Early Christian writers considered the body as the setting in which the struggle for transformation was engaged. The body was thought to be permeable to outside forces, which, if left unchecked, polluted the soul. As such, the body was then a demanding limit to the soul’s upward ascent to God, yet at the same the time, a boundary that required navigating on the soul’s journey towards its heavenly home. Accordingly the body was viewed as the hub of sin and the means for rising above it.
As the focal point of the Christian’s struggle with sin, it was not unusual for the body to be denigrated in Christian literature and practice. Yet, frustrating as the body and its desires might be, it was not to be despised:
The creator of the human body’s members was not ashamed to assume the flesh they are made from. As God himself asserts: “Before I formed you in the womb I chose you as my prophet; before you were born I consecrated you.”Jer. 1:5
It is God who fashions every infant in the womb. As Job says: “Like clay you have molded me; like milk you have poured me out; like cheese you have curdled me. You have clothed me in flesh and blood, knit me together with bones and sinews.” Job 10:9–11 There is therefore nothing disgraceful in the composition of the human body, provided only that it is not polluted by adultery or lasciviousness.
The One who created Adam created Eve. Male and female were formed by God’s hands, and no member of the body was created sinful. Thus those who despise the body should keep quiet: they despise Christ himself who made it.Cyril of Jerusalem Catechesis 12, 26 (PG 33, 757).
As God’s good creation, the body is united to the soul such that human spiritual capacity may be increased or decreased according to its physical condition. John Chrysostom reasons:
When the body is ill, the soul is badly affected. In the great majority of cases, in fact, our spiritual capacities behave according to our physical condition; illness lays us low and makes us different, almost unrecognizable from when we are well. If the strings of an instrument give a feeble or false sound because they are not taut enough, the artist has no way of displaying any particular talent: the defect in the strings defeats all skill. It is the same with the body. It can do a great deal of harm to the soul. So I ask you: take care that your body stays fit, safeguard it from illness of any sort. I am not telling you either to let it waste away or to let it grow fat. Feed it with as much food as is necessary for it to become a ready instrument of the soul.John is speaking from experience. After his education John entered into the solitary life. His extreme ascetical practices did irreparable damage to his body and forced him to return to public life.
If you stuff it with delicious dainties, the body is incapable of resisting the impulses that attack it and weaken it. A person may be very wise and yet, if he abandons himself without restraint to wine and the pleasures of the table, it is inevitable that he will feel the flames of inordinate desire blazing more fiercely within him. A body immersed in delights is a body that breeds sins of every kind.John Chrysostom, Homily on the Epistle to the Hebrews, 29, 31T.
John, like most early Christian authors, affirms the goodness of body yet argues that if the body’s appetites were not constrained, indulgence in these pleasures would eventually numb the soul, thereby rob the soul of its desire to seek its well-being in the love of God, and ultimately descend into sinful behavior.
Yet, the body is not the source of sin, as Cyril of Jerusalem explains:
Tell me not that the body is a cause of sin. For if the body is a cause of sin, why does not a dead body sin? Put a sword in the right hand of one just dead, and no murder takes place. Let beauties of every kind pass before a youth just dead, and no impure desire arises. Why? Because the body sins not of itself, but the soul through the body. The body is an instrument, and, as it were, a garment and robe of the soul: and if by this latter it be given over to fornication, it becomes defiled: but if it dwell with a holy soul, it becomes a temple of the Holy Ghost. It is not I that say this, but the Apostle Paul has said, Do you not know, that your bodies are the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you?Cf. 1 Cor. 6:19. Be tender, therefore, of your body as being a temple of the Holy Ghost. Pollute not your flesh in fornication: defile not this your fairest robe: and if ever you have defiled it, now cleanse it by repentance: get yourself washed, while time permits. Catechesis 4.23.
Cyril reasons that the body is an instrument of the soul. Thus, depending on how the body is used, it may become defiled or a temple of the Holy Spirit, a place where heaven and earth meet.
The practical implications of the body’s instrumentality and its influence on a person’s spiritual capacity materialize in Early Christian deliberations on the body’s role in the practice of prayer. In prayer, bodily postures both reflect and shape one’s interiority.
