May 25, 2017

Review of Marvelously Made From The Anglican Theological Review/Spring 2013.

MarvelouslyMade225Marvelously Made: Gratefulness and the Body. By Mary C. Earle. Harrisburg, Pa: Morehouse Publishing, 2012. xii + 100 pp. $14.00 (paper).

From the very earliest decades of Christian belief, with the proclamation of the incarnation of God in Christ as its central puzzle, Christians have fretted over the relationship between the body and holiness. Is the body the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19), or an unruly servant that needs to be subdued (“I punish my body and enslave it,” 1 Cor 9:27)? Since the mid-1990s, theological books on the subject of human embodiment have proliferated, mainly as a corrective to centuries of Christian ambivalence about, suspicion of, or even abhorrence of the body and its inescapable needs, vulnerabilities, and desires. But while we are in the midst of so much concentrated thought about the body, it can still seem that the body itself has had no chance to speak. Mary Earle’s most recent book fills this gap. Through a series of practical exercises, she opens up the body as the primary text of God’s speech in and through human beings.

Marvelously Made is divided into three sections, the first laying down the basic theological foundations for Earle’s understanding of the sacredness of physicality; the second a series of nine meditations on specific organs of the human body (such as the stomach, pancreas, bones, lungs, skin); and the third a set of four distinct areas of practice that link the needs of an individual body with the needs of others (concern for clean water and abundant food; organ and blood donation as spiritual practices, etc.). One indication of the way in which this is not another book about embodiment, but a book of embodiment can be gleaned from a look at the endnotes and suggested reading. Earle’s sources fall mainly into two camps: modern classics of spirituality (e.g., Steindl-Rasts’ Gratefulness: the Heart of Prayer) and poetry (Wendell Berry, Philip Larkin); and medical resources, such as interviews with medical doctors, studies provided by the National Institutes of Health, and the like. Her genius is to put these two very different ways of thought to work together, as the reader is guided through the reflections and practices. Like a weaver at the loom, Earle moves her shuttle back and forth, from poetry to science, from the spirit to the details of the body, weaving human wholeness out of gratitude. At all times, Earle balances practices of looking within and practices of looking outside oneself at the simple fact of others’ embodiment, and the pull their needs justly exert on our consciences.

In the past, Earle has written on prayer and the lives of the saints, living with illness, the desert mothers, and Celtic spirituality. These are all popular subjects, but that very popularity can dissuade a good writer from tackling one of them. Earle is that rarest of popular writers, one who does not speak until she has thoroughly plumbed a subject with her own experiences of prayer and intellectual exploration. Consequently, she can be trusted as one who knows where the heart of a matter lies. In Marvelously Made, she explores the wisdom of the human body, the temple of bone and flesh that somehow manages to house both ourselves and the breath of God. This is a book at the boundary of the fields of spirituality and practical theology, written for devotional use by laity. Its importance lies in the way it gives unencumbered access to the deep things of God for ordinary people. This is exactly the kind of creative scholarly work that the church needs, an example of how the fearlessly engaged practice of one’s faith can lead to a more vibrant existence. Personally, I would like to give a copy to every one of my students before they experience CPE, and come up hard against the mystery and the fragility of human bodies. This would make an excellent book for all who make pastoral visits, lay or ordained, and for lay eucharistic visitors, as it speaks not about “that person in the hospital bed,” but about us, about the divine implications of the holy and embodied existence that we all share.