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Martha (Matte) Downey is an Adjunct Lecturer with Threshold School of Ministry. Amongst teaching, she holds a number of titles that keep her busy; she and her husband, Dean, pastor Vineyard Montreal Church where she has the privilege of teaching, leading seminars, playing on the worship team, and inviting people over to sample Dean’s fine cooking. In her spare time, she regularly blogs for ThoughtWorks (a resource for theological formation in Vineyard Canada) while drinking copious amounts of chai latte. Matte holds a bachelor’s degree in Biblical Studies, a master's degree in Christian Spirituality, and a doctorate in Systematic Theology (with a focus on dramatic theology and the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar).

Below is a recent post from her blog OUTWARD: musings on life, learning and theology.


Christmas Day 2017 started out with great hope and expectation. Dean and I woke up just after 4 am and headed to the airport, eager to celebrate the holy days with our families in Manitoba. That changed somewhere over Ontario when vertigo paid me a visit. I won't regale you with the not-so-pleasant details of how many airsick bags I used or the dread that came over me when it was time to get off the plane and take that long walk to the airport exit. Let's just say that with great discomfort, I finally made it to my destination in Winnipeg and, for seven days, did as little moving and looking as possible (who knew vertigo affected your ability to focus?).

When I could manage it, I read up on vertigo. The official name is benign paroxysmal positional vertigo. Benign means that it is not related to another illness. Paroxysmal has to do with the intensification of symptoms during episodes (my body seemed to have missed this part because my symptoms were continuous, not episodic). Positional means that when you change the position of your head, bad things happen. The symptoms of vertigo are dizziness, nausea, imbalance, and a sensation of spinning. Vertigo (BPPV) is caused by a small calcified otolith getting dislodged and free-floating into the inner ear, wreaking havoc on the intricate equilibrium mechanism known as the vestibular system. Those rascally otoliths. In the 1980s, a clever doctor named John Epley devised a series of head exercises meant to herd stray otoliths back to safety and relieve BPPV. Two and a half days after my vertigo started, I went to a walk-in clinic (more like a stagger-in clinic in my case) where a medical professional performed the awkward Epley maneuver on me and prescribed pills for nausea. Both the doctor and I hoped for quick relief, but it was not to be. Though I am much better now, the symptoms are taking their sweet time packing their bags and leaving.

Vertigo is an interesting phenomenon. Basically, nothing is wrong with your body, but because a sensor has gone rogue, your brain thinks you are on one long, extreme roller coaster ride. Your eyes can't focus properly (this is called nystagmus), your body has no idea which way is right side up, head movements result in disorientation, and walking a straight line is impossible. To top it all off, the brain insists that emptying the contents of the stomach is part of the cure!

When the body works well, it is poetry in motion, a shining example of something being more than the sum of its parts. However, when it is diseased or broken or malfunctioning, its vulnerabilities are exposed. The body's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness: all the parts are interconnected. Every part needs the other parts to be in their proper place, doing what they were made to do. This is especially true in the case of BPPV. Though we tend to associate vertigo with imbalance, instability is merely a symptom, not the core issue. Vertigo is essentially a communication disorder. Because one tiny sensory part of the body is out of place, confusion ensues. Merely weighting both sides of the body equally would not solve the problem. The goal, then, is not to restore balance, but for every part of the body to be in the right place, doing what it was meant to do. This is health. This is stability. This allows for graceful movement.

My experience with vertigo allowed me to make a few observations.
1. We tend to think that a balanced life is a healthy life, but the two concepts are very different. A person carrying heavy weights on both sides of their body is technically balanced, but in reality, every movement is a struggle and they are in danger of collapsing. Balance as a way of life is not sustainable. Movement requires almost constant imbalance and adjustment.
2. Stillness is the only immediate relief from confusion and instability. Being still is as important to the body as moving, and we need to discern the appropriate time for each. Again, this is not about balance, but about what is needed at the moment.
3. The long-term solution for instability and confusion is to have each part of the body in its rightful place, doing what it was made to do. When a part of the body is out of place, it must either be returned to its rightful place or reabsorbed safely into the body. This requires discernment and patience.

In the past days, I have spent much time being still and trying to rightly discern my body. It is hard work. The process has many parallels to fostering health and well-being in a spiritual community. The body, with its many cooperative and interdependent parts, is a living metaphor for the church, the body of Christ. Two scripture passages have been running through my mind. The first is the Psalmist's call to trust in a God who is not moved. Though the earth shakes, stillness can be found in knowing God.

"God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult. Selah...

Be still and know that I am God." (Psalm 46:1-3, 10a, NRSV)

The second is Paul addressing the church at Corinth, an unhealthy community which seemed unable to discern their troubling symptoms.

"Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged." (1 Corinthians 11:28-31, NRSV).

Being still and discerning. Not usually the top tasks in anyone's "to do" list, except Jesus. Withdrawing to still places and seeking discernment in the presence of his Father were often the first and last activities of Jesus's day. If we want to be healthy, both physically and spiritually, and if we want to foster healthy communities, these practices must also become part of our daily rhythm.

- Matte Downey (
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