In her book, Nature and Other Mothers, Brenda Peterson has a marvellous little essay entitled: In Praise of Skin. Her reflections begin on a personal level. When she was thirty-five years old, for reasons that doctors were unable to properly diagnose, she broke out in a rash that left her skin dotted with red marks, like an adult with chicken-pox. For months she saw doctors and tried various remedies, including an unlimited prescription for cortisone cream. Nothing worked. Eventually she went to see her stepgrandmother who made a more primal, and accurate, diagnosis, skin needs to be touched.
Her stepgranddaughter told her: “Your body’s skin is harder-working and more wide-open than the human heart; it’s a sad thing to see how skin gets passed over, barely touched except in sex, or sickness, or deep trouble. Why, we pay so little mind to our skin, we might as well be living inside a foreign country.” Then she proceeded to cure her. How? By touching, massaging, and caressing her skin. Eventually the spots all disappeared and her skin became healthy again.
Our skin, as Peterson goes on to point out, is our body’s biggest organ. It breathes, filters, protects, and is more important than the heart in that it is possible to live with one-third of your heart blocked, but you will die if you lose one-third of your skin. It is not incidental, she submits, that the deadliest killer of our time, AIDS, begins not with some plaguelike virus invading the body, but with the breaking of skin. Skin, she insists, needs to be taken more seriously, caressed more often. (N.Y., Fawcett Books, 1995, pp. 13-18) It also needs to be better theologized-about.
Somehow our spiritualities have been slow off the mark and rather timid in doing this. We still want for a fertile theology of the body, of skin, of the eucharist, of the incarnation (and all of these are tied together). So much within spirituality, even when it tries hard to be holistic, is still dis-embodied, platonic, reluctant to take seriously the very foundation of Christianity, namely, that in the incarnation God takes on real flesh, skin. We are better, it seems, at honouring skin in theory than in taking it seriously in real life. How we honour the body in actual life never quite approximates our theologizing. We still struggle mightily when it gets to actually touching, caressing, and honouring our skin and we all live long seasons when our skin is too lonely for touch. Untouched skin is rife with fever spots, like the ones Peterson speaks of, save in our case these are visible mostly in our attitudes. Part of the problem is simple: we don’t get touched enough.
For Christians, among all the religions of the world, this shouldn’t be the case since we believe in that, in becoming flesh, God legitimizes skin, praises skin, enters it, honours it, caresses it, and kisses it. Among all the religions of the world, we stand out because, for us, salvation is never a question of stepping outside of skin, but of having skin itself glorified. That is why Jesus never preached simple immortality of the soul, but insisted on the resurrection of the body. Christian heaven is not a state beyond skin. This teaching, that salvation includes the body, was and remains scandalous, something difficult to accept. At any given time in history the vast majority of persons, if they believe in salvation at all, believe that it exists somehow in an escape from the physical body, a stepping outside of skin.
For Christians, however, the body is not something from which one is ever meant to escape. Rather the body is to be understood as a temple of the holy spirit, a church, a sacred place where God can come and make a home. Skin then is sacred, deserving of praise. This is true, especially true, when skin meets skin, in sacramental sex, and temple commingles with temple. Not an easy thing for us to accept. It seems too earthy to be spiritual. Consequently we generally lack the courage to accept a theology of sexuality that is earthy enough to do justice to how shockingly physical the incarnation really is. In sacramental sex there is eucharist, just as in eucharist, God enters, caresses, and kisses human skin. Andre Dubos, the Cajun essayist and novelist, used to say: “Without the Eucharist, God is a monologue.” Well put, especially in what is implicitly affirmed. With the eucharist, God becomes more than words, more than a belief, more than a teaching. In the eucharist, God, like Brenda Peterson’s stepgrandmother, becomes the great healer who touches, caresses, massages, and kisses our skin.
In praise of skin. A wonderfully-coined phrase that could serve as a subtitle for the incarnation! Karl Rahner once said that Christmas, God becoming flesh, gives us permission to be happy. He might well have added that it also gives us permission to praise and cherish the sacramentality of human skin.