I was contacted by a Catholic priest in Europe who is a member of a religious order and a writer on spirituality. His email included questions to me. My answers to him may be of interest to other Christians whose religious upbringing could have had a negative effect on their attitude toward their body, and therefore affected their relationship with God who created their body. My correspondent writes:
I want to congratulate you for your blog and perhaps to enter into discussion with you about your theology of the body and nakedness. It’s quite rare among us priests, and I’m so happy to find a colleague on the internet about these topics. I myself have practiced silent prayer naked for about 25 or 30 years and it’s a part of my spiritual life.
[In my writing] I tried to invite priests and monks to more freedom with their body and pleasure, in a serious respect of their vows, but I didn’t dare to develop nakedness in it. I don’t agree with what is called today “sexual identity.” I don’t believe that our desire is the definition of our identity. So I want to be very careful to avoid any identification of nakedness practice or theology with gay practice or theology. A lot of men have huge problems with their body, both “gay” and “straight.” We can try to offer them a new theological point of view which is a basis for more freedom, for a rehabilitation of the body, whatever is their sexual desire.
Nowadays, I know quite clearly what could be said from a Christian point of view about body and nakedness. I know, by theology and by experience, what is interesting to promote about naked prayer. The big issue is: “How can I communicate about that?” Most of the people who need to hear that will run away if I propose some experience, or retreat on the topic; and I think that they will never read a text on it either. I don’t want to speak about body to people with 30 years experience in yoga and others practices. They are kind and interesting, but they know what is a body. I would like to preach to my brothers in religious life and the priesthood who are so suffering on the topic. My purpose today is to be suggestive. I offer some ideas on the body within a comment on prayer or on chastity, without explicitly mentioning the body in the title of the article or the book so as not to scare away those who have the most need to hear about it.
Do you have some experience with that: how to speak about body to Christian people…?
Frank answers: I have had experience speaking about the body to Christian people. When I was going through cancer treatment in 2006/2007 while serving as pastor of a congregation I did not hesitate to share what I was experiencing in my body from the effects of chemotherapy in sermons and my congregation appreciated it. On this blog you will find several sermons I preached to congregations that touch on the body: “About the Circumcision of Jesus,” “About Touching Jesus and Being Touched,” and recently “About Embodied Racism.” Some early articles on my blog, “About the Resurrection Body and Tattoos,” “About Christians Practicing Yoga,” “About Meditation,” and “More About our Resurrection Bodies,” appeared in earlier forms and without all the images on my parish web site before I retired in 2013. My article “About ‘Christian Yoga’” is based on a workshop I led for lay people on “Yoga and the Theology of the Body” at the Hartwick Seminary Summer Institute of Theology. And my book on Embodied Liturgy is based on a course I offered in Satya Wacana Christian University in Central Java, Indonesia in 2014 to church music students and Reformed pastors who were invited to participate in the course. I included yoga sequences in the course to help the participants get in touch with their body; none of them had experienced yoga before. In fact, it was a bold step not just to do yoga practices in a classroom but to do it in Indonesia. I have made available on this blog an article about how Embodied Liturgy could be used in an academic course or a church retreat. One professor wrote to me that he used my book in a course and actually included the yoga practices. I don’t expect everyone to get into yoga. It happens to be the way in which I reconnected with my bodily self during and after cancer treatment, so I’ve used it to help others get in touch with their bodies.
I agree with you that our identity as Christians should not be based on our sexual desires. Our identity is our common baptism into Christ, whether we are male or female, gay or straight (see Galatians 3:28).
