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Karin Greenhead


In a few weeks we will enter the season of Advent to prepare for the incarnation in the flesh of the only-begotten Son of the Father, begotten before the creation of all worlds.

While the mystery and significance of Christs dual nature has remained a continual subject of reflection for saints, theologians and teachers down the ages, the significance of our own incarnation and its implications has not received the same kind of attention. Today, in the context of learning to see, I would like to make some observations on human embodiment and perception.

Metropolitan Anthony liked to say that God loved the whole world, visible and invisible, into being. His statement resonates with that of the Apostle John ((John III: 16-17) when he writes: God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son . . . .that the world through Him might be saved

St Paul observes that the nature of God is perceptible to us:

Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature . . . . has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made (Romans I:20)

We ourselves are made in the image of God and according to St Irenaeus of Lyons [1] the glory of God is the human person fully alive

Concerning our embodiment, he states:

Spirits without bodies will never be spiritual men and women. It is our entire being, that is to say, the soul and flesh combined, which, by receiving the spirit of God constitutes the spiritual man.. . .


We could study history from two points of view that need to be held in balance: one, that of the narrative of the ongoing unfolding of the Fall of man; the other, that of the preparation for the incarnation of Christ in the flesh; his crucifixion (which according to all the Gospel accounts shook the entire created world); his bodily resurrection and ascension - the taking into heaven of that same human body - and lastly Pentecost, the sending of the Spirit and all that followed.

In taking flesh, Christ took on all that is of the flesh - not only its mortality and suffering but human emotion, human feeling of all kinds and human will - uniting them all to Himself without confusion.

We seem relatively happy to talk about the incarnation of Christ while finding it difficult to think about the incarnation or ensoulment of man.


According to Genesis (I : 1 - 25), the history of mankind began with the creation of the heavens and the earth, of water, light, minerals, plants and animals. The description of life before the Fall shows that the state of man in Paradise was not static but consisted of movement, growth, development and evolution. Of the dust of the earth, God fashioned Adam, the one destined to be his son and co-creator, and into his dusty, silent and unmoving nostrils he breathed his own breath, making of him a living soul free to roam, explore and discover the world.

In naming all earthly creatures, Adam realised that none were like him. [2] At this point (the beginning of self-knowledge) God put him to sleep and of his rib made Eve. Mankind was created for relationship to all matter and all living things. This relationship is grounded in the very stuff of his own body, the dust of which he is made. Through his bones he is indissolubly connected to the other: the one who is beside me, with me, like me, but not me. His embodiment confers on him both sensory and emotional feeling,  [3] the capacity for sympathy and empathy and the vulnerability that Metropolitan Anthony found so important in our relationships with God and other people. This insight, that bodily movement and interaction are key to the development of consciousness is at the forefront of developments in neuroscience, psychology and philosophy today [4] [5] [6]

Created a little lower than the angels [7] suspended between heaven and earth, mankind was uniquely placed to unite what was separate in his own body. [8] This notion of suspension is echoed in the words of dancer and philosopher Sondra Horton Fraleigh [9] when she says: our body suspends us between mystery and revelation, action and receptivity, freedom and necessity, being and non-being.

It is the moving, ensouled body that is key to mankinds greatness, strength and fragility.


Despite the pre-lapsarian, ontological groundedness in matter and the centrality of the role of the body in sacramental life and in establishing communication with others, discussion relating to the physical world and the human body is frequently framed in negative terms.

This may be due to problems in understanding the Fall through which death entered the world. The Fall took place as a result of a temptation to eat in order to become wise as gods knowing good and evil. [10] This transgression was fatally compounded when Adam blamed Eve, the woman Thou gavest me for his own temptation. In so doing he accused God himself while Eve in turn blamed the serpent. No-one took responsibility.

Eve was tempted by the promise of becoming like gods. Since gods are spirits, this seduction probably entails rejection of the physical body. This temptation to knowledge combined with a spirit-like or angelic status and power reduces the capacity for feeling that enables us to engage in dialogue. As we have noted earlier, it is this dialogue between ourselves and the other or others that lies at the root of our ability to understand both ourselves and other people. The temptation to angelism [11] has remained a problem throughout human history. It is enshrined in the now much-criticised Cartesian body-mind dichotomy with its concomitant pride of the mind and an exaltation of the intellect over feeling that has persuaded us that we are somehow above, creation rather than an integral part of it.

