The Posture of Prayer

December 30th, 2019
This article is featured in the Intentional Spirituality (Nov/Dec/Jan 2019-20) issue of Circuit Rider

It can be fascinating to watch the way people of other cultures pray. In South Korea, I watched people pray out loud while they swayed and raised their hands. I watched Buddhists sit quietly in meditation. In Israel and the West Bank, I watched Jews rapidly rock (called “shuckling”) in front of the Wailing Wall, and watched Muslims bow with their faces to the ground.

I’ve grown up in a majority white mainline Protestant tradition, where the posture of prayer is usually identical to being asleep: We bow our heads and close our eyes. If it is true that ninety percent of communication is non-verbal, what are we communicating with our posture? How does our posture affect us? Does it lend itself to paying attention?

In some other Christian traditions, there may be an element of bodily engagement: Charismatic Christians may raise their hands or lift their heads instead of bowing them. Roman Catholics may occupy their fingers with the Rosary or make the sign of the cross. As a Protestant, I feel a kind of “Holy Envy,” as Barbara Brown Taylor writes, for the prayer practices of these other traditions.

Of course, body language, like most symbolic language, can be ambiguous. We close our eyes, perhaps, to shut out distractions, to attend deeply to the words or thoughts of prayer. We bow our heads as a sign of respect. But the body language also says that we believe prayer is something internal, a kind of telepathic communication between us and God. It may reflect a confidence that God hears our prayer before we say it. It may also reflect a mind-body split, that maybe we consider our bodies irrelevant when it comes to internal “spiritual” matters.

I decided, upon returning from a trip to the Middle East, to explore how my prayer posture affected my praying experience. I incorporated sitting on the floor for meditative and contemplative prayer. I tried bowing with my face to the floor. I was shocked by the difference it made in my prayer life.

For one thing, it is impossible to be dignified with your face to the floor and you posterior in the air. It is a submissive and humble posture, a challenging attitude for some of us. It is something I would not feel comfortable doing by myself, in public, the way some devout Muslims do (which increased the respect I have for people who pray in this way). This is also the way that people in Jesus’ world prayed and worshiped. The Hebrew word for worship literally means “to bow,” and we have several instances in scripture where the posture of worship is basically groveling at someone’s feet.

But in the privacy of the church chapel, or in my living room, it shifted the way I understood the dynamic of prayer. I was not simply telepathically communicating with God; I was coming before the throne of grace. God was not an abstraction, but a present reality, and my bodily posture reflected my submission. The word “Islam” means “submission,” and I understood not with my brain, but with my bones, the importance of this word to those who practice prayer in this way.

There may be some who would say that the posture of prayer is unimportant, that “it’s the thought that counts.” But there is knowledge that our bodies have, often referred to as “kinesthetic” knowledge, that is something words cannot capture: how to catch a ball, the feeling of kneading dough when the gluten begins to do its work, the tilt of a sailboat as the wind pushes it just so. As I’m teaching my son to drive, I find myself often saying to him, “It’s more about the feel of the car on the road than about watching your gauges.” I believe the same is true of our spiritual lives, that intuitive, felt knowledge can be difficult to put into words. I fear that our Protestant tradition tends to implicitly deny the incarnation, treating the body as if it is an afterthought.

Bodily knowledge is both why I’m drawn to yoga and mindfulness meditation and why, I suspect, some Protestants believe that these are dangerous. I think involving the body in prayer and meditation is part of praying deeply, of loving God with the whole of one’s self: heart, soul, and strength. I can see how some Christians would see this as dangerous, not only because yoga and meditation represent the influence of Eastern religions, but because the knowledge our bodies hold may be subversive and difficult to control. For similar reasons, some Christians have claimed that dance is dangerous because it might give way to carnal (fleshly or bodily) knowledge, or undermine our sharp distinctions between mind and body, between spirit and flesh.

I find that these practices connect me to scripture in a way that is deeper than just talk. When I breathe mindfully as part of meditation and focus on the breath, I’m reminded of the fact that the word for “spirit” in both Greek and Hebrew is simply “breath”; that the creation of humanity begins with air flowing from God’s mouth into the first human, a kiss that sparks human life and sustains it to the present day; that the rise and fall of the chest and the feeling of air going in and out is the first shocking thing we feel when we are born. I can be grateful for the gift of life not because I know it intellectually or sentimentally, but because I feel it in my lungs.

Likewise, when I practice yoga I find that it prepares my body to be still in a way that it can’t be if I just plop down in a chair to pray. After I’ve worked out the stress in my shoulders, become aware of how the ground feels beneath my feet, recognized how hard it is to keep my physical balance, I can truly pray: “Lord, help me find my balance; help me let go of the future and past and be present in the now; take this weight off of my shoulders; help me be still and know you.” This is a prayer I can pray not just with my mind but with my body and my senses. I am sure God hears my body pray, just as I’m sure when I don’t know what to pray, the Spirit prays for me.

For this reason, I sometimes encourage people who feel stuck in their prayer life to pray with their bodies, to remember that some of our most important communication is nonverbal and that God “hears” their nonverbal prayers. Try standing and rocking, or raising your hands, or looking up instead of down, or exercising or doing yoga before prayer. Bring your whole self, including your body, into prayer, and see what lessons your body has to teach you. After all, if God valued human bodies enough not only to create them, but to become one, we can at least do the same.

comments powered by Disqus