a tattoo

Mine, to be precise:

3907_574197496527_1845720_nThere it is, freshly inked–that’s why there’s a halo of reddish skin around it!

I thought about it for a long time. I mean a really long time. When I was 16 or 17, I told my mother that I wanted to get a tattoo. I’m pretty sure she was against it. But she didn’t say so, not outright. Instead, she gave me a few things to think about before I actually got the tattoo. First, she said, remember it will always be there. You’ll change, you’ll change your mind, but the tattoo will still be there. And it’s more painful to have it removed than it is to get it in the first place. Second, she said, your body won’t look the same forever. Something that looks nice on 16-year-old skin might not look as good on 70-year-old skin. But the tattoo will still be there. Third, she said, tattoo ink breaks down over time. That’s why you see so many green tattoos. (Perhaps inks are better now; I think my mother was thinking about tattoos done in the 1960’s and 1970’s.)

So for the next couple of decades, I turned the idea over and over in my mind. Honestly. I never forgot that conversation with my mother. Now, I consider it a moment of parenting genius, not because that strategy would work for everyone–not at all. Rather, it was a moment of parenting genius because it took account (knowingly or intuitively) of the sort of kid I was, and the way I was likely to make decisions. It appealed to reason and vanity, which I had in rather unequal portions at 16. (You can guess which trait I had in greater abundance.) She never said “Don’t.” Other friends, over the years, said “Do!” or “Don’t!” but my mother never did. She was a little surprised, I suppose, when I finally got the tattoo, but by then I was well and truly grown-up.

By the time I found that thing that I considered permanent enough in my life to have it inscribed on my body, I was nearing 40. I had three children. And, luckily, I had a good friend with plenty of tattoos and friends in the business, who happened to be in need of more ink. So I researched and found the image. I worked out the Greek. On the eve of Mother’s Day, 2009, I went with a couple of friends to get my first tattoo (by which time I had had my 40th birthday). There it is: the crucifix, stylized. The Greek text is from 1 Corinthians 13: “The greatest of these is love.”

I don’t suppose it will be my last tattoo. I have other ideas. Chief among these is an addition to the tattoo I already have, one phrase, in English this time: “the image of the invisible God.” Maybe 2015 is the year for that.

I’ll keep you posted.

slowly and gently

I can account for the hiatus in posts: last week I was in London for a day exploring the theology and practice of accompanying people with intellectual disabilities through experiences of loss, especially the death of loved ones. Although this isn’t one of my areas of experience or study, I was interested in the journey of¬†accompaniment. What I found was that, like any other interpersonal adventure, the way forward requires less map-and-compass skills, and more listening and patience. Good navigational skills are necessary, but not sufficient, for walking with someone through the valley of the shadow of death–whether the death in question is their own or another’s.

In doing things with my young children, I frequently find myself repeating “slowly and gently”–it started with stirring cake batter. “Slowly and gently.” Then, as my youngest started trying to descend the stairs: “Slowly and gently.” This has never been my strong suit. Doing things slowly and gently and attending to the details requires time (of which I seem always to be in want) and patience (ditto). As I listened to the speakers throughout the day, this phrase came back to me. The journey of accompaniment, at any stage of life, is about going slowly and gently.

Slowly and gently becomes not only advice for toddlers learning to stir; it changes the way I approach theological questions. Attending to the person with me, the person with an intellectual disability, impresses on me the reality of each person’s creation in the image of God. What is it to be human? It is to be in relationship with God, and that relationship originates with God and not with us. Ours is the capacity to receive the relationship God offers us continuously. The question for theological anthropology then becomes,¬†‘What does the disabled body (including the disabled mind) reveal to us about God?’ If what obscures the image of God in the first place is sin, then intellectual disability is not necessarily something that obscures the image of God. In and through that disability, God is revealing himself, revealing transcendence, divinity.

Because this is so, there are two important features of spiritual friendship with a person with an intellectual disability. First, the relationship that person has with God is no more or less than ours, though it will be expressed differently and experienced differently by us. The obstacles we encounter in relationship with people with intellectual disabilities are not obstacles for God. Relationship with God is not impaired by cognitive impairment. (Sin does that.) The second feature of that friendship is that the revelation of the divine through the divine image is not a one-way street, from those of us who are aware of being made in the image of God to those who are not. We ought to be looking for God’s image in the faces of those with intellectual disabilities, and expecting to find God’s self-revelation there.

But we will only see it if we go slowly–slowly and gently.

