Body Memories

by Charity K.M. Hamilton.

In a couple of weeks time I will be marking the one year anniversary of my most recent and life-changing surgery. It is a strange memorial, a marking of what was and what is, and what is yet to come; it is also a marking of gratitude to those whose actions stood in the way of death. It has taken a great deal of time for my body to become well again and yet it remembers its illness and trauma, not just in a brain-thinking way but in a very visceral and physical way. Whether through new limitations, scars or changes in my body, my body remembers. My body is the primary witness to my experience and as such it tells a narrative which is given voice by memory. Arthur Frank when writing about illness and embodiment suggests that, ‘observing what stories say about the body is a familiar sort of listening; describing stories as told through the body requires another level of attention.[i] It is that level of attention, of hearing the stories told through the body that is a significant task for the Church as we enable others to re-member the body, to bring their bodies and the communal body back together into wholeness.

I have come to recognise how important our bodies are in our knowing of God and our mediating of God in the world. The Christian story is located in bodies, it starts in the beginning when God creates the earth and situates in it animal and human bodies with which God interacts. The Christian story is situated in our understandings of Christology in which we know God through the embodied life of Christ. We recently celebrated Christmas in which God takes on human form – God both gets a body, is literally ‘in-carnated’ as the Word ‘becomes flesh’, and affects the bodies of others; Mary’s body expands and she takes up more room in the world as she is pregnant with Christ, both she and Joseph have bodies which travel first to Bethlehem and then to Egypt, they share the birth of their child with the physical bodies of others, shepherds, travellers and animals. Mario Aguilar writes that, ‘…till very recently the body has been repressed. After all, the body constitutes an expression of God, it acts as a mediator of God’s life and it constitutes a visible sign of those who are members of a particular community.’[ii]

So, what does it matter that our bodies tell stories? Why do I bother with bodies in my working out of theology?

27th January 2019 marked Holocaust Memorial Day, a remembering of the violation of human bodies by other human bodies in the genocide of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust as well as those killed in subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.  When I contemplate the Holocaust, and the liberation of the concentration camps, I bring to mind images of incredibly thin, starving people; bodies which showed the story of abuse and death.  Bodies with a story of survival despite the abuse of corrupted medical skill, unlike my own body story of survival because of the care of medical skill. Likewise, when I think of the Rwandan genocide, images of masses of bones surfaces, the very physical representation of death. It matters that our bodies tell stories because these are the stories that tell of a God who dwells in suffering flesh and who is wholly invested in living despite being curated by death. The stories of people’s bodies are powerful things which point the world towards active change, the body of a holocaust survivor bears testament to the suffering perpetrated because of an ideology which runs so contrary to a God of love and light. It teaches us through its story of what we, as people of faith, will always speak and act against; using our bodies to tell a story and incarnating protest and justice. This is why I bother with bodies in my working out of theology – bodies matter to God, they tell the story of a God of light, love and justice, they effect change in the world.

We are ‘always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.’[iii]

[i] Frank, Arthur, W. (1995), The Wounded Story Teller: Body, Illness and Ethics, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p.2

[ii] Aguilar, Mario (2012), Theology, Liberation and Genocide, London: SCM, p.89

[iii] 2 Corinthians 4:10 NRSV

4 thoughts on “Body Memories”

  1. This is interesting.
    We are used to the body being given a bad press in theological terms. ‘Sins of the flesh’ suggests our natural physical desires are wrong, when really it is just our abuse or over-indulgence of them that is harmful. Normal bodily functions can be a source of embarrassment when we can’t control them, yet animals in their natural state just do what comes naturally, whenever and wherever the need arises. Our intelligent minds have been conditioned to think our bodies are dirty, smelly and embarrassing and belong in the dust, but our souls are divine and belong with God in the Heavenly realms.
    We divide our own being into ‘profane’ and ‘sacred’ and then go on to judge and separate everything else as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
    I welcome any support from wise theologians in helping us to reconcile body and soul and make us ‘whole’ again.


    1. It occurred to me as I read Charity’s very interesting and insightful piece, that, when she talks of the bones dug up in Bosnia, that, when faced with a valley of dry bones, Ezekiel was called by God to prophesy over the bones.

      And the dry bones rattled as they reorganised themselves and God breathed life into them again.

      Here God was working through bodies with a past, and giving them a new future. What a story! Do we need to hear again Ezekiel’s, that is God’s, prophesy again? – in order to re-embody God’s will for us in the ‘new thing’ God is waiting for us to do?


  2. This is an incredible reflection! In October last I celebrated 20 years since the heart and thoracic surgery that saved my life replacing 2 heart valves and removing an empires from my plural. I Cary the scars and the memories but o how it all reshaped my life and brought me closer to God and set me on my way with new purpose and refocused. Thank you


  3. Wonderful stuff….and right now – today – I think of Yemeni infants so thin they hardly look like babies at all. And the body of a mother, longing to nurture her baby at the breast, but finding that starvation has dried up her own milk. How a body must ache not to be able to feed her child. Kyrie Eleison


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