Body of a Saint

In my post about suffering, I wrote about feeling that I needed to prove to my evangelical Christian peers and leaders that I was good when I was younger.  Let me explain: I had changed.  Developed from a girl, into a pre-teen, into a teen, and the wag of my widening hips, my humor, my energy, and what became my signature sass made my evangelical Christian friends and leaders, well, uneasy.

There was nothing inherently wrong about the 50s pin-up ba-boom of the hips that the sheer girth of my backside made me do, but people were beginning to think that if I wasn’t careful, I might not be the right kind of evangelical Christian woman (that is to say: sweet, quiet, prayerful, and eternally supportive of her man).

The church’s suspicions about me were never so clear as when I was cast as a demon or a whore in church skits and plays.  Once, I was even cast as sex itself.  My role was to silently seduce “Christian” with my body.  Christian would refuse me and then slam a Bible before my face, causing me to wither onto the floor, while Christian moved on to his next temptation: money.

After a performance at a British private school we were visiting as missionaries, the actor playing Christian pulled me aside.

“You’re good at that part,” he told me.

“Thanks,” I replied.  I had actually worked really hard at my part, practicing my seductive moves and dramatic wilting until it was just right.  The trick was, you had to make the withering part was big enough to get the point across without the use of words, and from a distance no less, but not make it so big as to take people out of the scene, reminding them that it was just theater after all.  The scene had to get inside them for their heart to change, preparing their hearts for Jesus to enter into it, so that was important.

Christian smiled.  “Maybe you’re too good at the part,” he raised his eyebrows.

My face burned.

“What do you mean?” I asked him.

“Nothing,” he said.  Then he turned away, repeating in a sing-song, “Nothing at all….”

I knew exactly what he meant.  Knew that the fact that I was even capable of making the audience think of sex—which was all I had before he shoved the Bible in my face—was enough to suggest I wasn’t pure.  

I wanted to make my leaders, my friends, myself believe I was good, but my stupid, floppy, breasty body was always getting in the way.  I was sure that if I could just get rid of my body, lofty spiritual philosophies that had been locked up in it would flow from me like a river and I would be declared a great saint.

Returning home from my third surgery at the age of 20, forty pounds lighter, my wish had finally come true.  My body was flat.  Girlish. Safe. Foreign to me. Like that of a child again. Like that of a saint.

I remember lying in my childhood bed, my t-shirt pulled up to my chest at the age of 20.  I remember staring at the nearly foot-long wound stuffed with gauze that now ran the length of my abdomen.  My bare feet stuck out between the white wooden bars of my daybed as though I were Alice in Wonderland having eaten a piece of “eat me” cake and found myself in a crib I was suddenly very aware of having outgrown.  Despite becoming physically smaller, I felt so much…bigger all of a sudden—aged by suffering, a grown woman in a playpen.

I strained to lift my head so I could inspect my tattered stomach.  Bandages of various shapes and sizes papered the surface.  Beneath them, in the lower right hand corner of my abdomen, a plastic ileostomy bag was attached to a nub of small intestine that protruded from my side.  The bag caught my waste and gas for over a year before my surgeon would one day bend a piece of my small intestines into a makeshift colon to replace the one I lost.

“Linda?” my mom called from outside my bedroom door.

I pulled my t-shirt back down over my exposed stomach.  “Yes?” I called.

The door opened and Mom’s face appeared through the crack.  “Can I come in?”

“Sure,” I said.

“I wasn’t sure if you were sleeping,” she opened the door the rest of the way.

“No,” I said.  “I just changed my dressing,” nodding toward the bandage on my stomach.

Mom came over to the side of the bed and picked up the wet gauze I had changed out for fresh, wrapping it in a Kleenex and walking over to the trash can with it.  “Pastor Mark called,” she said softly as she walked back to the bed.

“Oh yeah?”  I answered, straining to turn onto my side.

“Let me help you,” she offered.

