Twelve years ago I bought fourteen acres of woods and swamp near Allentown, Pennsylvania. Even before we put in a road, I would hike along the deer trails, shedding my clothes in a grove of tall pine trees a stone's throw from where we eventually built our home. As the years went on and I continued my trekking through the fields and forests, swimming nude in the pond, living for weeks without clothing, I made a startling discovery: I had casually evolved from an atheist to a believer. No, that's not quite it. "Belief" says too much and not enough. I was comfortable with the sense of an always present, all-pervasive uniting spiritual presence. To put it another way, I became aware of God.
Nakedness in and of itself is sacred to many people. As Walt Whitman declared: The man's body is sacred, and the woman's body is sacred; No matter who it is it is sacred... If any thing is sacred, the human body is sacred...
Nakedness has been integral to many religions. According to Morris Jastrow, Jr., writing in The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria, the ancient Babylonians worshipped entirely naked, probably because "at one time it was customary to remove one's garments preliminary to stepping into the gods' presence, just as among the Arabs the cult of Caaba in Mecca was conducted by the worshipers at an early period without their clothes. The custom so frequently referred to in the Old Testament, to remove one's shoes upon entering sacred territory -- a custom still observed by the modern Muslim, who leaves his shoes outside of the Mosque -- may be regarded as an indication that in an earlier period people removed their garments as well as the sandals. It may be that the order to take off the sandals alone, as recorded in the Old Testament, is nothing but a euphemistic phrase (suggested by a more refined age) to strip one's self. Certainly, when we find that in the days of Saul, the seers went about naked, there can no longer be any doubt that the Hebrews, too, like the Arabs and Babylonians, entered the holy presence naked."
Many of the Greek gods and goddesses were worshiped in naked, sometimes, frenzied ecstacy. And the Essene gospels, said to have been written in the first century A.D., urged worshipers to: "Put off your shoes and your clothing and suffer the angel of air to embrace all your body. Then breathe long and deeply that the angel of air may be brought within you... truly, all must be born again by air and by truth, for your body breathe the air of the Earthly Mother and spirits breathes the truth of the Heavenly Father. "After the angel of air, seek the angel of water. Put off your shoes and your clothing and suffer the angel of water to embrace all your body. Cast yourselves wholly into his enfolding arms, and as often as you move the air with your breath, move with your body the water also... In very truth all must be born again of water and of truth, your body bathes in the river of life everlasting."
Mariam Simos (Starhawk), in her book The Spiral Dance, explains why believers in shamanism, paganism, and witchcraft always worship naked. "The naked body," she says, "represents truth, the truth that goes deeper than social custom. Witches worshiped naked for several reasons: as a way of establishing closeness and dropping social masks, because power is most easily raised that way and because the human body is itself sacred. Nakedness is a sign that Witches' loyalty is to the truth before any ideology or any comforting illusions." Nakedness, Simos suggests, also keeps the worshiper's mind focused on the senses.
"She [The Goddess] is the body, and the body is sacred," Simos says. "Womb, breast, belly, mouth, vagina, penis, bone, and blood -- no part of the body is unclean, no aspect of the life processes is stained by the concept of sin. Birth, death, and decay are equally sacred parts of the cycle. Whether we are eating, sleeping, or making love or eliminating body wastes, we are manifesting the Goddess."
It's important that these worshippers were not just nude; they were in an altered state of being, or consciousness. That altered state can be called "Being-in-Nakedness."
The experience of Being-in-Nakedness abolishes body negativism, original sin and related concepts. In the primal act of becoming nude and sensuously, positively aware of one's body, cultural conditioning is suspended or abolished. Christ's exhortation that we become as children is fulfilled in the innocence of the body unadorned. Innocence is what Mahavira recognized twenty-five hundred years ago in India when he urged Jain monks to walk about naked.
I want to hint here at the ultimate dimension of Being-in-Nakedness. A curious thing happens when people come together in non-lustful nakedness. Perhaps it's caused by a sense of vulnerability or humility, or by the setting aside of the artifice of clothing, thus permitting a deeper experience of reality. Or perhaps its the result of an undercurrent of eroticism. But whatever the reason, there's often a palpable connectedness when people are naked together. People who are comfortable with their own nakedness are generally unified in the body, and that unity often extends to the group as a whole. But being nude is different from Being-in-Nakedness. People who are comfortable with their bodies might, depending upon circumstances, live without clothes for days or weeks. They may be no more conscious of nudity than others are of the clothes they wear -- in fact they may be less so.
Being-in-Nakedness, on the other hand, is a sacrament. It's a state of awareness not of empirical fact but of emotional/bodily sensation and instinctive responses. It may be inspired by the breath of an evening wind cooling a breast or abdomen, or the sublime fear or ecstacy of feeling God flow like blood through the body. It may be an outpouring, an in-filling, or nothing more than an exquisite peace. But it's always frankly erotic. Aware of our nakedness, free from repression and shame, embracing our unified body-selves, eroticism is the texture of Being-in-Nakedness.
The opening out through Being-in-Nakedness is the extended self. It takes that curious connectedness of shared nudity into the realm of the unself-conscious, ecstatic oneness with ourselves, others and God.
Robert Bahr is editor of Celebrating the Self magazine.