The casting of the body which is the temple of the Holy Spirit as a source of evil has badly affected attitudes towards women. Reference to the inferiority of women who have sometimes been cast as matter to the male spirit; who have been thought to be less intelligent, less rational and less spiritual than men and whose bodies have been thought to be particular sources of temptation are legion and can be found in many cultures throughout history. [12] Continuing to blame Eve and the body for the Fall has contributed to a highly ambivalent attitude to human incarnation which has remained largely unchallenged.


An emphasis on the dangers of the drives and desires of the flesh which we are encouraged to reject in favour of the spirit, and an unfortunate conflation of the Passions with Passion, has sometimes lead to the rejection of Passion and strong feeling, both of which remind us that we are vulnerable and not in control of everything. An idea of the spiritual person as someone who is cool and in control has developed. This is far from the vision of an ardent person aflame with love and may not resonate with a Christian view of mankind at all.

Blaming the body for temptations that arise in the mind, heart and will is simply a way of distancing ourselves from responsibility for our own thoughts, desires and feelings. As St Maximus points out in his analysis of the process of willing, it is not the body that takes decisions on how to act but the mind, the heart and above all, the Will [13] - and the body enacts them.

Christ himself says that it is not the food that goes into the mouth that defiles the body but what comes out of it [14] our words.

Each persons body is uniquely his or her own - a personal means of being in, experiencing and knowing the world. Human identity and personhood are indissolubly of the body and when we die, our unique way of being in the world is lost to the world and other people. We each move and act in a particular and recognisable way that carries our signature (Stern, 2010) [15]. Through our senses we may perceive the signature of God in the world he has created. Here, as St Clement of Alexandria points out, lies the key to our understanding of who God is:

We may gain some inkling of what God is if we attempt by means of every sensation to reach the reality of each creature, not giving up until we are alive to what transcends it.

We have observed that we discover and learn the world, ourselves, others and therefore the sense of community through the body. The importance of community to human life each and all is recognized by the Church but some within it tend to think this can best be achieved by insisting on the following of regulations or conforming to approved forms of behaviour: the letter, rather than the spirit of the law. This attitude is the opposite of Christs approach to others, addressing each person with his or her particular needs as recounted in the Gospels.

The exaltation of the intellect and marginalization or rejection of the body has resulted in three key fractures that are aggravated by our attitude to matter:

An intrapersonal separation - between the body, intellect and soul.

An interpersonal separation or disconnection from others and, since human self-understanding develops in relationship from understanding self and other, an increase in the division between men and women and their ability to understand one another.

Disconnection from the world to which we belong and for which we are responsible.

As a result we suffer from:

An inability to perceive God through the creation and a willingness to exploit and abuse the created world.

A rejection of ones own feelings, especially strong feeling. A lack of presence and commitment, understanding, sympathy or empathy, and a willingness to blame, exploit and abuse other people

Mental, emotional and physical sicknesses and disturbances related to disembodiment

Difficulties in learning, growing and repenting

An entrenched devaluation of practical and physical work as compared to managerial and desk jobs

A tendency to prefer the letter over the spirit of the law

Does this not look as if mankind has been successfully persuaded to reject both himself and his calling?


St Maximus the confessor emphasizes the important role of the senses in recognizing the divine Logos. It is interesting to note that he begins with the appeal of the sensory world to the senses in stating that the sensible world draws the five senses to itself and provides them with information. This information permits the senses to apprehend the essences (logoi) of created things. They in turn activate the faculties of the soul which, if it is clear-sighted enough to perceive truth in this way perceives the divine Logos. He assigns a specific sense-organ to each faculty of the soul. The eye is an image of the mind; the ear, of reason; the sense of smell is related to the incensive faculty that which excites action in us; that of taste to the appetitive or desiring faculty and the sense of touch to the vivifying faculty an image of life. He also states that the soul is not passive in its reception of information but reaches out to the perceptible world through the senses to create a world of spiritual beauty within the understanding. This bi-directional movement linking the soul and its senses with the perceptible world and its essences is strongly reminiscent of what has come to be referred to as intersubjectivity by philosophers and psychologists today. [18]

If we cannot see we cannot look at Gods work or the works of His beloved, man. In refusing to look we refuse to see and understand, to discriminate, cherish or reject.

