How many of us have shaped our lives around the message that when we go out to proclaim the reign of God we must “take nothing for the journey” (Luke 9:3)? We are called to be free on our journey of discipleship. We aren’t meant be burdened by clutter or excess.
Perhaps you, like I, have made peace with such simplicity. You feel as if your lifestyle is modest enough to be neither burden, nor distraction, and you are constantly reevaluating whether or not your possessions impede your discipleship. But perhaps, like me, you are still not free.
What I have carried with me is not lucre, but worry and shame. As I grew into my relationships with God, others, and self, I shed some of the adolescent self-loathing that followed me through my twenties, while constantly battling the most pervasive object of my frustration: my body.
For most of my life, I bought into the cultural lie that only certain bodies are acceptable. I believed that mine was ugly and foul and made me unworthy of love. I had rich relationships and accomplished much, but any rejoicing in these realities was filtered through the veil of dismay that hung over me.
And for all that I still managed to accomplish, I have to wonder what more I could have done without that weight of self-hatred on my shoulders. There was always a part of my mind worrying that I was shaped wrong. I failed to trust that God could work perfectly well through a woman with a belly. I did less than I could have because of this lack of trust.
Simply put, fretting about weight gets in the way of living the gospel.
As I entered my thirties, my bodily worries shifted. I developed a chronic illness and tried to reconcile that with my belief that God doesn’t make mistakes. There was a kind of poetry to it: this body, my nemesis, my shame, my enemy, had failed me. As Crohn’s disease progressed, I prayed all kinds of ways to be relieved of pain, and to finally make peace with the body I had longed for a lifetime to love.
God led me into peace, slowly, showing me that my identity was rooted not in my health or appearance, but in having been loved into being by God. My body was precious, and I could be confident in this because God took on flesh too, forever sanctifying the body. I entered into the mystery of being blessed and broken simultaneously as pain became my closest companion.
I didn’t eat much for over a year, and unsurprisingly, I lost weight. I tried not to revel in this, in being able to buy clothes without worrying what feature they might not conceal, in how good I looked in photos, in the admiration I got from those who didn’t notice that all my hair was falling out.
Showering made me so tired I needed a nap. I spent days laying on the couch, trying to summon the energy to pull my laptop toward me so that I could write something, or reach out, or in some way remind myself that I might still be able to participate in the world. I felt as if I had nothing to offer, that my desire to serve God and the world might be thwarted by disease.
When medication proved ineffective and my health was in even deeper peril, I agreed to surgery. I tried not to feel like a failure, knowing part of my own flesh, created in love by God, needed to be removed in order to give me my life back.
My life did indeed come back, after a slow and painful recovery. Surgery got me into remission, and I put out of my mind the likelihood that the disease would ever recur. Ten days after a second surgery, I entered into the sacrament of matrimony. I felt loved, and blessed, and ready to attempt to be a blessing in the world.
Christ has no body now but yours.
Teresa of Avila’s words stayed with me on this journey. I may have been broken, and I may have been weak, but somehow I was still called to be Christ’s body on earth. I still sit with this mystery.
Though I was ready to love my body again, the complications of recovering from illness made me anxious: I was achy from a lack of activity, I was weak from a year of barely being able to move. I wanted to be active and athletic, and found myself weak instead.
At the same time, being able to eat again prompted precisely the reaction the doctors had hoped for: I gained weight. Lazy summer grilling with my husband, sharing a beer with my father or burritos with my brother brought me back into the communion of flesh with them, and brought softness back into my wasted frame.
Again I was exactly who I had been before my illness, which is what I thought I wanted. And as I had when I was a teenager, I channeled all of my nervousness and fear into berating myself for being who and what I was made to be. I knew I was blessed, but felt compelled to think of myself as “blessed-but”—blessed but faulty, blessed but disgusting, blessed but fat.
I was anxious about seeing people again, people who would say “oh, you look healthy,” which I would hear as “oh, you’re heavy again." And who could I tell about this? No one understood that I didn’t need to hear “you’re not fat,” I needed to find the peace I knew was out there, that would come from accepting how I was created.
God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as [God] intended (1 Cor. 12:18).
One evening, I unexpectedly ran into an old mentor of mine, who I had known for nearly twenty years, who had accompanied me during my time of physical, spiritual, and mental maturation. He told me “you look like yourself again” and my heart fell: my self was this chunky, stupid body.
Later that night I heard his voice in my heart again, and the message was transformed. I looked like the healthy, vibrant woman he had always known, whose talent he had encouraged and whose friendship he had valued. Shame settled over me like a blanket, though this time I was not ashamed of my body. I was ashamed to have not recognized how loved I had always been, even when I was eating too much pizza or not working out and even when my body betrayed me and I struggled to get through the day. I was ashamed to have doubted this love, to have believed that my body was a black mark on an otherwise fruitful existence. I was ashamed to have let the clichéd “body-image issue” stand in the way of reveling in the love I have always been surrounded by. What if God has always loved me like this? I wondered. What if my anxiety had made me blind?
I am still working to be free, to leave behind the wasted baggage I carry with me on the journey. But I know that loving my body is part of living a life of faith, and that it will lead me into greater relationship and greater love.