“Your principal concern appears to be that the Creator of the universe will take offence at something people do while naked. This prudery of yours contributes daily to the surplus of human misery.” – Sam Harris, ‘Letter to a Christian Nation’
“How beautiful you are, my darling! Oh, how beautiful!…
Your lips are like a scarlet ribbon; your mouth is lovely…
Your two breasts are like two fawns, like twin fawns of a gazelle that browse among the lilies.…
Your lips drop sweetness as the honeycomb, my bride; milk and honey are under your tongue. The fragrance of your garments is like that of Lebanon.…
You are a garden fountain, a well of flowing water streaming down from Lebanon.
Awake, north wind, and come, south wind!
Blow on my garden that its fragrance may spread abroad.
Let my lover come into his garden and taste its choice fruits.” – Song of Solomon
‘I often think that the Church is totally untrustable in the area of eros.’ – John O’Donohue
‘Cultures that are repressed will be awful at f***ing. They will decline. And when they decline because they are awful at f***ing, they will create pornography, experience an epidemic of promiscuity, and cause wars.’ – Dorian Pankowitz, the man who introduced surfing to Israel, paraphrased (but only slightly)
Standing naked on a Costa Rica beach three Mondays ago around midnight, and a few minutes later being flung under and above and through water by tropical surf, as the moon stared down, oblivious to my body, or generous in its refusal to notice, it occurred to me that being naked on a beach in Costa Rica was exactly where I wanted to be. As if there were nowhere else that I actually could be. And when I say ‘I’, I mean something more full than my superficial sentiments about vacations and what you should do with them. I mean something closer to my fullest interpretation of what I really am – a human being, made, if God exists, in the image of God; privileged, to be at a wedding in Costa Rica (although the guests had left by the time I went skinny-dipping); and with the possibility of significant change, just by standing naked on a beach under the moon.
Now the fact is that writing this seems unwise; that some readers may be offended by my nakedness, even though I’m only talking about it, rather than showing it off. The fact that I have had to censor the f-word in one of the quotations above is part of this same continuum: we can’t say the word in certain places for certain reasons, not least of which is the fact that it signals how afraid we are of our bodies. But surely telling a story about how liberated I felt under the moon when I was naked can hardly be called exhibitionism? I felt united with the sea – like I belonged there; like the earth was my home; like I fitted in my body.
It wasn’t a miracle; it wasn’t a transfiguration; and perhaps I’m the only person in the world who ever felt disconnected, or even a little dislocated from my physical frame; so this may mean absolutely nothing to anyone else reading. If I were a poet, I could say this better – so if I’m de-railing your interest, please forgive me and come back later. But if you’re still with me, let me say this: I found myself waking up a little bit more to the fact of my own body – that whatever else is going on in the world, I have nowhere else to be except in my body. That’s where I happen. Not just my fuelling-and-emptying; or my experience of sexuality; or work or play: but ME. My body is where I happen. It seems to me that Sam Harris is more right than he knows – it’s not just religious institutions that can turn the body into a site of oppression: for our entire culture may be obsessed with it. The beauty myth forced on us by media and cultural mavens deadens the soul on the one hand; but on the other, the denial of the body still present in so much of our religious and educational systems detaches us from our very selves. We wander round in bodies that we don’t like because someone else has told us that we don’t look ‘right’; as if it were possible for six billion people’s hopes to be reduced to our potential to emulate the cheek bone structure of the rich and famous.
This may be turning into a rant, so I’ll try to give it a soft landing. I’m not sure that there’s much more to what I want to say than the fact that I was naked on a beach in Costa Rica and it made me feel more alive than I was before. But if there is something more, it is this:
I have nowhere else to be except in my body. Nothing happens to, or with, or through me apart from my body. Yet even though we tell ourselves that we have left the dualism that divides physicality and spirituality behind, it’s pretty clear that the competition for how we treat our bodies is still unsettled. I need to tell myself that my body and I are better suited to befriending each other than denying who we are together. I have a strong suspicion that the feeling of integration I had while naked on a beach in Costa Rica, while not denying the fact that some things are special because they’re unrepeatable, isn’t supposed to be the exception, but the rule. I’m just not sure how to replicate it when I’m not on holiday. But I know that, in the tension between being and becoming that I’m beginning to understand life to be, I want to.
*Photo credit: http://www.richarddawkins.net