Learning to love our bodies…

This is a guest post from Nem Tomlinson of L’Arche.

When I’m at L’Arche I like my body and, because of that, I’m learning to love it when I’m not.

I came to L’Arche when I was twenty two. I was straight out of university and I celebrated my twenty third birthday just weeks later. My housemates baked me a cake, fumbled thank yous and gifted me slippers (they didn’t know me well enough then to know that I tolerate shoes at the best of time. I still have those slippers; unworn. They remind me that I am loved). For the last ten years I have been woven into the L’Arche Community in Edinburgh and, for the last six years, here in Manchester. I have grown up in L’Arche; for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.

I have lived my greatest joys and my deepest shames amidst my communities, and they have been the contexts and often the sources of my healing; the messy, ugly putting oneself back together that inevitably happens with life.

At university I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on naked Quaker women and my Masters dissertation on the function of seventeenth century breasts. Before L’Arche, and during my studies, I spent a lot of time thinking about what having a body meant and perhaps less time thinking about what my body meant to me. This changed when I joined L’Arche. Life in L’Arche is an embodied experience. There are baths to run, teeth to brush, feet to massage, arms to link. There are shared, noisy meal times where we join hands to sing, and impromptu dance parties as we wash up. There is signing to tell a story: the one that happened long before she moved in, but that we all know and tell, and tell again, fingers moving to share it with someone new. I do less of this now and I still miss it, sneaking it in whenever I can.

Embodiment is a term that is slowly becoming more recognised. It has taken time because we are, largely, a society that values the head and intellect over the body, it seems. For me, embodiment describes the process of locating myself within myself (all of me, my body), and in the present moments. Body Positivity is a movement that espouses the idea that all bodies are good.

Yet having a body can be a complex thing. Loving other people’s bodies has been a much simpler process for me than loving my own.

I can tell you about our core members in Manchester. How Milly has eyelashes that could launch a thousand ships, or what it does to my heart when Crispin giggles and twitches with delight. I can tell you about helping Joe to have a shave in the morning, listening to Herb Albert, and how the process would take twice as long because we would dance as he shaved. I can tell you of the process of falling in love with people time and time again. But my relationship with loving this body I inhabit has not always been simple. I would struggle to tell you what I find precious about it, and could tell you how I have hated it and hurt it and shamed it.

Embodiment has given me a language to explore the idea that there is no separation between me and my body. We are all me. But it is in L’Arche that I’ve learnt what embodiment feels like and perhaps feeling might be the key to embodiment.

R.S Thomas has a line in his poem,The Kingdom, which reads ‘…and love looks at them back.’ I think so often that this has been my experience within L’Arche. Lou doesn’t care how much I weigh; she cares about whether we will talk about the time I forgot to pick her up from her nana’s, and arrived sweaty and beetroot red from a run.

In the autumn I dyed my hair green impulsively and Zeynep tugged at it and screeched with delight. Crispin and I twirl at our Community Boogie Nights, and I feel free and alive. Milly pumps her arm up and down with unabashed joy and grabs your clothing as you pass her, so that you stop and bend down to share a joke with her.

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‘In their loving me, they have taught me that I am good; all of me. The embodied me is good.’

It is not our differences that have taught me peace with my own body. It is not some misplaced, harmful, platitude along the lines of ‘if they are happy with their bodies, I should be happy with mine.’ No. Rather, it is that in their loving me, they have taught me that I am good; all of me. The embodied me is good.

People tease me about when I last brushed my hair. It is speckled with grey. The laughter lines that started ten years ago in a three-storey house in Leith where this story began are now embedded in my skin. I throw on clothes in the morning and rarely think about what I look like. I have started to think less and less often about what I look like. Instead I am learning to understand my life by asking myself: ‘what do I feel like?’

So when Lou and I, after many false starts, climb up the stairs on the water flume for the eighth time and slide belly laughing all the way down, I feel like I am eight years old again and riding my bike. When Zeynep runs towards me with arms wide open, I know that I am good. When Crispin jumps up when I knock on his front door, and raises his arms and dances from side to side, I know I belong.

