Ambivalent Embodiment
Ambivalent Embodiment

Ambivalent Embodiment

Lessons from pastors' work in the pandemic.

Appears in Summer 2021

Finding an Anchor

“There’s something funny about the term embodiment, in the sense that it’s already an abstraction,” says Dr. Elizabeth Powell. “By saying ‘yes I’m going to write or think about embodiment’ it’s already saying we’re in a position in which we look at our bodies,” as opposed to being in our bodies. She makes a good point, the irony of which is nearly tragic.

Embodiment is the term we have come up with to refer to the fact that we human beings experience our lives and our selves through our bodies. Everything we do involves our bodies in one way or another. The creation of art, the completion of work, even the generation of thought all require a body. So, too, our bodies are our way of interacting with the world around. No relationship or interaction we have happens without our bodies; they are just about the most concrete, practical, down-to-earth thing about us. So when I said yes, I’m going to write and think about embodiment, I figured I would need an anchor, something to keep me out of the clouds of theory and speculation.

Who better to anchor me than pastors? After all, it has been pastors who have faced the pandemic head-on. They have had to make the decisions: Eucharist? Morning Prayer? In person or online? Shorter sermons or longer homilies? It’s the pastors, of various ranks, who have had to make the on-the-ground and in-the-driver’s-seat decisions about how “church” was going to look in the pandemic. They have done the distanced pastoral visits, the no-contact baptisms, and even the Zoom funerals. They have been the front lines.

But even more deeply, pastors have the task of learning to see what is “really” going on in their congregations. This is something the practical theologians talk about all the time: the leader’s task of discernment. In the middle of a crisis, whether that of an individual or a community, pastors have to “call a thing what it is,” as Luther said. And so I presumed upon the kindness and forbearance of a number of pastors to learn how they “discerned the body” (1 Corinthians 11:29). When the members of their congregations could no longer meet, when the liturgy had to be pared back, when the congregation could not sing—what did all of that mean for the experience of the Christian body?

Discerning the Body

Some pastors have experienced the pandemic as a great and mourn-able loss. The Rev. Jan Ammon has been the minister of the chapel at Princeton Theological Seminary for fifteen years. Before her ordination in the Presbyterian Church (USA), “Saint Jan,” as you will often hear her called, served as a nurse. When the seminary suddenly had to develop a COVID-19 plan in summer 2020, a committee was formed. (God bless them Presbyterians!) “Because of my nursing background, the administration asked me to help coordinate the health response, and I was happy to do it,” she says. Rev. Ammon remembers a phone call at that time from a friend, another pastor. “She asked me how I was doing, and I said, ‘I’m sitting here at my desk, writing guidelines to keep people away from each other and it’s like the complete antithesis to what I believe the ministry is supposed to be.’ It was horrible. It was just a really hard season for me because you knew what it meant to love your neighbor, but yeah . . .”

Soon the fall rolled around. Students “returned” to Princeton Seminary, and the minister of the chapel was still tasked with being their pastor, just now without the traditional instruments: presence, sacred space, communal singing. Dutifully Rev. Ammon has coordinated the daily chapel services (now online and reduced to fifteen minutes). She has taken meetings virtually. But it seems to me like she has had to make bricks without straw when, like a round of Settlers of Catan, everyone is asking for bricks.

This was also true for “Pastor Cass” Bailey. He is the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, a multicultural parish in Charlottesville, Virginia. For a while, they were able to hold outdoor services “till the weather stopped that.” Afterward, services were all online. But for a church whose life is fed by sacraments, there is a felt loss. “We haven’t been able to do baptisms, which is an immensely physical holding of the person who’s being baptized, and doing the sign of the cross with the chrism. . . . I haven’t done a baptism in a while.” The tenderness with which he misses that ritual is moving.

In the meantime, Trinity has tried to find a way to keep the ministry going while “adhering to the requirements of social distancing and all the other stuff. So,” Pastor Cass says, “we have been doing some things with Bread and Roses all along, particularly in the last several weeks, because this is the growing season.” Bread and Roses is the ministry of Trinity’s community garden. This, too, has been affected by the pandemic. “The garden had been this place of community for people. You would do the work of the garden, weeding, et cetera, and sooner or later you start talking to each other.” Now the work needs to be spaced out temporally and physically. It’s hindered the kind of connections that you used to be able to find there with soil under your nails.