Him who has ears, let him hear. [19] If we cannot listen how will we hear the Spirit, one another or other creatures for whom we are responsible?

The senses of smell and taste are often thought to be primitive but in Dionysius view: Perfumes, as they strike our senses, represent spiritual illumination.

By the nose we identify people and things and their qualities and discern the stink of corruption or the perfume of the spirit. The Eucharist offers us the body of Christ who frequently gave others physical and not only spiritual food, eating and drinking with them even after the Resurrection.

In tasting we discern what is good, what to absorb and what to spit out and reject: Oh Taste and see how gracious the Lord is (Ps. 34). Taste ye of the Well of immortality (Liturgy of St John Chrysostom).

By touch we test or prove the concrete reality, communicate, harm and heal. Christ offered proof of the reality of his resurrection in the flesh by inviting Thomas to touch his wounds and healed through touch and being touched. [20] Today there is a heightened awareness of the misuse of touch, transgressive or inappropriate touching and many people suffer from not having been touched enough. We seek movement and touch based therapies and at the same time as we need and crave physical contact and the healing it offers, we are suspicious of it.

Proprioception and kinaesthesia are senses we take for granted that inform us about the position and orientation of our body in space, helping us to negotiate our passage through it, to stabilise ourselves against the pull of gravity, to co-ordinate and modify our movements, and to adjust the amount of force we are using. Without the multisensory symphony that, according to Stern (2010), produces the sense of alertness, vitality and being alive, we could not function at all in the world. The philosopher Maxine Sheets-Johnstone has called on evidence from philosophers and scientists from a very wide range of disciplines [21] to demonstrate the incontrovertible significance of movement, especially self-movement, in coming to know the world and in the formation of consciousness in all animate life. Movement is our mother tongue, pre-lingual, the mother of all cognition (Sheets-Johnstone, 2011, xxiv-xxv). [22]


Rejection or avoidance of the body affects our ability to be truly present, in the moment, alive to things in the world, events as they unfold and to the person or people in front of us. Many people in the modern world live in a state of distraction and are always thinking about something else. It is only in openness and commitment to the present moment that real encounters of all kinds happen, encounters with others, with phenomena of the world and with God himself. Presence is important in the time-based, or performing arts that often train this explicitly. [23]

So why does our own incarnation present us with so many problems?

One source of difficulty may be found in the physical and emotional suffering, that we experience in the body in addition to pleasure. However, in addition to the problems of mortality, there is the issue of the greatness of our calling (another popular theme of Metropolitan Anthony). We were created sons of God, co-workers with Christ. At the same time we experience ourselves as held down by a heavy, mortal body that even in good health is vulnerable to sickness and injury and has many daily needs such as food and rest. It takes us some time to understand that our mortal body is not only the locus of personal experience and expression but imposes limitations on us. Situating us in time and space, it is a kind of school, the site of learning and growth. We experience many difficulties in relation to other people who may be hell for us as Sartre has pointed out, [24] and at the same time we feel alone. As a result of pain, frustration and indignity we may experience a strong desire to escape, to transcend our limitations, to distance ourselves from our own weaknesses, sins and crimes, to split off parts of ourselves. Ascetic practices are designed to help to free us from the pressure of some of these difficulties but, all too frequently, a rigid and punitive approach to asceticism sometimes disguises ambition and pride. They should be used with discretion, according to personal need with a view to their purpose in freeing the person from whatever binds them and an increase in freedom and love.

It is difficult to accept ourselves, to live our own incarnation and the call to live in both the visible and invisible worlds unless we are able to tolerate uncertainty and to say Thy will be done.

Most religions, including Christianity, tend to make sharp distinctions between the sacred and the secular. We know, however that the entire created world reveals the glory of God, [25] and is called to resurrection and we reclaim matter for the Kingdom by blessing material things: peoples bodies, food, icons, rivers, cars . . . .

