WIT welcomes Katie Davis as a guest poster. Katie Davis’ passions lay at the intersection of spirituality, social justice, and the arts. Hailing from the Philadelphia area, she earned a Bachelor of Music degree in musical theatre at The Catholic University of America. Katie served as a Jesuit Volunteer in Houston, followed by several years of parish youth ministry in Cicero, IL through the JVC Magis program. She earned a M.Div. at Loyola University Chicago and has worked at a Jesuit high school as a chaplain and religious studies teacher (Peace and Justice) since 2012. Katie cherishes volunteering with the Ignatian Spirituality Project and with Harmony, Hope and Healing, building relationships with people experiencing homelessness through retreats and music. Katie has relished opportunities to collaborate with Catholic Women Preach, JesuitPrayer.org, 8th Day Center for Justice, Charis Ministries, Ignatian Solidarity Network, Bonaventure House, and her parish, Old St. Patrick’s Church in Chicago.
The caffeine from my cafe con leche coursing through my veins. The dull pain of covered blisters and subsiding heat rash. The power radiating from my calves, which had never been stronger. The enthusiastic chants of teenagers celebrating in various languages. The sweaty embraces of my friends and students–my fellow pilgrims. The tears welling in my eyes as I gazed up at the grand cathedral and savored the realization that I, Katie Davis, had actually made it.
Those final three miles of the Camino from Monte del Goza to Santiago have imprinted themselves onto my memory forever.
In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola lifts up imagination as essential for a life of prayer. The second movement of his four-week retreat guide includes various contemplations within which retreatants pray with a Gospel passage. Typically, Jesus is active in these scenes, encountering others, dynamic. In contemplation, we use our senses to imagine the scene, and then to place ourselves into the scene, participating fully and paying close attention to our feelings and reactions. We use our imaginations to experience the Good News in a real and vibrant way.
Over the past four years, I have been privileged to participate in three pilgrimage experiences – to the sites of St. Ignatius in Spain and Italy in 2015, to the missions of California and Yosemite National Park in 2017, and this past summer, to complete the last ~200 miles of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. In my own prayer, I frequently find myself returning to pilgrimage scenes with my imagination. Reflecting back to those spaces, when my senses were especially attuned, I am reminded of the Good News that God has had for me as a Catholic woman on pilgrimage and for women everywhere–surprising, incredible news that continues to sink in year after year. I am made in God’s image, including–not in spite of–my body.
My Body Story
I remember stepping onto a scale as a 6-foot tall freshman in high school. The number read 232 pounds. Since then, my rollercoaster weight loss and gain have spanned approximately 90 pounds. I have done damage to my body, bearing reminders like stretch marks and loose skin that cannot be undone. In retrospect, I realize that I spent most of my life completely out of touch with the ways I treated this gift God gave me–my body. When I did commit to various diet and exercise plans, I did so primarily to get skinnier. I realize now that as a girl growing up, I never learned to listen to my body: when did I truly need nourishment, exercise, sleep? How can women cultivate reverence for our bodies when we don’t even know them?
As a lifelong woman of faith and a professional minister, I am amazed and saddened that it took me ~28 years to begin really living in my body. Though I always cherished my relationship with God, prayed and worshiped regularly, invested myself in ministry and social justice activism, I never connected any of this to my physical self. I was Eve after the Fall in Genesis, truly ashamed of my nakedness before God. God was allowed to see my heart and my mind, but my body was a different story. I honed my emotional and intellectual skills, cultivating a strong sense of self-love with regard to sharing my voice confidently and passionately. By neglecting my body, I was unintentionally blocking one of God’s entryways into holy communion with my true self.
