A Truly Embodied Spirituality


This article is the last in a three-part series by Madeline Schaefer on Quakerism, food, and the body. Read part one, Silent Bodies, in the March issue and part two, Bringing Our Bodies to the Light in the June/July issue.

“Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.” —1 Corinthians 6:19–20

Christianity and its theological descendants have a complicated relationship to the body, to say the least. Take, for example, the passage above, one that has the potential to evoke distaste for traditional Christianity, while simultaneously speaking to a deep spiritual truth within all of us. The phrase is drawn from one of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, in which he is admonishing their wayward sexual behavior.

Aside from the generally problematic repercussions that passages like this one have had for Christianity’s approach to sexuality, perhaps the most difficult part of this passage for me is the phrase, “You are not your own; you were bought at a price.” We were “bought,” like pieces of property? Who was doing this “buying,” and does this sacrificial soul exchange, my “price” (presumably Jesus’s crucifixion), accurately depict what I believe to be Jesus’s fundamental spiritual message of transformation?

Yet there is so much in this phrase that resonates with me deeply. I believe that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. I also believe that our bodies are not “our own,” in the traditional sense; while they are intimately connected to our identity and our experience, they also belong to our genetic legacy, environmental surroundings, and the whims of fate. Our bodies take us on the journey of life, as much as we like to think that we are the drivers of these fragile vehicles. I have come to know experientially that when we listen to the body, we are listening to the Holy Spirit; when we honor the gift of the body, we honor our maker.

My conflicted relationship with this phrase reflects many Quakers’ inability to integrate the body into our spiritual lives. We are the inheritors of a tradition and society that has spent millennia shaming and condemning the body as the source of guilt and sin. We have simultaneously maintained a commitment to the spirit of Jesus’s teachings—teachings that we believe are grounded in love and the acceptance of all living things, including the bodies they inhabit. Caught in this middle ground between patriarchy and radical spirituality, it is often easier to simply put this issue aside, leaving the body outside of any spiritual conversation.

Quakers have likely also struggled to talk about the body because the body is difficult to talk about. We don’t experience the body with our minds; we experience it on a much more subtle, nonverbal level. In order to experience the body, we have to “turn off” our brains, the parts of ourselves that can accurately analyze and understand those very experiences. The interplay between the mind and body is subtle, and is not easily processed together using the traditionally intellectual methods of Quaker communication.

Whatever our struggles have been, I believe that we should begin talking, no matter how clunky or treacherous those conversations may seem. We should speak about our bodies not only because they are the means through which we experience transcendence (which is often the context in which the body comes up), but because our bodies are speaking to us, telling us the story of our relationship to Spirit. It is only when we listen to them that we can become more whole, for our bodies are often revealing those places that are in the most need of healing.

What we put in our bodies in the form of food and drink reflects our relationship to our physical selves most potently. According to author and workshop leader Geneen Roth, the way we interact with food has a direct correlation with our relationship to the Divine. “If we are interested in finding out,” she says, “what we actually believe—not what we think, not what we say, but what our souls are convinced is the bottom-line truth about life and afterlife—we need go no further than the food on our plates.” Many, if not most of us, have or have had a conflicted, complicated relationship to food. What can those relationships reveal about our relationship to Spirit?

Roth’s book Women, Food, and God explores this question through her own journey of turning her conflicted relationship to food into one of mindfulness, acceptance—even love. After years of speaking with other women and teaching workshops on mindful eating, she has come to the conclusion that our relationship with food reflects our ability to nourish ourselves and remain connected to our deepest knowing, that knowing that comes in many names: our intuition, Spirit, God. If we are not at peace with the physical world, our spirits also cannot be at peace. Examine your relationship to your body, she writes, and you will find those stuck places where Spirit is waiting to break in.

I have found this to be true in my own journey: when I began to look consciously at the way that I approach food and my body—the negative self-talk, the fear—I could finally begin to see the spiritual roots of my disease. I could finally begin to see how and when my spirit became disconnected from its own wholeness. When I could finally look at my brokenness in the face, lift it “to the light,” I could finally begin to heal. I could finally begin an honest conversation with Spirit using both my mind and the more subtle language of the body.

Looking at my relationship to my body and food in the spiritual context I know best—a Quaker one—was not easy. The silence around food and the body in the wider Quaker culture that I discussed in my previous two articles certainly presented one major roadblock. But my struggles were also tied to Quaker theology. Quakers have historically rejected the physical world as expressions of Spirit—including the body and food. Aren’t our bodies simply “outward forms”? Aren’t they merely a distraction from Spirit? Didn’t we reject the spiritual nature of food and the body when we rejected communion and ritual?

