Homily for Advent 1, December 3, 2017 – The Rev. Stephanie Shepard
St. John the Apostle
“Praying with our bodies”
Abba, Father: you are the potter and we are the clay, the work of your hands. Mold us and fashion us into the image of Jesus your Son. Amen.
Most people come to church on a Sunday morning to find a word of hope for their lives. This morning, we are challenged by the readings from Scripture to discover where this lies. The prophetic speech of Isaiah 64 implores God to come down in awesome might to cleanse humanity of sin. Then Jesus proclaims what happens when the Son of Man does appear: “the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give light, and the stars will be falling from heaven.” (Mark 13:24-25). Stern stuff. To find hope, we need to be alert to Christ coming into our lives. That’s why it’s always a good idea to turn to prayer.
But who taught you how to pray? I didn’t learn when I was a child. I remember going up to Camp Artaban for the first time when I was ten. On our first morning in the chapel service, the theme leader, who happened to be a priest named Ron Barnes, told us kids to close our eyes to pray. That was a new one for me, and I had grown up in the Anglican Church! Nobody had said anything or showed us about prayer before that. One was supposed to absorb the right way of doing things by osmosis. In the typical Prayer Book service, there were times when everyone stood, or sat, or knelt, or crossed themselves. In my high church parish there was a weird little bob called genuflection that we were supposed to execute when we came into or left the pew or “acknowledged” the altar. it must have been even more confusing for visitors or newcomers, as the rest of us followed the priest and hoped for the best.
I wish that someone had sat down and explained a few basics about what to do with my limbs when I am praying. So in case you have some of the same questions I have, I want to reflect on what it might mean to pray with your body. I would like to consider body position, praying through our bodies when we are still, disciplining the body, and using our bodies in motion as prayer.
We start from the fact that humans are incarnational beings. We have arms and legs and occupy a certain amount of space. So when we enter into a quiet time of communion with God, we have to figure out where to park. I want to clear up one misconception: no one position is “right”. You may have been taught as a child to kneel beside the side of your bed with your hands clasped in front of you: head bowed, eyes closed. That is one option. There are many more. Standing with your head and arms raised is an ancient Hebrew prayer stance. You see a priest take this form at the prayer of consecration. Another way to pray is to stand with your hands cupped- expectant and ready for the blessing that God will give. Kneeling is a classic posture for prayer, signifying our humility. You can pray lying down too, either on your back (trying not to fall asleep) or on your front (best where there is no-one likely to step on you). Sitting in a good chair is a well-supported position for lengthy prayer sessions so that your body aches are not distracting you. Different positions may be more suitable for different types of prayer- whether you are petitioning for someone’s healing or asking forgiveness or absorbing God’s peace and beauty. What you choose is simply a matter of getting yourself ready to pray, and your posture is there to remind you of what you are doing.
Prayer is one of the few practices that allows us to be still without interruption. It gets us alone to become aware of your body. Observe your breath and your heartbeat. Feel the tension in your shoulders or the ache in your knees. Let the members of your physical form speak to you of what is going on in your life. You carry a record within you of what you are struggling with and what is going well. Your body is trying to tell you things – it is praying for you. The physical discomfort and pain experienced is not only something that we can bring to God in prayer; it is prayer. There will be times when you cannot concentrate on words or thoughts because of the stress that is being manifest. Know that your body is a witness before God, and offer it up, just as Jesus did on the cross. At the same time, remember that in the crucifixion God takes your pain and transfigures it.
There are saints in the history of our faith who have taken this an extra step. In a belief that the body must be subdued or “mortified”, they have practiced ways of prayer that are very hard on the body. Imagine kneeling on a cold stone floor all night in vigil, or fasting for a prolonged period to focus one’s vision. St. Cuthbert is said to have prayed while standing in the ocean up to his knees. At least when he got out, he had otters come and dry off his feet.
Even if you are not hurting when you start to pray, you will probably find that staying in one position is not easy after a few minutes. Some adjustment to seek a healthy posture is good, but prayer is a discipline. Let any other physical exercise, we built up muscles as we practice. As we engage, our cores are literally strengthened, and you will find that your endurance will increase. Be wise however, to discern what is the development of balance and tone and what is a warning signal from your body to get off your knees.
Lastly, we can pray with our bodies in everything we do, not just when we are still. In fact, some of us are twitchier than others and find it hard to maintain a single posture. There are ways to pray that engage our bodies even when they are not at rest. There are body prayers that put us through a sequence of movements, with or without words attached. There are spiritual disciplines that utilize conscious breathing techniques, walking mindfully, stretching, or dance. And there are times when the task we are engaged in invites us to do it prayerfully, whether it is knitting a shawl or writing an icon. When worship and work are one, everything we do can be a prayer offered up. The key is keeping our awareness on the meaning behind what our bodies are doing, and giving that over to God.
In and through our bodies, there are opportunities to become connected to the One who made us in in the Divine Image. Sometimes this comes through others, who are vehicles for God’s grace. When we are anointed, or experience healing touch, or the laying on of hands, then we feel the power of prayer as it is transmitted through another body to ours. At other times, we may be the ones who are the conduit of love and peace and hope. It may be as simple as holding another’s hand, a hug, or the joy of intimacy. This too is prayer when God is in the moment.
We are created beings, and we are made to employ our bodies to serve as we watch for the Master. In prayer, use what works for you to stay alert to God in your life. We have the admonition from Jesus himself: “Stay awake”. But don’t feel bad if one day you settle down to pray with every good intention and then fall asleep. Remember, God gives to his beloved rest. It might be just what your body needed to continue to hope. Amen.
June 07, 2018