The Word in the Wings

The Word in the Wings  > Mirror, mirror: embodied art, self-reflection, and relational healing

Mirror, mirror: embodied art, self-reflection, and relational healing

By: KAYA PRASAD

This summer, The Word in the Wings will feature stories of how the work of Glorify Performing Arts addresses problems with the ways our culture often views the human body. In the 21st-century US, even at times within the church, it is common to discount, abuse, or idolize the body. But in GPA’s work of creating professional, empowering, Spirit-inspired dance productions, we aim to value the body’s God-given capacities for meaning-making and beauty. We aim to protect the body from exploitation by the art and industry of dance, and we orient the body’s efforts toward the glory of God.

A few weeks ago I interviewed Deanna Pfau, who shared about her recovery from an eating disorder and discussed with me the relational dynamics of physical healing and the mission of the Church. As we spoke, several passages of Scripture came to my mind. A synthesis of these passages with parts of our conversation, as well as a perspective from GPA’s Artistic Director, illustrate the value of GPA’s work through the art of dance for moving towards a view of the body that is in accord with Christian hope for redemption and resurrection in Christ.

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As Deanna shared the story of her recovery with me, she spoke throughout of how relationships were integrated with healing. Relationship building was a foundational component of Deanna’s road to recovery, and her healing experience also compelled her to invest in relationships in a new way. She said:

…as I move all the way through the twelve steps, once I’m recovered, just as in Christianity we’re duty-bound to share Christ, in the twelve steps I’m duty-bound to share my recovery with other people.

When Deanna said this, I thought of a passage from Mark 1, where we read:

A leper came to [Jesus] begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them,” But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter. (Mark 1:40-45)

This brief narrative begins and ends with people approaching Jesus to seek healing. The desire for physical wholeness is widespread, and many come to Jesus seeking relief from skin disease, hunger, blindness, and other conditions that afflict them.

When the man with leprosy in Mark 1 approaches Jesus, Jesus has compassion; he understands the man’s suffering and desire for healing, and Jesus chooses to heal the man’s body from its painful condition.

Jesus’s consent to heal the man with leprosy affirms the value of physical well-being in God’s kingdom. In addition, Jesus instructs the healed man to go to the priest and perform a ritual that expresses his healed condition. Being freed from his skin disease, the man is also freed to approach God in worship.

Not only does physical healing facilitate interaction with God, but the man also–despite Jesus’s warning to keep quiet–is unable to hold himself back from telling others about what Jesus has done. The experience of physical healing affects him so profoundly that it inspires new or renewed relational connection, and because of that, other people suffering from physical ills are able to find Jesus and seek restoration for their bodies.

For Deanna and for the man with leprosy, healing begins with relationship and leads into renewed relationship. Compassion, from fellow sufferers and from those equipped to heal, is a critical first step in these journeys to recovery. It involves recognizing the real impact of physical suffering as well as the potential good to come from recovery–recognizing that the body’s wholeness is worth the investment of time, energy, and resources. Jesus models this mindset by using his power to heal, incorporating physical restoration in his mission of bringing about the kingdom of God.

Jesus’s healing ministry, as well as the relational aspects of Deanna’s story, illustrate some of the interplay between relationships and individual healing. Deanna also connects individual health with the integrity of the Church as a collective. She says,

…all addiction is at its core is shame and isolation, which is the opposite of what God has for us: love and light and fellowship. The reason why fellowship works is because it’s not a “me” thing; it’s a “we” thing. There’s power in numbers, which is why we need the Church and we need each other, to build each other up.

For Deanna, the physical aspects of her eating disorder were intertwined with unhealthy relationships, and recovering from overeating as an addiction involved seeking restitution in broken relationships. Unhealthy relationships with others, an unhealthy view of oneself, and unhealthy physical habits and conditions can come together in a negative feedback loop when shame leads to isolation, and isolation deepens shame, and so on. Because physical and emotional health, as well as individual and communal health, are connected in this way, it is important for the Church to imitate Christ’s model of extending compassion for healing, for the sake of its members and for the sake of the whole body.

Deanna’s comment that “we need the Church” so we can “build each other up” brought to mind a passage from 1 Corinthians 12, where the apostle Paul compares the gathering of believers to a human body with many distinct parts. He writes:

Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many…The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect…If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. (1 Corinthians 12:14, 21-23, 26)

In Paul’s metaphor, a healthy relationship to the body is discerning. It’s important to know which members of the body need special care. The relationship is also positive, not discounting “weaker” members but recognizing the unique value of every member.