This hard-earned friendship that says ‘you are important to me and me to you.’ Mary Oliver wrote ‘You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.’ This simple revolution. To ask what does this beat up, broken and put back together body of mine love? A work of a lifetime; learning to listen and love and inhabit myself.

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‘I am learning to centre myself within myself. To twirl and twirl and dance, hot and sweaty and imperfect, and know that this is good.’

I am learning this in L’Arche. Most of the people who I share my life with don’t speak, but they don’t need to. They tell me who they are and what they want in a myriad of different and deep ways, and they tell me that I am their friend and that they love me in embodied ways. ‘Love looks at me back’ each day and because of that I am learning to centre myself within myself. To twirl and twirl and dance, hot and sweaty and imperfect, and know that this is good.

When I’m at L’Arche I like my body and, because of that, I am learning to love it when I’m not.

Nem Tomlinson is part of the L’Arche Manchester Community, which she co-founded in 2013.

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On being a myrrh-bearer…

*** Meditation Mondays *** Meditation Mondays ***

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Today the Astonishing Community remembers Mary Salome, the Myrrh Bearer.

Salome was one of the women disciples of Jesus. According to Orthodox tradition, she was the daughter of St. Joseph the Betrothed and his first wife (who was also named Salome), making the Mary, mother of Jesus her step-mother. She married Zebedee and became the mother of the Apostles James and John.  As one of the myrrh-bearing women who brought spices to Christ’s tomb and found it empty, she is celebrated as one who first brought tidings of the Resurrection to the world.

As I was looking at her bottle of Myrrh, I began to ponder what it means to be a Myrrh-bearer. I know that this is the title given to the three women who faithfully returned to Jesus’ tomb at first light following the Sabbath to embalm his body. But they were not the only bearers of Myrrh to Jesus. Within the Canonical Gospels, Jesus is first brought Myrrh by a king or wise man, we have come to know as Melchior. He brought Myrrh, which we are told from such a young age was to signify his death, to the infant Jesus. I wonder whether the gift was really that stark for Mary and Joseph to receive… So I looked into Myrrh.

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Myrrh, like frankincense, was traditionally used as an ingredient in incense as it instills a deep sense of calm and tranquility. It was used as a perfume ingredient in Egypt and to prevent wrinkles, as well as for embalming. The most varied and numerous uses of myrrh, however, are by healers:

  • When inhaled Myrrh makes a good expectorant and gargled as a tincture was believed to cure pharyngitis, even returning a lost voice.
  • In women, Myrrh was used to treat uterine disorders and to bring on labour.
  • In minute doses, Myrrh was used as an antispasmodic and to cure stomach problems.
  • Most popularly Myrrh was applied to wounds and ulcers in order to prevent Gangrene.
  • It also has anti-inflammatory pain-killing properties.

Myrrh might just as easily be a symbol of the healer that Jesus would become as the death he must die. This symbolism is even richer when we understand how Myrrh is produced in the first place.

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Myrrh exudes as a resinous gum from the Myrrh Tree whenever the bush is wounded or naturally fissures. It is the way the tree is able to protect itself from infection and to prevent the loss of precious water travelling through its system. As humans found this gum to be so useful and so precious, we began to increase production by deliberately making incisions into the bark of the tree in order to increase production.

 

In my role as a priest, I wonder whether I am a myrrh-bearer? Is it my job to hold the myrrh that might be needed for healing, for the dying or in worship? And where does this myrrh come from?

Perhaps the church is like a Myrrh tree and each member one of its fissures. We emerge wounded, desperately trying to heal ourselves. Our excess overflows, is collected and offered where most needed at present. It’s a way of being we learnt from God, who made a great fissure in God-self to allow Jesus to walk amongst us; who allowed us to pierce him that the greatest healing might take place.

Amen.

Saint Pandwyna

The hagiographer Leland (in “Itinerary” v. 218) records that Pandwyna was a daughter of a king of the Scots, who fled from those who would deflower her to a kinswoman who was prioress of Eltisley. She became a nun there until her death in 904AD. She was buried near a well named after her in Eltisley and was translated into the church there in 1344.

