The Body at Prayer

by Vinita Hampton Wright on 07/21/2014

man with arms raised in praise

As a Chicago resident, I find that I have more freedom of movement during the warmer months, generally June through September. No multiple layers of sweaters and scarves. No heavy snow boots and gloves I must keep track of. Much easier to move in blue jeans and a T-shirt and sockless sandals.

So, while we’re exploring prayer this summer, it makes sense to talk about body movement and how it is—or can be—related to prayer. We’ve already touched on the subject of walking and pilgrimage. Let’s focus even more precisely on the body itself.

Because I’m quite new to this topic, I turned to a couple of books that were helpful.

50 Ways to Pray: Practices from Many Traditions and Times by Teresa A. Blythe. The book is exactly what the title describes, and some of these prayers involve attention to body and movement.
God in Your Body: Kabbalah, Mindfulness and Embodied Spiritual Practice by Jay Michaelson. The author explores how Jewish tradition and its various prayer practices help us work with our bodies and truly embody our spirituality.

Both authors ask that we slow down, find places to pray and positions in which to pray that enhance our ability to notice our bodies—arms, legs, breath, heartbeat—and pay attention to what our bodies tell us.

This can be difficult for some of us who did not grow up in cultures that celebrate the body and give it any credit for goodness or wisdom. Some of us are accustomed to approaching faith first through the mind, then maybe through the emotions, and last of all through our physical selves. I have to include a quote here from Michaelson: “Thinking is a gift from God, but it doesn’t help you make love, it doesn’t help you dance—and it doesn’t help you pray in an ecstatic way.” (p. 29) Amen to that!

To begin “embodied” prayer, I encourage you to slow down several times this week. Slow down when you’re walking, when you’re eating, when you’re busy at a task, when you’re bathing, even when you’re using the bathroom (yes—there are Jewish blessings for that bodily function!). Slow down in each case, enough that you can pay attention to what your body is doing and how that feels.

Then try to listen to what your body is telling you. Are you stressed? Which muscles tell you that? Are you tired or excited or angry or brimming with affection toward someone? How does your body respond?

Slowing down takes practice, and I confess that this is rather new to me, so I’m learning along with everyone else. But I’m willing to give it a try.

  • How does your body help your spiritual life (if it does)?
  • How does your body hinder your spiritual life (if it does)?

{ 8 comments }

Friday Reflection: Be Still

by Vinita Hampton Wright on 07/18/2014

Praying through the Summer with Vinita Hampton Wright

Today’s reflection includes a few suggestions for how to be still in a fast-paced world. What do you like to do to be still?

{ 4 comments }

Three Reasons It’s Hard to Be Still

by Vinita Hampton Wright on 07/16/2014

3 reasons it is hard to be still - still waters

We have been conditioned to feel guilty whenever we are not “productive.”

Stillness, even for the purpose of rest or prayer, can feel like wasted time to someone who lives in a world that values wealth, competition, high productivity, full schedules, and general self-importance. If we stare off into space for half an hour—and fail even to take notes on the thoughts that come to mind—that’s half an hour lost. The writer must always be recording and reflecting; the executive must always be strategizing. There’s no such thing as being “off” in such a culture. When we are stranded in traffic, we panic if there’s no device by which we can check the news, return calls, answer e-mail, or download a song or television show while we wait.

And if we do schedule a day away for retreat, we are tempted to load up the day with books to read, spiritual exercises to try, and journals to fill. Even in a retreat context we struggle to get still and do absolutely nothing.

We sometimes prefer distraction to concentration when it comes to soul work.

I have said to writers at various conferences: “We procrastinate when it’s time to write because, deep down, we know what true writing will cost us.” When the soul is allowed the space, time, and uncluttered mind to tell us our truths, we discover that those truths can be unsettling. If I’m quiet and inactive for an afternoon, what might rise to the surface is not some new insight into a Gospel passage but worries about the state of my marriage or my resentment toward a friend. My soul—under the influence of the Holy Spirit—will direct me to the real issues that I must see and tend today. Subconsciously, we understand that to invite silence and stillness is to open the door for soul work that is sometimes painful. It’s much easier to be busy—even “spiritually” busy—and to distract ourselves in various ways.

We have grown uncomfortable with any conditions that make us feel alone.

We now have a wealth of electronic devices that help us stay in touch, share information, and communicate with lots of people in lots of places. These same devices make it possible for us never to have to spend a moment truly alone because we are just a Facebook post away from hundreds of friends. Even if no one responds to the text I just sent by smart phone, I still feel connected to the universe, simply because I have composed and posted something on the world’s bulletin board. Our devices have become our constant companions. Recently I read a lengthy article suggesting that our children are not learning how to be alone or how to be bored because they are constantly on electronic devices. It is not uncommon now to see children who do not know how to be alone or how to create entertainment from nothing but time and a little bit of space.

Adults, especially those of us past age 40, are not quite so addicted to the cyberspace web, but some of us don’t know how to exist with our cell phones turned off—or with the television, radio, and computer turned off. I need sound in the room. I want company, even if it’s a TV rerun I’m barely listening to. I am used to some kind of chatter. Silence unnerves me. Silence signals that I am alone for the moment—and what must I face if the only company I have is myself?

Before we can develop spiritual practices that require stillness and solitude, we must grapple with the various forms of resistance we have developed to fight the very stillness we need.

  • What do you do to become still?
  • When do you most need stillness and solitude?
  • How do you deal with the ways you resist stillness?

{ 18 comments }

Prayer and Rest

July 14, 2014

So often, summer vacation becomes busier than any other part of the year. We’re trying to fit in trips and visits and host people visiting us. Or there’s the home improvement list and the extensive garden, church picnics, summer sports, etc. This busyness is reason enough to practice prayer that helps us rest. Prayer we […]

5 comments Read the full article →

The Journey of Life

July 11, 2014

Here’s a lovely song about personal pilgrimage, by the group Hem, from the album Rabbit Songs. Read the lyrics here.

7 comments Read the full article →