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Eternal Lives, Embodied
Tasting a Fullness of Joy
The more I excavate the historical and theological significance Mormonism grants the physical body, the more insistently the question presses on me: what if being embodied is a task, and not simply a state we inhabit?
To the scandal of deists, secularists, Protestants, and Catholics, Joseph Smith claimed that the body was not something to be abstracted, exploited, or transcended; to Latter-day Saints, embodiment was, as one observer scoffed, “a necessary step in their progress towards perfection and divinity.”Joseph Smith’s claims about the embodiment of God and the thoroughly material nature of existence were widely recognized by contemporary observers as striking theological innovations. Embodiment enabled our progress and empowerment, Smith claimed—but it also, principally, promised our joy. “The great principle of happiness consists in having a body,” he exulted: a physical body with enduring particularities, enmeshed in salvific interdependent relationships, and capable of infinite generativity.
I didn’t always grasp this “great principle.” In fact, it took years of immersing myself in the study of baroque Catholicism, with its embodied extravagances, to recognize the early Mormon romance with materialism. A compelling tale can be told about the latter’s complex theological and historical legacy, but there’s a personal one as well: it’s a tale of conversion, in a sense, from my own conflicted relationship with the body to an awakening to embodiment as a fundamentally spiritual task.
When I understand embodiment as a task rather than a state, I affix intentionality to its givenness. I recognize that some forms of embodiment are conducive to life, and others lead to death, both physical and spiritual. In the natural embodiment of childhood, the disembodiment of adolescence, an over-bodied season of mental illness, pregnancy, and childbirth, and an ongoing re-embodiment mediated by relationships, I have come to feel the resonance of Joseph Smith’s material sensibilities and to sense the divine tutorial in our embodiment. When I consciously live in embodied presence, I am more alive to the luminous beauty and the generative frictions of being a particular physical body in a shared material universe.
My earliest memories are saturated with sensation: enjoying the warm sunshine on my bare legs as a summer breeze rustles the folds of my pale blue dress; the golden hour settling like amber honey on the trees above the creaking swing set; the jewel-like colors shining out of a gumball machine gifted at my birthday. Remembering these childhood moments is an act of re-membering; the sensory qualities of these experiences reassemble themselves effortlessly, imbuing my nose, my ears, my eyes, my skin, with a dim but tangible vitality.
A unity of sensation and consciousness, emotion and thought, the world around me and myself, pervaded those first years. I didn’t stand apart from these physical experiences as a detached observer; I was woven into them, born into what Merleau-Ponty calls a “primordial communion.” Amidst the typical ordeals of childhood—the sibling skirmishes, the nerves that accompanied moving or starting a new school year—a sense of belonging created a steady background for the freshness of new encounters.
The child’s body eludes what Charles Taylor calls the disenchantment and excarnation of modernity. I was spellbound by a spider’s web and the hue of a cerulean crayon; I was porous to the sun’s warm beams as my breath fell into cadence with the sighing swings; I hugged, laughed, and climbed trees unselfconsciously at home in my body and at home in creation, “whole...from the foundation of the world.”
Somewhere in adolescence, that natural embodiedness seemed to split apart like a husk and fruit, into a body and mind. This sensation was partly developmental: the slowly emerging prefrontal cortex and its more sophisticated cognitive functions kick into high gear during adolescence. It was also sociological: adolescence in late ’90s middle-class America was a late-capitalist bourgeois exercise of self-representation. Teens stitched together a self from commodities owned and brands worn, producing a body with sufficient social and sexual capital to compete for status and belonging. This required the self to be abstracted and objectified—like the week before starting sixth grade when my friends and I, sitting on the floor with notebooks and pencils in hand, considered alternative clothes, interests, and social groups as if we were rearranging the elements of a mise-en-scène.
But there were limits to the imagined possibilities: I couldn't afford the right clothes or things, and my body remained childlike while other girls’ grew curves. My product—my body—floundered in the middle school marketplace. But another option presented itself. At the lunch table in seventh grade, I cocked my head with interest as the girls nearby pushed away trays of food and discussed their new diets to be “thin.” Here was a strategy with better odds: it required being less, rather than more; it depended on willpower rather than desirability. Willpower I had in spades; honed by a religious and familial upbringing that prized self-discipline—the full-day fasting, the daily scripture study and prayer, the crack-of-dawn seminary classes, the academic rigor—the cards, at last, were stacked in my favor.
