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Bruises are an incentive for pondering our frailty


One minute I'm tiptoe on the cushion of our wrought iron desk chair, peering into my husband's stash of audiocassettes in hope of Neil Young acoustic. The next minute I'm on the floor, breastbone smashed against the chair's iron knob, broken cassettes strewn around me. Somehow the chair slid out from under me, gouging a long, wicked gash into our recently refinished hardwood floor. Sobbing in self-pity, I huddle in my husband's arms and wail how bad it hurts.

The initial tears mix pain and outrage. A minute later, they're a wily inner-child effort to distract my never-careless husband from the damage. Parental on cue, he dries my eyes and scolds me for not asking him to reach the box. Now my attention shifts to my wounds: a curved red sort of rope burn across my -- is that neck or chest, that place where women put their hand when they're startled? The knob has scraped it raw, and around the angry scarlet puddles a purplish bruise that reaches halfway down my left breast. The entire side of my left thigh is swollen and goosebumped purple.

It's such a little chair, I think, and such a short distance to the floor. However did I manage to hurt myself so badly?

By bedtime, I can't shift an inch without blood rushing some place that hurts like hell. I lie there like Dracula in daytime, wondering what's changed since the days of kissed-away skinned knees.

The next morning, as I gingerly dress for work, it occurs to me that I look like I was raped or beaten. I carefully explain my clumsiness to my coworkers, afraid they'll think Andrew is a wife-beater or I'm a dominatrix.

Secretly I'm fascinated by my injuries. Every time I go to the bathroom, I inspect the kaleidoscope of bruises that has coalesced to cover a solid three-fourths of my thigh.

This fascination embarrasses me. I feel, in turns, like a wuss, a diva and a masochist. And then I wonder: If it feels this violent to be attacked by an iron chair, how would it feel to be deliberately beaten by another human being? They say victims harden, withdraw, block the memories, and until now I have always assumed it's a purely emotional defense. Now I decide there must be a sensory component, too. Wounds are wide-awake; they feel a breeze, a change in temperature, a silk shirttail grazing the skin. It's too much awareness, too many abrupt interruptions and none of them pleasant.

It's easier to block emotion than sensation, though. A fresh wound impels our attention, calling it back from any wanderings with twinges and throbs. Focusing on our bodily damage, we heed less of the outside world; throw less energy toward work and play; think less of others' needs. ("I'd give you a backrub, honey, except with these bruises ..."). We sink -- at the risk of sounding as dualistic as Augustine -- into heavy, demanding flesh.

The wallowing allows us to heal, and sometimes, with trivial injuries such as mine, it can be a mental relief. After a few months of strenuous, scattered mental effort, I'm plain delighted to catch a cold, think only of the stuffiness of my nose, long only for a clear rush of air. As long as the cold ends when I want it to and does not plague me with undue suffering, it serves the purpose of reasserting my body's needs, reordering priorities I have invariably allowed to slide toward abstraction.

But there's more than single-mindedness at play with these bruises, I realize on Sunday. I kneel -- wincing -- to receive Communion, and for the first time, as I chew the host, a macabre image comes to me: the crunching of Christ's bones. Unhinged though that thought may seem, it floods my imagination with the intensity of his physical suffering -- and the fragility of the body he so graciously accepted. Who would do that? Who would agree to become partial and broken instead of whole; who would choose pain over peace? He almost didn't, I remind myself -- but then, at Gethsemane, he was fully human, paralyzed by fear, desperate to be infused by a strength greater than his own.

The human body's fragility, I decide, is the root of my fascination with the bruises. It branches off into simple wonder that we make it through most days safely, housed in such a frail container. Dread, that a split second can discolor familiar flesh, change well-being to pain. And gratitude, that this particular damage will heal, has already begun to repair itself.

Catholicism carries the scars of a long history of bodily damage: medieval priests flagellating themselves; nuns slipping iron spikes over their thighs; mystics receiving, as though a gift, the stigmata. Today, except in rare throwback groups such as Opus Dei, the mortification of the flesh is no longer deemed necessary to elevate the spirit. We do not fast for hours, deny ourselves essentials or whip our flesh into submission. We speak more about the unity of body and spirit now, the integration of various aspects rather than the subordination of the physical.

This gentler approach is fine with me: I have no desire to sever matter from soul before it's time or to glorify suffering of any kind as the high road to enlightenment. Too much of the spiritual rapture induced by pain can be explained by the same burst of endorphins that kindles pleasure during sadomasochistic acts. And yet -- in a time when tomatoes can be engineered into ripeness, animals cloned from cells, diseased organs popped out and replaced with computerized parts, dead bodies frozen in hope of earthly resurrection -- bruises aren't such a bad reminder that in the end we are fragile. At any moment, our smoothed, numbed, dosed, dieted, tucked, lifted, pumped-up bodies can be destroyed.

To become human, Christ had to become vulnerable, sensitive beyond control to all kinds of pain. We've spent the centuries that followed that courageous act avoiding our humanity whenever possible and trying to play God instead.

Which may be why we're so shocked when we fall.

Jeannette Batz is a senior editor at The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis.

National Catholic Reporter, April 18, 1997