“The awakened and knowing say: body I am entirely, and nothing else; and soul is only a word for something about the body.” — Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
Amid this tentatively temperate spring, its balmy-then-blustery cadence of days rife with sentiments of rebirth and renewal, I remembered a piece of writing I came across during this time a few years back. It surfaces in my mind every springtime, when beautiful, ephemeral things I’d somehow forgotten come back again.
In The Christian Mystery of Physical Resurrection, journalist and Washington Post religion columnist Lisa Miller explores the resurrection of Jesus in a contemporary context, particularly how this familiar narrative of corporeal revival has informed the way we envision our own lives after death — how even the most nonreligious and supernatural-skeptic among us likely still possess a belief in our own resurrections.
“In most of our popular conceptions, we have bodies in heaven: selves, consciousness, identity. We do things,” Miller writes. “People yearn for reunions in heaven with friends and relatives — and even with their pets.”
The role of bodies in religion fascinates me, and until Miller’s article, I hadn’t attuned to the similarities between how we exist here on Earth and how we picture the hereafter. In most any rendition of heaven, hell or purgatory, we are there physically. Our bodies, too, somehow cross over. In this realm so inconceivable and perhaps even nonexistent, we take as a given that we’ll arrive in our current means of embodiment, earthly exteriors intact, equipped with the same breadth of physical qualities and capabilities. After all, as Miller writes, “If you don’t have a body in heaven, then what kind of heaven are you hoping for?”
The fairly straightforward concept resonated with me because of its unexpected discord with my Catholic upbringing, in which I’d learned that one’s sanctity and, ultimately, salvation, hinged significantly on denial of the flesh. We should be of the flesh but not in the flesh — safeguarding a “pure” body by resisting earthly pleasures, mind fixed vigilant against temptations of the flesh. The “flesh,” our bodies — a decidedly secondary, less desirable state to that which one will eventually attain in heaven should one prove worthy enough to gain entry.
But wouldn’t we need our bodies in this grand heaven we’re trying so fiercely to get into? What would we be — how could we be — in heaven unattached to our bodies? And what are human bodies if not distinctively, cumbersomely terrestrial?
“Without sight or hearing, taste or touch, a soul in heaven can no more enjoy the ‘green, green pastures’ of the Muslim paradise, or the God light of Dante’s cantos, than it can play a Bach cello suite or hit a home run,” Miller writes.
However one might balk at the idea of literal resurrection, what we perceive in a traditional afterlife does necessitate a belief in it.
But must “resurrection” always be physical? Must a person — someone we love? ourselves? — be tethered to a body in order for us to conceive of him or her?
Spring, for me, is also a time awash with memories of my childhood friend Melissa, who passed away in 2007 when she was 21. The idea that we would be without our bodies in any type of “beyond” dances just outside the edges of my understanding largely because of her. Unfixed to her physical self, she eludes my comprehension. How should I think of her? How can I relate to her still? How can I dream of one of my deepest desires — to see her again someday?
That we would carry on inhabiting our same tangible forms in the afterlife is perhaps simply a comfortable mental crutch for those of us here, left behind.
But if bodies making the leap from this life to the next is all indeed a big misunderstanding on the part of us ever-fallible humans, and if we should strive to think otherwise, maybe there is a silver lining. When I let go of any preconceived life-after-death visualizations, it forces me to see Melissa as her whole existence — as her spirit and her influence, and not just as the palpable ways in which she was part of my life for such a fleeting moment.
I can’t fathom her just as she pertains to me. I can’t merely be me — in my sullied, self-begrudged, needy body — bereft of her. Instead, I remember and rejoice in Melissa for her qualities that are unbound to anything physical and are thus everywhere and indestructible: her passion, her resolve, her wisdom, her friendship.
It’s how I’d like to remember her — to “see” her — after all.