Even so, Pastor Cass has a sense that there is an opportunity here. “One of the things that I think this pandemic has brought up for churches, whether they realize it or not, is that we have to look at this new situation as a mission field, as a new context for mission.” He’s not alone in thinking that way.

National Community Church, which The Washingtonian once suggested was the most innovative church in America, has taken a similar approach. When NCC was forced to start putting all their services online, they created the permanent position of online pastor, and Robb Schmidgall filled it. For him, the pandemic has posed a unique opportunity. “It has exposed the fact that people really don’t have a depth of relationship in church. They had a lot of surface relationships that they gave greater value, just because they saw people personally. But it has really exposed that [lack].” As Pastor Robb sees it, he’s got a particular mission. He’s figuring out how to pastor people into deeper relationships when his community is scattered all over the globe: South Dakota, Argentina, Berlin.

Jeff Chu is like him. Jeff is the co-curator of the increasingly popular Evolving Faith Conference, which hosted its third meeting this year. But for 2021, like just about every other gathering, the conference was hosted online. That situation exposed something for this community. Jeff realized that “the traditional, physical walls of our churches have excluded many kinds of bodies. They’ve excluded elderly bodies. They’ve excluded disabled bodies. They’ve excluded neurodivergent bodies. And so, there has been an invitation through the pandemic to reconsider the welcome and the inclusion of bodies that we haven’t.”

When Evolving Faith went online this year, they discovered an inclusion they could not have foreseen. A whole host of folks found their way safely and comfortably to Evolving Faith. When there was no flight to pay for, “we had attendees from dozens of countries. Zambia, South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, Indonesia, the Philippines, a seventeen-year-old kid in Nicaragua. And we had disabled folks, folks who can't leave their homes, folks who can’t regularly join in worship.” And when everyone is online—everyone is online. There are no second-class citizens.

Ever-thoughtful, Jeff realizes it’s not a perfect situation. “Obviously the internet excludes folks who don’t have the technological capacity, right? But that said, once you were in the room, once you had your internet connection, bed-ridden folks were completely equal.” Sort of like NCC’s new campus, the Evolving Faith Conference may now be a permanent fixture of the internet.

In other words, there has been a whole stream of pastoral work that has had to face the great emotional weight of losing the bodies of the Body. It’s not pessimism. It’s just the lament over profound privation. After all, it is not good for a human to be alone. Then again, there is another stream in which pastors seem to talk about social distancing more like a fruitful challenge. They see it as one of those difficult moments when God is moving the church to something new. That’s never comfortable and, of course, we can’t see it right now. But there is something that calls us forward.

For the National Cathedral, that is literally true. They have an event on the calendar for September 2022. The cathedral has a difficult identity to pin down. It is obviously a tourist attraction and, to a certain extent, a national monument. But it is also a place of worship overseen by the Episcopal Church. The core community of faith there is called the Congregation of the National Cathedral. Its vicar is the Rev. Canon Dana Corsello, whom I can only describe as fun. Her love for “the congo,” as she affectionately calls it, is infectious. “So here’s the deal. It’s my congregation. I’m responsible. I’m the vicar. I report to the dean, but I figure out how to take care of my people.” And she has.

Rev. Corsello has created a host of events, the response to which has bewildered her. Virtual coffee hours, Sacred Ground, socially distanced Easter—she has seen enthusiasm from a community of people who largely do not know each other, but who are starting to become a community. Folks in California, Ireland, and New Zealand all have come to know the Congregation of the National Cathedral as their spiritual home, even though they only know each other as small, friendly faces on a screen. That is why the National Cathedral has set an event on the calendar for next fall: to mark a reunion homecoming for a community that has largely not yet met each other.

The way Rev. Corsello talks about the event is like the way children talk about Christmas or their cousins coming to visit. She wears a joyful expectancy on her face. I feel like it has been almost a year of no one talking that way. It is wonderful to hear her think about that weekend, over eighteen months away. “It’ll be three days of all cathedral all the time: parties, organ recitals, concerts, picnics!” It’s the way Christians have always talked—hopeful for the future.

In varying ways and for different reasons, this is true of all these faithful ministers: they spoke with hope. They are looking forward to a future. Some of them have a clear sense of what that future will be. Some of them are simply holding on to the knowledge that, eventually, there will be enough vaccines for everyone. Some of them just know, because our faith has always known, that our fundamental posture toward the future is hope.

