Every era has its heresy. Not a new heresy, mind you: A cursory glance at church history will reveal the same six or seven ideas being recycled over and over again. And every era has in its character some kind of predisposition to one of these ideas. I have always thought that ours was gnosticism: the belief, among other things, that our physical bodies are a burden, that our true selves are wholly incorporeal, that a spiritual life means freedom from the physical world.
These are dangerous ideas; they are endemic in our culture and counter to the Christian tradition. They are also easy to succumb to in a time of plague. This year has exposed our vulnerabilities as humans in startling and painful ways. No matter how wealthy our nations, how advanced our technology, how enlightened our culture, how progressive our ideals, we are still as vulnerable to disease as the lowliest animal.
This year has exposed our vulnerabilities as humans in startling and painful ways.
In these circumstances, it is difficult to see the merit in being physical creatures. The pandemic has made our bodies enemies to one another, posing constant threats to our families, our communities, even our places of worship. Six-foot lines have bisected every institution imaginable—even, for infected spouses who must quarantine themselves, the marriage bed. From all this, it is tempting to conclude that our bodies are burdens indeed.
Simultaneously, the pandemic has crammed as much of our lives as possible onto screens and into Zoom calls. Though these technologies give us much to be thankful for (I myself have benefited enormously from them, as I will note later), they can also distance us from our physical selves. These days, it is easy to forget that we and our neighbors are more than floating heads on a conference call.
God made the human body. God made the physical world and called it good. How can we avoid the heresy of Gnosticism while protecting our neighbors from our germs? How can we recall the sacredness of our flesh while being constantly reminded of its weakness?
How can we recall the sacredness of our flesh while being constantly reminded of its weakness?
The day the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, I got sick, too. Like many thousands of my fellow Detroiters, I had Covid-19. Within a week, Detroit was one of the largest hotbeds of the coronavirus in the country and the world.
I was lucky. Though my illness was frightening and my lungs still do not quite feel like themselves three months later, my case was mild, and I was never hospitalized. Many in Detroit were not so lucky. By the time this goes to press, Wayne County will likely have lost as many to Covid-19 as New York City lost on Sept. 11, 2001.
How do you praise God for your body even as you struggle to breathe? How do you remember the joys of the incarnation as the news is flooded with the horrors of mortality, as phrases like “organ failure” and “intubation” and “cytokine storms” become part of our everyday vocabulary?
As I self-isolated, trying to love my neighbors by leaving them alone, it was tempting to believe that my very flesh was evil.
Because of my illness, I self-isolated at home for weeks before shelter-in-place orders were enforced across the country. Though life seemed to go on around me, I was cut off from the world. My touch had become dangerous. I could not go to the places that were once part of my everyday routine—gym, library, grocery store—because my body had become a liability to others. Even the doors of my church were closed to me, Communion itself forbidden. As I self-isolated, trying to love my neighbors by leaving them alone, it was tempting to believe that my very flesh was evil.
I had not realized how much the world had changed—how much I had changed—until I watched a video of two dancers from the New York City Ballet. Filmed just before the pandemic, the video’s eerily prescient melancholy perfectly matched the somberness of the moment. But what took me by surprise was seeing the two dancers touch. I had been isolated at home for so long, enmeshed in the unfolding pandemic, that I gasped when the dancers clasped hands. I watched, riveted, as the dancers embraced, supported and carried each other in a passionate pas de deux (literally, “step of two”). I had already forgotten what it looked like for two humans to be in communion with each other.
Ballet is civilization at its finest. To a world in upheaval, it is an emblem of calmer times.
As the pandemic continued, and my self-isolation was replaced by a mandatory lockdown, I immersed myself in the very physical world of ballet. From my couch, I watched full-length ballets from companies around the world. From my home office, I took virtual ballet classes from professional dancers on Instagram Live and from my home studio in Boston. I bought a ballet barre on eBay and did pliés and relevés and tendus as my teacher directed me onscreen, her familiar voice guiding me through the steps. I am no dancer, but these things reminded me that I was still human, even though I was contagious. As Christ’s multitude of healing miracles show us, even a diseased body is an icon of the incarnation.
Ballet is civilization at its finest. To a world in upheaval, it is an emblem of calmer times. Like any kind of athleticism, it represents abundance: access to plentiful food, time and resources for training, the peace and leisure necessary for spectatorship. It is an eminently civilized art form not only because it still carries traces of the 17th-century courts from which it sprang but because of its connection to longstanding tradition, even in its most contemporary forms. A plié is a plié is a plié, even in a pandemic.
Ballet also shows us the human body as it was meant to be: full of health and life, making not one but a thousand beautiful choices, sacrificing comfort for the sake of something greater, disciplining oneself for the benefit of others. Ballet reveals the transcendent within flesh that appears too ordinary for us, too mundane. Ballet makes us wonder at the most familiar sight of all—the human body—and lets us see it transfigured, as dancers leap and twirl and reach undreamed-of physical heights. In the bodies of dancers, viewed from afar, I saw an icon of the incarnation, the beauty of the body. Our bodies may be vulnerable to death and disease, but they also mirror Christ.
Even in a time of plague, the human body is not a burden, not a prison from which we must be freed, but the vessel through which we experience all the gifts God has given us: the sensual beauty of the natural world, the embrace of the ones we love, the partaking of Christ’s body and blood. As the New York City Ballet dancers reminded me, God designed a world in which we physically support, embrace and carry one another. With patience and with prayer, we will one day return to this world.
No matter how long the pandemic rages on, no matter how digital life becomes, we are first and foremost incarnate beings, called to be present in the physical world. We can continue to love our neighbors, remembering that the stranger we see on the street is not just a vector for disease but someone whose incarnate self we can love from afar, recognizing them as an icon, as admired as a dancer in a ballet.