Our attitude to the body, the material world and human activity should be connected to the orthodox sacramental attitude to matter and an understanding that one could be called to many different kinds of work which becomes for us an extension of the Liturgy into the world. As a musician I have sometimes met people who made it very clear that they thought that I was engaged in a rather unworthy activity and should justify it by becoming a therapist or working with people who have problems.

I would like to end with some reminders made, in the first place, to myself but which I hope you may find useful.

1. We should attend to and care for the material world, as a revelation of the divine presence, as a source of healing and of good, as the field of our actions and responsibilities, as a school and as a sacrament. Olivier Clment points out that Early Christianity was fundamentally concerned not with the immortality of the soul, which was regarded as incontrovertible . . . but with the resurrection of the body, of the cosmos as a whole, the body of humanity. [26] Therefore we should think again about what we mean when we divide the sacred from the secular.

3. We should cultivate the use of our senses which will inform intuition and all our thinking with a view to learning, understanding and relating to the world, others and ourselves better. As St. Clement of Alexandria [16] asserts: We may gain some inkling of what God is if we attempt by means of every sensation to reach the reality of each creature, not giving up until we are alive to what transcends it. We should approach each person as another myself, unique, made in the image of God. The Holy Spirit can inspire anyone, anywhere. Someone older, younger, more or less intelligent, educated, spiritual or unspiritual may see or understand something we do not or reveal something important to us.

4. We should study the works of man, whether of science, art, everyday life and learn from them, not rejecting or fearing what we have designated as secular knowledge but discerning truth wherever it is to be found.

5. We should commit ourselves personally and passionately to what we do and accept the consequences.

6. We should test attitudes and practices handed down to us, and the words of those in authority, against the Gospel, the teaching of the Church and consider them in the light of current context, circumstance, time, influence, pressure and our experience. Our experience of all these things shapes and changes not our essential human nature, not what we are but how we are, our manner of being. The possession of high office does not guarantee insight, true knowledge or rightness. We should pray for and take responsibility for those with power.

7. The contemplative beauty of church services should not lull us to sleep but galvanise us into action. The body is designed for movement. Human beings are designed to be dynamically and ardently engaged with life, to move and to act. To fulfill our nature we need to be courageous and unafraid.

8. We should be true to ourselves and not fearful but daring, able to risk knowing that God loves us unconditionally and that we will not fall out of his hands.

Our focus on the material world should help us cultivate our sense of wonder which, according to Eugen Fink, will help to dislodge our indolence, prejudice and reliance on the given and the familiar, moving us towards the creative poverty of not yet knowing and thence, with da Vincis fear and longing, to what Maxine Sheets-Johnstone calls the timeless, passionate labour of love on behalf of wisdom that constitutes a philosophic act. [27] Such an act is the necessary prelude to the proper work of caring for the created world to which we are called.

Karin Greenhead, London, Sept 5/ 11, 2013. Revised Sept 23, 2013.


[1] Irenaeus of Lyons (c.2nd century AD 202); Maximus the confessor, Ambigua 7 PG 91:1109CD in John Meyendorff, (1975), Byzantine theology: historical trends and doctrinal themes. London & Oxford: Mowbrays.

[2] Genesis II:20

[3] (Damasio, A. (2000). The feeling of what happens: body, emotion and the making of consciousness. London: Vintage Books; Sheets-Johnstone, (2011). The primacy of movement. ;, Stern, D. N. (2010). Forms of vitality: exploring dynamic experience in psychology, the arts, psychotherapy and development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[4] (Damasio, A. (2000). The feeling of what happens: body, emotion and the making of consciousness. London: Vintage Books; Sheets-Johnstone, (2011). The primacy of movement. Stern, D. N. (2010). Forms of vitality: exploring dynamic experience in psychology, the arts, psychotherapy and development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[5] Polanyi, M. (1966/2009). Tacit knowing. Chicago: UNIversity of Chicago Press, p.15

[6] Damasio, A.(2000). The feeling of what happens: body, emotion and the making of consciousness. London: Vintage Books.

