What if your body were an altar?

Renee Prymus

You probably know the story—it’s part of the Christian Bible.

In the Old Testament, the presence of God lived in a temple made of a series of tents—and the innermost tent, the Holy of Holies, held the Ark of the Covenant, which held the presence of God. The only people allowed in Holy of Holies were the Levite priests, and only selected priests on certain days.

Eventually, they built a stationary temple on Mount Moriah with the same configuration: again, the Holy of Holies was the most sacred, innermost part of the temple. It was separated from the rest of the temple by a curtain. When a priest went in, they tied a rope to his leg: if something happened to him (heart attack, for example), they would drag him out instead of sending someone in after him. The Holy of Holies was holy ground.

 At the hour when Jesus’ body died, Matthew 27 reports that the curtain in the temple was torn (27:50-51)—the curtain that divided the Holy of Holies from the world. It was, some scholars say, a symbol that God was entering the world in a new way. This was confirmed at Pentecost, with the coming of the Holy Spirit, sitting as tongues of fire above the heads of people—above their bodies.

God had come to live in their bodies. 

My holy of holies is the human body.
— Anton Chekhov, 1888

In John 2, in reference to the beautiful stone temple King Herod had built, Jesus says, “Destroy this temple, and I will rebuild it in three days.” The temple had been built out of stone and had taken years and years to build—so Jesus’s words must have made no sense to his listeners. But if you reinterpret his words as the temple being his body—itself an intricate building—the passage makes more sense. Jesus—God in a body—loved bodies.

In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul asks, “Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God?” The new Holy of Holies is you. Your body.

Touch your elbow: that skin right there is God’s Holy of Holies. Your body is sacred. 

Thanks to western philosophers—Aristotle, Plato, Descartes—we’ve learned to distrust our bodies, to trust only what we can understand: rational thought and right belief. We've learned that the body has no place in the life of the mind. Even our emotions are suspect, changing with the tides of the day.

But this divide between the body and the soul, the secular and the sacred—it’s a false divide. It’s a false divide in how we live, and it’s a false divide in how we understand spirituality and the Christian religion. Christianity, in fact, has a very high view of the body—Jesus became a body, and when he died, his body was resurrected. We believe in the resurrection of the body, which is pretty wild thing! God loves bodies.

In her book An Altar in the World, Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor describes her practice of seeing God outside of the church building: in three stones at a beautiful site in Hawaii, in other people, and many other places—including her own skin.

What if your body is an altar? What if your body is a place for you to encounter God? How does that change how you understand your body?

Solviture ambulando, wrote Augustine of Hippo, one of the early theologians of the Christian church. “It is solved by walking.” What is “it”? If you want to find out, then you have to do your own walking.
— Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World

For me, this thought is both challenging and compelling. I think about all the places where my body hurts, where my body isn’t useful, or where it is falling apart. I think of all the people I know who have even more complicated relationships with their bodies. How is God in these spaces?

Taylor suggests that our bodies are God’s prophets to us, and perhaps this metaphor makes more sense. The Biblical prophets had disgruntled relationships with the nation of Israel and its rulers—and that’s a rather mild term for their relationship. These prophets spoke truth and were generally ignored. 

Our bodies, too, speak truth, and we generally ignore them. Even after over a decade of learning to listen to my body through yoga, I am continually surprised at how much I forget. I ignore requests for water, for rest, for yoga--and that's just in the every day needs.

Yoga is a practice that helps me pay attention to God in my body. Yoga helps me honor my body—both its limitations and its victories—and therefore also honor my soul. For me, yoga is an intensely spiritual practice.

For many people—Christian or not—yoga is a spiritual practice. In 2008, I attended a workshop with Anusara teacher Desiree Rumbaugh, who said that the tagline of Anusara Yoga (at the time) was “Align with the Divine.” She explained it this way: “It is my hope that your encounter with grace on your mat will allow you to go back into your lives with a little more grace. That when you walk into your house and find your teenager watching TV and not doing the dishes like you’d asked, you’ll respond with more grace than you would have had you not experienced grace through yoga.”

Encountering grace—God—on the mat. Showing up to the mat, saying, “I am here, God.”

It is the intention that makes yoga a Christian spiritual practice. There are a lot of definitions and controversies over definitions of yoga, and in general North American practice, yoga is the marriage of breath, movement, and intention. What is your intention on the mat?

What if, as Taylor suggests, your body is God’s prophet to you? What might God be telling you through your body? That you are tired and need to rest? That you are bursting with excitement, and you need to follow this new path?*

Take time today to go to your mat and breathe. Find a restorative pose, do movement, just breathe--whatever your body needs. Listen to your body. Pay attention to the Holy of Holies within you.


Practices for Paying Attention to the Body from An Altar in the World

  • Listen to the “miracle of ingenuity” that is your heartbeat.
  • Spend 20 minutes drawing your hand.
  • Pray over your body while “naked in front of a full-length mirror, especially when you are full of loathing for your body.”
  • Listen to the dis-ease in your body: “Our bodies are prophets.” What is your body saying?
  • Wash your feet. Wash someone else’s feet.
  • Pray over your clothes while you do the laundry.
  • Embody—act out—one of the Beatitudes, in private or with a friend.
  • Walk a labyrinth. Walk the earth. Walk barefoot.

*Important Footnote: When I talk about bodies, I am always a bit hesitant. In our culture, Body is a charged topic. We all have them, and we all have complicated relationships with our bodies. When I invite people to listen to their bodies, I never know what I am inviting them into because I don’t know their histories or their bodies. In the book The Body Keeps the Score, trauma psychologist Bessel van der Kolk writes that our bodies store memories…  the process of listening to our bodies can be a very long process of working through the journey of how we got to here, today. But, as we work through it, it is ultimately a process of healing—and God is present through the whole process, the whole body.