So pound by pound, calorie by calorie, and mile after mile, I began to whittle my flesh down with an all-consuming focus. But this bid for belonging bent inward; my regimen soon cannibalized most of my interests and relationships into instruments of discipline or distractions to be avoided. On daily runs, I was blind to the trails’ leafy canopies and earthy smells, too busy calculating my mileage, pace, and caloric burn. I viewed peers not as friends, but as metrics of comparison, a corporate Frankenstein of body parts I needed to best. Once, giving in to a wistful curiosity, I ventured out to a party, but I couldn’t take my attention off the sights and smells of the food. It was too taxing, so I left. I eventually spent school lunch periods in deserted bathrooms and found excuses to avoid family dinners. By the time I was seventeen, I was still amenorrheic, subsisting on scant net calories, and achingly isolated.
Anorexia has been called a “psychosemantic fallacy”—a disease in which “the concept of the whole person is so confused, so dialectically divided, that ‘I’ can at the same time be choosing to live, as the self, and choosing to die, as the body.” But the underlying delusion of the anorexic is that the body ceases being part of the “I”—it is an alien element, a bulbous disease.
Joseph Smith asserted that the body and spirit comprise the soul of man: “the elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fulness of joy; and when separated, man cannot receive a fulness of joy.” More starkly still, Joseph claimed “that which is without body or parts is nothing.” We are used to thinking of these ideas in lofty metaphysical terms, perhaps, but the slow severing of my body and spirit gave me a foretaste of the physical and emotional price of this separation. Though there were undoubtedly moments of happiness and connection amidst this struggle, I find it difficult to conjure vivid memories from this period of my life. While I can re-create with sensory clarity fleeting memories that happened much earlier in my childhood, my adolescent years are wrapped in wintry frost. I pry at them with numb fingers, grieving the half-dead years.
The grip of anorexia gradually loosened through the compassionate wisdom of a college roommate, then the earnest self-forgetfulness of mission service, and eventually a happy, if untested, marriage. But its mark remained. The years of disassociating myself from my body’s primal signals of hunger and fatigue left my body-self dulled; meanwhile, a grueling doctoral program fed my mind-self steroids. Initially planning on studying themes of bodily transcendence and sexless souls in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Enlightenment feminism, I found myself drawn instead to medieval mysticism and baroque Catholicism; their utter immersion in bodily matter both repulsed and fascinated me. I studied philosophies of the body, even as my own prepared a coup.
The mental and emotional pressures of graduate school and a fraying marriage began to split the seams of the body-self I had so long tried to compress and control. Panic attacks and dissociations broke my illusion of mental sovereignty and bodily discipline. In those stretches of time when my mind looped or dissolved into static, I was conscious only of a wild desperation to breathe, of an urge to beat my body-self back into working order like hammering the sides of a faulty vending machine. It was a bodily takeover that left me with tear-stained cheeks, bruises and headaches, and air-hungry lungs.
Like any good millennial, but with the reservations of a bootstrap-style upbringing, I took myself to therapy. I was chagrined when my therapist gently insisted on trying things like locating feelings “in my body.” It was like trying to find a pulse in a stone. I didn’t know how to be both a mind and a body. I could only lurch from one to another: ensconced in my head and my books, or crushed by unexpected tsunamis of sensation. My therapist wanted me to own these sensations, befriend them even, to align with my “true self” (a proposition that bewildered me); instead, I was inclined to see therapy as hostage negotiation training, finding ways to convince my amygdala to lower its weapons and hand over my brain.
I eventually learned that my body was not merely a threat to be managed or a wild force to be placated; it was also a source of life-giving power, of astonishing complexity and intelligence. I discovered this not in the therapist’s chair, but in carrying my first child. Pregnancy was a different bodily takeover, one as gradual and gentle as the other was sudden and violent, as wondrous as the other was terrifying. Without any direction from the mind I had so rigorously disciplined, my blood volume surged, hormones circulated, milk glands ripened, skin expanded, ligaments stretched, organs shifted. Day after day, I acquainted myself anew with a changed body. The very mass of matter I had once tried so hard to control took hold of the reins, and I relinquished them with unexpected and profound relief. In my mental illness, I felt seized by my body; in pregnancy, I submitted and surrendered to something that felt like grace.