Although much about Pandwyna’s life is uncertain, the original vita having been lost, we know that she was invoked as patron against headaches, accidents and loneliness.

INTERCEDING

On this day let us pray for:

  • All whose lives are quiet and may not be remembered in years to come.
  • All who seek a simple, holy existence.
  • All who suffer with headaches.
  • All who are lonely.
  • Those beset by accidents however big or small.

Little Saint Hugh

Hugh of Lincoln, sometimes known as Little Saint Hugh (sometimes “Little Sir Hugh”) to distinguish him from Saint Hugh of Lincolnwas an English boy whose death was falsely attributed to Jews. Hugh is sometimes known as Little Saint Hugh (sometimes “Little Sir Hugh”) to distinguish him from Saint Hugh of Lincoln, an adult saint. Hugh became one of the best known of the blood libel saints (generally children whose deaths were interpreted as Jewish sacrifices). 

It is likely that the Bishop and Dean of Lincoln steered events in order to establish a profitable flow of pilgrims to the shrine of a martyr and saint. The event is particularly significant because it was the first time that the Crown gave credence to ritual child murder allegations, through the direct intervention of King Henry III.

The nine-year-old Hugh disappeared on 31 July, and his body was discovered in a well on 29 August. It was claimed that Jews had imprisoned Hugh, during which time they tortured and eventually crucified him. It was said that the body had been thrown into the well after attempts to bury it failed, when the earth had expelled it.

The chronicler Matthew Paris described the supposed murder, implicating all the Jews in England:

Shortly after news was spread of his death, miracles were attributed to Hugh; and he was rushed toward sainthood. Hugh became one of the youngest individual candidates for sainthood, with 27 July unofficially made his feast day. However, over time, the issue of the rush to sainthood was raised, and Hugh was never canonized. He never appeared in Butler’s Lives of the Saints(1756–1759). The Vatican never included the child Hugh in Catholic martyrology. His traditional English feast day is not celebrated.

The shrine dated to the period immediately after the expulsion of the Jews. The shrine itself was destroyed in the Reformation, or possibly the Civil War.

The story was remembered into the twentieth century. A well in the former Jewish neighborhood of Jews’ Court was advertised as the well in which Hugh’s body was found, however this was found to be have been constructed some time prior to 1928 to increase the attraction of the property

The myth of the ritual child murder became well-known and long-standing in English culture. The Hugh story is refenced by Geoffrey Chaucer‘s Canterbury Tales in The Prioress’s Tale. Marlowe also refers to the events, again probably knowing the story through Paris’ account. The story is retold as fact in Thomas Fuller‘s 1662 Worthies of England.[21][d]

Ballads referring to the incidentcirculated in England, Scotland and France.[22] The earliest English and French versions appear to have been composed near the time. The Hugh myth continued to find resonance into the nineteenth century, when European antisemitic polemicists attempted to “prove” the veracity of the story. Langmuir describes the “fantasy” concocted by Lexington as contributing to some of the darkest strands of anti-Jewish prejudice. Lexington:

In 1955, the Anglican Church placed a plaque at the site of Little Hugh’s former shrine at Lincoln Cathedral, bearing these words:

Trumped up stories of “ritual murders” of Christian boys by Jewish communities were common throughout Europe during the Middle Ages and even much later. These fictions cost many innocent Jews their lives. Lincoln had its own legend and the alleged victim was buried in the Cathedral in the year 1255.

Such stories do not redound to the credit of Christendom, and so we pray:

Lord, forgive what we have been, amend what we are, and direct what we shall be.

 

INTERCEDING

On this day, let us pray for:

  • All whose lives end in mystery and tragedy.
  • All who stand falsely accused.
  • People who are feared through ignorance, intolerance and for political ends.
  • People who are brave enough to confess their wrongdoings and to amend their lives.
  • All with the grace to forgive.

Saint Meriadoc -7th June

On 7th June we remember St Meriadoc, Bishop, patron of Camborne in Cornwall. St Meriadoc (also known as Meriasek) was probably a Welshman who founded at least one church in Cornwall and several churches and monasteries in Brittany in the 4th century. He eventually became a bishop there (despite his desire to be a hermit) and his feast is celebrated in several Breton dioceses to this day.

