Guest post by Barbara Pitkin
Today I went to the wrong yoga class. I was running late (as usual!) and hadn’t really paid attention to the change of venue indicated via email. Rushing into the building on the heels of a young woman with a yoga mat, I followed her into the studio where my regular class is held. I unrolled my mat and joined the eight or so students sitting facing the instructor, who—I realized just at that moment—was not Kristine. Since this was a special make up class, my first thought was that she was a substitute. But the other students seemed familiar with the opening routine, and this made me realize with growing discomfort that I was definitely in the wrong place. There was om-ing. And long, lyrical chanting in a tongue foreign to me. Followed by more om-ing.
I sat in what I hoped was respectful silence with my eyes closed, trying to clear my mind and open myself to a new experience. Yet all the while I was wondering just how rude it would be to stand up, roll up my mat, and try to slip across the hall to Studio 52, where, I was now convinced, I would find what I was looking for. Thankfully the instructor gently approached me after the om-ing had finished and gave me an out (she also graciously assured me that even though this wasn’t Kristine’s class, I was “in the right place” and welcome to remain). I made my exit and soon found myself in a more familiar milieu and my body and spirit moving and challenged in customary ways.
The irony of the fact that it was precisely my lack of attention and mental focus that landed me in what was, for me, an awkward situation, was certainly not lost on me. And yet, as a result of my inattention, I gained new appreciation for the broad spectrum of yoga styles and experienced an unexpected sense of joy (or perhaps relief) for having found a practice that suits me. What I love about physical activity in general and yoga in particular is that there really is something that’s just right for each individual body. That said, though, I’m a tad embarrassed to admit in this forum that virtually the only reason I do yoga is because I need to be more flexible. I don’t really get the breathing aspect or the setting an intention for your practice, though I am completely into the way Kristine sometimes tenderly massages our scalps with lotion during shavasana. The bottom line is that I have extremely tight places in my body, and I’m not committed enough to stretching them out on my own.
Despite my utilitarian attitude toward my yoga practice, I’m convinced that physical activity is not unrelated to spiritual stretching, even if the two not as integrated in my exercise routines as I’m guessing they may be for the practitioners in the class I stumbled upon. Spirituality is no mere inner dimension of life, but an element of being human that emerges out of, exists in constant interaction with, and flows back into our corporal natures. Ritual—sometimes mundane, undistinguished, familiar; other times uncommon and extraordinary—is the lifeblood of the world’s great spiritual traditions. Moving our bodies through our familiar and yet challenging religious routines nourishes our souls by connecting us to the fundamental ground of our existence.
In Christian tradition, a “sacrament” strictly speaking is a special kind of ritual action that, depending on the school of thought, imparts, symbolizes, represents, or reminds of the divine presence. Christianity, like yoga, has a wide variety of styles, and its rich diversity is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the vastly different ways of understanding and celebrating its two central rituals, baptism and eucharist (the latter also known as the mass, communion, or the Lord’s Supper). In some traditions, such as the Lutheran one to which my family belongs, the eucharist is a regular feature of weekly worship; each Sunday we hear the familiar words, witness and perform the traditional gestures, join our voices in the usual prayers and songs, touch and taste bread and wine. The liturgy is a multi-sensory affair that opens up the mystery of the incarnation, God in tangible form, hidden yet accessible in the material things of this world.
Baptism, unlike eucharist, is normally experienced personally only once in one’s lifetime and, beginning in the early Middle Ages, usually took place when one was an infant. In sixteenth-century Europe, however, some religious reformers questioned the appropriateness of this practice for tiny babies unable to take an active part in the ritual. They advocated what came to be known as “believer’s baptism,” administered only to those who had made a prior profession of their faith and were capable of making a serious commitment to reform their lives. Other reformers, however, including Martin Luther and John Calvin, adhered to the traditional practice of baptizing infants. Calvin, for example, argued that Christian children already possess God’s promise and love that are signified in the sacrament, and that they therefore have a right to the corporeal sign or seal imparted in the ritual. For Calvin, baptism doesn’t change anything about their spiritual or physical natures, but stands as a visible, tangible sign to others and, later, to themselves, that they have been embraced by God’s mercy. It indicates their full status in the spiritual community and serves to sustain them in their future practice of their faith.
Pressing his case about not denying infants born to Christian parents their right to baptism, Calvin describes how through the ritual parents “see with their very eyes the covenant of the Lord engraved upon the bodies of their children.” And here he hints at a broader, more general notion of sacrament, as any kind of physical entity marked by God as a sign of the divine promise. Think, Calvin urges, of the story of the Noah’s rainbow—like a piece of metal that receives new valuation when it is stamped with an official mark to become a coin, ordinary elements can take on new meaning as imprints of God’s love.
Easier to say, perhaps, of healthy children, that they are loved by God and that their bodies—their tiny, vulnerable baby bodies—are holy and marked with that deepest of spiritual mysteries. And, yet, I can’t help wondering if there isn’t something more to the sacramental joining of flesh and spirit, whether it doesn’t point more toward a more radical, even disorienting, vision: broken bread in the eucharist, broken bodies, a broken world—these are the places where God is. Perhaps it’s also where we don’t want God to be. It smacks of making everything so neat and tidy—so meaningful—if God is there, somehow. To say that there’s something right when everything is so wrong.
The only child of Calvin and his wife Idelette de Bure—a boy—was born premature and died shortly after birth. So I can’t imagine that Calvin was thinking about healthy children when he wrote that line—and given the high rate of child mortality in early modern Europe, it’s unlikely that it would have been read that way. It’s hard to know exactly what it meant; easier, indeed, to speculate whether it has anything to say today, and, especially, to readers of this blog.
Perhaps the sacramental vision of children’s bodies can be viewed as an invitation to view not only children but also parenting in a different light. I’m afraid that a good portion of my parenting activity suffers from the same distracted mindlessness that brought me to the wrong place earlier today—particularly those aspects that involve physical care of my offspring. Countless hours spent ensuring that they are dressed, fed, or getting enough sleep and exercise. Arguments over what they’re wearing or eating or whether they do, in fact, need to take a shower. Put on sunscreen! Don’t forget your bike helmet! And much repeated in our household: Wash your hands!
One of the many, many things I have learned from reading Emily’s blog is that all of the mundane, ordinary activities are anything but insignificant. What Ronan eats and all the ordinary rituals of each baby day, each exquisitely memorialized new experience, and above all Rick and Emily’s loving care, all yield countless “transcendent moments” of connection and revealing the flowing, interpenetration of the ordinary and the extraordinary. A sacrament—something right—in the midst of so much that is most definitely wrong.
Barbara Pitkin teaches religious studies at Stanford University. When she was on the faculty at St. Olaf College, she had the privilege and pleasure of advising Emily Rapp’s undergraduate honors thesis in religion. Her publications on children, parenting, and spirituality include “Honoring Children’s Bodies” and “Are Children Human?”