pride or pleasure, but with judgment. I compared my body to those of others and wished I could look like them (or was thankful I didn’t). There were strict standards for beauty in our culture, and I never measured up. I wore glasses and believed the old saying that “men never make passes at girls who wear glasses.” I became self-conscious and tried to dress in ways that hid what I thought of as my flaws. Once when my sister was cutting my hair, she cut it shorter and shorter as she tried to make the sides even. I thought my hair was so awful that I stayed home from school for three days, embarrassed to be seen.

Our bodies are holy

This critical view of my body lasted well into my 30s when I had an epiphany. I was at a week-long women’s workshop called “Liberation from Within.” On the last night of the gathering, we all went down to the hot baths hanging on the edge of the cliffs. We were invited to go down, take off our clothes and soak in the nude. I was terrified. What would people think of my naked body?

I was one of the last ones in, clinging to my towel as long as I could before slipping quietly into the pool. As the warm water soothed me, I slowly began to look around. There were women sitting on the edge of the tubs talking and laughing. Others were alone and submerged with delicate smiles on their faces. More women came into the baths, greeting each other, joining the fun.  The place was filled with naked women, all ages, shapes and sizes. They had long and short hair of all colors. One woman was bald. Some women had scars and stretch marks while others were unmarked. As I looked I was struck by how beautiful they were—all of them, including me! I rose up out of the water willing to be seen. As the light breeze caressed my skin, I realized I had been set free.

Since I was biblically illiterate at the time, I had no idea that my experience was contained in Christian scriptures. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 6:19, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?” When I found that passage in seminary, my epiphany in the baths expanded. My body was not only beautiful; it was holy.

Self-care as prayer

Over the years I began to experience the connection between body and soul, body and spirit. I explored and wrote about the ways our senses help us to pray by recognizing the presence of God in our world. I am reminded of the presence of God when I hear children laughing. I am reminded of the presence of God when I see acts of kindness. I am reminded of the presence of God when I am embraced with a comforting hug. Remembering my body has become a way for me to pray. Intentional movements that draw me into praise or supplication deepen my prayer practices. Learning movements for the Lord’s Prayer allow me to feel the wonder of these familiar words. I realize that care of my body is prayer—a spiritual practice in itself. I need to honor my body just as it is. I need to treat it as a special friend.

This awareness has become particularly important as I age. My body has changed. It looks different. I am not as strong as I was. I have less energy. Healing from an illness takes longer. I hear many older people bemoaning these alterations, wishing they were stronger, agonizing over grey hair and wrinkles, longing for the energy they had when they were younger. “I just want the energy I had before my surgery last year,” an 80-year old spiritual directee told me. She said it so often that one day I gently said: “I wonder if you can accept that you will never again have that much energy. Your surgery was serious and now you are two years older. The energy you have today is all you are going to have.” I am now trying to listen to my own words of wisdom!

Wishing for more energy is not helpful because it takes us away from the present moment back into the past and then into the future. We want for the future what we had in the past. Yet our spiritual practice is to live in that present moment, working with what we have. We need to become good stewards of our energy, discerning what do with the energy we have. Less energy requires us to spend it wisely, changing old patterns of rushing about, keeping busy and accepting too many invitations and opportunities to serve. Did it ever occur to you that saying “no” is a spiritual practice?

Another complaint I hear from many people my age involves the time they spend going to doctors rather than attending to their spiritual practices. Might that trip to the doctor be a spiritual practice? Those visits are one way we honor our bodies, helping them to be the very best temples they can be.

All of us are beautiful, all made in the image of God; different shapes and sizes, different ages, different abilities. All our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. We are called to honor them, treat them with kindness and accept them just the way they are. When we remember to treat our bodies gently, we are engaging in a spiritual practice. We are being faithful to the wisdom of Paul in his letter to the church in Corinth.

The Rev. Jane Vennard is senior adjunct faculty at the Iliff School of Theology and author of  Praying with Body and Soul and Fully Awake and Truly Alive: Spiritual Practices to Nurture Your Soul.

This article is from the November 2017 issue of Gather magazine. To read the full story or more like it, subscribe to Gather.