It's only a paper moon
Sailing over a cardboard sea
But it wouldn't be make-believe
If you believed in me
-- E.Y. Harburg and Billy Rose, 1945
This I know from being a caregiver: God did not create the human body. No way. How can a perfect, loving, all-powerful God create something so fragile, temporary, slow to learn what it's made for and what it's got it forgets? The body breaks, gets sick and dies. God is Spirit and like makes only like. The song points to something true about our make-believe world and our relationship with God. The Louis Prima tune from 1956 strikes me just as true: I ain't got no body.
The body, like a paper moon, is a phenomenon that is here today and gone tomorrow. God is. Before Abraham was, Jesus reminds us, we are. God is love. And we are made out of love that endures.
The body is surely a phantom, an illusion that comes from our dreaming the dream of good and evil, a shadow we made up to hide from God when we bought into the idea that we hurt God and separated ourselves from the love that creates and sustains us. It is a lie we tell ourselves to protect our fragmented sense of self from disappearing back into Eden where we are one with God and each other, and to shield from ghosts the personalities that we've spent a lifetime making up and that are as fake as the Greek masks representing drama and comedy.
Like Macbeth, our life in this counterfeit world is "but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
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Even so, God keeps whispering over the rage and above the cardboard sea, "Believe in me."
Our bodies, built by us for isolation, pleasure and pain, keep spirit at bay. They are hiding places no more real than a child's fort made with blankets. They may not be substantial but sure feel that way. All we need is an orgasm or an ingrown toenail to make the case. We rarely reflect on why pleasure is fleeting and pain inevitable, or why our lives turn on a dime from a Technicolor musical to a black-and-white horror movie. We miss our own setup. So we keep on inquiring: What's it all about, and if the body betrays us, who made it and what on earth is it for?
I got a glimpse into the answer at the River House Winter Wonderland Fashion Show just before Christmas. River House is an adult day care facility in Greenwich, Conn., where my wife, Vickie, who has Alzheimer's, enjoys fellowship with 50 other women and men from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. That morning, I dressed her in a blue fox jacket, an inheritance she had never worn before, a pair of fancy white pants from her days as a school principal, a colorful silk scarf, movie star sunglasses, and a funny orange hat.
These days Vickie shuffles rather than races around as she did back in the day, but for the fashion show she pranced and danced with Lindsay, one of the program managers, down the poinsettia-lined runway. Check out the video and you'll see what I saw: joy.
Our body, at best, is made to express the qualities of God: love, beauty, peace, grace, goodness, wisdom and joy. It is meant to be a ray of light on the darkened stage. It is a place where God can reveal herself.
The body is perfect for making a diving catch, a triple axel, a pas de deux. To bake bread, build a birdhouse, sculpt a pietà. The body's gift is to make the invisible, visible.
Whether we are a teen with autism who can play Chopin better than Chopin, or we think like Einstein but can move only our cheek like Stephen Hawking, or are like Sarah at River House who was wheeled down the fashion runway and waved her arms and laughed with delight, we have bodies that can manifest attributes of God.
Sarah was born in Ireland and came to the United States as a young woman and worked her life as a caregiver. How interesting that today she is cared for. Her story is one of millions of stories that help us believe: I ain't got nobody, but somebody cares for me. That somebody is God through us.
The human body can bathe another body dying of Ebola, clean the butt of a baby, spouse or mother, and mourn, laugh and pray. The body is a passing sign of eternal love.
And when our bodies vanish we become again the love we always are. Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89) never wrote songs, but he wrote poetry that is music to our ears:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ
is, since he was what I am,
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd,
patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.
[Michael Leach is editor at large of Orbis Books and shepherds NCR's Soul Seeing columns.]