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Touched by God

Spiritual messages discovered in massage:
an excerpt from The Praying Life

by Deborah Smith Douglas


A couple of years ago, the first harbingers of midlife hit me like a swarm of bees. Suddenly I was forced to stop and pay attention to my body. The attention I paid, at first, was angry, defensive, and ineffectual: Panicked, I swatted at the myriad stinging nuisances of hormonal upheaval, sleeplessness, back pain, headaches, and fatigue.

Impatiently I struggled against these evils--and I began to realize that, for many years, I had been treating my body as I treat my car: I acknowledge it as necessary to life as I know it; occasionally I remember to be grateful that I have it. But basically it is external, mechanical, subordinate to my “real” life, which I like to think is lived on the level of the spirit and the mind.

When my car requires maintenance or repair, I resent it. I expect my body, like my car, to operate smoothly and quietly--to get me where I want to go--but it had better be darned undemanding about it.

The Praying Life book cover When my doctor first suggested that massage might relieve much of the lower back pain as well as reduce stress, and perhaps help with insomnia and headaches as well, I was dubious. It seemed a long shot--I was skeptical of “alternative medicine” and the whole new-age business of “body work”--and the process seemed dauntingly expensive both in money and time. But I was persuaded to try it. After all, when a mechanic I trust tells me my car needs an oil change or realignment, I may mutter rebelliously, but I take it in for the service it needs.

That was nearly two years ago. Since then, I have been receiving the benefits of regular therapeutic massage. It has promoted much healing not only in my aging, aching body but in the stiff joints of my theology and prayer as well.

As I allowed the skilled hands of the massage therapist to explore all the tension and pain I was carrying around in my body, I began to realize how carefully I had been carrying my religion in my head.

I was, in fact, surprised and humiliated to discover that I--a lifelong liberal Protestant, long accustomed to deploring the mind-body split fostered by wrong-thinking patriarchal theologians--had been nurturing a mind-body split within myself as deep and wide as the Grand Canyon.

The healing of this inner division came about gradually, almost imperceptibly at first. Integration occurred, as it so often does, completely by grace.

I had been praying the Scriptures early each morning as part of the Ignatian retreat in daily life I had been making, and had lately been meditating on the recurrent image of fishing nets in the Gospels. Peter and Andrew drop their nets to follow Jesus; the disciples cast their nets, pull in their nets. Especially, it had struck me, they mend their nets, frayed and torn by much hard use.

As I lay under a sheet on the massage table that day, meditating drowsily on the image of all those nets, Leah was methodically working her steel-fingered way down my spine. To my weary mind, her probing fingers seemed actually to be unhooking and reattaching each muscle to its vertebra. Something about the soothing repetition of the movement, and the sense of reconnecting muscle, bone, and tendon where they were meant to be, reminded me of watching my grandmother’s crochet hook flash in and out of the afghans she was always either making or mending.

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Excerpts from The Praying Life ©2003 by Deborah Smith Douglas are used with permission
from Morehouse Publishing. For ordering information, visit Morehouse Publishing.
Explorefaith.org receives no proceeds from the sales of The Praying Life.

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