On the other hand, we can’t ignore the body with its physical experiences and sexual desires. In articles I’ve been writing recently I make use of Mark Johnson’s proposal in The Meaning of the Body (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007) that the meaning of the body is simultaneously biological, ecological, phenomenological, social, and cultural (pp. 274—78). [See also Frank Answers About the Meaning(s) of the Body]. This includes our sexuality, as I analyzed it using these five dimensions of the meaning of the body in “The Body in Protestant Spirituality,” in Frank C. Senn, ed., Protestant Spiritual Traditions, Volume 2 (Eugene, Or: Cascade Books, 2020), pp. 194—95. We don’t realize how important the body is to spirituality. We are bodily creatures and God in Christ relates to us bodily in the sacraments.
A big category for expressing our relationship to God is our sexuality. For example, the ancient and medieval church prized sexual renunciation in virginity and celibacy as ways of living the Christian life. Sexual renunciation defined their spiritual lives. The Protestant reformers lifted up marriage and family as ways of living out our relationship with God and regarded sex as a gift of God not to be rejected, except by those with a clear call to celibacy. Unfortunately, Martin Luther’s healthy appreciation of the body and gratitude for the gift of sexuality has not been passed on to all of his heirs, especially those raised in conservative evangelical churches. I think Luther’s incarnational theology is inseparable from his belief that we receive the real body and blood of Christ into our bodies in the Eucharist, whereas for most evangelicals the Eucharist is a memorial of the Lord’s death which affects the mind but not the body. They don’t believe they are receiving Christ’s body and blood into their bodies and are therefore actually in union with him through the sacrament.
It is unfortunate that nakedness, especially for men, has come to be associated with homosexuality. In my youth (1950s) boys swam naked in schools and in the YMCA. Today many men think of men and boys swimming naked as a gay thing. Why this change of attitude? By the 1970s—1990s, as the gay liberation movement was gaining traction in our society (1969 was the year of the Stonewall Inn Riot in New York City’s Greenwich Village), homophobia was also increasing. The evangelical men’s ministry Promise Keepers that flourished in the 1990s was very homophobic. If men got emotional and hugged in small group experiences, this was defined in familial terms as “brotherly bonding,” and that made it okay; it wasn’t gay.
The late 19th century clinical distinction between “homosexual” and “heterosexual” was a mixed blessing for those who identify as homosexuals. As Michel Foucault wrote in A History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction, trans. by Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), “As defined by ancient or canonical code, sodomy was a category of forbidden acts; their perpetrator was nothing more than the juridical subject of them. The nineteenth century homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, and a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology. Nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality” (p. 43).
On this basis the homosexual could say, “this is who I am.” But then heterosexuals felt that homosexuality had to be suppressed in society lest it infect others. Men had to suppress homoerotic urges in themselves. They emphasized their heterosexuality by bashing homos verbally or physically. In spite of the advances in LGBTQ rights in Western societies, there is still a latent (one should say an embodied) homophobia and a fear of being perceived as gay. As a result “straight” men suppress their interest in the male body and masculine spirituality.
This is the “problematic” (as Foucault would say) for men today. It’s considered “gay” to look at a man’s body, to enjoy being nude with other men, to desire to hug or even kiss another man out of friendship. So we eschew focus on the body, experiences of naked camaraderie, and physical contact with another man (other than aggressively in sports). But this homophobia also gets in the way of our relationship with God, because that relationship is based on the body.
We are created as bodies from earthly material (Genesis 2:7). God redeemed us by the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ, his body naked in his flogging, crucifixion, and resurrection from the dead (with grave clothes left behind). By our Baptism we are joined to the death and resurrection of Christ. We receive the Holy Spirit who dwells in the temple of our bodies. We receive the body of Christ in bread and wine into our bodies for forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing. We look for the promised resurrection of our bodies when Christ comes again in glory. Our life before God in Christ through the Spirit is all about the body.
