The Body

by Kevin Heider

My son was born last week. He’s beautiful. The labor was long, full of anxiety, uncertainty, and immense pain that my wife endured on behalf of our family.

A week after experiencing the joy of this new life, her body is still healing. Recovery from labor is like another labor unto itself. And I suppose this is a lesson: life is full of labors. The hope, then, is that each labor results in something more than just the memory of pain.

As we snuggled and stared and held our son close for two days in the hospital, our minds were split between the joy of this new life and the shame and sorrow wrought by recent revelations of the extent of the suffering our church has brought to so many of the men, women, and children she was supposed to shelter — not abandon.

This tragic reality dominated our conversations during our stay in the hospital. We kept trying to talk about other things, to steer the conversation to lighter fare, to climb out of the depraved rabbit hole. But we kept coming back to the sins of our church: decades of abuse, cover-ups, sexual perversion and predation by clergy, and so on. (And that’s just the 20th century.)

We couldn’t stop talking about it, in part, because we couldn’t find the words. How does one find the words to make sense of such corruption? To pray? To muster courage? To lead when leaders have failed? To inspire actual conversion? To repent and make amends when no apology or penance seems remotely adequate?

I still don’t have the words. But I’ll never stop looking for them. I’ll never stop trying to make sense of human depravity, pain, and hypocrisy. And I pray I never stop trying to overcome these things where they exist within me. The moment I stop trying, I’m dead.

And so the words [I’ve heard] attributed to St. Augustine echo in my mind: The Church is a whore, but she’s my mother.

What does the Church claim to be? The body of Christ. But what, exactly, does the body of Christ look like?

Many Christian denominations hang corpse-less crosses in their sanctuaries. They worship around an empty cross so that their faith is always focused on the hope of the resurrected Christ rather than on the tragic necessity of his suffering and death. And I get that. It makes sense to me.

But I’ve come to realize that, far more often than not, the body of Christ, that is, the Church as a human institution, looks more like the suffering body of Christ: it’s filthy. It’s covered in blood, scars, sweat, and dirt. Its skin is scourged and stained by the sins of its members. Its muscles are weak and worn down. Its vessels are broken, unable to carry blood to the heart, which is still, somehow, in the right place. Its hands (me, my wife, our fellow parishioners, our priests) are so often incapable of doing all the work that needs to be done because they’re pinned down, nailed by sin to the wood of the narrow gate. From the person of Christ as he was sought and seen during his earthly life, this body is virtually unrecognizable. Who would ever stumble upon such an ugly, disfigured corpse and want to embrace it?

from wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit proceeds,
unless restored by that refining fire
where you must move in measure

T.S. Eliot wrote that. I’m not entirely sure what it means, but it’s how I feel. My spirit is exasperated. And yet, I proceed from wrong to wrong with my mother, the Church, praying for a refining fire, desperate for the grace to move in measure, hoping for a new life at the end of this long, excruciating labor.

To every soul my Church has forsaken, to every beautiful body one of her members has ever perversely desecrated: I do not have the words to tell you how sorry I am.

There is cancer in my bones
from the poison I’ve accepted.
There is blood on my hands
from the work they have neglected.
And this hole beside my heart
this is Love rejected.
These weakened muscles —
this is my body.

There are lesions on my skin.
My face is full of bruises.
On my back I bear the weight
of years of these abuses.
I am desperate for relief,
but my body, she refuses.
These broken vessels —
this is my body.

Each thorn that cuts my hair
is a sick and twisted violence.
Each nail that holds me here
is a shepherd sworn to silence.
Eternal Love made flesh —
how could any man defile this
beautiful body?
This is my body.

When the sweat it hits the eyes,
they are blinded by the stinging.
When the air it leaves the lungs,
that’s when they keep from singing
of salvation from this darkness,
of the life that I am bringing
with this dying body.
This is my body.

The shame of innocence forsaken
marks this human epidermis,
as the lacerations show
what grows beneath the surface:
a leprosy concealed.
What person could deserve this
suffering body?
This is my body.

I know it’s hard to see a God
within this filthy corpus,
stained by sins of men
called to lay their lives before us.
Their skulls, they line this road,
haunted by an ancient chorus:
“This is my body.”
This is my body.

Born to die to free all men
from their criminal ambitions,
all this pain that I’ve embraced,
it’s a vicious repetition
at the hands of men who long
for power and position
within the body.
This is my body.

This corruption is the kind
no righteous mind can fathom.
I give my grace and peace to you,
if only you will have them;
new fruit from a new tree
to untie the knots of Adam
that choke this body.
This is my body.

This temple for the poor
has been wrecked by thieves and vandals.
All the scars and stripes reveal
the depth of human scandals.
Before the dying of the light,
may my last breath be a candle
to start a fire
within the body.

— Kevin Heider