I was sitting at the kitchen table in our sunny rental apartment in Madrid when I first felt the whispering flutter of her limbs. The quality of the air suddenly shifted—There you are. Hello, I breathed. Until then, the pregnancy had primarily felt like finding myself in a strange and remarkable experiment. I was fascinated by the changes in my body. But now, with a shock of recognition, I felt and saw her body, her prodding elbows and knees. My illusion of the sovereign mind-self finally shattered; my budding appreciation for the dynamic, intelligent body-self, too, gave way. Behind the contracted self, I saw selves. My body was plural, not singular.
Watching her movements ripple across my skin felt like a suddenly visible synecdoche of the maternal-fetal exchange that had been quietly transpiring between our cells from the beginning. With stark immediacy and utter fragility, her movements illuminated the grounding we-ness that precedes and shapes our very being. This was a physical, but also, an emotional revolution for me; I experienced, for the first time, loneliness as an impossibility. Throughout my days poring over fragile parchments in the archive, boarding crowded trains, walking along foreign streets, I cherished her secret company.
They tell me the child works as hard as the mother in labor; the contractions squeezing my ribs are squeezing her, too. But I forgot all about her during birth; I forgot everyone and everything. Medieval Christian mystics often used and even sought pain to block out all egoic consciousness in order to access the ethereal, unnameable presence of God. Pain “grasps us in the teeth of the moment, destroying for us all sense of past and future.” In the teeth of delivery, the words of carefully studied birth books, the calm instructions of my doula, the encouraging squeezes from my husband, were all swept away by the gush of broken water, the slow waves of suffocating contractions, and the scorching blast with which my daughter irrupted into the world.
For all the symphonic joy my daughter’s arrival brought, the following weeks of recovery fell into a discordant minor key of throbbing pain. Sensations, again, upended the delicate ecology of my body, heart, and mind. Everything felt raw, displaced, unfamiliar in my body as I struggled to walk, to sit, to dress, and to nurse. The twelfth-century mystic Bernard of Clairvaux, who was quite taken with the metaphor of suckling, clearly never had mastitis. Nights and days blurred together in preparation for and recovery from the dizzying pain and torn flesh of each hourly feed; bouts of fiery infection marked the weeks. Sleep came in fitful snatches often disturbed by perceptual confusion—mistaking rumpled pillows or discarded socks for my infant being smothered under the covers, I’d awaken my husband frantically tearing them off our bed.
My body-self woke, nursed, bandaged, slept, woke, nursed, bandaged, slept; my mind functioned at a low hum of registering and responding to my baby’s needs, punctuated by bouts of euphoria or despair. The radical transformation of motherhood left me reeling: at times I felt dazzled by her existence, and at others, suffocated. Life felt new, but incoherent; like Lazarus resurrected, I was stumbling towards the tomb’s opening, my face wrapped in grave clothes yet to be loosed.
After several months, the grave clothes dropped away: the fog of postpartum pain lifted, my heart steadied from the hormonal-emotional extremes, and my mind began to clear. In caring for my newborn daughter, I felt gradually re-ensouled with a self—a mind, a heart, and, most vividly, a body—that apprehended more deeply and clearly. I paused on a walk by the pond while carrying my daughter as she gazed fascinated at a dewy leaf; I saw its gorgeous translucence with new eyes. She cried, and I created a cocoon of warmth and protection with new arms. I finished nursing at midnight and her heavy head fell on new shoulders, the newborn fragrance of her downy hair filled new nostrils, the warm weight of her little body pressed on new nerves. She was born, and I was born anew. It was the first time I fully lived through my body, and the joy was so overpowering I would weep; I couldn’t even journal my words—I had to sing them, in the dark, by her crib.
Words, in fact, mattered less now. She didn’t require my ideas or opinions; she needed my soft voice and gentle hands. But nor was it simply my body she needed, either—my mental distraction or emotional disquiet were as palpable to her as the smell of smoke. She drew out of me an embodied attention, uncluttered by the syntax of subjects and objects.
