We usually talk about gratitude and thankfulness as mental practices: we call to mind the good things that we have received, and we try to see in our troubles good in disguise. Gratitude is a feeling and a mindset that we must intentionally cultivate. Yet, in a year when so much of our experiences have been physically limited as virtual events have replaced face-to-face activities, I wonder what the relationship is between gratitude and our bodies?
Matthew Lee Anderson, in his book Earthen Vessels: why our bodies matter to our faith, writes that “The body’s habits and dispositions, which have been trained by fallen people in a fallen world, need to be reformed according to the reality of our redemption in Christ.” By this logic, we do not become grateful people simply by changing the way we think — although that certainly is part of it. Instead, we must also change our bodies’ habits and postures, our physical way of being in the world.
I’m not often conscious of my body — except when it hurts, or when it fails to do what I want it to do. But if it is true that humans are a unity of body and soul, and that in the incarnation and resurrection Jesus Christ blesses and redeems the body and the soul, then discipleship should involve teaching and learning both for the mind and also for the body. We need to learn to pay attention to what our bodies do, and see how those physical reflexes, expressions, and actions either do or do not reflect the truth of who we are in Christ, or how they may help or hinder us from cultivating holiness.
One of my favorite parts of the worship service is the benediction at the end. I love when the minister stretches his arms towards the congregation and invokes God’s blessing on us, sending us back into the world with the promise of God’s presence and covenant love. Those raised arms are not superfluous to the blessing; they mean something, as the minister stands as God’s under-shepherd, a representative of our God.
I’ve learned the practice of responding to this blessing physically as well as mentally through my posture: hands in front of me, open and turned upward. This posture is not superstitious: I don’t think that I am more able to receive God’s blessing through it than with my hands at my sides. In fact, many Sundays my arms are full with my children, and my hands aren’t free to respond in this way. But when they are free, I practice this posture as a way to train my body in the posture of receiving. This, I think, is a bodily expression of gratitude, a way to show physically my thankfulness for God’s blessing—and, on the days when I am not feeling particularly thankful, the change in my body’s posture reminds me what I ought to be feeling. This is not a technique, a way of manipulating ourselves into holiness, as Anderson earnestly cautions. It is always and ever the work of God’s Spirit.
How do you express gratitude and thankfulness *physically*? What bodily habits and postures have helped you to cultivate holiness?