It is not, of course, the physical world or ritual per se that early Friends were objecting to; it was forms that are empty, devoid of all meaning. If done with sincere and honest intention, ritual has the potential to transform our relationship to the physical world and imbue it with an energy that reestablishes our inherent, forgotten connection. Ritual is the process of honoring the spiritual dimension of this Earth; it is an act of respect that utilizes the uniquely human capacity to infuse the physical world with consciousness. It is an act of mindfulness and prayer.

Healing my relationship with my body, by extension, has involved learning to acknowledge and respect the physical truth of food, to see and taste and honor it. Eating has become a practice of mindfully respecting the very substance that gives me life, of the power that connects me to the Earth, and that keeps my divine spark burning. When I bring this level of intention to food and the process of eating, I am infusing the physical world with the spiritual—in fact, I am seeing the world as it truly is: completely divine.

This idea, like all spiritual truths, is ageless. Recognizing the spiritual dimension of food is an essential component to the practice of Yoga and its sister science, Ayurveda. Ayurveda, an ancient, holistic approach to healing and wellness, harnesses the spiritual dimension of food and our physical bodies to regain balance and maintain a sense of well-being, of wholeness. It is predicated on the idea that by listening deeply to our bodies and spirits, we can learn to heal ourselves through the preparation, eating, and honoring of food. We don’t need expensive drugs or extreme diets. All we need is a capacity to listen to and respect our bodies, to honor food and the act of eating in the same way that we honor our ideas, thoughts, and transcendent experiences.

How can Quakerism, as its own spiritual practice and wisdom tradition, similarly engage with the physical world in order to help us heal our relationship to food and to our bodies? What ideas and rituals could we authentically incorporate in order to honor the physical world? What can we let go of, and what can we learn from other traditions? Where do we go from here?

The truth is, I’m just beginning this journey myself. All I have are small glimpses of truth, and with it a roadmap for moving forward.

Our journey will begin with honesty. We must help one another unpack our relationships with our bodies by sharing our stories. When we can tell these stories, we can begin to weave the threads of pain and truth together into a progression toward wholeness. If we can approach our stories without shame or fear, perhaps we can stop regarding our bodies as a source of those very same toxic emotions. By listening to one another’s stories with love and compassion, we can even potentially recognize our religious communities as spaces to mindfully connect not only to one another, but to everything—including our physical selves and the food that we eat together. Quakers’ commitment to community compels us to use one another as tools and support in all parts of our spiritual journey—including the journey of our bodies.

Once we have created a safe and open space to share our bodies’ journeys—our sickness, our health, our fear, our reverence—we can then use Quakerism’s twofold commitment to both personal transformation and collective prophetic witness to incorporate the body into our tradition. First we must learn how to bring Spirit to our bodies and the act of eating, recognizing how food and our physical experiences connect us with Spirit. Simultaneously, we must address the social factors, the brokenness of the world as expressed through sexism and oppression, that keep us disconnected from our bodies and unable to live full, healthy lives.

Traditionally, Quakers have attempted to bring Earth and Spirit together through the practice of sitting in silence. Silence—that great and powerful mystery—is our most potent tool for healing. In it, we find Spirit. Through it, we come to wholeness. Inviting silence into our bodies—through breath and mindful movement—could similarly bring powerful transformation to this often-unaddressed side of Spirit.

Silence completely transformed my own relationship to my body. After years of pushing my physical self, of not listening to its promptings and desires, I was finally able to hear its desperate attempts to get my attention during a quiet, restorative yoga class. The constant throbbing pain I had been ignoring for years finally began to reveal itself. What is this pain saying to me? I began to ask. What can I learn from its subtle and not so subtle messages? Could I let go of my gripping, my grasping for control and stability enough to really listen to what it needs? Could I simply allow my body to heal itself after so many years of deprivation and stress, due to a deep belief that there was something essentially wrong with my most basic self?

Of course, before that time, I had spent ample time in silent Quaker meeting. But this experience was different—I was listening to my body’s divinity. I was not attempting to “quiet” the body, or using mindfulness as a “tool” for achieving a state of spiritual communion. I was propped in a comfortable, relaxing yoga pose and listening for what the body had to say to me. You might call what I heard that “still, small voice,” but it was not out there, some ethereal “voice of God.” It originated from my very physical, embodied pain.

What I learned from that experience was that the power of silence and “waiting worship” can be applied to our bodies and the physical world. What if we were to bring mindful movement into our weekly meetings? What if we were to bring silence into our meals together, not as a way of “staying centered,” but as a method of honoring the food that we are eating together? What if we listened for the messages of our bodies and the world around us?

