One thing poet and memoirist Mary Karr loves about Catholicism is the idea “that we are hunks of meat.” It was what she calls “sacred carnality” that led her to embrace Catholicism. “What I liked about the Catholic Church” she says, “is that there is a body on the cross.” I recently listened to her 2016 Onbeing interview with Krista Tippett and found it illuminating the power and importance of Holy Week.
The Incarnation, the Crucifixion, the Eucharist, “it’s not a metaphor for His teaching” Karr says, “It’s His body.” No one is going to look at the Cross and say, “What do you know about suffering, you’re God.” People look at the Cross and say, “Oh, you were a hunk of meat like me.”
Baptized at the age of 40, Karr recalls saying to her son, shortly before she came into the Church, “I don’t get this crucifixion thing, the suffering beaten critter nailed up there…it’s just so gross. Why don’t they just have it where you say the jump rope rhymes and then you’re redeemed.” Her young son responded, “Who would pay attention to that?”
Karr develops the term “Sacred Carnality,” in her book The Art of Memoir:
In writing a scene, you must help the reader employ smell and taste and touch as well as image and noise. The more carnal a writer’s nature, the better she’ll be at this, and there are subcategories according to the senses. A great glutton can evoke the salty bite of pastrami on black rye; the sex addict will excel at smooth flesh; the one with a painterly eye visual beauty, etc. Every memoir should brim over with the physical experiences that once streamed in—the smell of garlicky gumbo, your hand in an animal’s fur, the ocean’s phosphor lighting up bodies underwater all acid green. Of all memoir’s five elements, carnality is the most primary and necessary.
In a way, Holy Week is the climax of God’s memoir. It is extraordinarily sensory. It is gruesome and carnal and shocking. The drama of this week was written by One who wants to help the reader employ their senses, who wants to speak from the depths of carnality to the depths of carnality. Because of this week, no one can read God’s story and say, “you don’t know what it’s like to be a hunk of meat.”
The paschal memoir indeed brims over with physical experiences and appeals to our senses in every way. This week we’ll see oil poured over bodies, water thrown on people’s faces, feet washed and dried. Smoke, lilies, and chrism, will engage our sense of smell. The liturgies will amplify our kneeling, standing, walking, and sitting. We will kiss crosses, hold candles, wave palms, bless fire, and even pray for bees.
This is a week of sacred carnality that touches both the deep joys and horrifying sorrows that come with being hunks of meat. In a memoir, carnality is the most primary and necessary component. Holy Week shows us that the same is true of Christianity. Flesh is the point of encounter with God; it is the source and summit of faith.
We can be tempted to think of Christianity as a collection of beliefs or an institution. The liturgies of Holy Week, however, help us recall the narrative and person our faith is rooted in, not the doctrine. Just as a poem transmits greater meaning in the audible reading than a theoretical analysis, Holy Week offers us a full-blown carnal memoir more powerful than any book report.
There is something liberating about recognizing ourselves in the character of a play or novel. We feel understood, less lonely, more hopeful. This week, we recall in vivid detail the depth at which God has embedded Himself in our experience. He, like many of us, suffered, loved, cried, fell down, lost friends, was tempted, betrayed, moved to near despair, felt abandoned, and was tortured and murdered for being Himself. He also rose from it all and opened for us the very same possibility.
Christianity is not a lofty idea or philosophical syllogism, but a story. A true story. So this week, when you continue to be sickened by the failures of the Catholic Church and you’d rather not walk into Mass, when you hear a bad homily, or when you just flat out don’t want to waste time on some outdated ritual: go anyways. And when you do, pay attention to the scripture scenes and the liturgies brimming over with physical experience. Allow your senses to take up the story and let God remind you how He loved you until His death and then celebrate for He is with us still.