In fifth grade, when my classmates were filching National Geographics from the school library to stare at the bra-free ladies from faraway lands, I discovered another outlet for my fascination and dread about the body: a vintage copy of Lives of the Saints. The appalling martyrdoms and weird self-denials (such as fasting on water for years to attain a state of saintly purity where one sweated honey and exhaled perfume) appealed to me at that age because puberty is the original mortification of the flesh. Sure, having to wear three T-shirts to disguise my developing bust wasn’t the same as dying while pierced by hundreds of arrows, but the transcendence of physicality these stories promised allowed me to believe my gawky, pimply self could be transformed into something holy.
Once my adolescence was over, rereading these stories disturbed rather than comforted me. Newly converted to a fitness regimen, I’d rediscovered the enjoyment of my physical self that I’d left behind with childhood, and all those accounts of sacred starvation and marvelous martyrdom disgusted me. I started to wonder, if the central mystery of my Christian friends’ religious traditions was the Incarnation, why did so many of the faithful forget that this wonderful mystery was all about God’s taking on a body?
Tricia Gates Brown’s grace-filled memoir, Jesus Loves Women, explores this question. With an honesty that’s redemptive rather than brutal, Ms. Brown recounts how she “awakened to the goodness of being a sensual, sexual creature…” (page 12), a painful journey for which most of us growing up in the United States—inheritors of the Puritan worldview as we are—receive little support. She began writing the book at the prompting of Martin, a monk and friend, who urged her repeatedly to share with others how Jesus loved women.
Ms. Brown acknowledges the obviousness of this statement. After all, isn’t the whole point of the Christian message that Jesus is love made flesh, and he loves everyone, women no less than men? Yet historically, Christian traditions have struggled with the notion that the body is a vehicle for expressing the sacred rather than an impediment to holiness and, while men are embodied creatures the same way women are, the “menstruating, ovulating, child-bearing, lactating” (page 25) that women do are all inescapable reminders of the flesh we all have.
Growing up in an evangelical community, Ms. Brown describes how the message she received over and over from her church leadership was that “What Jesus really loved were men,” the men who preached to the congregation and held important positions in church governance (page 45). Women, conversely, held supporting roles, and the message was that this second-tier status had not come about because of sexism but because women were flawed at the core. Since Eve had caused humanity to be ejected from Eden, her daughters would be banished to the periphery of the church (45). Only men had the power to deliver people from Eve’s sin: “So if women and girls were to be saved, they had to be washed in the blood of the man” (page 46).
Through courageously recounting the stories of intimate relationships that fizzled, crashed and burned, or quietly crumbled and blew away, Ms. Brown shares her sacred journey to divine love through human love, from shame to glorying in the sensual world and the sensual self inhabiting it. At this point in my life, changed by giving birth and reaching my mid-forties, I’m inspired by her ultimate joy in being wrapped in these precious garments of flesh. In answer to the friend who gently challenged her to write the book, she concludes that Jesus loves women “By understanding the capacity of a heart kept open—a capacity for love, but also for pain. By embracing all the sensations of human life and revealing their goodness. […] Jesus loves women by saying, ‘I love you. Love others. Be love.’” (page 258)
Astronomy teaches us that the molecules of which we’re made started their lives inside stars. Knowing this, how can being embodied be anything but noble? We are made of light. When we love ourselves and others, we share that light, that starry origin, with the world. I’m thankful to Ms. Brown for sharing her journey through the pain and glory of being human, with all the wrinkles, warts, longings, and disappointments that entails. Even knowing that this is to be our lot, I wouldn’t choose to be anything other than incarnate. I’m thankful for the reminder.