Body Memory

Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, September 14, 2o14

Gen 4:8-16; Rom 5:12-17; Ps 13

We talk a lot about forgiveness and grace in the United Church. These are two of my favourite topics. But we don’t talk about sin very much. We tend to leave that topic for other churches to cover. We prefer to speak about original goodness, rather than original sin. Both concepts are biblically-based, but if we ignore the sin part, we might miss some important teachings.

Our reading from Romans tells us that, where sin enters the world, so does God’s grace and forgiveness. Some have concluded that if we sin a lot, we will have even more grace in our world. Therefore, “let me sin all the more so that grace may abound!” If we believe that God will forgive us no matter what we do, why worry about what we do?

I have learned that there is a difference between forgiveness and consequence and that it is sometimes difficult to hold both together. Tough love and Alanon teach us that if we try to rescue someone over and over, saying to them that we forgive them, we may be doing them harm. If we try to protect them from the consequences of their actions, we may enable further destructive behaviour. On the other hand, if we hold grudges about someone’s actions and can’t move to forgiveness, we may find our hearts imprisoned in resentment. Is it is possible to forgive someone and find healing, while still holding them accountable for the consequences of their actions?

The body may have something to teach us about sin and grace, about consequences and healing. The body holds memory. I learned two ways to memorize piano pieces. One was mental, where I analyzed the music and mentally memorized chord progressions. The other way was through repetition, where my hands held the memory of physical position. This way wasn’t the best, as it proved faulty under pressure many times, but it did show me the reality of body memory.

I have a button lock on my house, where you press the buttons in a particular order to open the door. When I tell other people the code, I have to literally move my finger through the air to remember it. I hold body memory.

There are some fascinating stories of cellular memory regarding heart transplant patients. An eight-year-old girl received the heart of a ten-year-old girl who was murdered. Shortly after receiving her new heart, the girl began having recurring nightmares about the man who had murdered her donor. They went to a psychiatrist for help and then contacted the police. Using the girl’s descriptions of the time, the weapon, the place and the clothes he wore, the police were able to find the murderer.[1] Some believe that stories of heart transplants, such as this, prove that the body holds memory.

So, too, the land holds memory. Traditional First Nations teaching tells us that stones, in particular, hold memory. Stones certainly hold energy. In the cooling shadows of a sultry summer’s day, you can lie on a big rock and feel the memory of the day’s sun. The old voyageurs would heat rocks in the fire and then tuck them under the blankets around their feet to keep them warm at night. Traditional Aboriginal teachings refer to the rocks as the grandfathers. When they are heated in the fire for the sweats, they will often crack open, giving up their life force for the sweat.

Stones hold the hard stories, scarred with the marks of forest fires, glaciers and the elements. An Aboriginal elder told me that she picked up a stone on the side of the road where Helen Betty Osborne was murdered and she felt the stone crying out in pain.

These stories may help us understand our scripture reading today from Genesis. It is a hard story of murder and of the ground holding the memory of the life-blood spilling from Cain’s brother, Abel. It is a story of grace—of God giving Cain another chance, even after he has murdered his brother. But this story also tells us that when we wound one another, the scars and the consequences remain. Cain was exiled from his land and people, and God placed a mark on him, similar to the horrendous practice of slave branding. God forgives, but the body is unforgiving.

Bodies matter, whether they be the earth’s body or our own, physical bodies. They can be amazingly resilient, but sooner or later, how we treat the body catches up with us. In our later years, our human bodies begin to tell the stories of our old wounds and scars. Likewise, the earth’s body carries scars, the effects of which we may not be fully aware until generations later.

But body memory does not only hold woundedness. It also holds healing memories. When I am stressed, I am learning how to call to body memory my place of solace on a granite rock, underneath the spreading boughs of a white pine, overlooking a sparkling, blue lake. As I mentally recall God’s healing balm of nature, I try to allow my body to physically re-member the feeling of peace and safety. As the muscles relax, they help my mind to release its anxious thoughts. This is a classic, meditation technique that relies on body memory.

We also have what is called instinctual memory. Our body’s reflexes can take us into a place of healing—healing that the body remembers, even if the mind is no longer conscious of it. If we hear some awful news, our reflex is often to clasp our forehead and say, “Oh, God.” I do think these words are an unconscious form of prayer. Studies have also shown that, when our body is in shock, placing the hand on the forehead helps to increase the circulation of blood to the brain.

When the mind begins to fade and the memories of names and faces and places are lost, there are still body memories of healing. Even now, when I see someone I recognize but can’t place, I feel the emotions I had when I last saw this person. My body holds emotional memories, even when my mind is blank. At nursing homes, when we sing the old hymns or other old songs, I see recognition, sometimes smiles on faces that are otherwise blank. Music can recall emotions, even if the context and the meaning cannot be understood. When words seem only jibberish, music can elicit a body memory of happiness.

Last week at Judy Wainwright’s funeral, Rabbi Rokie Bernstein spoke of her close friendship with Judy. She said that, even if someone doesn’t recognize you anymore, they still know the meaning of a gentle touch on the hand, a kiss on the cheek, a hug. Their body still remembers what it means to be loved, even if they don’t know who is loving them.

These healing body memories are gifts of God’s grace. Yes, our bodies remind us of our scars and wounds, but they can also remind us of love and happiness, long after our minds have forgotten. Our land will long be reminded of its scars and wounds, but it also holds an incredibly memory of healing that allows it to evolve and adapt. The body tells the old, old story of both sin and grace and teaches us how we can hold together both consequence and healing.