What the Body Knows

 In Losing Susan I wrote about something that happened to me at a point when Susan was in a nursing home. I interpreted it via the interlude that Saint Luke puts into the healing of Jairus’ daughter. As Jesus heads to Jairus’ home, a woman in the surrounding crowd touches his body. She has been ill for a dozen years. She figures that Jesus’ body itself has healing power, and so she touches his garment from behind. She experiences immediate healing.

Jesus knows it, but not with his mind. He asks who has touched him. His disciples think it a dumb question: Lots of people have touched you! But Jesus  has felt power go out from him. He has a knowledge that comes to him through his body. He knows, through his body, that he has healed someone, and the healing has happened before he has any mental activity. His body knew something before his mind thought it.

What had happened to me was this. I was at a meeting of the Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue in the U.S. At the end of the first day, at a pre-dinner reception, I had felt hot and strange, with tingling in an arm and around my mouth. I phoned my insurance company’s advice nurse. She soon asked if there were someone who could take me to an emergency room. She didn’t say, but I suspected she thought I might be having a heart attack; I wondered the same. In the emergency room they quickly ruled that out, did another test or two, waited for the results, and everything seemed fine. In due course the doctor came to speak to me. He asked if I had changed any medications lately, or if there was anything different in my life. No, I said, medications are few and unchanged, and my life is fine. Well, I added, actually, my wife was in the hospital for most of January and now she’s in a nursing home. And I started crying.

It is the doctor’s gentleness that I remember, his loving voice. He called my doctor, who said I was to phone the next day and come see him the day after that.

I had thought I was doing so well, that I was on top of caring for my wife, that everything was just fine! I was not only on top of all the things being done with and for her, I also was taking care of my body, and I was keeping up with church, and I was even participating in an important ecumenical dialogue. I thought: Everything is just fine! I can handle this!

And my body spoke. Nope, it said.

It knew something that I was not conscious of. I was afraid Susan would never come home. I was afraid that she would have to be institutionalized and would never get better. My world, in which I thought I was working so well, was in fact like one of those dream rooms where you go to lean against a wall and discover it’s just tissue paper. The wall gives way, and you start to fall, and nothing stops you from falling: you just keep going down. If I was refusing to see these things with my mind—and I was—well, my body was going to assert its own knowledge.

The human body has its own knowledge. It was true for Jesus; it’s true for us. And while mine told me of the awful depletion of my strength, Jesus’ body irradiated the strength of his healing power. In each case, something was going out, and in each case, we knew it after the fact.
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These thoughts have come to mind as I have been reading Is It All in Your Head?, a book by a neurologist who practices in the U.K., Suzanne O’Sullivan. While giving no evidence of Christian faith, Sullivan shows wonderful humility and human wisdom in her accounts, in this book, of how illness can be real (as it was in my case, although only fleetingly) without there being a physical disease. Our thoughts and our bodies are mysteriously related. Which is to say, in theological terms, our soul and our body are linked by pathways deeper than we can know.
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As we come to the festival of the Nativity, it is good to remember that in his humanity Jesus is just like us. He has a human soul and a human body, marvelously connected. He is completely human.

The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."