What is Practicing Incarnation?
“Speak the words you most need to hear.”
This lesson from my seminary preaching professor still lives within me over a decade later. She was teaching us to pay close attention to our own deepest longings, to tend to those longings in our sermons, and that in doing so, we could trust that these most tender needs are shared with the people we are serving. That it is likely that someone else needs to hear those words too. This wisdom extends far beyond the act of preaching. And I return to it now as I share with you my work as a spiritual director and Enneagram facilitator. I have chosen to ground my work in this phrase:
Practicing Incarnation. Discovering the Sacred where you are, as you are.
Practicing Incarnation holds many layers of meaning for me – beginning with the invitation to encounter God, to receive Love, right here, now, in this moment. And in my experience, this practice begins with the body. Some of the words I most need to hear, on a daily basis, is that my body is where I belong. That this life, this flesh I inhabit, is a doorway to the Divine; a doorway to deeper relationship with myself and all of Creation.
Looking back, it feels like my life began anew when my relationship with my body and the physical world changed. For those of you familiar with the Enneagram, I find my home at point Nine. Nines are masters of dissociation – floating our way through life just a little outside of physical reality (okay – sometimes quite a distance from physical reality!). My ideal state as a teen/young adult was lying on the couch, listening to melancholy music (Sarah McLachlan really fit the bill), and allowing my mind to roam in a daydream state. While I had physical activities like playing basketball, I was never really present in my body unless there was pain. In fact, I think that I mostly associated my body with pain, fear, and the feeling of limitation. When I would hit up against a limitation or even just an intense sensation, my story about how I can’t handle life would take over, I would collapse inwardly, and a feeling of worthlessness would arise. Of course, I wasn’t aware of any of this then. My body/physical activity simply became something to be avoided. I still love my time in the hammock – and I still struggle with my response to hard cardio exercise that takes me to my physical limits – but in the last decade, my body has become a more cherished companion. I am learning what it means to belong in my body – to encounter not just pain here, but pleasure, energy, strength, power, aliveness, and sensations that intrigue and invite me into new insight. But above all, connecting with my body has brought me clarity. I often struggle to know how I feel or what I think about something. Now, when I am unclear, I head to the yoga mat or walk a labyrinth, and my body leads the way.
My body leads me home.
The Western Christian tradition uses the word Incarnation to talk about how God entered our human reality when Jesus was born. Word made flesh. God with us. It’s always been one of the spiritual teachings that has resonated most strongly with me. I love the story of God choosing to be as close to us as possible, choosing to identify with our experience as fully as possible. But there was a piece missing in the version I was taught. What I picked up was that God enters the world – but really, only in Jesus. Incarnation was limited to this one man. Jesus was an external symbol of God’s presence. One that we are invited to believe in, model our lives after, and seek to have an ongoing relationship with through the Spirit still with us (a spirit that is largely ethereal…not so physical).
Somehow, I missed that God might encounter me through MY body. And yet, this is exactly what has happened.
My experience of God came alive as I began to notice and listen to my body. In fact, my experience of God cracked open….exploded open….transformed me in ways I could not have imagined possible. It began with my hands. I started to notice pleasant tingling sensations in the palms of my hands and along my fingers as I would sit in silent prayer. On one of my first silent retreats, the sensations grew more intense and my hands lit up almost like live sparks of electricity were emanating from all over my fingers and palms. Prayer became a more tangibly physical experience than I had encountered before. This warm, tingling energy in my palms began to contribute to my discernment. When my hands would light up, I would pay attention. Is God wanting me to notice something here? Where is this sensation leading me? At first, I was very uncertain what to make of these experiences. I hadn’t heard people in my church community talk about these kinds of encounters. Could I trust this? But as I began to talk about it with others, I began to hear more stories of these kinds of experiences. And I’ll never forget one pastoral colleague telling me to trust my hands…to follow the sensation. The intensity of sensation in my hands has subsided in recent years but still shows up now and again – like right now as I write. My hands are helping me notice the holy. To root me to the ground when my ego wants to float away.
My body leads me home.
It’s been a slow journey home, at times. I don’t want to give the impression that this shift in relationship to my body happened overnight, or that it is finished. It took two to three years of starting to practice yoga, and contemplative practices like centering prayer before things began to change and I began to encounter myself and God at a deeper level. I love how Parker Palmer describes this tender process of building relationship with our own hidden selves (he uses the term soul – I think this applies to our bodies or any unknown aspect of ourselves as well):
“The soul speaks its truth only under quiet, inviting, and trustworthy conditions. The soul is like a wild animal – tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient, and yet exceedingly shy. If we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is to go crashing through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out. But if we are willing to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of a tree, the creature we are waiting for may well emerge, and out of the corner of an eye we will catch a glimpse of the precious wildness we seek.” – “Let Your Life Speak”, p.7 –
After 30 years of neglect, it took quite some time for me to build trust with my body and inner being. And sometimes, I break that trust. I still return to old habits. Thankfully my body, heart, and soul are quite gracious with me (as is God!). Hence my invitation to you to practice incarnation with me. I am still practicing, and trust I will be practicing for the rest of my life.