The body is central to Christianity’s incarnational theology. The naked body is also a theological focus because the image of Christ crucified is central to our devotion. The crucifix is placed before our eyes in our worship spaces. The late medieval saint and mystic, Catherine of Siena, had visions of Christ throughout her life. She usually envisioned him wearing a bishop’s attire. But one time she had a vision of the crucified Christ during a period of disturbing demonic visions. “Catherine, My daughter,” said Christ, “see what torments I bore for your sake; you should not think it so hard to suffer for My sake.” The vision changed, and Jesus stood gloriously before her. Catherine asked, “My Beloved Lord, where were You when my soul was filled with such terrible bitterness?” Jesus replied, “I was in your heart.” After this vision she emerged from her room and became involved in charitable work among the poor and sick and insinuated herself into the affairs of church and state.
There is no reason to think that Christ was not totally naked on the cross. That’s how Romans crucified their victims. He wasn’t provided with a loin cloth out of deference to Jewish sensibilities. Christ’s nakedness was emphasized artistically in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance as a way of seeing his identification with suffering humanity. This is discussed by Leo Steinberg, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, second edition (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1996). The nakedness of Christ is a profound theological symbol and is held before our eyes in the crucifix, which occupies a central focus in our worship spaces. Vietnamese Catholic theologian Daniel Le wrote a dissertation on The Naked Christ: An Atonement Model for a Body Obsessed Culture (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2012).
We have issues with our bodies. Dissatisfaction with our bodies and body shame is pervasive among both men and women. It affects our living of life, our relationships with others, and our relationship with God, because we live as less than God created, redeemed, and sanctified us to be.
I also believe that there is an increasing interest in our bodies in the Western world. As the Le observed, we are a body-obsessed culture, although not always in the best sense. People are becoming more aware of their physical body due to traumas of physical, sexual, or substance abuse or chronic illness. They are becoming more aware of their emotional body due to sexual confusions in our fast-changing social norms, and in our changing cultural expectations regarding gender roles. They are becoming more interested in health and wellness. Membership in gyms and vigorous exercise has proliferated. We have models of fit bodies that we cannot approximate; hence our dissatisfaction with our own bodies.
Books are being written about these issues, including theological and spiritual books. Perhaps Pope John Paul II set a trend with his theology of the body (Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, Translation, Introduction, and Index by Michael Waldstein (Boston: Pauline, 1997, 2006). A group of Christians could read and discuss a book. But I believe that it would be more effective to have an embodied experience of a theology of the body. Therefore I suggest organizing a retreat (perhaps over a weekend) that would focus on the work of the Trinitarian God in our bodies for healing and spiritual empowerment that could have a healing and liberating effect. The retreat would feature an exploration of one’s life in the body under the theme of the embodiment of the Trinity in our bodily experiences as God’s creation, as redeemed by Christ, as temple of the Holy Spirit.
I would further be bold to suggest that the retreat be clothing optional in the sharing sessions. The discussions and sharing about one’s body could be done enclothed. But then it remains abstract. Yes, we know there is a body covered by our clothing. We can imagine it as we talk. But in these sessions about our actual bodies – our physical sensations, our emotional feelings — our bodies should be front and center without the social conventions and cultural overlay of our choice of clothing. While being naked might make participants apprehensive at first, they will eventually feel more comfortable with themselves and become less self-conscious. And they will share their life stories more freely and honestly since everyone is equally vulnerable. “Clothing optional” means no one is required to be naked, but the option is available. Being naked with others in a safe, non-sexual environment provides a rare opportunity to quiet the negative voice within us about our bodies.
I suggest that everyone leave all their clothes in their bedroom and wear a sarong to the sessions, which may left on or removed if the participant feels self-prompted to do so during a sharing session. The facilitator should be similarly attired at the beginning of each session but remove his covering at the beginning of the sharing portion of the session to model permission for others to do so.
The format will be small groups of 6, male or female but not mixed sex, who will share stories about themselves. Rules: stories heard from participants are not to be interrupted or challenged by others or shared outside the group. Each group with have a facilitator of the same sex.
Obviously the facilitators would have to be carefully chosen for their spiritual maturity, skill in facilitating group discussion and sharing, as well as willingness to model nudity.
