Angela Tilby: True self is grounded in the flesh

26 January 2018

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THERE have been a lot of nasty bugs around this winter. This earthly life is lived in the body. Several people I know have had labyrinthitis: an inner-ear infection that affects ba­l­ance and hearing, and can impair people’s lives for months.

I have had labyrinthitis twice, and each time it began with a violent attack of spinning vertigo when I woke up and raised my head.

The first time, I thought that I was hav­ing a stroke. It was the most awful sensation that I have ever experi­enced. I was off work for several weeks, and went back slowly, helped by Valium. For a long time, sleeping felt dangerous, I hated loud noises, and I was nervous and off-balance in crowds.

The second time it struck, I dreamt that I was suspended upside down by my ankle from the ceiling with my hands tied behind my back. I was wearing a pointed hat, like a clown or a dunce. I took this to mean that the experience of sudden vertigo had seeped into my unconscious life.

Not knowing where my body was in space had confused my sense of self. Down was up and up was down. My body had made a fool of me. I never did find out how the hat stayed on.

Not everyone would react like this. I have talked to labyrinthitis suf­ferers who, while finding the vertigo sen­sation deeply unpleasant, have been able to shrug it off as a passing symp­tom. But others get depressed and anxious, as I did.

I still get feel­ings of being off balance from time to time. Even the contemplating the word “lab­yrinth” can evoke a sense of nausea and dizziness. (This has not been an easy column to write!)

The experience made me realise personally what I knew intellectually, which is that our sense of self is grounded in the flesh. It is a Chris­tian heresy to believe that our true selfhood is an immaterial essence.

Yet Christian spirituality also invites us to not identify too closely with every passing sensation. We become souls through our bodies’ experi­ence in time.

Horrible bodily sensations can be endured a little more easily if we are able to observe and process them rather than simply being over­whelmed. Al­­though sometimes, of course, we are simply over­whelmed.

Rhythmical prayer, slow walking, and observing the sunrise when I could not sleep all helped me. At those times, I liked to think of God, as the Psalmist did, as “my rock”, a place of stability in the storm, beyond up or down.

I also pondered on the nature of the resurrection body. If, in heaven, we have something like senses, and exist in some­thing like space, I should like to think that heavenly balance organs work more reliably than earthly ones.

 

The Revd Angela Tilby is a Canon Emeritus of Christ Church, Oxford.

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