Sacraments and Symbols- Embodiment and Empathy

This post was originally a discussion paper in my Feminist Theology 2 class in my PhD coursework.

Did the woman say,

When she held him for the first time in the dark of a stale,

After the pain and the bleeding and the crying,

“This is my body, this is my blood”?

Did the woman say,

When she held him for the last time in the dark rain on a hilltop,

After the pain and the bleeding and the dying,

“This is my body, this is my blood”?

Well that she said it to him then,

For dry old men,

Brocaded robes belying barrenness,

Ordain that she not say it for him now.

The poem, written by Frances Croake Frank, that begins Susan Ross’s chapter, is a beautiful example of embodied theology intersecting with art. The refrain of Jesus’ words, “This is my body, this is my blood” put into a woman’s mouth, in specific situations where we know women were present in his life, create vibrant, breath-catching images (Ross, 185-6). The final stanza starkly contrasts the role of the women in Jesus’ life to the role of those who follow him today. This entire chapter has helped me hone my own vision for my work, and raises interesting questions in the meeting of art, body and theology.

A theology of embodiment is at the heart of Christianity, and of a feminist approach to it. Feminist theology holds women’s experiences critical to its formation, and these experiences cannot be separated from the body which has them. Ross names this as a “feminist approach to sacramental theology: the incarnation, the centrality of embodiment and all that it implies, women’s lived experience, gender roles and ‘real presence’’ (186). Sacramental theology is typically identified with the latter through the use of tangible symbols: bread and wine, water, oil, hands, etc. All of these symbols are received and processed by a physical body. Ross, based off the work of Schillebeeckx, beautifully calls them “places where human beings live out in a symbolic way the life of the gospel” (191). Christ is the ultimate form of God becoming real as he took on a human body, to live in community with us. Sacramental theology is an embodied theology, and therefore is a feminist theology.

Ross writes of the women in the Middle Ages, “But most found in the Eucharist a confirmation of the sacred significance of the body which, to some extent, ran counter to the denigration of women’s embodiment taught by the church” (189). The Eucharist is a reminder that, even as it is a symbol, the body is also a symbol of the holy, of the redeemed, of the creation and the Creator. The Eucharist is a reminder that everything God created was named “good”, and that includes our bodies. It is a reminder that without a body to show love, and without a body to take it in, the sacrifice of Christ would not have happened. Embodiment is key to the Christian faith. And yet, many Christians try to deny their bodies and physicality. They particularly try to deny the agency of the bodies of others- by legislation, by judgement, by manipulating scripture.

These moments of judgement and dismissal come from an ancient Greek dualism that still rules in the Western world, the body is less than the soul. And yet, nothing in Christian theology shows that to be true. Ross writes, “A Catholic feminist perspective bases its critique on these dualistic conceptions on a retrieval of the Incarnation, seeing God’s taking on the condition of humanity as God’s own self-expression” (195). She goes on to state that, “Sacramentality grows out of human embodiment and its connection to the natural world, not in contrast to it” (195). As a language of symbols and practices, sacraments must be given, experienced and interpreted through bodies. Therefore, a feminist theology of sacraments “...argues for a closer connection between nature and history, body and soul” (Ross, 195). In this way, a feminist theology of sacraments could defeat not just patriarchal relationships in the church, but also current practices of disparaging science and destroying the Earth that often occur there, under the guise of “Creationism” or “trusting God to take care of it”. If we see ourselves and equal to and connected to the other, it becomes much harder to hurt them.

In education, we call this seeing “empathy”. It is one of the great gifts of practicing theatre and dance. When you take on a role, you put yourself in someone else’s shoes. You gain a different perspective. And often, that practice changes you. Seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, considering the issue from a side that you are not on, or even considering an issue you didn’t even know was an issue makes that person who is different, that opinion you do not agree with, not quite so easy to dismiss. Ross likens this to a process Freud identified in young girls, called identification. She writes, “But women’s sense of ambiguity, reluctance to make separations, and tendency to identify with the other are closer to the heart of Christian sacramentality than the strict separations that have become pervasive in much sacramental theology and practice” (Ross, 199).

A feminist Sacramental theology is possible and sensible. In creating such a method, we value the experiences of the bodies that give and receive the sacraments. We value both genders, and all abilities, races and ages. An embodied theology sees all as created, all as good, all as equal. Ross writes, “A feminist theology of ordained ministry takes seriously human embodiment, in all its various forms, as the place where humans encounter God” (203). This is why we must have bodies, and this is why those bodies are holy. Which calls feminist theologians to broader fight than church practices: “The challenge of feminism to Christian theology is the expression of the full humanity of women and men, not only ‘in Christ,’ but in society ...” (Ross 198).


