Saturday, September 6, 2014


-At the Desert Retreat House-

In an Op-Ed  column in yesterday's New York Times, David Brooks offered a fascinating if not profound insight into the recent horrific beheadings of the two American journalists in the war-torn Middle East. He raised the question, "Why the act of beheading arouses such a strong visceral response" in us? Why does separating a head with a knife feel different from a shooting or a bombing?"

I've been thinking about this question - the idea of one human being severing the head of another with a butcher knife (and then posting this act online) is just so depraved that it is difficult for me to even think about it. It is even more horrific to think that this was done in the name of religion. 

Mr. Brooks' answer to his own question yesterday opened a door of fresh new insight for me about the "sacredness" of the human body.

The revulsion around beheading is mostly a moral revulsion. A beheading feels like a defilement.  It is a defacement of something sacred that should be inviolable. 

Even though we don't talk about it or have a vocabulary to talk about it these days, most of us understand that the human body is sacred - it's not just a piece of meat or a bunch or neurons and cells.

We are repulsed by a beheading because the body has a spiritual essence. The human head and body don't  just live and pass along genes. They paint, make ethical judgements, savor the beauty of a sunset and experience the transcendent. The body is material but surpasses the material. It is spiritualized matter.

My jaw dropped when I read this very thoughtful article in the paper yesterday - such powerful wisdom about the "spirituality" inherent in the nature of every human being.  

Christians often use the word "incarnation." It means "in the flesh" or "taking on flesh," and the word is usually used in reference to Jesus Christ in whom humanity and divinity are joined together.  But I actually think the word "incarnation" can be applied to all human beings.  In a very real sense, humanity and divinity are joined together in every one of us.  Our human flesh is not just a "piece of meat." We are a wonderful mixture of the infinite and the finite. We are indeed "spiritualized  matter."

It seems so blatantly wrong to me that someone could have so little respect for a sacred human body that they would cavalierly sever another person's head with a butcher knife and do it all in the name of "God." But then again, many religious traditions (my own Christian tradition included) have historically   denigrated the sacredness of the human body. Flesh has often been portrayed as an enemy of the spirit,  the body as an opponent of the soul that must be chastised, punished, deprived, even flagellated for the soul to be healthy. 

Our flesh is our doorway to the holy- in our bodies we encounter the divine. 

It's sort of interesting that an article in the New York Times can be more spiritually insightful to me than many of the endless tomes of theological books I have read in my career as an ordained priest. I wonder if maybe seminaries might do well to subscribe to a few more newspapers as part of their theological curricula. 

As I sit in my garden once again at the beginning of this late-summer day in the desert,  I embrace my sacred humanity. Divinity, mystery, transcendence - "incarnate" in my flesh. 

I am "spiritualized matter"- so are we all.


  1. When R.W. Emerson said 'thickened light' I believe he meant the same thing. Is it possible we are all the same thing merely vibrating vibrating at different frequencies?

    1. Yes, very powerful image of thickened light.