“The daily practice of incarnation – of being in the body with full confidence that God speaks the language of flesh – is to discover a pedagogy that is as old as the gospels. Why else did Jesus spend his last night on earth teaching his disciples to wash feet and share supper?”
– Barbara Brown Taylor
A few years ago, I was climbing with a friend. I’m not a natural climber – I’m clumsy at the best of times – but I relish the adrenaline, being outside, and the trust you put in other people and the gear, and John was a much more experienced climber than me, and I trusted his experience and knowledge. John ascended, rigged an anchor at the top of the rock, and then I followed. At the top, John explained how I was to get down – two feet firmly on the rock, I was to lean my weight back against the rope until I stuck out 90° to the rock. From there I would be able to abseil down. I’d done this before, but never with the person belaying from the top; something about that freaked me out, and I set off too early. My feet slipped from underneath me and I found myself clinging to the top of the rock, dangling on the rope.
It was quite a scary experience, and yet I had never felt more aware of my own body and what it was experiencing. For a few short seconds, who I was, and where I was, and what I was doing were all the same. I had never noticed – really noticed – what muscles feel like as they push against something, in the way that I did as I struggled back up. My scraped knees didn’t hurt (yet), but I had never been quite so aware of the weight of my own body. Under my fingers, the cold, hard rock felt really cold, and really hard. Since then, I’ve thought of that moment as a sort spiritual experience; there was something about the fleeting lack of distinction, the sense of being very present, the concentration needed… I think the experience has helped me to understand a little of what it might mean for God to be manifest in the world (Peter Rollins describes God, as being ‘hyper-present’, “God not only overflows and overwhelms our understanding, but also overflows and overwhelms our experience”.) Maybe it’s something to do with being immersed in something which meant I no longer felt like I was analysing it as it happened, experiencing without judgement…
There have been similar moments in my activism – again, during moments of relatively high pressure, alertness, or stress – like being in the van, driving to a gate, preparing to blockade it. I wrote about this in an earlier blog article; that sense of being brought into communion with something/where/one in a moment when, given a choice, I might have chosen to fly, run, back down, be somewhere safer, more comforting, more familiar. In a life where we spend so much time on the internet, aware of events on the other side of the world as if they were happening next door to us, it’s easy to feel alienated from our immediate surroundings; the immediacy of information and experience can start to feel like a bit of a wash, and everything blurs a little. God is in that, but God is also in our bodies and in our experiences, in this moment, in our aches and pains, in our happiness and courage, in our being, and in our bodies. For me, this is becoming a growing element of what nonviolence means; being present to the moment and trying to see some of God in it makes it much harder to exclude, defile, or treat others as means to your own ends (and that counts for ourselves, too). That’s what’s so important in the Barbara Brown Taylor quote at the top; washing someone’s feet means being present to what you are doing and to the person in front of you, because that is God. When we see God incarnate in the blood and bone of those around us, that means we have to see them differently; it is an act of being aware and present. Maybe it’s in the moments when we forget to look for God, because we’re present to it, maybe it’s then that we catch a glimpse of the divine.
In peace x