This was going to be multiple posts, until I realized that I can’t separate the concepts enough to discuss them in isolation… and this will probably not be the last word on the topic, as I can already tell I’m not going to get all my thoughts out in this little space.
The other week I mentioned Rachel Barenblat’s post “Worship Through Corporeality” on Velveteen Rabbi; she also has a related post on Radical Torah called “The Heart of Things“; go and read, and then come back when you’re sufficiently elevated. :)
Today I’m struck by some of the reading for my Hasidism class… on avodah be-gashmiut, “worship through corporeality”… the teaching that we can serve God in and through the physical world, which brings the entire range of human activity into the domain of religious significance. [emphasis mine]
To me, this is the essence of embodied spirituality – the understanding that just as the Godhead is not something “out there”, but is inside and outside and through us, so our spirituality is not something separate from us, but is embodied in every step, every action, every choice. We *are* (a part of) the Godhead, and It is a part of us. When someone truly gets this, I believe, they can’t help but show it in how they conduct their walk through the Divine.
How that realization plays out in one’s own life, of course, will mean different things to different people; for me, right now it manifests as:
- a heightened concern with the sources and treatment of my food supply – joining a CSA, paying extra for non-factory-farmed meat and searching for a local supplier, and so on – I’m less concerned with being strictly organic than with minimizing the suffering of the animals I eat and reducing our family’s dependence on the hyper-extended supply chain that is the modern commercial food industry.
- trying to get back in shape (Aikido rocks!).
- reconnecting with the non-built world more regularly.
- considering a tattoo as a perpetual aide-memoire, psychological marker and personal test (it doesn’t get much more embodied than that…).
Ritual and sacrifice
One thing we’ve found is that the ritual and overt symbolism is extremely powerful and meaningful for our young children. To act out these things is to bring them forcefully, truthfully into the living world.
She has hold of something very deep there – and of course, it’s not just true for kids. Ritual repetition does indeed have the power to actualize the beliefs and worldview that the ritual encodes – not necessarily in some other-than-ordinary, magical sense, but quite prosaically, by imprinting that worldview into the participants’ own. Ritual operates at the symbolic level, largely bypassing the consciousness.
I think of it as analogous to training “muscle memory” as in martial arts or other sports, where specific actions are repeated to the point that they become reflexive and arise spontaneously when needed, much faster than would be possible if we had to stop and *think* about them. Over time, as we repeat an action or series of actions, associated reactions and emotional states become ingrained. For instance, the smell of sandalwood incense is enough to put me into a state of pre-trance receptivity… in fact, I’m beginning to relax just from the tertiary stimulus of writing this sentence. That’s how powerful this programming is.
(I also talked about ritual with Jeff in the thread for this post at Druid Journal.)
This embodiedness is also, to me, the impetus behind sacrifices and offerings as the primary mode of worship for our Ancestors, and thus by extension also for us today. Back to Rachel:
Now we’re getting into the heart of things.
And the blood of things, and the entrails of things, the kidneys and the fat of things… a valuable reminder that avodah, service of God, was once a very physical act. Today we think in terms of avodah she-ba lev, the “service of the heart” — which is to say, prayer; but once we operated in terms of the Temple service, as embodied and physical as anything I can imagine.
Torah doesn’t say, “this is how you shall draw near to Me now, for the time being; later on, when humanity is maybe a little bit more evolved, you’ll find other ways of approaching My presence, offering thanks, and seeking to atone for your misdeeds.” It might make our lives easier now if those words were in there — if God had given us an advance alert that someday our paradigm for relationship with God would change. That we would grow to be capable of finding connection through words, instead of bodily fluids and ashes.
But I imagine those words would have been disconcerting and painfully baffling to our ancestors…
Indeed. I think that she is perhaps over-simplifying things a little, but there is still a large kernel of truth there. She says further,
In the days of sacrifice, who could have imagined the satisfaction, joy, and genuine connection we would find in our strange modern worship…?
but then goes on to say,
…when I immerse in this week’s Torah portion, that’s what really moves me: the mystery of physical bodies. The clear sense that there’s a direct connection between our flesh and the Holy One of Blessing, even if we can’t articulate what that connection is. The sense that what we really want to offer up to God is the life that courses through our bodies — life which ultimately comes from God, and returns to God; which can be sensed but not touched; which can be burned but not ultimately consumed.
What Rachel has almost articulated here, and what she had to dig so deep within her tradition to see, is the same truth that underlies the basic assumptions of Hellenic religion – there is no prayer without sacrifice. Historically, Judaism (and to a much greater degree, Christianity) has more or less sublimated this connection, grounding the spiritual life mainly in the heart and the mind, in the world of texts and verbal prayer, of emotion and intellect, rather than in the world of the flesh. Traditional pagan religion, and the best of modern paganism, maintains to a much greater degree the connection between prayer and physicality.
I find this very compelling. The simple act of pouring a libation or casting an offering into the fire grounds my prayer in the physical universe, and reminds me that I am a part of Ultimate Reality, and that the Gods are equally real and equally present here with us.