The new millennium began with the devastating and psychologically damaging attacks on 9/11, followed by a decade of lost and confusing wars on terror, amidst the general decline of American cultural life. This has given many cause to revisit our fundamental religious beliefs with a new urgency.
Years ago Robert Fulghum wrote a best seller entitled, Everything I Needed to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten. I can top him easily! His book reminded me of the third question in my first-grade religion book, the sorely missed Baltimore Catechism. Succinctly, it asked Why did God make me? This may be an elementary question but it is one pregnant with deep philosophical and theological mysteries that have sparked bitter debates, wars and persecutions for two millennia.
The answer my 6-year-old mind was given was To know, love and serve Him in this life and be happy with Him in the next life. It is a simple yet profound thought that provokes serious soul-searching into the meaning and direction of one’s life. If we really believe it, everything else we do, crave, strive for, lust after or sell our souls for to paraphrase St. Thomas Aquinas on his 14th-century deathbed, is cotton candy.
I wonder how many of the 50 Catholic 6-year olds that learned this basic question with me in 1949 still believe its inherent wisdom. Given the intellectual and moral drift of this past half century, I fear not too many. American cultural life has suffered a regression that has warped our very institutions, such as our Constitution, political process, the sacrament of marriage and even the meaning of the English language.
Thanks to the putative rigidity of some religious strictures and a long-range decline in organized religion and its devotions and practices, the left has made measured progress in the unfinished business of the French Revolution’s subversion and relegation of all religious values to the ashcan of history.
Most Americans are essentially seekers, looking for that spiritual lift that will help them get through the dark nights of doubt, fear and insecurity that plague mostly everyone. Without the support of religion and a moral compass, they are left to flounder aimlessly on a beach of doubt and despair. Unfortunately millions of Americans have chosen the winding, lazy road of shallow thinking and empty spirituality to fill the existential void the decline of religion has created.
In search of an inner holiness they have substituted a New Age spirituality for the black-and-white honesty of the Baltimore Catechism. Their refrain of I’m OK, you’re OK is nothing more than a jargon of psychobabble that provides nothing more than the warm and fuzzy feeling of thinking oneself a good person for helping the poor build a house or two.
Too many pride themselves on these good feelings while ignoring a slough of sordid personal behaviors that would make a Marine blush.
A real commitment to the Catholic faith and a mature belief in the afterlife has seemingly descended into the dark void of society’s self-consciousness. This trend is arguably in league with the world’s pagan forbears, who made gods out of the sun, rivers and anything in nature that they feared or respected. In doing so they have lost sight of their reasons for being born.
We have forgotten the Baltimore Catechism because few teach it any more. The sad fact is that without the longstanding anchor the catechism once provided, it is just too easy for people to float adrift with nothing more than their own petty selves to cling to.
Having lost or discarded the basic metaphysical knowledge in the third question of the catechism, too many Catholics have no clue why their lives don’t seem to make any sense. Unless the Church returns to that vital third question in the Baltimore Catechism, there will be little hope for any real progress in human rights and the end of futile wars.
How important is our skin to us?
It is the coating that holds our bodies together.
Without it we would be oozing fluids and other human parts all over the place.
Skin of itself is often not very attractive.
Just ask any dermatologist.
Wrinkles, pimples, cysts, even the dreaded melanoma, all mar the pristine beauty of nature as we age and experience life in the flesh.
I was told as a young man that even the nude women of Playboy Magazine had to have their perfect bodies airbrushed to hide their imperfections.
I remember an old Jerry Lewis movie where the subject of skin came up and with all the lustful yuk-yuks he could muster he said it was the upholstery that gave meaning to one’s skin.
In talking about skin in the philosophical sense, the term flesh or upholstered skin is really what is important.
Pulcritudinous flesh was an evil for several religious groups many centuries ago.
The Gnostics, Cathars, Jansenists and Manchians all believed that the flesh was sinful and allured man to commit all form of sexual acts.
Many old word attitudes, like Puritanism which came to Massachusetts Bay in 1630, and even the Medieval Church regarded the human body as a dangerous source of temptation that had to be covered and almost hidden from public view.
Some of those archaic view still exist today.
John Paul II and his revolutionary Theology of the Body firmly established the true understanding of our bodies, both men and women, as being made in the image and likeness of God.
I have mentioned several times that the values of massage therapy as a form of, not only physical therapy, but also well-being, joy and even bliss resonate with his TOB.
Lena, my therapist has told me that in Russia they instruct new parents to massage their newborns regularly because the sense of touch is so important to their early development and can create a stronger emotional bond.
I once asked her how she got into her profession.
She learned her craft early from her mother, now a retired medical doctor, still living in Ukraine.
She did massages to put herself through medical school.
When Lena came to this country one of her first jobs was at a dentist office.
The dentist’s sister was a massage therapist.
