Prayer is a spiritual activity—isn’t it? It happens in mind, heart, soul, spirit . . .
And yet, I’m in my body when I’m praying. My mind, heart, soul, and spirit are embodied. I cannot compartmentalize my experience into categories of spiritual as opposed to physical. God did not create me as one or the other but as all together.
I do not pray apart from my body or without my body, and neither do you. The body nurtures and carries my prayer. Prayer simmers within, sometimes for a long time, before it ever becomes conscious words I say or think. I like to think that prayer gestates while I’m going about a typical day. The Holy Spirit partners with me in gathering information and in assessing my emotional response to what is happening around me. The Holy Spirit partners with me in discerning what help I or others need or what decision should be made. My continuous interaction with the Holy Spirit, who dwells in me, is itself prayer. And it’s happening within my embodied self.
All my experience is housed in my body. All your experience is housed in your body. In fact, our bodies have memories we don’t even access easily, if at all. Anyone who plays piano or throws a baseball knows that muscles have memory. Our bodies remember bliss, stress, excitement, and trauma; our muscles and organs often remember better than our minds do.
How appropriate, then, that we enlist our bodies—that we deliberately engage our physical senses—when we pray. How can we do this?
- Pay attention to pain and tension. Begin prayer by getting into a comfortable position, closing your eyes, and focusing on your body: neck, back, legs, abdomen, and so on. Where’s the tension or pain? Ask God to help you identify where they are and what might have caused them.
- Use your body to indicate your attitude. Are you grateful? Then raise your head and smile. Are you repentant? Then bow your head and/or kneel. Do you want to receive God’s gifts? Then open your hands. Are you feeling ill? Then curl up and tell God how awful you feel just now. Allow your body to correspond to your words, thoughts, and feelings.
- Receive information through your senses. Stimulate praise and thanksgiving by naming the colors you see, the aromas you smell, the warm sun you feel, the coffee you taste, and the birds or breezes or conversations you hear. Use your senses to open your whole self to life and to God’s gifts.
- Savor physical sensations of relief, pleasure, and relaxation. Have you finally made it to bed after a long day? Sink down into it, sigh, and thank God for rest. Do you allow yourself to enjoy fully playing with the dog, cooking a favorite meal, or singing along to the radio? Do you consider these celebrations prayer? Might you consider that possibility?
- Use imaginative prayer to enter a Gospel scene. Walk right into a story of Jesus—whether he is healing lepers, talking to someone who doesn’t want to forgive, or supplying good wine at a wedding. Imagine what the scene looks like, what scents are in the air, what music you hear, what the food tastes like, and how the ground feels under your feet. Listen and watch as Jesus converses with someone (maybe you!) and then takes action. Does he place a hand on your shoulder? Does he embrace you? Does he look into your eyes a long time and help you become brave enough to tell the truth or ask for help?
- Allow your senses to stimulate empathy and compassion. I was once stuck in the cold for about two hours with insufficient clothing—no heavy coat, scarf, or gloves. After a while I was able to go to a friend’s house and get warm. But when I was walking across town, shivering, it occurred to me that some people must suffer the weather on a regular basis—those who have no homes or whose homes are not well-heated. My temporary physical suffering changed forever my perception of people who must deal with such suffering all the time. When you are uncomfortable or in pain, ask for the grace to transform some of that suffering into compassion for others.
The apostle Paul declared that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit; even centuries ago, without the benefit of scientific studies linking the physical with the emotional and spiritual, Paul understood that we are embodied beings, that our bodies participate in our communion with God and one another.
May we all become more aware of our physical senses and our physical movements, and may we become more open to the information we receive through our bodies. May we pay attention to “body wisdom” and delight in our embodied selves as the lovely temples we are.