Today's post is an excerpt from my new book, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding The Church and is taken from a chapter entitled, "Body."
"You are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it."
—1 Corinthians 12:27
“The church is a whore, but she is my mother.” The quote is attributed to St. Augustine, but no one’s really tracked it down. I’d venture to guess it originated with a man, though, and an unimaginative one at that.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate the sentiment—that despite her persistent wanderings and betrayals, the church births us and feeds us and names us children of God—it’ s just that when we leave men to draw all the theological conclusions about a metaphorically feminine church, we end up with rather predictable categories, don’t we?
Virgin. Whore. Mother.
But what might a woman say about church as she? What might a woman say about the church as body and bride?
Perhaps she would speak of the way a regular body moves through the world—always changing, never perfect—capable of nurturing life, not simply through the womb, but through hands, feet, eyes, voice, and brain. Every part is sacred. Every part has a function.
Perhaps she would speak of impossible expectations and all the time she’s wasted trying to contort herself into the shape of those amorphous silhouettes that flit from magazines and billboards into her mind. Or of this screwed-up notion of purity as a status, as something awarded by men with tests and checklists and the power to give it and take it away.
Perhaps she would speak of the surprise of seeing herself—flaws and all—in the mirror on her wedding day. Or of the reality that with new life comes swollen breasts, dry heaves, dirty diapers, snotty noses, late-night arguments, and a whole army of new dangers and fears she never even considered before because life-giving isn’t nearly as glamorous as it sounds, but it’s a thousand times more beautiful.
Perhaps she would talk about being underestimated, about surprising people and surprising herself. Or about how there are moments when her own strength startles her, and moments when her weakness—her forgetfulness, her fear, her exhaustion—unnerve her.
Maybe she would tell of the time, in the mountains with bare feet on the ground, she stood tall and wise and felt every cell in her body smile in assent as she inhaled and exhaled and in one loud second realized, I’m alive! I’m enfleshed! only to forget it the next.
Or maybe she would explain how none of the categories created for her sum her up or capture her essence.
If the church is like a body, like a bride, then perhaps we ought to take her through what Barbara Brown Taylor’s calls the “spiritual practice of wearing skin”:
Whether you are sick or well, lovely or irregular, there comes a time when it is vitally important to your spiritual health to drop your clothes, look in the mirror, and say, ‘Here I am. This is the body-like-no-other that my life has shaped. I live here. This is my soul’s address. After you have taken a good look around, you may decide that there is a lot to be thankful for, all things considered. Bodies take real beatings. That they heal from most things is an underrated miracle. That they give birth is beyond reckoning.
“When I do this,” she says, “I generally decide that it is time to do a better job of wearing my skin with gratitude instead of loathing.”
So let’s turn the mirror:
This is the church. Here she is. Lovely, irregular, sometimes sick and sometimes well. This is the body-like-no-other that God has shaped and placed in the world. Jesus lives here; this is his soul’s address. There is a lot to be thankful for, all things considered. She has taken a beating, the church. Every day she meets the gates of hell and she prevails. Every day she serves, stumbles, injures, and repairs. That she has healed is an underrated miracle. That she gives birth is beyond reckoning. Maybe it’s time to make peace with her. Maybe its time to embrace her, flawed as she is.
Maybe it’s time to smile back.
Sometimes I think the biggest challenge in talking about the church is telling ourselves the truth about it—acknowledging the scars, staring down the ugly bits, marveling at its resiliency, and believing that this flawed and magnificent body is enough, for now, to carry us through the world and into the arms of Christ.
Perhaps there is more to the church than mother and whore. And perhaps we might learn this from a woman.
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