An Ambivalent Goodness

It’s easy, when you are up in the clouds, to get “carried around by every passing wind of teaching.” But if we pay attention to what the pastors have said about their congregations, if we pay attention to their discernment of the body, what do we learn?

For one, we learn to remember the profound ambivalence of our embodiment. So much of the good in our lives comes by way of the body, but so much bad does too. Laughter and tears, strength and disease, birth and death—we don’t get one without the other. Just so, the experiences of our bodies in the pandemic have entailed both losses to be lamented and opportunities to be grasped. The values and disvalues of bodily life come in a package. You cannot have one without the other. If we got rid of our bodies, we would simply have nothing at all.

If we got rid of our bodies, we would simply have nothing at all.

In biblical symbol, this is the tension of human existence as dust and as breath. The second creation story in Genesis tells us that God made a human out of the dust. Only then did God breathe into that hollow body “the breath of life.” The tradition of the Torah has always seen human beings as creatures in a kind of suspended place. On the one hand, we bear the very breath of God, and it is that spirit that keeps us alive. On the other hand, as the Ash Wednesday liturgies say, we are but dust and to dust we shall return. Thinking about the body goes wrong when you miss one or the other of those twin ideas.

I am fairly certain that I am the last true millennial—something, I’ll admit, all millennials say. We were taught to make healthy eating decisions by Big Bird, who I think was later replaced by Michelle Obama. We are the success of the anti-smoking, “Just Say No” and, more recently, the “Love Every Body” movements. Once we got to college, we knew that embodiment was the kind of sexy term (if you’ll pardon the pun) that would lend your paper a certain cutting edge. In other words, my peers and I have always known that it takes a body to live, so you better take care of it. IUDs, power Vinyasa yoga, something called “Athletic Greens” that Morning Brew keeps advertising to me—we have a full toolbox of technology to get out of life alive. At the most extreme are my few more speculative friends who think, one day, we will in fact be able to stop the process of aging.

But what we seem to have forgotten is that having a body is a precondition for death, something that the Gnostics just could not get over. Their name comes from the Greek word for knowledge, gnosis, which is what they were after. In particular, they sought the knowledge required to free themselves from bodily existence and to step into spirituality of one or another kind. Dying takes a body, after all. So wouldn’t it be just grand if you could escape yours? They thought you could get on with just a mind. The problem is it also takes a body to live.

What seems to have been lacking in both these moments, and others like them, is an appreciation of the ambivalence of our embodied existence—something that is not going away.

It feels like things are beginning to open. Just as I am writing this, the CDC has announced that fully vaccinated Americans no longer need to wear masks. As much as we have had to wrestle with the brute fact of our embodiment in the most intense moments of the pandemic, we are going to wrestle with it as we step into a new phase. For months, I have loathed wearing a mask. It’s not just uncomfortable to have on my face. I am disgusted by the gaseous swamp that I seem to breathe into existence. (I know I’m not the only one.) But now that masks are becoming optional, I find myself reticent to take it off. I am torn. It has been more than a year of being reminded that our bodies may be deathly dangers to one another, that we are vulnerable to “this invisible killer.” Not a few of us are wondering, to one degree or another, whether the joy we hope in the reopening is reliable. Even the hope of our coming months seems—well—ambivalent.

Life and death, they come bundled together in the body. You can’t get one without the other. That is why, even in its ambivalence, embodiment remains a fundamental good. As a matter of fact, it remains a fundamental hope. It has been tempting for Christians to believe that after death we are headed for a heaven of clouds and winged souls, that salvation is a final release from our bodies. But the message of the Scriptures and the wisdom of the tradition point us toward an irreducibly embodied hope. As Paul wrote, “So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable” (1 Corinthians 15:42).

In the coming months, it seems to me that pastors are going to have to learn to lead us on both fronts. They will, on the one hand, continue to remind us of the ambivalence of our embodiment; they will continue to pastor us through the mysterious bundle of advantage and disadvantage that is having a body. At the same time, they will be the ones to whom we look for a reminder of that eschatological hope: an imperishable body that is dead to Death and alive to God.

Peter Hartwig
Peter Hartwig

Peter Hartwig serves as theologian in residence at National Community Church and editor at BitterSweet Monthly.


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