These may seem like radical ideas because they involve adjusting or shifting our traditions dramatically, reclaiming practices that have been historically associated with what has been defined as the “Divine Feminine.” Even in the Quaker community, talking about what might be understood as a more New Age concept such as this one makes many people very uncomfortable. What started as a well-intentioned openness toward other religious and spiritual practices in the ’60s and ’70s has resulted in a dramatic backlash and with it an adamant desire to identify our Christian roots and stick to them. Quakers often find themselves caught in an either/or paradigm; either we are Christian, or we are nothing; either we embrace all spiritual traditions, or we claim one as our main identity. The fact is that the Christian religion is a deeply patriarchal one, yet holds the wisdom and truth of a deep spiritual tradition. We must find the middle ground where these two realities meet. Many in my generation are ready for a religious community that can openly embrace the teachings of a wide array of spiritual truths and practices. The health of our bodies and our planet depends on it.

That being said, identifying practices associated with the body and the physical world as “feminine” has become problematic as our understanding of gender continues to evolve. Is it even possible to delineate between the “feminine” and “masculine” parts of the Divine? Often these dichotomies can be a source of confusion and shame rather than clarity. Although I deeply appreciate all of the work that has been done to recover the Divine Feminine, I also recognize that these terms may not be useful for everyone. What it means to be a man or a woman is deeply personal. As one trans Quaker said to me, there is a mystery at the heart of gender, just as there is a mystery at the center of God. We honor that mystery by fully integrating all parts of ourselves, however we identify those qualities, particularly the sides of ourselves that have been rejected or repressed.

Lord knows our bodies have been kept in the dark for too long. From a very early age we are taught that our bodies are a source of guilt and shame, perhaps as a means of mitigating the threat they pose to a rigid, “advanced” society. Women, as those tied most directly to the cycles of birth and death, have historically faced the most of this fear-based oppression.

Human civilization’s attempt to distinguish its higher self from its more animal impulses—and, by extension, the body and death itself—accelerated quickly during the Enlightenment period. The destruction that has resulted as a byproduct of this dogmatic commitment to the mind and dualistic, linear thinking—as manifested through sexism, climate change, and widespread disease—must finally be reckoned with. It is time to bring what has been forgotten—namely the body, those labeled “other,” and the physical world—back into human consciousness so that our world can heal and evolve.

Quakerism has historically lifted up the voices of women and female ministers based on the belief that there is that of God in everyone, including those who are deemed “lesser” by the wider culture. Women were, in fact, valued as some of the most profound and spiritually gifted ministers within the larger Quaker movement, challenging the patriarchy inherent in Christian teachings at that time. It was only when Quakers attempted to temper their religious fervor in an effort to fit in with the wider culture (largely for reasons of self-preservation) that their radical approach to women’s rights was also tempered. Women remained powerful spiritual leaders in the Quaker community, but many collective feminist efforts ceased to address sexism in the culture at large.

Similarly, at this point in history, many Quaker women value and thrive in a tradition that lifts up and respects the power of female ministry; yet we do not see the ways that we still need to grow and push our understanding of female equality in the wider world. We do not see the ways that our inability to address issues of patriarchy—perhaps because of our historical attempts to remain non-threatening to mainstream society—deeply inhibits our ability to live more whole, integrated lives, lives that are in touch with our bodies and the earth. Imagine how much happier, inspired, and fulfilled all women—all people—would be, if we could finally move past our unhealthy relationships with our bodies. Imagine how much truth we could bring to a society that struggles to bring integrity to all human relationships. Our history compels us to take up these issues once again.

I hope we can examine the ways in which various oppressions have twisted our relationship with the physical world and with one another. I hope we can talk with our young people about these oppressions, particularly young women who are struggling to love a body that feels unacceptable. I hope that we can begin to reconnect with our physical selves and heal our own spiritual wounds. I hope that, as a spiritual community, we can continue to evolve and grow, unafraid of change, honoring our bodies as temples and expressions of the Holy Spirit. The health and vitality of our bodies, the Quaker tradition, and the world depend on it.

Author chat with Madeline:

Madeline Schaefer

Madeline Schaefer grew up attending Radnor (Pa.) Meeting outside of Philadelphia. She currently lives in West Philadelphia in a big house with lots of house meetings and good conversation. When she is not riding her bicycle around the city, she can be found doing yoga, writing poetry, or collecting stories. Her email address is madeline.schaefer@gmail.com.

1 thought on “A Truly Embodied Spirituality

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Maximum of 400 words or 2000 characters.

Comments on Friendsjournal.org may be used in the Forum of the print magazine and may be edited for length and clarity.