This new sense of awareness began to spread outwards, transforming the world around me; motherhood not only re-embodied me, but re-embedded me. I remember lying with her on the wicker sofa as a summer rainstorm approached, the porch string lights warm and bright against the darkening sky. Her heartbeat, the percussion of rain, the calls of the whip-poor-wills, the rumbling thunder, the smell of soaked soil, all melded together like the harmonic undertones of a Tibetan singing bowl. I felt the restful sense of belonging from my childhood envelop me, though now suffused in tingling gratitude. In that quality of presence in which spirit and body are fully united in response to the world, I finally savored a “fullness of joy.”
But that quality of presence committed me to experiencing pain as well. In this newly embodied and embedded sense of self, I began to feel more vulnerable to emotional frictions, even subtle or unintended ones, and their somatic vibrations. The tone of my child’s voice when she asked for her dad, not me; the tight pause before my friend’s response in a difficult conversation; the icy draft of air when my husband shut the door after a fight; they felt newly charged and formidably complex in ways I couldn’t articulate but deeply felt.
I also became more aware that the vulnerability of embedded embodiment worked in both directions; how deeply I affected others in ways that I could not see or fully understand. I remember the first moment this hit me in full force: my oldest, then a toddler, had impulsively hurt her infant sister, and I reacted angrily. As I scolded her, she suddenly clapped her hands over her eyes. My gaze, I realized, was hurting her. These eyes of mine that I couldn’t even see, this facial expression I was incapable of viewing and was unknowingly bodying forth, were kindling shame and fear in a beloved child. It was a bitter taste of what the philosopher Gabriel Marcel called the “shadow at the center”— the part of one’s self which is inaccessible to the self and only perceived by the Other, a proof of our incompleteness and dependence on the Other for our own self-disclosure. I was stricken, and softly took her hands down and wrapped her in a hug, trying to blot it out from her history and her future.
Yet I go on hurting—in the passive and active sense— every day, every hour, simply by virtue of existing in embodied and embedded relationships. I am often tempted to enclose myself within my body, retreat into my own sensations and narrations, and leave those around me to the impenetrable mystery and responsibility of their Otherness. It’s all the easier when our therapeutic, political, and cultural ethos invite it. We are encouraged to excavate our “true self” within the recesses of our own body and psyche and barricade behind its unimpeachable authority, behind our righteous boundaries; who needs the Other, except for blame and projection? Philosophy can be enlisted as well; solipsism scoffs at the idea that I can ever know anything outside my own body, let alone the Other. Why not save myself the heartache of trying? After all, how can anyone bear the weight of our unconscious offenses, the vulnerability of infinite disturbances?
It is at this juncture that Christ beckons me, calling me back out of my tomb and into the entangled world of Others, from an embodiment that self-encloses to an embodiment that mediates our inescapable interdependence. By virtue of his own Incarnation, Christ does not allow me to retreat into my particularity, nor ask me to dissolve it into some being-less Being; he asks me to stay yoked, as he does, to the Other: to love my neighbor as myself. For this relational reality and covenant “is eternal lives—to know the only wise and true God, and Jesus Christ, whom he hath sent.” To know God is to love.
Yet there’s a catch; in bidding us love our neighbor as ourselves, loving one’s self is presumed; but elsewhere, Christ bids us to lose the self, to let it die. The only way I can reconcile this is seeing them as referring to different selves. In the parable prefacing that daunting call, he illustrates how a kernel of wheat can either “abide alone” clinging to the stem, or it can let go, fall to the ground, and die. Only then does the seed bring forth much fruit, or, as I now read it, eternal lives. The self that must die is the false self generated by listening only to my own body and my own stories, when I imagine myself self-sufficient and complete, a bounded entity to protect and defend. Eternal lives begin once I let this self fall, trusting the ground to catch it, to break it open and nourish it, and bring forth new ways of being.
Sometimes, I’ve found this breaking open and dying to be liberating, joyous. It means the death of the lonely self and the birth of new selves midwifed by the Other: “Ah, I never knew this about myself until I met you; until I lost you; until I married you; until I birthed you.” It means the death of the stagnant, jaded self, making way for an infinite expansion born of curiosity and attention. Pinned in space and time through my particular body, I multiply, revise, and refine my access to the world through the perspectives and histories embodied in others.
