“Your body is a temple of the divine spirit” 1 Corinthians 6
Take a look at the first image. This is a very old print that I made when at Art College. What does it say to you? The second image is by Aishan Yu and was made as part of an ongoing project at St Andrews Church Fulham where several artists were invited to respond to the tradition of the Stations of the Cross, a series of images that reflect on Christ’s journey from being condemned to his death. Yu repurposed pieces of discarded ‘rubbish’ from the church’s neighbourhood and painted scenes from the Stations onto them, focusing on Christ’s hands and feet. I suggest that both my picture and Yu’s use the body to show something spiritual, they in fact embody faith. As an artist, my thinking, feeling and faith are all of necessity visceral. I use the physical to express the spiritual.
I have been thinking about this connection between the body, the mind and the soul. Recently I visited a peer support group as part of an art project I’m in the process of setting up. As each person shared their story, a common thread appeared to be that exercise had really helped them manage their mental health. I have also recently attended my only non-lockdown Tai Chi class, a new discovery which I hope to pursue in the future. What was fascinating about this was that my thinking needed to step back for the body to lead, and yet the whole process was incredibly mindful. There was something meditative about the careful, meaningful body movements: this is something I also experienced on my slow, often wandering lockdown walks. In fact, one of the more positive effects of the ongoing restrictions for many has been not only the physical advantages of going for a walk, but the effect that this has had on their wellbeing overall.
During lockdown I have also discovered wild swimming. Well, to be honest, I have always liked swimming outside in fresh water (which is what us oldies call wild swimming). However, the difference now is that I’m doing it more often and am still doing it in November, something I never thought possible, mainly as I suffer with terrible circulation. Despite this and my other health issues, which often almost put me off on the day, without fail I always feel so much better for doing it and the rush of endorphins is palpable. Interestingly, current research shows that wild swimming could guard against dementia and generally improve mental health.
In our western society and religions there has been a tendency to prioritise the mind over the body. Any bodily activity has been seen as something separate, perhaps a form of entertainment or fun or, in recent years, often mostly about physical health. The Western Christian tradition has tended towards the cerebral with the ‘flesh’ viewed with suspicion. But maybe its time to rediscover our connections across this divide. If we look at the story behind the Christian Faith, it is about a God who ‘was made flesh’’ (John 1) as the well-known Christmas verse says. This is what Aishan Yu’s image is all about – the vulnerable and embodied divine, as depicted through the story of Jesus. And if we look at our Celtic traditions here in the UK, we see a holistic spirituality as exampled in this early blessing from the Carmina Gadelica:
God to enfold me, God to surround me, God in my speaking, God in my thinking.
God in my sleeping, God in my waking, God in my watching, God in my hoping.
God in my life, God in my lips, God in my soul, God in my heart.
God in my sufficing, God in my slumber, God in mine ever-living soul, God in mine eternity.
Take time to look at the pictures and consider these questions:
- How do you connect with the divine through your body?
- What physical actions make you feel deeply alive?
- What might you do to connect mind, spirit and body?
Choose a physical action, ideally outside, and do it meaningfully and meditatively if at all possible. Try to be in your body and put busy thoughts aside. Take note of your physical sensations and your mental mood, but put thoughts about work, family or other issues that are bothering you into a ‘to do later’ box if you can. Be in the moment and sense the divine around you and within you. Allow half an hour.