It was in ’75 in a Roman Catholic monastic retreat house in Venezuela when my group in the Ecumenical Institute completed an International Training Institute for church leaders. A Catholic nun among the participants had a habit of wearing her habit one size smaller than her robust physique could hold, and she must have noticed that my looks lingered during the training sessions for she came to my room when we were packing to leave. She wanted to bid me goodbye properly, she said. An inch shorter than my height, she bent my head on both hands, kissed the top of my head and brushed her lips all the way down to my toes. Then she told me to embrace her as tightly as I could. I forgot the word she used to call the “religious” ritual that I gathered was widely practiced but before I could draw a sigh of relief, she vanished with the wind.
After regaining my composure, I casually stopped my Maryknoll padre on the hallway and describe what just transpired. He smiled and said that monastics often developed their own way of affirming their physicality without violating celibacy vows.
Up to then, my converted Roman Catholic mother and Methodist Protestant father had raised me and my four siblings to treat our physicality as a neutral without being too emphatic or judgmental about it, though more to be endured than celebrated in the manner of Paul of Tarsus. I discovered later that the universal treatment of humans regardless of culture takes the body as tainted, and sex dirty, but church folks keep blood throb close by with a slight wink, the body given to be lived with neither despair nor delight.
I sub-teach at a private religious institution and my students squirmed when I narrated how my friends and I at 4 years gathered under my home’s dining table to make “comparisons.” My mother affirmed our curiosity but made sure I always wore my pants from then on. Physicality became taboo as I grew older but I held on to it tightly without apology or excuse, as the Venezuelan sister asked me to do.
Marketing has long known that titillating consumers’ fancy generates massive sales. Cosmetics welcome consumers in department stores with their display. It’s the physical self-image that counts at the basic and fundamental level.
Physicality is dominated by sight, which explains why the mascara and all the cosmetics that goes with polishing a “face” occupies the ground floor of the store. What we look like takes priority, followed by how we smell, then how firm the muscles are when looked at or embraced and how smooth they feel when extended for a handshake. The sounds that we make determine the conviviality of speaking and singing, and the stroke of fingers in the sensitivity of skin determines the nature of caress and the attraction of skin-to-skin scrimmage.
It is in the scope of our physicality that we color the kaleidoscope of our vision. We ensure the pleasantness of aroma in our viand, and we create the rhythmic beat with vigor of the snapping of the fingers. Art and humanities would be stale without the above, and the only reason the politburo can endure two hours of podium monotone speeches in the previous China leadership was that the Hanzi characters were laid out in front of everyone to follow with their eyes rather than their hearing.
I am heading for Dong Bei in northeast China this Sunday to visit my wife and check on our house. She left Saipan three months ago to care for her elderly parents, and will most likely not return with me. My father-in-law was just operated for a hipbone injury so she’s looking for another three months of filial care. So we have to catch up on the last three months, and make up for the next three, and I shall try to keep it within my side of Venezuelan Catholic celibacy. Is that fair enough?
In this season of lights and green trees, we are reminded of our dreams, and emboldened by our hopes. There is nothing abstract about those; our hopes and dreams are very physical.
The approaching Christmas season has since Thanksgiving gotten the nativity mangers in display. The manger scenes look very alive. On one site, a Church custodian made sure that the manger was dusted and the straw tidied once a day, and when he took the manger babe to the bathroom, I asked what it was for. “In case he pooped,” he replied.
That’s faith on optimal physicality.
A Salud to a Venezuelan nun!
(All views expressed by the author are his/her own and do not necessarily reflect the opinion and stance of the Saipan Tribune.)