We are born incurvatus in se. But we don’t have to stay that way.
I’ve always had lousy posture. My mom tried to help when I was a kid by whispering, “S.U.S.” – code for “Stand up straight” – at regular intervals. Alas, while her strategy provoked short-term correction, in the long term it yielded only resentment and shame. It seemed I could no more permanently adjust the way I stand than the way I breathe or the colour of my eyes. I was born this way.
A few years ago I came across a Latin phrase adapted by Martin Luther from the thinking of Augustine to describe the human condition. We are born, Luther says, incurvatus in se, curved in on ourselves. In his Lectures on Romans, Luther argues that the Bible “describes man as curved in upon himself to such an extent that he bends not only physical, but also spiritual goods toward himself, seeking himself in all things.”
It’s a striking picture, every human walking the planet tragically bent, seemingly hopelessly deformed by the self-centredness we inherited from our original parents. We were made to stand tall, eyes fixed on God, arms open to one another, but instead we are incurvatus in se. When I’m struggling to understand the travesties that checker human history (or why I was terse yesterday with someone I love), I can begin by working out the implications of our incurvation.
Luther is not describing our bodily posture, of course, but my battle to stand upright seems an apt metaphor. Usually I’m not even aware I’m slouching. In a similar way we are so habituated to our spiritual deformity that we often can’t detect it. “By fault of the first sin,” Luther laments, we are “bound to darkness in all thinking and feeling.”
When it comes to my posture, I’ve been forced to notice the problem is becoming more pronounced. I worry about the shape my spine might take in another 20 years.
So with an earnestness that would have pleased my mom immensely, I’ve begun retackling the problem. I ordered a posture correction brace. I spend time each day standing against the wall. And my gym routine includes all manner of exercises designed to improve back strength and alignment.
The results have been … underwhelming. But I keep reminding myself a few months of effort is not going to undo a lifetime of muscle memory. Patience is required.
Again, the parallels between my physical and spiritual bentness seem obvious. My best teachers in the Christian life remind me spiritual formation is the slowest of all possible human movements. Jesus will unbend us, if we’ll let Him, but it will take surrender, practice and time to become habituated to a new way of moving through the world.
But that’s not to say we can’t have breakthroughs. Recently I worked up the courage to ask a physiotherapist for help. “Most people,” he said, “focus on their backs, but poor posture actually has more to do with tightness in your chest which is pulling you inward. Regularly stretch your pectoral muscles, and you should gradually notice a real difference.”
So now, every morning, I stand with my arms pressed against the frame of my bathroom door, opening up my carriage in a stretch that hurts, but helps. It turns out some of my muscles must learn to let go as much as others need to strengthen.
And here’s the thing. This morning, catching a glimpse of myself stretching in the mirror, I recognized with a shock that the recommended position is undeniably cruciform. It occurred to me a person stretched upon a cross can’t help but be upright and open, the opposite of incurvatus in se.
Maybe this is part of the reason Jesus invites us to take up His cross. He’s unbending us, teaching us to stretch out our lives in a cruciform shape of self-giving.
“Nature is not capable of this,” Luther says, and I know he’s right. I was born with rounded shoulders and a bent nature. And left to my own devices, I can’t change either. But Luther doesn’t stop there. “Nature is not capable of this, but only grace is, namely the grace that is given by faith in Christ through the Holy Spirit.”
The changes are slow, and the stretching hurts. Still, day by day I am learning to co-operate with the grace that is unbending me.