02. The Body in Prayer
Typically, three postures of prayer are discussed in early Christian literature: standing upright with hands slightly raised, kneeling, and seated.
In addition, practices such as praying with face toward the east and the sign of the cross are ways that the body realizes Christian belief.
Standing Up and Lifting Hands: But we more commend our prayers to God when we pray with modesty and humility, with not even lifting the hands too high but raising them temperately and becomingly. (Tertullian, On Prayer, 17)
Of all the innumerable dispositions of the body that, accompanied by outstretching of the hands and upraising of the eyes, standing is preferred— inasmuch as one thereby wears in the body also the image of the devotional characteristics that become the soul. I say that these things ought to be observed by preference except in any special circumstances, for in special circumstances, by reason of some serious foot disease one may upon occasion quite properly pray sitting, or by reason of fevers or similar illnesses, lying, and indeed owing to circumstances, if, let us say, we are on a voyage or if our business does not permit us to retire to pay our debt of prayer, we may pray without any outward sign of doing so. (Origen, On Prayer, 31.2)
Facing East: And for the purpose of showing this, when we stand at prayer, we turn to the east, whence the heaven rises: not as if God also were dwelling there, in the sense that He who is everywhere present, not as occupying space, but by the power of His majesty, had forsaken the other parts of the world; but in order that the mind may be admonished to turn to a more excellent nature, i.e., to God, when its own body, which is earthly, is turned to a more excellent body, i.e., to a heavenly one. It is also suitable for the different stages of religion, and expedient in the highest degree, that in the minds of all, both small and great, there should be cherished worthy conceptions of God. (Augustine, PG 63, 207)
Kneeling: For most occasions in early Christian worship the accepted position of prayer was standing, but in certain situations prayer was best performed in prostration or kneeling.
On ordinary days who would hesitate to prostrate himself to God, at least at the first prayer with which we enter on daylight? At fasts, moreover, and stations, no prayer is to be made without kneeling and the rest of the attitudes of humility. (Tertullian, On Prayer, 23.)
Moreover, one must know that kneeling is necessary when he is about to speak against his personal sins before God with supplication for their healing and forgiveness, because it is a symbol of submission and subjection. For Paul says: “For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father from whom is all fatherhood named in heaven and on earth.”Eph. 3:14–15. This may be called spiritual kneeling, because of the submission and self-humiliation of every being to God in the name of Jesus that the apostle appears to indicate in the words: “that in the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth.”Phil. 2:10. (Origen, On Prayer, 31.3)
Sign of the Cross: According to Tertullian, to make the sign of the cross, a custom handed down by previous generations of African Christians, was not limited to Christian worship: “At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at table, when we light the lamps, on couch, on seat, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign.”The Chaplet 3.
Early Christians considered standing with hands slightly upraised as the customary position for prayer and worship. Standing prayer highlights the Christian’s status before God as his redeemed people. The uplifted hands manifest the soul’s ascent in prayer. Kneeling or lying face down are positions of repentance and deference and are typically associated with the need for healing and forgiveness. Facing east and performing the sign of the cross were symbolic actions which chastened the mind to live in light of the reality of God’s good governance.
These various prayer practices were affirmed as beneficial by the majority of early Christian writers. Yet, in western Christianity, we see a change introduced by Augustine. Augustine affirmed the benefit of facing east and the various positions of prayer for the simple and uneducated. For those skilled in the spiritual life these practices were not as important. What mattered in prayer was the interior state of the person in prayer. Though not immediately influential, Augustine’s conception of inwardness yielded “changes in the apprehension of the body from the twelfth century onwards.”Andrew Loath, “The Body in Western Catholic Christianity,” Religion and the Body, Cambridge Studies in Religion 8, Sarah Coakley, ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 122.
Michael Glerup, PhD, serves as Research and Acquisitions Editor for the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (ACCS), a twenty-eight-volume patristic commentary on Scripture. ACCS, published by InterVarsity Press, is an ecumenical project promoting a vital link of communication between the varied Christian traditions of today and their common ancient ancestors in the faith. Read more at www.ancientchristian.com.