Further, a healthy relationship among the members of the body is one of interdependence. If one member needs healing, the whole body needs healing insofar as that one member is indispensable to the health of the whole body. The illustrations from Mark’s Gospel and from Deanna’s story, showing how physical health affects relational health, drive this point home. Because physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual well-being are integrated aspects of an individual, and individuals are integrated members of the Church community, the Church as a whole has a vested interest in the physical well-being of any single member. For the Church to be healthy enough to pursue the mission of God’s kingdom, every member needs a healthily integrated sense of themselves–heart, soul, mind, and strength–and of their place within the larger body. Having that healthy, integrated perspective, the Church will also be better equipped to appreciate the unique gifts of embodiment for the mission of God’s kingdom. 

Apart from redemption in Christ, the body certainly plays a role in many kinds of sin that promote self-centeredness and emptiness. I spoke with Melody Stanert about some of the pitfalls particular to dancers’ experience within the pursuit of their art. When I asked about the effect of mirrors on a studio environment, Melody said:

I think there’s a fine line between using a mirror as a tool and using it to self-satisfy…Where it gets unhealthy is if you’re using the mirror and denigrating yourself. If you’re thinking, “Oh my gosh, my leg doesn’t turn out,” or “My leg is not going to go as high as the person next to me,” or if you’re using the mirror to say, “Well, my leg is twice as high as hers, so I’m much better,” and using it to build yourself up pridefully instead of using it analytically.

Focus on one’s own body, particularly in pursuing some standard of beauty, can easily become vanity if that self-oriented gaze is all-consuming. But Deanna also spoke about a mirror–this time in a metaphorical sense–and how appropriate self-reflection can actually serve relationships. She said:

…the obsession [with your own body] goes away when you do the hard work of turning the mirror, fully looking at yourself. I don’t mean from a body-image perspective; I mean from an ego perspective. We are really good at hiding from ourselves.

In Deanna’s story, hiding from challenging emotions and relationships that needed to be addressed–cutting herself off relationally from others and from her own emotional experiences–led to cutting herself off from inhabiting her own body.

From Melody’s perspective as a choreographer and from Deanna’s experience of recovery, there are better ways to use a mirror, literal or metaphorical, so that self-reflection becomes a tool for integration. Dancers can use the mirror in the studio to see how well they’re movement coordinates with each other, to analyze their own positions for the sake of a work of art the company is creating together. All of us can reflect on how we’re feeling and acting in relationships and seek reconciliation for the sake of wholeness for ourselves and for our communities.

When we conceptualize the body as part of an integrated self and consider the relationship between physical well-being and healthy community, there is space to recognize that the body is part of God’s good creation and to consider its purpose in light of redemption and resurrection in Christ.

Theologian N. T. Wright, in his book Surprised by Hope, explains that physical creation is other than God and that God’s act of creation “was from the beginning an act of love, of affirming the goodness of the other” (p. 94). Just as in Jesus’s act of healing in Mark 1, God’s act of creating humanity in the very beginning asserts the goodness of embodiment. 

Wright goes on, “At [creation’s] height, which according to Genesis 1 is the creation of humans, it was designed to reflect God, both to reflect God back to God in worship and to reflect God into the rest of creation in stewardship” (p. 94). If the body is understood as an integrated part of the whole creation which God has made and loves and which Christ redeems, then followers of Jesus can engage in embodied practices of worshiping God and reflecting God’s image in the world. 

At GPA, we do this by generating beauty and telling stories in the medium of dance. We use mirrors in the studio analytically in order to create art that skillfully expresses the character of God. In a sense, a dance performance then becomes a mirror for the audience to recognize their own embodied experience in the dancers’ embodied expression. By using the body’s communicative capacities, neither becoming consumed with superficial beauty nor discounting the body altogether as irrelevant to spirituality, dance artists proclaim the kingdom of God and the hope of new creation–of transformation that renews and restores our bodies, our minds, and our relationships.

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To close, I return to an example that Deanna shared in the beginning of my conversation with her:

I’m a total color geek–one of those people who will go to Home Depot and stand in front of the color swatches and take forever to pick a paint color–so the costuming really caught me that day, and when the girls did the spins with the dresses it reminded me of flowers blossoming and opening up.

When Deanna described dancers turning and skirts swirling, comparing them to flowers in bloom, the image brought this passage from Matthew 6 to mind:

“28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you–you of little faith?” (Matthew 6:28-30)

Jesus invites his listeners to consider the image of wildflowers and to notice how God provides for them. Not only does God provide for physical needs, giving the grass the form it needs to sustain and reproduce life, but God crowns the grass with glorious flowers, adding color, line and texture above and beyond what is strictly functional. In God’s abundance, God fills the earth with the beauty of created things. God cares for humanity enough to let us participate not only in the life God breathes but also in the abundance and beauty God graciously gives to creation.

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Biblical quotations in this post are from the New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition.

Secondary reference: Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church by N. T. Wright (Harper One, 2008).

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