NEW HAVEN – Although words are important in proclaiming the Gospel, Dominican Father Timothy Radcliffe, scholar, author and itinerant preacher, did not focus on them when he addressed the question, “How Can We Talk about God Today?”
“Preaching isn’t always a question of speaking words,” said Father Radcliffe, who drew much laughter, at times, and applause during his July 8 lecture at Albertus Magnus College.
Instead, he told his approximately 150-member audience that he would discuss “how we can be words made flesh.”
“Our faith centers on the word made flesh,” said Father Radcliffe. “The question I want to put to you this evening is, ‘How can we be Christ’s body? How can we be an incarnate word?’”
Father Radcliffe, who served as master of the Dominican Order from 1992-2001, interspersed his talk with references to the first recorded miracle after Pentecost in which Peter and John presided over the cure of a cripple in Chapter 3 of the Acts of the Apostles, which Father Radcliffe described as “all about bodies.” He also entertained his audience with humorous personal stories of his worldwide travels as he offered tips on how to be Christ’s body – hands, feet, eyes and ears – as St. Teresa of Avila urged.
“Christianity is a profoundly physical religion,” Father Radcliffe said. Yet, he noted, our society is very ambivalent about bodies.
“Our society is deeply anti-body,” Father Radcliffe said. He attributed this animosity to Rene Descartes’s emphasis on human reason.
“This is why, in some ways, we don’t think gender differences are so important to our humanity because we think we are just minds,” he said.
Contrary to popular belief, Father Radcliffe stressed, we are not souls that have bodies. Instead we are “embodied souls” or “ensouled bodies” and “all Christian doctrines depend on the unity of the body.”
Quoting the words of Jesus at the Last Supper, “This is my Body given to you,” Father Radcliffe noted that “our bodies are fundamentally gifts given by our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and ultimately God, and given to us ultimately to be given away,” he said. “The human body is what love incarnate looks like.”
He recalled his being seated next to a screaming baby on a nine-hour flight returning home from the Sudan.
“At first I had murderous thoughts,” he quipped. “But then I realized that every child is raised by the generosity of its parents, [the] giving away of their bodily strength.” Parents wake in the middle of the night to feed the baby, carry the baby, work to provide for the child.
“Our bodies are not lumps of meat but gifts to be given away,” Father Radcliffe emphasized.
Another way to proclaim the Gospel is to listen, he said, stating that Peter and John listened to the pleas of the crippled man.
“We have to be the ears of Jesus because Jesus was unafraid to listen,” Father Radcliffe said. “Listening is extremely hard.
“Particularly at this moment in the church, we have to have the courage to listen to each other. Particularly in a church which is polarized, we have to be unafraid to hear.”
In order to be the incarnate word, we also have to look at each other, he said.
“You have to learn to read the human face … which is a complex place of truth and lies,” Father Radcliffe said. He quoted Ludwig Wittgenstein, the 20th-century philosopher, as saying, “the face is the soul of the body,” and Marilynne Robinson, American novelist and essayist, who said that any human face is a claim on you because you can’t help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it.
Father Radcliffe reflected on feet as symbols of courage and adventure. He recalled the Exodus from Egypt and the Biblical wandering in the wilderness – journeys that culminate in Christ’s walk to the cross – then shared a humorous anecdote he experienced as Prior of Blackfriars, Oxford.
On Holy Thursday, as he washed the feet of those participating, he noticed that one man had written a letter on every toe, spelling out “H-E-L-L-O,” he said, drawing laughter.
Finally, Father Radcliffe noted that if our bodies are deeply part of who we are, surely our gratitude should take bodily form.
After a question-and-answer period, Father Radcliffe signed copies of his books, which include Sing a New Song, Why Go to Church? and What is the Point of Being a Christian?”
Audience members shared their thoughts on the lecture afterward.
“I thought it was absolutely fantastic,” said Linda DeForge, a parishioner at St. Mary’s in Branford.
Robert Bourgeois, associate professor of biology and director of Global Studies at Albertus, said he appreciated Father Radcliffe’s integration of faith and reason, body and soul, world and spirit.
“I was inspired by his calling us to be an incarnation of the love of God,” Mr. Bourgeois said. “He gives a wholeness to our perspective of our faith.”