Aristotle on the soul

This morning a strange thing happened: Lewis and I found ourselves in the car alone. No interruptions from the children, and Lewis about to teach on–you guessed it–Aristotle on the soul. I dug into the topic this morning in the car with an unusual sense of having a stake in the question. The question began as 'how is the soul the form of the body, for Aristotle?' That's quite a difficult question to answer, as it happens, and I expect more conversation will take place the next time Lewis and I have a l chance to take it up. If anyone happens to have an answer to hand, I would love to hear it.
Fear not: I am not going to rehearse here Aristotle's doctrine of the soul. My hunch is that it loses something in the process of being summarised. Besides, it is full of paradox and warrants a sort of attention I am not able to give it. But I should, and I will, because what I could recognise immediately in Aristotle's account of the soul is the way it shows up in the Questions on the Soul of St Thomas Aquinas. His account of the soul is, not surprisingly, full of paradox and has been the subject of at least one paper I have read recently, and two that I have given at conferences. Surely there was plenty of conversation about the topic last June at a conference on the soul in Oxford (which I was unable to attend, sadly).
The question of the soul interests me because I am very anxious to retain soul language in Christian discourse. No, I don't think it is much threatened in mainstream Christianity, but I do think it is widely taken for granted. That means we tend not to teach about the nature of the soul or its function in our Christian life. I think (not without some background, I promise) that 'soul' names an aspect of human life that is inseparable from body and mind, but not coterminous with either. It's important, because sickness in body and mind is not the same as sickness of the soul; weakness in mind or body is not the same as weakness of the soul.
It's important because the question 'In what sense do [people with profound cognitive impairment] have a soul?' (which Frances Young raises in Face to Face) needs an answer that is careful and deeply grounded theologically. I would argue strenuously that people with severe developmental and cognitive disabilities have souls, regardless of whether their engagement with the world around them has grown beyond the level of an infant. The soul is not the same as the mind, and not the same as the body. We are too used to thinking about our relationships with one another and with God as somehow dependent on our own agency. But it is not so, not necessarily so. An infant does not yet exercise the kind of agency that sustains the relationship into which he or she has been born; the relationship exists, to begin with, because a parent does the work of relating to and caring for the infant. Of course our relationships with one another can be mutually intellectually stimulating and emotionally satisfying, and such friendships are to be cherished. But if our relationships depended on others when we were tiny infants, so much more does our relationship with God depend on God.
I don't pretend to know exactly what the soul is. I cannot tell you in what sense it is the 'form of the body' for Aristotle. But I think that in saying that we have souls–that we are embodied souls, or ensouled bodies–we are affirming that there is a mysterious dimension to human existence. We are saying that God relates to each and every one of us as a parent to a tiny child, in the sense that there is a tremendous inequality between the parent's ability to understand, to care for, to bear with, and to meet the needs of the infant child, and the infant's ability to do anything for the parent. The idea of a 'soul' can remind us that we receive our very life from God, regardless of the capacities of our minds and bodies. The soul's capacity for God is not diminished by mental or physical incapacity, but by sin.
But sin is another topic entirely, best left for another day.

What my three-year-old taught me about the body’s grace

You know that essay, the famous one by Rowan Williams, 'The Body's Grace.' He wrote it in 1989 and it was first delivered as the 10th Michael Harding memorial address. Then it appeared as a pamphlet, and was reproduced in volumes of essays edited by Charles Hefling and Eugene Rogers. I distinctly remember where I was the first time I read it: in my carrel in the basement of the theology library at Duke. “…that God desires us as God desires God…” Really?
At the time, I could not conceive of it. Of course it was appealing, mind-boggling, and changed the way I thought about sex and sexual relationships. When I married Lewis three years later, the light had begun to dawn. Although I had written off the idea of falling in love, and having that be a real thing, not just infatuation, or something that happens in movies (they say 'happily ever after,' but you don't get to see what that looks like), I had to admit that there might be something to it. (I said as much at our wedding reception.)
But I still had no idea, really, about this grace. Still, and I think this is the case in Rowan's amazing essay, it was about the sexual meaning of the body. The enjoyment and desire remained in a sexual register. Yet what I learned as I had children was that there is something else–not to say more–that is graced, and grace-filled, about the body. I remember saying to a friend when my first-born was still very small that it was very sensual but not at all sexual.
This is hardly surprising, and is probably the testimony of mothers from the beginning of time. I love having children, and I am especially fond of babies. When my son, who is now seven, was three, though, I learned a more significant lesson. One morning I was dressing, and he came into the bedroom. His eyes lit up when he saw me. Now I wasn't keen on what I looked like without too many clothes on, but he was obviously delighted with me. To be close and to touch my skin was a great pleasure for him. It was as if he appreciated the skin, the body, of this person whose body had borne him and fed him (until he was two-and-a-half!), not because of its objective beauty or potential for giving “joy”, as Williams says. No, the skin and the body were desirable because they were mine.
I had always had trouble with “God desiring us” because the context in which it was set was so sexual. Sure, sex is good, but it isn't everything. Something about the way my son responded to me (and not just on that one occasion, but for many months) broadened my understanding of the body's grace. Desire comes in lots of forms, and intimacy has many dimensions. I always knew that, sort of, but it has become much more real for me as I have been a mother. My son has a little sister, who, at two-and-a-half, is very much the same way–she likes to curl up next to me on the sofa (or anywhere, really) with her head resting on my bare stomach. If she's in the room with me when I am dressing, it always takes longer. There is a deep mutual affection and intimacy that characterises my relationship with my children, and it is not remotely sexual but equally profound. And I find it much more powerful, actually, to think that God desires us, fragile and fallen human beings, as I desire my children, and–even more–as my children desire me. Their pleasure and uncritical joy in my body has taught me more about the body's grace than anything else I have ever encountered.
I was reminded of all this by a video I saw–what our kids see when they see us. As a mother, I felt the same way as those interviewed: I wish I were more patient, attentive and calm. But what the kids said (really, the video is worth watching) brought back to me this truth about the body's grace. And it put into words what my children have said with their gestures and expressions and touch.
Is that the way it is with God? Is that what mercy means? Is it my children's uncritical joy that erupts in heaven over the repentant sinner?
I sure hope so.