Ross, Susan A. (1993) "God’s Embodiment " in Catherine Mowry LaCugna, ed. Freeing Theology. New York: HarperCollins.

Art Education: Process v. Product. Originally published 5.2012

April was full of events. Actually, most of them occurred all in 1 week! My high school students presented A Midsummer Night’s Dream and their semester dance performance. My students at Hedgerow performed for a fundraiser. Through it all, I was coaching, correcting, writing program notes, performing as well, and just generally hoping for the best. 

Weeks like that are the best and the worst. We celebrate as all of our hard work, scolds, suggestions and teaching become a beautiful final product. And, we worry that it won’t. Somehow, it always seems to “come together”. Yet, I’m concerned that miracle of adrenaline is something we take for granted. Do we, as teachers and directors, just trust it will “come together”, and then not instill in our students the importance of discipline, rehearsing as you would perform, and taking pride in one’s work, as much in the process as the product? 

If we do not encourage our students to be disciplined- prepared, on time, respectful of the process, their peers and their authorities- we miss a chance to prepare them for college and jobs, where they will not have us there to remind them. 

If we do not have them rehearse as they perform, we do not teach them that the arts, and most things in life, are group efforts. That the actions (or lack thereof) of one person has a ripple affect on the group, with consequences s/he may not foresee when focused on him/herself.

If we do not encourage our students to take as much pride in the process as in the finished product, we do not actually encourage learning. We are telling them that the end is all that matters. We do not take mistakes and failures as learning opportunities, rather we just focus on the happy ending (see chapter 1 of Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine). And in that, we don’t encourage creativity. If we cannot teach our students to try, to fail, to try again, to seek ways to improve we are not educating them. We are not creating a generation of resilient, innovative thinkers and doers, who operate with perspective and insight. We are simply teaching them to get to the end. By whatever means necessary. 

The arts in education should not be about just getting to the end- the performance, the final piece, the presentation. The arts in education should be a time to teach the value of exploration, to embrace learning and process as just as important as the finished product. If you never start, you can never finish. If you do not learn as you go, you will not end up in any place different than where you started. 

Dancing Together v. Dancing at the Same Time. Originally published 8.21.17

One of my freelance gigs is coaching a competitive salsa team. Not in salsa, mind you. That is not my forte. But I use my Laban work and my theatre experience to coach them in performance quality and characterization. For this coming season, I have another goal for them- ensemble. 

In the salsa scene, teams compete and they perform at Socials (events that include social dancing and performances). I recently attended a social, and I found I had a HUGE problem with many of the performances. These "teams" of dancers looked like anything but. They were all dancing the same choreography, at the same time. But they were not dancing together. There was a serious lack of ensemble. 

Ensemble is a tricky thing to teach. It is also difficult to maintain in a high pressure setting. So I do understand that it is difficult to get students or those new to performing to grasp it. But it is part of the "it factor" that sets apart a performance. You can feel it when it's there, and you can feel it when it's not.

When a team is dancing together, they draw the audience in. We see connections and we want to be a part of that. When a team is dancing at the same time, they alienate their audience. The audience is constantly reminded that this is a group of people doing choreography, not dancing together. They are constantly confronted with faces and body language that says "look at me, doing this cool thing!" Every member is out for his/herself. The audience feels overwhelmed because they are trying to watch 12 soloists, rather than 1 team. Visually and emotionally, it's way too much. Each member of the audience ends up watching only 1 person, or worse, stops watching altogether and is checking Facebook on her phone. 

When we dance together, we are part of a movement. We are part of tribe that rises, or falls, together. I can only look good, or do well, if I give you what you need to look good or do well. When we dance at the same time, I'm worried only about me, what I need to do or where I need to go next. And god help you if you are in my way. 

There is no loyalty, or true teamwork, in dancing at the same time. It is simply an individual feat of memorization and execution. Dancing together, now, that is a different matter. I must still have my individual part, but I must be willing to sacrifice it at any time to the rest of the whole. Otherwise, the team ceases to exist. 

Dancing, particularly social dancing, is about being together. It is about connection, and what connects us-- our bodies. We mediate this world in our bodies. In the world of dance this is very visibly true. When I dance simply at the same time as someone else, my body is not a means of connection. At best, it is a request to be seen. And that request is valid, don't get me wrong. Everyone wants to be seen, and validated, for who she is. But what is the good of being seen, if we don't see anyone else there to share the space with? At worst, it's a tool of self-indulgence. And there's a time and place for that, too. But it's not in partner dancing, where someone is trying desperately to connect to you. And definitely not on a team of partnerships. 

Creating an ensemble is creating connection. I can feel your energy, find your path, use your momentum-- all without using my eyes. So my eyes are free to find yours, to solidify our connections. My eyes are free to look out for my team. Or to invite the audience to join the dance.