- Growing into God
I am intrigued by the spiritual implications of the perceived distinction between body, a sociocultural construct developed in relation to the demands, aesthetics, and expectations of others, and flesh, the body's raw material, as it were, the locus of corporeal experience. I am no theorist, however, and so such a distinction is moot without an experiential foundation. In my case, both body and flesh are affected by the progressive physical disability caused by multiple sclerosis, and my sense of the holy has unfolded largely in the shadow of that degenerative disease.
We are all born flesh, into what my daughter calls the larval stage, but the formation of the body begins early and with varying degrees of intensity (my mother claims to have had me potty-trained at one year, whereas said daughter left her last child in diapers until she was four and a half). I learned the basic behavioral rules according to my social position (don't pick your nose in public, don't allow boys to glimpse your knickers, excuse yourself when you burp, never say "ain't" or call anyone a "stinker" or refer to "the trots," and so on) but didn't start to fret about my body, its appearance and its functions, until the onset of puberty when suddenly, it seemed to me, everyone was looking at me all the time—and no one was much impressed with what they saw. Nor was I. For the next three decades, I slaved over my body, painting its hair and fingernails, shaving and scenting its various parts, dressing it in pretty clothes, more or less whatever the magazine models and movie stars and my chicest friends were doing only without the dreamed of results. Even though I became an emerging and then a committed feminist, I continued to treat my body, without irony, as an icon of femininity.
In terms of flesh, I was miserable much of the time: I menstruated heavily and painfully, I sneezed and wheezed from last thaw to first frost, I developed migraine headaches and later irritable bowel syndrome, severe depression, [End Page 137] and panic attacks, which caused me to spend some months in a mental hospital. Childbirth was complicated by a protracted pelvis and Rh incompatibility. When I was twenty-nine, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and began the long, slow transmogrification from a "body in trouble" to flesh in extremis. If I have never had much affection for my body, I have downright despised my flesh and tried to get rid of it through anorexia and suicide attempts. Lest these details make my life sound unrelievedly grim, I must remind you that they have been spread out over a span of sixty-six years, during which I have had many joys to balance the suffering.
Throughout this span, God has functioned as a significant though ambiguous force. Early on, I knew him as a Father, gigantic and far off in the sky, with whom my own daddy had gone to live, a move that never made sense to me (and still doesn't). Raised a Congregationalist, I sang in the junior and then senior choir and had a collection of perfect-attendance pins from Sunday school, so I learned all the stories, but no one ever taught me how to interpret them. I read the entire Bible in preparation for confirmation when I was thirteen (I was overzealous in most of my undertakings). I began to pray, a lot of please-pleaseplease and not much thank-you, and I had numerous mystical encounters with nature. By college, although I insisted on my belief in God, I stopped doing very much about it. After marrying, I became an Episcopalian and attended church at least at Christmas and Easter. I would say that my faith in God remained immature long after my body reached adulthood. At the time I learned that I had a chronic incurable degenerative disease, I still believed that God could work miracles, and the fact that he would not cure me suggested that he was quirky and mean-spirited, possibly even amused by my plight, not the sort of...