by Monica Klepac
On April 20, 2006, just a few minutes past seven in the morning, I held my new- born son, Abram. As I gazed into his beautiful face, deep gratefulness welled up within for the wonderful pregnancy and childbirth I had experienced. And at that moment, I made peace with my body. I had always been healthy and had a pretty uneventful medical history until 2001 when my husband and I were expecting our first child. At about four months into the pregnancy, just when I thought I was out of the danger zone, I miscarried. It was the most emotionally devastating event either of us had gone through. For months we cried and wrestled with God about the injustice of our loss. A weight descended on us as we saw the world as a place where bad things happen, even to good people, with little or no explanation. I began to see myself and my body as defective, unable to carry a child as it was created to. I had no health problems related to the miscarriage, yet I felt scarred and broken.
In May 2002, we had the joy of finding out we were pregnant again. Our hearts were full of hope and expectation, but with that little shadow of “what if” lurking in the corner. We had learned that there were some circumstances that we could not control and we prayed daily for health and safety for this baby, but not knowing if our prayers were enough. Almost halfway through my pregnancy, I woke up one morning to severe bleeding and cramping. This was farther along than my first pregnancy, but that shadow in my mind became a beast of fear rumbling around in my every thought. The following months brought many hurdles including placenta previa, bed rest, gall stones, bells palsy and a breech presentation. But ultimately, after a c-section delivery, we met our beautiful son, Simeon, face to face.
Despite my enjoyment of being a mother, the struggles I encountered during pregnancy left me with a deep distrust in my body. I could not look at myself and say, as God did after creating man and woman, “It is very good.” I could only say, “It is good enough, I guess.” I felt there was a flaw, an error, in my form that made me unable to have a healthy, normal pregnancy. A feeling of latent hostility towards the body God had given me remained in the background. This feeling of enmity towards the human frame is reflected in the popular culture. Society has sanctioned a very narrow range of what is “good,” when it comes to the human body. To fall into that category, the body must be thin, healthy, muscular, attractive, clean, and strong. Even the smallest variation is grounds for dismissal as sub-par.
This might mean aborting a baby with an extra chromosome, or denying food or drink to a patient in a vegetative state. Frequently young women who believe their bodies are unattractive turn to eating disorders or obsessive exercise to create a body that fits into the ideal form. Athletes use drugs to achieve new heights of speed and strength. Paradoxically, even though the mass media lifts up an impossible standard of physical perfection, America has an epidemic of obesity and many other wealthy countries are following suit. It seems that whether it is through medicine or fast food, we have yet to find how to respect these fragile frames we have been given. Our relationship with our bodies is more of aggression than harmony.
My path to peace with my body is intertwined with my journey into the Orthodox Church. At the time of my first pregnancy, we had visited Orthodox churches and monasteries and were attracted to the faith, but had made no commitments.
When I miscarried, one of my first thoughts was that I wanted to go to the liturgy so I could be free to weep and pray on my knees as my heart cried out “Why?” In the midst of my grief, I knew the Church was a refuge for my wounds. Within a few months, we were chrismated and made our first steps in our walk in Orthodox faith. As they say in Romanian, “Pu in cte pu in” – bit by bit scales were lifted off my eyes to see myself and my body in truth.
Through my increased understanding of the Incarnation and learning to pray with icons, I have grown in wonder at how Almighty, Omnipotent God was manifest through this broken, vulnerable vessel we call the human body. Christ’s feet being washed, his hands breaking bread, his mouth eating fish, are all moments of intersection of the Divine with the human. And our Savior was not tainted by living in a human form, quite the opposite. His presence as a man made possible the salvation, not just of our immaterial souls, but our hairy, sweaty, wrinkled, callous- ed bodies too.
As I work among poor children and street boys, I see arms with the scars of self- mutilation. I see little children with rotten teeth. I see old people choosing between buying medication or food.
Through the window of icons, I have encountered the truth of God made man and I have been given hope that salvation means that our bodies will one day be restored and healed.
