This is my body: A theology of massage

The first time I had a massage, it was a gift from my sister Elizabeth. The management of her upscale apartment offered massages as a benefit of occupancy. At $10 per session, she was able to afford a standing weekly appointment, one of which she bestowed upon me. And it was a revelation. Like my first time trying anything, I had to get the hang of it. It was so…personal…and yet business-like, matter-of-fact. My main problem on the learning curve: how to lie prone in the face cradle without drooling.

I figure I have had over 200 massages since that first one. There have been appointments in the course of regular life (aided by diligent coupon-and-special-deal shopping,) but I will often seek out a massage deal when I travel. Because: traveling. Ugh. From Napa to Austin to Boston, some have been better than others, but each one did me good. They all run together, obviously, but two massages in exotic locales stand out.

In Zihuatanejo on the western coast of Mexico there was no need for recorded zen-flavored-beach-sounds, because the massage tents were set up all along the actual beach. So, you know: actual waves. That was groovy and wonderful.

By far the weirdest massage ever was in Jerusalem. It’s a tense place, so I was already kind of jumpy. The massage guy in my hotel reminded me of one of those vaguely threatening masseuses in a James Bond movie. I lay face down–trying not to drool–on a very hard table (you Americans are so soft, with your padded tables.) There was an excessive amount of mineral oil and some alarming arm whip-lashing. I gradually became aware of the music, to which the response in my head was: “What. The. Hell. Is. That?” I could only think it was…surely not…Stairway to Heaven?…sung by…spooky monks? As it turned out, I was absolutely right. Celtic monks doing Led Zeppelin. My massage guy was so proud; I just nodded and smiled. (Listen to it here, if you dare.)

Fertility Hazel Buddha

Many thanks to my friend Erica for her permission to use this triptych of beautiful bodies: the goddess, the baby and the buddha.

I have heard people say they could never get a massage because of the whole stranger-touching-your-naked-body thing. But here’s the thing: the massage therapist doesn’t judge. It’s not about someone “seeing you naked.” It’s about your responsibility to tend a sacred temple. It’s about being the steward of something precious that has been entrusted to you, something made in the image of God. [A famous food retailer–it rhymes with Mole Snoods–has this sign up right now: “Treat your body like it belongs to someone you love.”]

A lot of negative body-image stuff is tossed around in the name of religion. And don’t get me started on the objectification of women in advertising. Our bodies are, unfortunately, too often a source of shame for us. Actually, though, the Bible is full of encouraging and affirming body messages. Whatever that voice is, telling you that something is wrong with your body…it’s not the voice of God.

In the chapel of my spiritual home, the monastery of the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge MA, it is common for the presider to issue this invitation at the Eucharist: “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven. May we become what we receive.”

We carry our stress and worry and memories in our bodies, and our bodies never forget anything. Our own pains–as well as the pains of anyone we care about–these become knots and twinges in our necks and shoulders and lower backs and feet. Sometimes, on the table, I imagine my massage as a body prayer for people I love: one who has cancer, one has been bitterly disappointed, one is recovering from abuse. The hands that are tending my body become for me an outward sign of God’s incarnation. I visualize the God who became human not only healing me, but unknotting, untangling, and making whole the broken body of Christ.

When I’m not drooling.

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