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Bodily Awareness by Amelia Koh-Butler

This is my body, given for you ...

On a scorching and smoking summer day in Sydney in December 2019, my friend Mary broke bread and passed it to the half dozen of us standing around my husband’s bed. His body was beyond receiving bread at that point, so we used a dropper to moisten his lips from the cup of life. Did it comfort him? I don't know.

As the spirit leaves the body, there is mystery and wonder and sadness and gratitude. They weave together in a story that is ending and beginning at the same time. At such a time, body-mind-spirit hold a strange little farewell dance. In final days or hours, when the spirit seems ready to depart, the body can have a last brief blossoming. Time pauses, making room for a different kind of moment. Some people call it Kairos*.

Having been a university chaplain, I am a body donor. I carry a little card in my wallet stating that upon my death, the university medical school should be contacted so that my body parts can be used to help health professionals learn their craft – of keeping other bodies going. When they have finished with my remains a cremation will occur and the ashes will be boxed up for my kids to take to be scattered by elders on Adnyamathanha country. Ikara (Wilpena Pound) is a sacred remote wilderness land in Northern South Australia. My Adnyamathanha sisters and brothers are descendants of the oldest known civilization on the earth… 60,000 years! The spot we have chosen for the ashes is near the grasstrees, also known as medicine trees. They will nourish the earth. It is the logical endgame for recycling. After all, our bodies are made from the earth and to the earth our bodies will return.

2019 feels like such a long time ago now. Bushfires create thunderstorms. The storms bring lightening, igniting more fires. The fire-storm cycles are noisy and terrifying. Air feels constantly thick and heavy. Our normal humid Sydney summer had been dry beyond imagining… to go outside was to battle breathing and dehydration. I remember, after months of bushfires and instructions not to go outside, emerging into the great outdoors of scorched earth. I can remember in my body.

During the earliest weeks of my widowing, I did not want to be physically present to others. Physical absence was too fresh and dominating, so I turned to chaplaining faculty and students online. I became the ‘home contact person’ for a complimentary medicine exchange group who had gone to our sister university in China. Even though I am half-Chinese, I am ashamed to say I did not even know where they were – some place called Wuhan.

The group stayed an extra week to assist their colleagues before being recalled by our Government to spend forty days in off-shore quarantine. By the time they returned home in February 2020, those of us who had been supporting them were preparing for potential SARS outbreaks. As Multifaith Chaplain, I attended a Conference of health and emergency workers. I was meant to be comforting people who were scaring me. At that conference, we practiced protocols dictated by specialist epidemiology nurses and infection control public health experts.

By the time public health orders were introduced, I already had access to university data and projections. I was learning share information in new ways digitally and started designing ‘lockdown life’ a few weeks before we started our community ‘stay-at-home health order’ restrictions. I organised for deliveries of ‘things I might need’ to tide me through what I assumed could be 6-8 weeks of isolation. I made sure I had plants to grow my own fresh greens and drygoods to keep me fed. I was well-stocked for my bodily needs.

I spent 120+ days in official ‘lockdown’ this year. During that period, the only bodily touch I experienced was when I went to donate blood. (Blood donation is considered an exemption as it is an essential service). My friends in Melbourne spent 267 days in lockdowns between March 2020 and October 2021. Some of them were utterly reliant on technology for human contact. Spending so much time physically isolated from others has a mental health cost. In Australia, most of our emergency departments were not full of COVID cases. They were full of suicide attempts. Isolation from human contact is costly.

The term haptic refers to touch and non-verbal communication and connection. In the last couple of weeks I have been part of a conversation about haptic wondering, online sacraments and spirituality. In February 2020, believing lockdowns were coming, I published a ‘Liturgy of empty hands’ for the World Methodist Council. It contained a Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, based on our Communion/Eucharistic prayers. However, it was written with the assumption that we would not be able to share bread because we could not gather as a body. I have heard from many people around the world about their experiences of sharing their common empty hands. However, where I am, my community chose not to go in the same direction.

Since April 2020, my oversighting church has authorized pastors to conduct online Communion. I was more than a little challenged by the decision. The questions and concerns were layered. Yet, today, I look forward to zoom communion. Together, we hold up bread and juice and know the Body of Christ is supported by both an online and unseen cloud of witnesses. Somehow I am comforted that God’s imagination is still creating new things.

This is my body, given for you ...

When we hold our bread up to the camera and invite the community to bless one another’s bread from a distance, we are performing a rite physically. We each feel the bread. We each see the people. We each hear the words. We each sing of the holiness of God. We each offer a blessing of peace in deaf-sign language. This we-eachness is part of my body in isolation becoming part of the Body of Christ with others. As the United Church of Christ puts it in their prayer of affirmation:

We are not alone. We live in God’s world.

During our extended lockdown, we were allowed to go outside for exercise (on our own or with one other socially distanced person). I would sometimes find myself walking and enjoying the clean air (no bushfires and no cars). I would experience a moment of delight or joy and then be almost brought physically crashing down by a tsunami of grief, making it difficult to breathe or keep standing. Apparently, this is quite common. I don’t remember learning about it in seminary, but several other widows and widowers (and my grief counsellor) have confirmed that it passes – eventually. Their encouragement helps me keep faith. The experience confirms for me the linking of body-mind-spirit. Sometimes my body recalls me to live as one whose faith is in resurrection, but not as one who denies death.

In August (our winter), we sent sunflower seeds to members of our congregation. They planted them and now we are beginning to see the plants shoot up tall. As I write that very sentence, I have just received emails with photos…

1 Corinthians 15:36-38 - The Message

35-38 Some skeptic is sure to ask, “Show me how resurrection works. Give me a diagram; draw me a picture. What does this ‘resurrection body’ look like?” If you look at this question closely, you realize how absurd it is. There are no diagrams for this kind of thing. We do have a parallel experience in gardening. You plant a “dead” seed; soon there is a flourishing plant. There is no visual likeness between seed and plant. You could never guess what a tomato would look like by looking at a tomato seed. What we plant in the soil and what grows out of it don’t look anything alike. The dead body that we bury in the ground and the resurrection body that comes from it will be dramatically different.

After periods of fallow or fasting, our fields and bodies are cleansed and renewed. We are ready, not to go back to old ways, but to start fresh. We hope we can integrate the wisdom of our discipline and experience. We pray we can offer our bodies as a worthy and living sacrifice of praise. As we emerge from solitary confinement Down Under, we are planning to weave into our lives connection and diversity, beyond what was previously sought or tolerated. While the earth remains, our experience of it has changed. We have learnt to connect differently. We have learnt how to inhabit our bodies with each other.

This is the Body of Christ.

In the breaking, we become the promise of resurrection.

[online Communion liturgy, Eastwood, Sydney, 2021]

When my spirit is freed to go home, I pray my body can continue to be good news for the student doctors who learn and the patients they will treat. I pray the dust of my bones will nourish God’s good earth.

*kairos means time or season, and it is a noun used to represent a fitting season or opportunity, an occasion. (Strong’s Greek Concordance)

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