The rare Cornish miracle play: Beunans Meriasek, tells his life story. St Meriadoc was once very rich but he gave away all his possessions – much to the consternation of his relatives – and devoted his life to prayer and caring for the sick and needy.

His bell is still in the church at Stival in Brittany. Placed on the heads of migraine sufferers or the deaf, it is said to heal them.

I came across BBC1’s video of Longfellow’s cafe. It is also doing healing work in the community, allowing teenagers with autism to be a blessing to those around them and to live dignified, purposeful lives. It seems appropriate to share that video today as a way of remembering that God is still working, saints are still serving and communities are still being made whole.

 

INTERCEDING

On this day lift before God:

  • The peoples of Cornwall and Brittany.
  • Those who work with others, despite a preference for quiet and solitude.
  • All who suffer migraines.
  • Those who enjoy their lives as part of the deaf community and those struggling with hearing loss.
  • Longfellow’s cafe and other kingdom places, where the world is already turning and glory is shining all around!

Isidora, fool of Tabenna

Once, a desert monk, Saint Pitirim, had a vision. An angel of God appeared to him and said, “Go to the Tabenna monastery. There you will see a sister wearing a rag on her head. She serves them all with love, and endures their contempt without complaint. Her heart and her thoughts rest always with God. You, on the other hand, sit in solitude, but your thoughts flit about all over the world.”

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The Elder set out for the Tabenna monastery, but he did not see the one indicated to him in the vision among the sisters.

Then they led Isidora to him, considering her a demoniac, because she worked in the kitchen and fulfilled the dirtiest, covered her head with a plain rag, never became angry, never insulted anyone with a word, never grumbled against God or the sisters, and was given to silence.

Isidora fell down at the knees of the Elder, asking his blessing. Saint Pitirim bowed down to the ground to her and said, “Bless me first, venerable Mother!”

To the astonished questions of the sisters the Elder replied, “Before God, Isidora is higher than all of us!” Then the sisters began to repent, confessing their mistreatment of Isidora, and they asked her forgiveness. The saint, however, distressed over her fame, secretly hid herself away from the monastery, and her ultimate fate remained unknown.

INTERCEDING

On this day lift before God:

  • all who unassumingly take on tasks others consider menial.
  • all who have no desire to stand out.
  • all who tend toward silence.
  • all who make a habit of overlooking others.
  • all whose minds flit about uncontrollably.

Catherine of Sienna – 29th April

4E0C1EB8-F870-443E-9E96-2815DA0B8D22Catherine of Sienna is a celebrated mystic. She entered the Dominican order at 16 and died aged 33. She wrote extensively, including some words about the gift of tears.

Tears express an exquisite, profound sensitivity, a capacity for being moved and for tenderness.

Many Saints have had the gift of tears, renewing the emotion of Jesus himself who did not hold back or hide his tears at the tomb of his friend Lazarus and at the grief of Mary and Martha or at the sight of Jerusalem during his last days on this earth.

According to Catherine, the tears of saints are mingled with the blood of Christ, of which she spoke in vibrant tones and with symbolic images that were very effective.

INTERCEDING

On this day lift before God:

  • Young people who have vibrant faith in Jesus.
  • All whose prayers are expressed through tears.
  • All whose visions and writing draw us Godward.

Xenia of Petersburg, fool-for-Christ.

xeniaIt is easy to forget that our ways are not God’s ways, that there is usually a stark difference between what is popular and what is holy. God has given us some pretty unusual people to make that point clear through the example of their own lives.  They are known in the Orthodox Church as “Fools for Christ” who acted and spoke in ways that made them appear crazy in the eyes of many and went against the grain of their societies.  Through their unique witness, they called their neighbours to the life of a Kingdom not of this world.

If that seems strange, remember how St. Paul said that the cross of Christ is foolishness according to conventional human ways of thinking. (1 Cor. 1:18)  Recall how absurd it seemed to the Jews and the Gentiles to claim that the Son of God was born of a Virgin Mother, died on a cross, rose from the tomb, and ascended into heaven.  We often forget that even the most basic teachings of our faith seemed at first like nonsense to most people.

