Monday, May 17, 2010

The Body's Wisdom IV

The organic unity of the mind and body is beautifully expressed by the poet Jane Hirshfield in her lovely book, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry:

"Saying a poem aloud, or reading it silently if we do so with our full attention, our bodies as well as our minds enter the rhytmns present at that poem's conception. We breath as the author breathed, we move our own tongue and teeth and throat in the ways they moved at the poem's first making. There is a startling intimacy to this. Some echo of a writer's physical experience comes into us when we read her poem; if the poem is our own, it is our own past that reinhabits our bodies, at least in part. Shaped language is strangely immortal, living in a meadowy freshness outside of time."

Hirshfield's remarks have vast implications for the way we translate scripture and liturgical texts, a subject too complex to discuss today. But before we leave her work we should perhaps note what she says about concentration, as it reflects some of the nuance of the Hebrew word for glory, a key theme for Easter and what the New Testament may mean by a "glorified body."

She defines concentration as: "to increase in strength or density, as in concentrating a salt solution. The direction of movement here is in another dimension entirely, neither inward nor outward: it is our own state of being that alters. Concentration of this kind relates to the way a poem's presentation of meaning opposes . . . the laziness and entropy of ordinary mind." We might rephrase this more positively as the resurrection of the mind through the body.

From this it is not difficult to see why moderate fasting was recommended by the ancients as an accompaniment to the work of silence. The body realizes that it isn't going to die if it cuts back on immediate gratification; it thereby encourages the mind to rouse itself to undertake what, for some people, is far more daunting: the choice to begin the work of silence. There is no hard and fast rule, however: for some the choice for silence is far easier to make than limiting the intake of food.

"Sit in your cell," said Abba Hierax, "and if you are hungry, eat, and if you are thirsty, drink; only do not speak evil of anyone, and you will be saved." There is no exaggeration in such advice; it is as useful now as it was in the fourth century. There is asceticism enough in staying in one place. To "sit in your cell" at one level simply means not going out unnecessarily, just as these days we try not to drive unnecessarily. At another level it means far more.


Blogger wmackaye said...

Thanks for your lovely reflection "The Body's Wisdom." I've been an admirer of your thinking since I read Pillars of Flame a number of years ago. I was unaware of your blog until I was referred to it during the development of the current kerfuffle over whether vowed solitude is to be legislated.

Permit me a couple of quibbles, however.

First, I feel fairly strongly that the Greek word sarx ought always to be translated flesh in New Testament and early Christian texts. It is a theological term in almost every case and the English-speaking reader can learn its meaning only by seeing it context again and again. "Appetite," "desire," even New Jerusalem's "human nature" don't begin to cut it.

Second, I think you misunderstand out-of-the-body experiences, at least as I understand the term. It's no metaphor. As a four- or five-year-old child, I had an out-of-the-body experience. Perhaps it was a dream, but my experience was that of awakening in my bedroom, realizing that I was floating somewhere near the ceiling and that I was looking at my body asleep in the bed below. Whatever was happening, it was not metaphorical. I was definitely out of my body.

What if anything the experience meant, I have no idea, but it's not something one forgets. For me more than 70 years later, the recollection remains vivid.

4:32 am, May 22, 2010  

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