As a lifelong Catholic, I am disturbed by the tendency among some people of faith to demonize human bodies, especially women’s bodies. We are taught, sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly, that our bodies are somehow shameful. We simply are not given space to talk about them openly and honestly without being silenced or guilted. A perhaps good-intentioned, but poorly executed explanation of modesty and selfless love conveys the message that women should hide ourselves and disregard our physical needs and desires, preventing us from fully living in our own skin. While this likely is not the intended or conscious goal, these were the effects for me, a grown woman who loved God, who knew her heart and mind intimately, but who, in relationship with her own body, was a stranger at best and enemy at worst. How can Church become a space in which women truly learn to befriend our bodies, believe in their strength, and revel in their incredible complexity and beauty?
The Spirituality of Pilgrimage
The spirituality of pilgrimage reminds us that we always have been and continue to be on a journey homeward. For so many women, this requires reconciliation with our bodies. Feeling healthier now than I ever have, I realize that my journey is no longer about numbers on a scale. The spirituality of pilgrimage–always focused more on the journey than on the destination–has helped me shift from total disconnection from my own body to a growing sense of awareness. Different facets of this process have unfolded throughout my various pilgrimage experiences, and I have no doubt that God will continue to walk alongside me, as there is much yet to uncover.
Making my first pilgrimage to the Ignatian sites in Spain and Italy put me in touch with my charism for wonder. It helped me to notice with more intention the physical world around me, which led me more and more to include and celebrate myself. God revealed Godself to me through the body with which God has gifted me; that is, through my senses. This first pilgrimage also played a role in my growing ability to open myself up to the risk of romantic relationships; the more I grew to know and love my body, the more I trusted others to accept it as well.
Two weeks before my pilgrimage to the California missions and Yosemite National Park, I got a tattoo on my wrist that reads “fully alive,” in the spirit of my favorite quotation* and my favorite Scripture passage (John 10:10). Little did I know how much the trip would illuminate these truths for me. Miles of challenging hikes pushed my limits and empowered me to overcome my fear of not being able to participate in rigorous physical activities. I felt God’s presence in Muir Woods as I listened to George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord.” I really wanted to see God. And God really wanted to see me too.
The final 200 miles of the Camino this past summer moved me in ways I am still unpacking. I never knew how physically strong I was until I needed to accompany 20 teenagers up and down mountains–sometimes in rain, hail, or serious heat–for two weeks straight, often walking 20 miles in one day. I genuinely felt my own hunger and fullness, more aware than ever that the right food would sustain me along The Way. The rigor of these hikes sometimes prevented me from relying on the ways of praying with which I was most comfortable–lots of words, lots of head, lots of heart–and required me to dig deep within to pray with my body. I learned that sometimes, the only prayer you can muster is putting one foot in front of the other and being utterly in the moment. I felt God’s affirmation–that I have been cooperating with the flow of love as best I can, body, mind, and spirit. All I can do is stay on the journey.
The Pilgrimage Continues
A few months after the Camino, I came across the poetry of Nayyirah Waheed, who writes:
And I said to my body, softly, “I want to be your friend.
It took a long breath and replied, “I’ve been waiting my whole life for this.”
I cried and cried. My friendship with my body is like any relationship with a loved one; it’s complex, it changes, it requires cultivation, and it is a gift to be cherished always.
In just a few weeks, my fellow pilgrims and I head to Grand Canyon National Park for a new adventure, a new challenge. Excited, scared, and full of anticipation, I am already grateful to the Creator for the gift of the Canyon and for the gift of this body who will get me there.
* Irenaeus, “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.” https://www.crossroadsinitiative.com/media/articles/man-fully-alive-is-the-glory-of-god-st-irenaeus/
A lot resonates here. I’ve had a similar experience with yoga and I can easily see a companion in pilgrimage. Thanks for sharing. Sounds like an area for further thought and collaboration—maybe a series of posts. I’d love to hear some interreligious perspectives on women and the body, as well
As a fellow pilgrim who walked the whole 500 miles in my fat, old, creaky, then about to be 59 year old body – I am deeply grateful for your reflection today. This is so powerful in so many ways! Buen Camino – Ultreia!
(PS – that last 200 miles is some tough terrain. I always think about how much mad respect I have for those who start there and finish. I had a lot of time to get into better shape along the way – The Way. Bless you!)