Using your Body.
We have bodies, they are our first artistic instrument. God even reckoned that bodies were so important that he became incarnate, taking a body himself. Here are some suggestions about using your body to help you pray.
This is one of the most common positions I have come across – do not be distracted by the comedy name, this is a sound and helpful practice. The name comes from the practice of sitting or standing with your head down and eyes closed, much like you would if you were about to be rinsed by a shower. Some people rest their heads on their hands, but there are many variations.
This is a comfortable position to stay in for some time. Your body is at rest and you are shielded from distractions that may be going on around you. Most people find that it feels natural to pray from this position, and it is a position widely used in the UK. You are therefore unlikely to distract yourself or anyone else. It is also possible to use subtle variations within the base position to help you visualise your prayer without drawing attention to yourself. These factors make it especially good for using in groups of people who may not know each other very well.
I find it quite easy to doze in this position, and although dropping off is less dramatic from this position there are other positions which help me focus more on praying. Over-use of any method of prayer can also be less than helpful.
Variations: <add Pictures>
Standing up can help, especially if you are feeling sleepy.
You can use your hands to help visualise your thoughts/ prayers. Some suggestions include:
- cupping your hands palm up to receive from God
- clasping your hands in petition
- holding objects, or letting them go. For example, a “holding cross” . See the praying with objects section for more ideas.
- Praying with your eyes open. Have you tried praying on a bus when you are commuting?
This is another position that is familiar, but should not be underestimated. Contemporary society has almost totally devalued acts of submission in general. What was once a widely understood symbol survives in moments such as a romantic proposal of marriage. The opening of the Lords’ prayer recognises both the intimacy and awe that characterises a Christians’ relationship to God. Deliberately kneeling can help us to recognise the awesomeness of God, which in turn helps us appreciate how gentle God is.
Physical movements help us visualise thoughts that may otherwise go unnoticed. They also help me stay awake!
As with all physical activity, use some common sense. If it is going to threaten your health, distract you or other people from focusing on God or compromise the reputation of the faith, be very sure why you are doing it. The kingdom of heaven is not concerned with eating the right foods, wearing the right clothes or performing the correct rituals. This freedom from religiosity is given to benefit individuals and the church as a whole, and requires us to take responsibility for testing our motives and activities, so if it is not beneficial, do not do it.
Try this in combination with various other positions, or as an aid to preparation or dedication. Or develop it to:
Sometimes we just have had enough and feel like we cannot go on. At other times we are overwhelmed by the awe-inspiring nature of God. Either way, it is sometimes good to lie flat and prostrate in front of God. This position could follow on from kneeling or start and end with simply lying flat out on your bed. It symbolises dependence, humility, and vulnerability. These are all things that most people try to avoid in everyday life in the UK, and so perhaps the discipline of submitting totally to God is one we need to practice.
In this position you are stable and perhaps most able to forget your body and let your mind wander in prayer. If you have started by stilling yourself, then this can be like placing a “cloud of forgetting” below you as you explore a “cloud of unknowing” above you (as described in “The Cloud of Unknowing = Anon C14th).
Falling asleep may not be a disadvantage, if you need rest! We need to look after our physical needs too. You are also physically vulnerable in this position, so be careful what space you use. Consider ways in which a safe space may change due to things like weather and the movements of other people.
Floating on water, inside or outside buildings, on a roof, in a darkened room. On a soft mattress or a hard floor, with music or ambient noise. Don’t forget the importance of smell, whether you are about to eat, or if you have just had a good meal.
The word ‘Orans’ is used to describe praying standing up with your arms outstretched but elbows bent. This word comes from mediaeval Latin and at one time would have simply meant “one who is praying”. If you search for it you will find pictures of people praying in this position from antiquity. The position may also be familiar to people already, perhaps even without noticing it, because it comes naturally. There has long been a special significance for Christians because of its similarity with the position you may imagine Jesus to have been held in on the cross. Stories of monks from the early Insular (or Celtic) church traditions describe them praying in this position while standing in the sea. St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne is even said to have had his feet dried and warmed by otters when he walked back to land!
The cold water would wake you up, and the fire in your arms after praying like this for a while can be a powerful aid to focusing your mind. Not everyone lives near enough to a secluded section of beach to be able to use the sea in this way, but the cross vigil in an orans position is just as relevant in your kitchen at home.
Stand with your arms held out on either side of your body. As you pray, your muscles will start to ache. The objective is not to inflict pain upon yourself, but perhaps it is a way to encounter experiences of our own frailty. Some people exercise using weights. Through repetition they increase their ability to lift. The Christian God does not demand sacrifice, because Jesus has “lifted” the weight of the world. This position may be a way for you to move your heart and mind by moving your body, to help you find an awareness of this effort in the present moment, and to participate with Jesus in a determination to endure.
This one keeps you awake. It is a very physical form of prayer too, and if you find that your mind wanders, it can really help you to focus. There is a very strong symbolic link with the cross, remembering what Jesus has done for us. In this position we can physically and imaginatively step into an awareness of the description of Jesus on the cross, and remember his call for us to love our neighbours. I find it helpful to pray in cycles of remembering and thanking Jesus, followed by praying for people and situations. Interceding is a type of prayer which I’ll describe later, but if you look at early medieval crosses, Jesus is depicted standing like this in metal and on stone, as a hero “Orans” – praying and bound to the tree which links heaven and earth. The symbolism of the position reminds me that as Jesus intercedes for us in heaven, we represent him on earth interceding for others. We can step in and become this link.
