Embodied

Cross-posted from pilgrimsteps.com

In one of the more important Mormon temple rituals, your body is washed with water and anointed with oil. This washing and anointing is mostly symbolic–water and oil are only touched to a few points on your skin as sacred words are repeated by the officiants. However, what is most memorable about this ritual, is that the interaction happens after you remove all of your clothing.* The only item allowed to be worn is a wedding ring. For modesty’s sake, your body is draped in a white sheet throughout the washing and anointing process.

When I received this ritual, it didn’t occur to me to remove my artificial limb. Most likely that was due to the fact that I wouldn’t have been ambulatory without it, and also because I was not sure exactly what the “rules” were about such things and no one clarified them for me (for the most part, these rituals are not explained beforehand, due to their sacred nature). Since then I’ve learned that women with breast prosthetics can choose to wear them during the ritual. I’ve never heard any definitive word on the wearing of artificial limbs, but I suspect that it is allowable.

Because of the staging of this ritual, it was not evident to the recipients that I was wearing an artificial leg until it was nearly completed, when the officiant bent down in front of me to bless my legs (while I was seated on a throne-chair). After undergoing the washing and anointing a few times, I learned to catch the gaze of the officiant as she reached out to touch my not-real leg. There was often a pause. Usually a knowing glance was exchanged between us as she continued on with the script of the ritual (were she to speak words other than those prescribed, the ritual would be deemed ineffective and would have to be repeated according the prescribed pattern).

In the moments after the ritual, as we waited for me to be escorted by an officiant to the next step in the process, there was often a moment for some whispered conversation. Usually the officiant would mention something about my leg, asking how did I lose it, or commenting that my prosthesis looked very lifelike (which was back in the day before I chose to let my robotic innards hang out).

Those ritual moments, are, for me, emblematic of how I view my relationship to my prosthetic leg. It seems as much a part of me as my tongue, or my eyes, or my liver. That I take it off at night and lay it next to my bed, doesn’t make it any less “me.” That it is a thing of metal and plastic and vinyl, doesn’t make it any less familiar than my other leg and foot. That it sometimes makes an audible whirring adjustment sound when I walk through quiet spaces, is no different than the familiar creaks of my organic joints. That its parts are fabricated from components that come from all over the globe, and are assembled by workers in Germany and are fitted to my body by men in Orange County, doesn’t make it any less me. Perhaps what makes it feel the most ‘foreign’ is the attention that my leg garners as I move through public space. It is the reaction of others that reminds me that I am different.

I suppose that being a cyborg comes “naturally” to me. I couldn’t live my life normally without the microprocessor in my knee, or the metal crutches that I use when I’m not wearing my prosthetic. These tools are so much a part of my life that they are my life. They are familiar in the same way that my hands are on my keyboard. I don’t think each time I type that I am sending letters from my fingertips to the screen and out to you. I just do it. Like that, I just walk. And stand. And move. The way that I do.

*Note: recently there were some changes to this ritual that include less physical interaction between officiant and recipient, and also how much clothing is removed beforehand. I am discussing how it worked back in 1992, when I first participated.

Jana

Jana is university administrator and History professor. Her soloblog is http://janaremy.com/pilgrimsteps/

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7 Responses

  1. G says:

    wow, this was beautiful and thought provoking. Thank you jana.

  2. anita says:

    thanks for sharing! i do remember a couple years ago seeing a patron in another initiatory booth wearing socks and street shoes, and was puzzled enough to ask the worker about it. she explained that they were artificial limbs, and then it seemed perfectly fine. i imagine this happens more than any of us consider. and when you realize that there are many layers of this–my friend who can’t smell, how does she feel to have her nose blessed? or blindness, deafness, infertility–there are many handicaps that won’t see healings in this life from the initiatory blessings, but hopefully makes it nonetheless powerful and efficacious. (and what about the deceased, who have none of these body parts?)

  3. Dora says:

    When I went through the temple for my own endowment, the initiatory was my favorite part. It didn’t feel bizarre or weird. I was just amazed at the beauty of the blessings. At the time, I didn’t even think about the initiatory as being the only time I’ve ever received a “sanctioned” blessing from a woman of my same faith. But in the years since, I’ve really come to value the experience. I haven’t done initiatories in a long time, and I wonder how the experience compares now that it’s been changed.

    I’ve also been thinking about my body a lot lately. However, it’s been more along the lines of noticing how it is changing as I age. I’m a little stiffer. My limbs require more attention to stay supple and limber. I get tired more easily. And my eyes are puffier. It tends to make me value the health I have even more. And look forward to the time when I won’t have to worry about bad vision, a chronic knee, and other special needs …

  4. Jessawhy says:

    Jana, this is a great post. It helps me reflect on the importance of my body and the washings and anointings. I remember feeling embarassed during my first ritual experience. I’m sad that I didn’t appreciate the ritual more, but my reaction was a product of the church’s heavy focus on modesty. The focus on modesty almost makes us think that the covered parts of our bodies are bad, perhaps that’s why they need extra blessings.

    However, I really do appreciate the way the washings and anointings focus on the role of our bodies in our spiritual journeys.

  5. Two of Three says:

    Thanks for sharing this part of your life. My daughter also has a limb difference. Her right arm stops just below her elbow. She was born with this difference. Once someone told her that in heaven she would have two complete arms. Wide eyed, she responded “No! I want my arm just like it is!” She knew, even when she was small, that her body was perfect just the way is was. It is only now that she is 9 and falling into the trap society creates, that she is more aware of the fact that she is different, that her body doesn’t conform. It makes me sad because she used to love the fact that she was different.
    I also wonder about the temple. If she chooses to attend as an adult, how will the endowment work? I’m sure they will make allowances for her, as she has no right hand. Regardless, I will always think she has the body God intended for her and secretly hope that someday she will again relish in the fact that she is unique.

    • Jana says:

      Even if they do “make allowances” for her limb difference, I can guess that the temple would be awkward for her because she’d have to explain this every time she went through.

      • Two of Three says:

        This has been a part of her life for the last nine years. The only place that she is guaranteed a stare-free, question free environment is home.

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