Working on The Art of Dying, I was over and over again struck by the fact that Christians used to take their physical bodies really, really seriously. Part of what has made modern dying more difficult than it was in previous generations is that we do not give our due to our physical selves. Instead, we say things like, “This body is just a shell.” And we tell people their loved ones haven’t gone anywhere; they’re still with us in spirit. And we do things like hold funeral services without the object of our memory, the body of our deceased loved one.
It used to be different. People washed the bodies of their dead loved ones. They journeyed with them from the home to the church to the grave. They buried bodies in certain ways and refused things like embalming because they believed a person’s body was really important. After death it would await the resurrection to be reformed and reconstituted as that person.
Christians did this because they knew that the body was created in the image of God. The body itself–not the soul or the idea of the person–was sacred. These bodies, these temples of the living God, are due honor and reverence.
I came away from writing The Art of Dying with the question: What would it mean today if we better understood our bodies to be created in the image of God, as sacred?
I started reading about spirituality and the body, and I discovered God has endowed our bodies–not just our minds or souls–with spiritual significance. Especially interesting to me was the neuroscience of spiritual experiences. I learned that our brains seem to be equipped to experience God. Through a specific brain system, we commune with God. When we have powerful moments of prayer or even mystical experiences, the sense of closeness with God or even unity with him, is the function of a brain system. That system seems designed to experience God. Neuroscientists don’t say it this way, but to me, God has designed us with the equipment needed to commune with him.
But there is more than simply a brain system for prayer. When we do practice deep prayer (mediation and contemplation in the Christian tradition) or have a profound spiritual experience, we are also stimulating areas of the brain involved with practicing empathy and compassion for others. We are more socially attuned, and we are more caring for the needs of others when we practice regular prayer, especially when that prayer leads us to deep experiences of the divine.
My research following The Art of Dying led me to a profound conclusion. We have been designed to experience God and to respond to that by loving other people. In other words, we were created to fulfill the two great commandments, to love God with our whole hearts and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
That is the subject of my new book, What Your Body Knows About God. How we have been physically designed to love God and serve others.
Please share your thoughts. What do you think about the body and spirituality?