But sometimes, it feels simply like death. And in times when I cling to my anger or my fear, when being alone feels like survival, the only way I have found to face the necessary egoic death is the peculiarly simple and often agonizing practice of meditation. In “still sitting” (a more apt, if unfamiliar, descriptor), I practice what in the therapist’s office was impossible for me to achieve: facing the tsunamis of emotion and sensation and keeping my feet on the ground. But the difference is, the ground is not some illusory “true self” intoned by a well-meaning therapist, or marketed by self-help books or invoked on billboards, but the true ground of Being, the ground infused with the light that “comprehends all things,” that is “in all and through all things” and “giveth life to all things.” Christ is the ground, the matter, the mater, in the maternal-fetal exchange of creation, in the birth of new, eternal lives.
It is something I can sometimes directly grasp but not adequately translate. The other day, it felt like this: I was sitting in my office feeling pulled apart: weighted with the residue of a lingering argument with my husband, escaping into heady thoughts of new academic projects, crushed by a sense of finite time and attention against the infinite books to be read, avoiding thoughts of what to make for dinner, yawning from the sleepless night disrupted by my middle child’s bad dreams, and queasy about the prospects of trying to resolve the marital conflict in the fleeting window between kids’ bedtimes and my own. I began to pack up my bag to leave the office, readying, as I often did, to shove the wild thoughts and heavy emotions in alongside my laptop, and do the next minimally required act to keep life functioning, holding in temporary abeyance the implosion sure to come.
Instead, I stopped. I turned back and sank into my chair, and I breathed. And as I sat trembling before the onslaught of emotions and sensations, something in me gave way. The anger and accusations, the ambitions and anxieties, began to break off the stem and drop. I felt the breath rushing out of me: a gentle, liberating wind sweeping the locks off my throat, my tear glands, my shoulders, and my chest. The walls of my own prison, my self-contained aloneness, came crumbling down around me. I felt the ground beneath me, catching the shards of my egoic self that lay brittle and broken around the tender shoots of new lives. In that ground, there was room for my husband, for my children, for the voices of all the books, and for me. I was ready to go home.
I sense the divine tutorial of embodiment stretching out into eternity—an eternity that, as Joseph Smith envisioned and I now feel, is anything but empty or static. It pulses with new lives, ever emerging, ever embodied, ever embedded. They’ve already begun. And I can “taste it” like “honey is sweet,” and “I know it is good.”
Rachael Johnson is a postdoctoral fellow at the Maxwell Institute with research interests in theologies of embodiment and materialism, inspired mostly by the joyful messiness of raising three littles.
Art by Emily Fox King.
The Global Mormon Studies 2024 conference will be held in Mexico City from May 23rd-25th. This year’s theme of “Go Thy Way” seeks to “[acknowledge] the multidimensional reality of what Mormonism’s global presence has meant to various communities and individuals.” More info can be found through the Call for Papers.
The Bay Area Council for Latter-day Saint Studies will be hosting a special fireside with Salt Lake Tribune senior religion reporter, Peggy Fletcher Stack, on Sunday, October 8th at 7:00 pm. Her address, “Discovering a World of Faith: Commonalities and Differences” will draw from her own experience extensively covering various religious traditions and communities through her career.
Wayfare Contributing Editor Tyler Johnson recently published a BYU Studies article, “Embracing Our Highest Worship: Some Thoughts on Our Approach to the Temple.”
Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought is issuing a call for submissions on “The Family in Latter-day Saint Culture and Thought.” Seeking pieces which explore historical development, anthropological insights, doctrinal perspectives, and creative expressions, interested applicants are asked to submit original works by January 15th, 2024.
In recognition of the 200th anniversary of the Angel Moroni appearing to Joseph Smith, Time published on “How Mormonism Went Mainstream,” written by Mormon studies scholar, Benjamin Park. Tracing the development of the tradition from its earliest roots to its impressive body today, Park highlights the changing ways in which Latter-day Saints have related to themselves and the world around them through the faith’s unfolding history.