[7] Psalm 8:v; Hebrews II:vii, ix

[8] Thunberg, L. (1995) Microcosm and mediator: the theological anthropology of Maximus the confessor. (second edition) p.402. Maximus is concerned with man as a mediator between different kinds of separation. P 402 the character of natural human mediation deals particularly with the visible and invisible worlds, in both of which mankind, in his composite nature, participates.

[9] Fraleigh, 1987. Dance and the lived body: a descriptive aesthetics. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

[10] Genesis III:5

[11] Clément, O. (1985). Foreword (p.7) in Evdokimov, P.  The sacrament of love: the nuptial mystery in the light of the Orthodox tradition (Anthony P. Gythiel & Victoria Steadman Trans.). St Vladimirs Seminary Press: Crestwood, NY.

[12] Evdokimov, P. (1985). The sacrament of love: the nuptial mystery in the light of the Orthodox tradition (Anthony P. Gythiel & Victoria Steadman Trans.). St Vladimirs Seminary Press: Crestwood, NY. Pp19 27.

[13] Nellas, P. (1987). Deification in Christ: Orthodox perspectives on the nature of the human person. (Norman Russell, trans.). Crestwood, NY: ST Vladimirs Seminary Press. Pp. 138-9, a comment by Kabasilas.

[14] Matthew XV

[15] Stern, D. N. (2010). Forms of vitality: exploring dynamic experience in psychology, the arts, psychotherapy and development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[16] Clement of Alexandria, c.140-220 AD

[17] Maximus the Confessor (7th century AD). Ambigua, PG 91, 1248A-1249C, in Panayiotis Nellas, 1987 Deification in Christ: the nature of the human person, St Vladimirs Press, New York), The sensible world is naturally fitted to provide the five senses with information, since it falls within their scope and draws them to an apprehension of itself. . . . And the bodily senses themselves, in accordance with the more divine inward essences befitting them, may be said to provide the faculties of the soul with information, since they gently activate these faculties through their own apprehension of the inward essences (logoi) of created things; and through this apprehension the divine Logos is recognized, as if in a written text, by those clear-sighted enough to perceive truth.

                Thus the senses have been called exemplary images of the faculties of the soul, since each sense with its organ, that is, its organ of perception, has naturally been assigned beforehand to each of the souls faculties in an analogous manner and by a certain hidden principle. It is said that the sense of sight belongs to the intellective faculty, that is, to the mind, the sense of hearing to the rational faculty, that is, to reason, the sense of smell to the incensive faculty, the sense of taste to the appetitive faculty, and the sense of touch to the vivifying faculty. Or, to put it more plainly, the rgan of sight that is, the eye, is simply an image of the mind; the organ of hearing, that is the ear, is an image of reason; the organ of smell, that is, the nose, is an image of the incensive faculty; taste is an inage of the appetitive faculty; and touch an image of life.

                The soul . . .makes use of these senses . . .and . . reaches out . . .to sensible things. If it uses the senses properly, discerning . . .the manifold inner essences of created beings, and . . . .transmitting to itself all the visible things in which God is hidden . . . .then by use of its own free choice it creates a world of spiritual beauty within the understanding.

[18] See in particular the work of the philosophers Husserl, Merleau-Ponty and others, and that of the psychologists Dissanayake, Trevarthen, and Cross and neurologist Sacks.

[19] Matthew XI:13

[20] Mark V: 24-34. Christ could not see the woman with the issue of blood when she touched his robe as she was behind him but he felt power go out of him and asked who had touched him.

[21] (various types of psychology, psychiatry, neuroscience, biology, zoology and anthropology)

[22] Sheets-Johnstone: M. (2011) The Primacy of Movement. Amsterdam/Philadeplph: John Betjamins Publishing Company. (expanded 2nd. Edition)

[23]  Rodenburg, P.(2007/9) Presence London:Penguin Books; Goodridge, J. Rhythm and timing in movement and performance: drama, dance and ceremony.London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

[24]  Sartre, J-P. Huis clos

[25]  Psalm XIX: Isaiah VI: 3

[26] Clément, O. The roots of Christian mysticism. New City

[27]  All cited in Chapter 7 of Sheets-Johnstone, M. 2011. The primacy of movement. (expanded second edition)Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.


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