Mom took me lightly by the shoulders and rolled me over onto my side.  I planted my palms firmly on the mattress, releasing my weight onto them to ease the strain on my stomach and tried to push myself upright.  Mom watched me, her forehead furrowed with concern, before putting her arms on my shoulders and helping me the rest of the way.

“Thank you,” I said.  She took hold of my legs, slowly lifting them from the bed to the floor while I winced in pain.

She continued, “He told me they’re going to have live animals in the nativity scene this year.”  She lowered herself onto the bed next to me, helping me straighten my body.  “Donkeys, cows, chickens.  They’ve even got llamas.”

“Cool,” I said resting my forehead on my hand.  I was still getting dizzy every time I went from lying down to sitting due to the dehydration.

“Linda,” Mom ducked down so she could make eye contact with me even as my head was bent.  “Linda, this year…Pastor Mark said they want you to play Mary in the live nativity scene.”

“Me?” I asked, pulling my head out of my hand.

“You would even get to hold a real little baby,” she beamed.

Were I not in so much pain, I might have laughed.  There was no way I could hold a baby.  I couldn’t even hold myself up.  I was weaker than I had ever been.

“Mom,” I said.  “I can’t do that.”

“I know,” she sighed, taking my hand.  “I know honey.  I told Pastor Mark you were still too sick.  But I thought you would want to know.  They chose you, Linda.  They chose you.”

I smiled sadly.  “Thanks Mom.”

“Sure,” she smiled back.  “Let me go grab you some water.”

“Okay,” I said.

Mary, I thought to myself as she left the room.  They want me to be Mary. Of all the parts in the world…the Virgin Mother.  I couldn’t believe it; I was finally good.

My prayer at the age of 14 that I referenced in my post on suffering?  It may have been foolish, but it was not misinformed.  I had known exactly what it would take for me to win goodness in the eyes of my community—depressing my body and trading my playfulness for frailty.  I was finally the martyr I had always wanted to be.  Though for what cause, I wasn’t sure.  There was no gun pointed to my head, no angry gang leader demanding I deny my faith.  Instead, it was just me: smiling and ignoring my body’s plea to pay attention to it.  It led me right where I wanted it to lead me—death’s door.  But instead of forgetting my body, I was more aware of it than ever—of how much I missed it.  Sitting alone in my room that day, I would have traded in the church’s perception of me as good to be able to run and jump and play in a short skirt and a low cut tank top with big flirtatious smile on my face in a heartbeat.

Today, looking back on this moment of realization at the age of 20, it seems to me a kind of strange nativity scene.  Only in this nativity scene, I’m not playing Mary.  I’m playing the baby—too big for her daybed crib but too small for prayer-wishes that just may be answered.  In some ways, I was starting over again that day.  Unformed.  Unsure.  But ready to try being who I was this time around—soul, mind and body.

Today, I’m almost 34.  Over a decade ago, my Crohn’s Diesease entered a long and gorgeous remission allowing me to be reborn into a body I have come to embrace and deeply love.  Every scar is an experience.  Now a wide scar runs down the middle of my abdomen.  Another hugs my side where my ileostomy bag once was.  And a few others keep them company.  Every wrinkle is made from living my life—dark, sleepless nights and long, hard laughter.  The places where my skin dimples are like smiles, dents made from being well-rested and well-fed.  The pockets where my fat pooches are signs of big pots of soup, cherry pies and a crème brulee I had in Paris that I will never forget.  My life is etched into every part of me.  And I’ve come to learn something amazing: I don’t have to leave a bit of it behind to find God, not even my big hips.

Sometimes, in fact, when I need God most, I go deeper into my body to find him, because my body often hears God before the rest of me does—its muscles contracting or releasing with warning, memory, or some other message.   And so, today, I pay attention to my body.  I listen to it and do my best to learn the lessons it has to offer me rather than telling it to shut up and follow my mind’s lead.  Because the thing about a wound is that, when treated, it heals.  A light wound disappears altogether and a deep wound develops into a scar—which becomes tougher, stronger than even the untouched skin around it.

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