She began moonlighting with her and after a while she advised Lena to pursue a professional license because the state had made it a requirement.
Because of her extraordinary skills, I call Lena the Natural, an allusion to the character, Roy Hobbes in Bernard Malamud’s book, the Natural.
In the movie Robert Redford played an aging baseball players who is trying to re-enter a game he left as a young man after a deranged and suicidal woman shot him in her hotel room.
The event was inspired by the real-life shooting of Philadelphia Phillies first base man, Eddie Waikus, who in 1950 was nearly killed by a mentally ill woman in Chicago.
Late in the movie, Hobbs admits that his goal in life was to be such a great ball player that when he walked down any city street in America, people would point to him and say.:
That’s Roy Hobbes…he was the BEST there ever was!
I am convinced that if enough people had regular massages from Lena people would say there goes Lena…she’s the BEST RMT there ever was!
I once told her that for her massages to have lasting value to me, I had to find some root or connection with my religious faith.
I just didn’t want these glorious feelings to be ephemeral or fleeting.
She helped me to recognize the integral link between body and soul that religions sometime distort into what they call the Cartesian dichotomy.
Our souls are the repository of everything we are.
All or emotions, feelings and thoughts are there.
They make up the core of our personality.
Americans often call this center of our being–heart.
The musical Damn Yankees and the wonderful song, You gotta have heart…miles and miles of heart illustrated the importance of heart.
In Japan they call it Wa.
The soul cannot be in harmony unless our bodies are.
And conversely if our souls are troubled or at war with themselves in the case of moral vices and personal troubles, the body will suffer as a result.
When my mind is troubled my flowglow vanishes immediately.
Since the soul is where we live, it is akin to the Owen Wilson movie, You, Me and Dupree, where a single man with few prospects, finally develops his personal talents as a motivational speaker.
The movie concludes with his telling thousands of people, especially his best friend, Carl to get in touch with his inner being–his Carlness–those things that make them who they are.
What Dupre means is essentially the positive benefits I derive from a regular massage.
There is also a kind of spiritual and metal bonding that goes with regular massage therapy.
It has led me to think hard about the eschatology of human life, that is the things that really mean something.
I recently finished a book, The Holy Longing: The Search for Christian Spirituality, by Ronald Rolheiser O. M. I.
In it he describes the Incarnation in language that I have never heard before.
The Incarnation is nothing less than the central teaching of the Catholic and many Christian faiths.
Simply stated it is the mystery of God taking a human body and dealing with humans in a visible and tangible way.
The word comes from the Latin phrase in carnus, which means in physical flesh.
This is human flesh in its raw, brute, physically tangible and unplatonic humanity.
In other words God assumed the human nature of man to go along with his divine nature and spent 33 years living as one of us but with a much more significant destiny.
It is arguably the most important event in the history of the world.
With his mystical union, coupled with his suffering and death, he raised mankind to a new level of hope and redemption.
According to Rolheiser, God assumed human flesh so that every human could become a church, a sacrament and every child would become Christ-like.
Most people do not have trouble thinking of Jesus’ body as needing nourishment, having a sexual body that was subject to pain, sickness and death.
The problem arises from the fact that we cannot attribute the same physical reality to the whole Body of Christ that he left behind, namely the Eucharist and his Church.
Most people think the Incarnation stopped when Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven.
Rolheiser believes that the importance of the Incarnation continues in history.
The God of the Incarnation has real flesh on earth–our flesh–and speaks to us in the bread and butter of our daily lives, through things that have skin–historical circumstances, our families, our neighbors, our churches and that borderline-pyschotic friend who painfully reminds us that we are not God.
But the direction and power is always with God.
As part of his plan God has chosen to work through us and metaphorically through our skin to give reality to his power.
When Lena does one of her massages, she is as Rolheiser believes giving skin to God—both hers and the one she is working on.
Her powerful fingers and arms are doing God’s work to unleash her people’s bodies from their pains, suffering and deterioration.
In doing so she gives fly to their imaginations, spirits and souls so that they can soar to deeper understanding of what life is supposed to mean.
As a result the body is free to find a rebirth in a deeper union with its soul so that the whole person can re-emerge in a harmonious union that will be pleasing to God.
I admit that on the surface this appears as something out of a New Age manual but I firmly believe it is all founded in my Catholic faith, which I think I have taken to a higher plateau.
As she has proven to me time and time again, her hands are working much more than skin deep.
She has taken my being to a much higher level as she can with anyone who will surrender to her touch.
As Rolheiser says the baton has been passed on to each one of his followers to continue his work of loving one’s neighbor and doing random acts of charity and forgiveness.
It is Christ alive in our lives and in Lena’s hands that works through us to achieve this.
The term skin deep takes on a whole new meaning.
It has become clear to me that skin during a massage has a message much deeper than the surface of the human body.
I primarily owe my understanding of this to the lady with the heavenly touch.