You Feel It in Your Bowels

Dr. Nicolete Burbach

Today’s reflection is from guest contributor Dr. Nicolete Burbach, who is the social and environmental justice lead at the London Jesuit Centre. Her research focuses on using Pope Francis’ teachings to navigate difficulties in the Church’s encounter with transness.

The great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas once wrote: “grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it”. Under one interpretation, “nature” here means that which God creates to then bring to fulfilment by supernatural means. To put it differently, nature is that which awaits grace. When grace perfects nature, God brings nature to the truest expression of its being.

Viewed in this way, grace is “integral” to nature. Grace is not some opposite principle that cancels out or replaces nature, but its fulfilment. We can see this in the way that nature, through grace, becomes a vehicle for its own salvation. For example, in the sacraments, grace takes hold of bread and wine, water and words, and elevates them into effective signs of our salvation.

In today’s liturgical readings, we see this salvation written in bodies. The second reading  from Hebrews is part of a larger discussion of what it means for Christ to be a human body. God appointed Christ to take on our humanity so that He could serve as High Priest, representing us before God and interceding for us. Christ consented in obedience, and God wrote our salvation in His flesh – its life, death, and resurrection (Hebrews 5:7-10). 

Grace and nature, redemption and obedience: these are knit together in the sinews of Christ’s body.

2000 years later, in the Eucharist, we are that Body. Jeremiah glimpsed this reality. In today’s first reading, we hear a prophecy of God’s new covenant: a covenant that will be known and kept not simply because people are told about it, but because they know it in the depth of their bodies. As the 17th-century Catholic Douai Rheims translation puts it, they will know it “in their bowels” (Jeremiah 31:33). God writes our salvation in our bodies, too.

Grace’s perfection of nature has a social significance. Humanity’s sinful nature expresses itself in “structures of sin”: the features of society that prevent us from reaching the fulfilment God desires for us by denying us the things we need to flourish. Grace perfects nature by overcoming these structures to build a just society. Bodies are central to this overcoming, too: in Jeremiah, the bodies in which the new covenant is written make up a society that lives in obedience to it. 2000 years later, we might say that the Body of Christ, into which our bodies are incorporated, is called to continue the work of salvation by championing justice in the world.

Here, I address my trans readers, who know this work intimately. “Trans” is a name society gives to lives that run up against its gender norms. Transness breaks the fundamental rule of gender: that human beings come in two immutable sexual types, with two associated immutable social roles. Trans people are punished for this violation by being prevented from living a fulfilling life. Trans lives are cast, as grains of wheat, to the ground to die (John 12:24). In this rewriting of the Passion, all trans people learn painfully that the gender norms we violate, and the institutions that police them, are ‘structures of sin’ in this sense.

But just as the Cross was not the last word, there is also more to transness. If to be trans is to run up against these sinful structures, then to live your trans life is to live in defiance of them. In doing so, transness witnesses to the possibility of living in a way that is liberated from the gender regime. In working for trans liberation, you also help to create that possibility. Finally, in living a trans life and pursuing trans liberation, you exercise a measure of freedom from their power.

In this context, transness starts to look a little like the work of grace.

This liberation is, of course, imperfect. Gender is present in our lives at the deepest level. It is embedded in the very concepts with which we think of ourselves and frame our desires. It is threaded through the communities and institutions that shape the possibilities for our activities. And it is unlikely that something so deeply and complexly seated can be undone in our lifetime.

Nevertheless, these limitations are not absolute. As a trans person, you show this whenever you find ways to live a more fulfilling life within and despite such constraints. You take gendered signs that would otherwise dictate your role in society – ways of speaking, acting, and relating – and you embody them in ways that articulate new truths, and create new possibilities for community and relationship. These are the fruits brought forth from the fallen grain of your life (John 12:25); a retracing of the Resurrection.

Such triumphs make your trans life more than just a work of grace. In them, you take the fallen material of society around you, and you put it to redemptive work. You build something from this fallen nature that starts to overcome the evils embodied within it. In doing so, you trace over the grace written in your body. And from this, like tracing paper, your life becomes a transcription of grace’s redemptive power. 

Viewed in this way, we can also see how transness is obedience to grace and its demand to be written. You surrender your life amidst the fallenness of nature, and so rise to meet grace’s fundamental decree: that we must be more than our fallen state (John 12:25). In a retracing of the grace first written in Christ’s body, you take that wayward nature, and you turn it to the service of the grace by which it is redeemed.

Grace and nature, redemption and obedience: these are knit together in the sinews of your trans body.

Neither the author of Hebrews nor of Jeremiah were thinking of trans people as they wrote. Yet you, as trans, might find your life within these passages. These authors wrote of a grace that you know so intimately. You enflesh it in your trans life, which is the effective sign of your liberation, and an image of its power. 

It is written in your body. You feel it in your bowels.

Nicolete Burbach, March 17, 2024

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