Each small group session will begin by reciting the Apostles Creed and end by reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Each study/sharing session will be devoted to one article of the Creed. The Lord’s Prayer provides a formal prayer that everyone can say while experiencing naked prayer.
Session 1: “Who told you that you were naked?”
Read and discuss Genesis 2:4b—3:24. Focus on the bodies of Adam and Eve in these stories. Why did they cover their “private parts” with an apron made of fig leaves? Hint: Was intimacy impaired between Adam and Eve and God? Did God have any problem with human nakedness? Why did God provide Adam and Eve with leather garments of animal skins when they were banished from the paradise garden? Note: the text doesn’t say why God clothed them. What conclusions might be drawn from his divine act of grace?
Going around the circle share your experiences of your physical body as a child, as a teen, as a young adult, as a middle age adult, and as older adult. Suggestion: let each person in the group share the experiences of each stage of life before moving on to the next stage at the next go-around. These may be experiences of accidents, illness, performance (drama, music, sports, etc.), relationships, sex, sexuality issues, etc.
Do a group body scan meditation with participants sitting or lying on the floor. Have participants take a deep breath, hold it, exhale, and relax. Mention slowly each part of the body from head to toe, asking the participants to note any sensations without judgment.
Session 2: Stripped/Clothed
Read and discuss Mark 14—16:8. Focus on the body of Christ and other bodies in the story. When was Jesus stripped? When was he clothed or covered? What do you think is the symbolism of the young man running off naked into the night during the commotion in the garden? What’s the relationship between that naked young man and the clothed young man in the tomb on the third day announcing the resurrection? How are both nakedness and clothing spiritual values? Read Cyril of Jerusalem’s Mystagogical Homily 2. See Edward Yarnold, SJ, The Awe Inspiring Rites of Initiation: Baptismal Homilies of the Fourth Century (Slough, UK: St. Paul Publications, 1971), pp. 74—78. Discuss the symbolism of the stripping, anointing, and bathing offered by Cyril. What is the value of nakedness in Christian initiation?
Going around the circle share your experiences of body shaming or personal dissatisfaction with your body as a child, as a teen, as a young adult, as a middle age adult, and as an older adult, one stage of life at a time.
The leader does an anointing of the body of each participant, wherever on the body the participant desires to be anointed, whatever part in particular needs healing.
Session 3: Naked to follow the naked Christ
Read and discuss Isaiah 20:2—4; Romans 12:1-2; 1 Corinthians 6:12—20. Why did God direct Isaiah to be naked for three years? For whom was his nakedness an object lesson? How do we offer our bodies as a living sacrifice? How do we glorify God in our bodies? How do we understanding the body as a temple of the Holy Spirit? What is the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives? Hint: the Spirit is the source of spiritual energy. Read the story of St. Francis of Assisi appearing naked before the Bishop of Gubbio. See Arnaldo Fortini, Francis of Assisi, trans. Helen Moak (New York: Crossroad, 1981), pp. 227—30. How did Francis’ nakedness symbolize a radical change of life? How would you interpret the Franciscan motto, “naked, I follow the naked Christ?”
Go around the circle sharing your experiences of using your body in the service of God, as a young person and as an adult. Discuss ways in which we connect with others through our bodies.
Pair off as partners standing and facing each other. Pairs of participants hold hands and look into each other’s eyes for a couple of minutes.
Have some time for debriefing the retreat experience. Discuss how praying naked in private might enrich one’s devotional life. Conclude with free prayer and the Lord’s Prayer, holding hands in the circle. Share the greeting of peace with others in the group. Hugging each other while fully or partially naked is permitted.
Pastor Frank Senn
The image above this article is the scene of Francis of Assisi removing the clothes his father gave him and giving them back, from Franco Zeffirelli’s 1976 film, Brother Sun, Sister Moon. Naked, he would follow the naked Christ, embracing poverty.