It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was introduced to Dorothy C. Bass’ thoughtful and tremendously practical compilation Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People. If my memory serves, it was required reading for a required seminary class on Spiritual Practices. Two “requireds” usually meant that my resistance was well-founded. Therefore, I happily was surprised to not only thirstily read and re-read the book, but to give at least 10 copies away to colleagues and friends and families within the congregations I have served. One chapter particularly was helpful to me as my family faced 4 cancer diagnoses (1 of which was terminal) in the year I discerned my call to ordained ministry. Over the years since then, I have found myself returning again and again to Stephanie Paulsell’s chapter entitled “Honoring the Body”. You can imagine my delight to know that, at or around the same time, the same health-outcomes-based company that provided the resources for me to enter into ministry also funded her writing of a book which more fully shows that “honoring the body is an indispensable practice of the Christian life” (p. xvii).
There are so many moments to savor, stories that trigger your own memories, and practical examples to adopt.
Published in 2002, her book, which expands what started as one chapter in 1997 into nine chapters, is both a joy and a challenge to read. The first two chapters start very broadly – laying a scriptural, theological and ecclesiological foundation. The next seven chapters explore very basic functions of life (e.g. bathing, clothing, eating, working, exercising, resting, loving, and suffering). There are so many moments to savor, stories that trigger your own memories (both good and not-so-good), and practical examples to adopt that it can take far longer to read than the deceptively concise length. She does not take an arrogant or I’ve-figured-this-out-completely approach. Paulsell’s examples, activities, and resources are very accessible for people from many walks of life — single, married, children or no children, young adult, middle-aged, or senior citizen — and they do not presume any specific ethnic, racial, or socioeconomic lenses. Steeped in incarnational theology, scriptural references, and personal experiences, her writing breaks down any preconceived denominational and doctrinal barriers. The passion and simplicity with which she writes allow for this to be read both individually and in a small group setting. However, because it openly deals with issues that are often judged, shamed, or kept hidden in Christian communities as well as our culture, appropriate pastoral care is warranted. I offered to share portions of it at a short Women’s Retreat and the women quickly decided that they preferred to talk about something else – anything else! Recently, I’ve followed a colleague’s example by offering Murray Finck’s Stretch & Pray ministry at St. Paul’s. Paulsell’s book provides me with encouragement and arms me with examples, resources, and guidance for following up the discussions that organically flow from our time together – focusing on our bodies as a vehicle for prayer.
Her teaching and how it draws from our incarnational Christian theology and the theology of the cross emboldens me to include honoring the body in my teaching & preaching, pastoral care & counseling, and personal spiritual disciplines. Because of the seemingly never-ceasing recent news of the ways humans exploit, terrorize, and violently abuse human bodies and the often-heard despair about the callous way dishonoring the body is sensationalized, we need these ideas (some of them as old as humankind) to be incorporated in our faith communities’ ministries boldly, frequently, and in ways that solidly equip our brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ. I am grateful for Stephanie Paulsell’s care, wisdom, and courage in writing this book and I encourage all ministry leaders to read, absorb, and apply it to the care of their own bodies and their ministries in, with, and for the honorable bodies of those with whom and for whom they serve.