Today we commemorate Saint Xenia of St. Petersburg, Fool for Christ, who in the early 18th century in Russia became a widow when her husband, a military officer, died suddenly.  A young widow with no children, she gave away all her possessions to the poor and vanished from society for several years, devoting herself to spiritual struggle in monastic settings. When she returned to St. Petersburg, she took up the life of a homeless wanderer, wearing her late husband’s military uniform and answering only to his name Andrew.  She prayed alone at night in open fields, endured the extreme cold with inadequate clothing, lived among beggars, and suffered abuse from many for appearing insane. She secretly carried heavy stones at night to help with the building of a church and gave the alms she received to the poor.  But she embraced her struggles with patience, abandoning pride in all its forms and praying for the soul of her departed husband. In Xenia’s humility, God gave her great gifts of prayer and prophecy, and she foretold future events such as the death of a Russian empress.

During her lifetime, some recognized her holiness and sought out her blessing and guidance. After Xenia’s own death at age 71, her grave became a source of miracles with many people taking dirt, and even pieces of a stone slab, from it as a blessing.  (If it seems odd that a grave could be a source of blessing, recall how the bones of prophet Elisha brought a dead man back to life in 2 Kings 13:21.) St. Xenia is a well-known and much-loved saint whose prayers are sought especially for employment, housing, or finding a spouse.

Across the centuries, the Lord has raised up such unusual saints in order to shock us out of our complacency, in order to remind us that there is far more to becoming a partaker of the divine nature (2. Peter 1:14) than leading a conventionally respectable life.

Christ surely does not call us all to the rare ministry of a Fool for Christ like St. Xenia, but we may all learn from her example that the humility of embracing our constant need for mercy is at the heart of faithfulness to a Lord Whose Kingdom is not of this world.   There must be something of the holy fool in us all, if our eyes are to be opened to a truth that the world does not yet see.  So let us not be afraid to live accordingly and to be out of step with the conventional wisdom, for that is how we will follow Jesus through the folly of the cross to the glory of the empty tomb. For Christ’s foolishness is wiser than the wisdom of the world, and He is its salvation.

 

INTERCEDING

On this day lift before God:

  • The people of St Petersburg.
  • Widows.
  • All who wander.
  • All who seek to lose the identity they were born with.
  • All who help others despite their own struggles.
  • All who give generously, seeking no praise.
  • All who make us uncomfortable.
  • All who make us think.

Geneviève of Paris – 3rd January

Geneviève  was a peasant girl born in Nanterre. On the deaths of her parents, she went to live with her godmother Lutetia in Paris. There the young woman became admired for her piety and devotion to works of charity, and practiced corporal austerities which included abstaining from meat and breaking her fast only twice in the week. “These mortifications she continued for over thirty years, till her ecclesiastical superiors thought it their duty to make her diminish her austerities.”

Geneviève had frequent visions of heavenly saints and angels. She reported her visions and prophecies, until her enemies conspired to drown her in a lake. Through the intervention of Germanus, their animosity was finally overcome. The Bishop of Paris appointed her to look after the welfare of the virgins dedicated to God, and by her instruction and example she led them to a high degree of sanctity.

Shortly before the attack of the Huns under Attila in 451 on Paris, Genevieve and Germanus’ archdeacon, persuaded the panic-stricken people of Paris not to flee but to pray. It is claimed that the intercession of Genevieve’s prayers caused Attila’s army to go to Orléans instead. During Childeric’s siege and blockade of Paris in 464, Geneviève passed through the siege lines in a boat to Troyes, bringing grain to the city. She also pleaded to Childeric for the welfare of prisoners-of-war, and met with a favorable response. Through her influence, Childeric and Clovis displayed unwonted clemency towards the citizens.

INTERCEDING

On this day lift before God:

  • all who trust in the power of prayer.
  • all with courage despite apparent powerlessness.
  • all who are faithful to their work in the face of criticism
  • all whose homes are under attack or siege.