Not to everyone’s taste! As it is a very dramatic position it is important to think about your setting – perhaps avoid busy street corners, unless you are sure of your motives. It is important to be sure that it is a responsive act, and you are not carrying it out just because you are an adrenaline junkie! You also need to make sure there is enough space around you to hold out your arms safely.
You could think about the direction you are facing. Use your position to help visualise praying for a particular area, or perhaps facing east to remember where Jesus actually died. You could open your hands palm up in supplication or clench them in determination. Lowering your arms can be part of the prayer as well. We can only understand a fraction of what Jesus went through, and of the suffering that God senses through involvement in creation. When we lower our arms, we can be glad of the good things God has given us, and that our experience of suffering is only temporary. The time of day, and locations such as woodland where you are surrounded by trees may also enhance your experience and use of this position. If you have tried other meditative practices such as yoga, perhaps there are more physical positions which will help you develop your awareness of the gospel?
Unlike the previous descriptions, there is no specific posture associated with this, but it can be helpful to lie down. This exercise involves focusing on your breathing and becoming aware of your body to help you relax. Our lives can be very busy, and so it is worth taking time to slow down and re-tune your mind. God knew us before we were born, and has prepared a welcome for us in the future – but we meet with God in the present. This is where we can effect change and act. By finding a quiet place to meet with God, perhaps at a regular time and in a special place, we can break free from our past memories and future worries, setting them to one side. With Gods’ assistance, we can re-encounter them with a renewed attitude. In your quiet space sit quietly and close your eyes. Concentrate on what you can hear around you, and the present sensations you feel. Allow yourself to concentrate on your breathing. Then, you may also find it helpful to say a particular formal prayer to help you focus your mind on meeting with God.
Becoming aware of something you do every day, naturally without noticing, can be special. It can be combined with everything else described here to develop your practice of the presence of God. This is an exercise uncomplicated by a need for objects, and which can be done unnoticed in a crowded space, or in a queue. Take a moment to “catch your breath”, and prepare yourself to continue.
We do this naturally, and by making ourselves conscious of breathing we can also mess up the way our body regulates itself. Be careful not to hyperventilate. Breathing will help you become mindful of yourself and your environment. In addition to this, Christians in prayer can become “Christ-ful”. Prayer should not leave you feeling alienated from yourself, or empty. In prayer you may also experience dark thoughts, memories or even emotions like anger. By combining your practice of prayer with talking to people you trust, reading, and the broad range of teachings handed down through the Church you can develop a common sense that will help you identify and deal with such negative experiences when they happen over time.
Combine this with everything else! The Holy Spirit is described as wind, let God Fill your Lungs, so that you can sweat Love and Peace.
This is a type of prayer from the Orthodox tradition. The classical form of words used in the English language is:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
But variations on this are frequently made. The prayer could be used for 15 minutes at the beginning of your day, breathing in for the first half of the sentence, and out for the second half.
This block of time can help focus our hearts and minds on God, through Jesus, and dedicate the day, ordinary time, to God who is waiting for us. The simplicity of the words are a reminder that we are not asked to achieve complicated or extravagant mission. We are simply called to draw close to God, and receive healing mercy that will equip us to be channels of peace throughout the day, for the tasks we encounter in it.
The prayer can also be used at specific times of crisis. It is short and to the point. God is well aware of our needs, and is waiting to be asked for help. Finally, think about what the word mercy means in a Christian context. There is the obvious meaning in connection with receiving forgiveness for our culpable wrong-doing. God’s mercy, as shown in Christ’s incarnation goes far beyond this though. Not only can we receive mercy in a similar way to subjects petitioning a King, we can also be confident that God is concerned with healing the whole of our lives. God equips us to be agents of transformation – revealing the kingdom of heaven in the ordinariness of daily life.
Simple, meditative and powerful. This can be used in most places and at most times. This theme is core to the gospel and can really help you remember your focus.
Breathing is simple until you start thinking about it too much. It is important to remember that we are reconciled and living in a relationship with God, as well as our need for reconciliation. Remembering this can make the prayer very positive, when at first glance it may look negative.
If you study the key words in the classic form you can develop your own ‘mantra’. The word translated into the English ‘mercy’ shares roots with ‘healing’. ‘Sinner’ can be understood as accepting culpability for a deliberate action, or failure to act, and also the experience of having trespassed into somewhere it would be better not to be. Healing and Mercy are pathways to restoring relationships, including forgiving yourself.
This is just a small selection of ways in which you could use your body to pray, which may inspire you to work out others with God. Some suggestions that I am not going into here include; fasting, symbolic hand positions, dancing and so on. Please take these thoughts, and explore and expand on them. Pray as you are dancing in a nightclub. Kneel in a quiet lane on your way to go shopping. Wander barefoot in forests where trees become pillars in the cathedral of creation, and the sky is a star studded ceiling through which our thoughts are carried.