Each Sunday, we make our way up the street and around the corner to a hundred-year-old church that has survived two world wars, revolution, and numerous earthquakes. Under its massive dome, I have learned to worship with my whole body. I have never experienced a more physical form of worship than the drama of the Liturgy. Between standing, kneeling, crossing, kissing, eating, drinking, smelling, seeing and hearing, there is enough activity for even my busy three-year-old to be engaged.
The whole liturgy is a call to give every facet of my being – body, soul, mind and spirit – to God. To make one more step forward in my continuing journey of theosis and to let go one more time of all the things holding me back. As I have learned to worship with my hands, feet, knees, mouth, nose and eyes, I have seen my body in a new way. As the psalmist praises, I am fearfully and wonderfully made. I have been given this beautiful body to give it back to God in worship. When I am turned toward Christ, and my whole self, including my body, is in right relationship to Him, then I hear the Creator pronounce, “It is very good.” In addition to the Incarnation, and the Divine Liturgy, I have begun to see how the ascetic life has given me peace with my body. As opposed to the never ending diet fads that punish the body for being less than perfect, the cycles of fasting and feasting embrace the good gift of food. Like the manna that fell down from heaven, food is a blessing given from our Creator to be enjoyed and celebrated and given to others. Fasting reminds us that food is not our master, but provision from the Master. As we willingly give up certain foods, and return to the diet that Adam and Eve had in the garden, we remember that original, perfect relationship between God and his Creation. I begin to see my body as Eve must have seen hers before the Fall: a beautifully created gift.
The final passage towards peace with my body was my third pregnancy, with my son Abram. As we considered having another child, I was reminded of the experiences of the past. Fear and doubt in what my body could do tried to creep in. But the lessons taught by the liturgy, icons and fasting were deeply rooted. I did not know what the journey of carrying this child would bring, but I rested in the fact that I was under God’s care. This sense of trust, no matter the outcome, gave me the security to treat my body as the wonderfully made creation it is. I listened to what my body was telling me and responded with respect. I rested when I was tired. I ate as I felt hungry. I put heat packs on my aching back. And each day, during my afternoon nap, I relaxed and thanked God for the gift of my body. I thanked him for the ability to bear a child. I looked to the Theotokos, Elisabeth, Hannah, Sarah, the great women of faith that were given the gift of children.
And, to my delight, Abram’s pregnancy was problem-free. I was shocked to go to my check ups and not be sent to a specialist or asked to perform extra blood tests. As his due date approached, I knew that this body could birth a child because God had made it for that purpose. When labor began, I found the reading and praying and reflecting I had practiced gave me a deep sense of calm. It was strong foundation for me to stand on as I let my body do the work of childbirth. The contractions brought forth not only the gift of a baby boy, but a truce between my body and me. I know that Abram’s pregnancy could have been just as difficult as my first and second, yet I believe that the grace and peace I had received would have sustained me through joy or sorrow. This journey of peace-making with my body will vary its forms through my life. Now I am in the season of child bearing and child rearing, and God has worked through the loss of a child and the gift of two children to reveal the goodness of his gift of my body. Yet, this gift is not one for me to hold onto with a clenched fist. It is one I offer with open hands in return to the Creator, to be used and used up for His Glory. One day, I will experience what Christ expressed to St. Peter “When you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go” (John 21:18).
As I have seen the baby boomer generation attempt to evade growing old by spend millions of dollars on “anti-aging” products, I have wondered what it will mean for me to live at peace with an older body. I do not know what illness or ailments may come with the years, but more than the pleasures of youthful vigor, I seek the serenity of a spirit whose security is in Christ. As I move through the seasons of life, I pray for peace, meaning the ability to rest and be led where Christ leads, knowing he is with us.
As St. Paul tells the Ephesians, “for we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.”
God has used many means to bring me to the place where I have relinquished the feelings of hostility towards my body. I have experienced a healthy, normal and natural pregnancy and birth. I have taken first steps on a path of faith in the goodness of the Creator, reflected in the beauty of the creation. I now understand that God has graciously given me this piece of his workmanship, this body, and we are at peace.
Monica Klepac and her husband, Joel, live in Galati, Romania where they work with Word Made Flesh. Besides caring for her two sons, Simeon and Abram, Monica works among young men who live on the streets and school children living in poverty. Her blog address is www.monicaklepac.blogspot.com.