God wants to marry us, soul and body. Not only that, but the Love that brought us forth from the raw materials of earth wants to woo us with the sweet Breath of Life into a full and complete conjugal union, making us “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4, KJVScriptures marked (KJV) are from the King James Version of the Bible.).
When the divine and human find each other, Scripture says they “know” one another, using the same word for this intimacy as ancient Hebrews used for conscious, caring sexual intimacy. This should not surprise us, for the writers of Scripture are vividly aware that it is not the soul alone that desires God:
“My soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you” (Psalm 63:1, NIVAll Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™, emphasis added)
“My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.” (Psalm 84:2, NIV, emphasis added)
Why do we speak so easily about prayer “taking wings,” so often of prayer being “heartfelt,” and so little about the flesh “longing” for God? The psalmist knows that for prayer to enfold us fully, the body must be engaged. Indeed, it simply wouldn’t occur to the psalmist that the heart’s desires or the mind’s intentions were separate from the body. In the prayer of ancient Israel, the whole self, body and soul united, stands with hands upraised in praise and supplication and falls prostrate in adoration or intercession.
Biblically, what we call mind, intention, and feeling are variously linked to internal organs—the heart, kidneys or “reins,” i.e., liver and womb. “Try my reins and my heart,” the psalmist intones (Psalm 26:2, KJV), surrendering the will to a God whose merciful lovingkindness is described as “womb-love.”The Semitic root resh/chet/mim refers to that which is deep within and is the basis of a set of words used for both mercy and womb.
I’m fully convinced that these associations are not merely allegorical, but rather testimony to a culture in which fewer bodily sensations were screened out than in our rationalized, denatured civilization. And for almost two thousand years, the spiritual practices of Christianity distanced us from the body lest we fall under the sway of its pleasures and temptations, rather than teaching us how to link it more deeply to the Spirit of God.“Not by the conversion of Godhead into flesh, but by taking of the Manhood into God.” See The Book of Common Prayer (Church Hymnal Corporation, 1979), 865.
One of the great challenges in this time of ferment and renewal among Christians is the recovery of a sense of how the body itself—that God-given wonder of mineral and muscle, laced with its web of nerves and irrigated by life-giving blood—inspires, supports, and expresses our relationship with the Giver of all. We are called to reclaim the embodied prayer that leads toward union with God—to present our “bodies as living sacrifices,” as Paul puts it (Romans 12:1, NIV).
02. Bodies Speak the Soul
My own baptism into embodied prayer began one Easter at my first midnight Easter vigil service. The total darkness at the beginning, penetrated by the lighting of the huge Pascal candle, whose flames spread to a hundred small candles around the church was, quite literally, spine-tingling, and the recitation of the whole saga of redemption in various readings quite moving. But the pivot came with receiving communion that night. We had received a rather uncharacteristically fervent evangelical invitation to the Table from our usually mild, rational school chaplain, and I went forward, once more, to open myself to the touch of the living Christ. As I knelt in the pew afterwards giving thanks, I felt, perhaps like Wesley, my heart “strangely warmed,” in much more than a metaphorical sense. Yes, I was emotionally moved, but there was also the little sensation of quiet and calming warmth spreading out from the center of my chest.
I thought little of it, other than to be thankful for a moment of grace. But the next morning, Easter morning, the sensation returned and with it a generalized sense of relaxation into the grace and love of God. No visions or revelations, just a sense of seeing the world a bit more clearly in the light of love, of love pouring through my heart through the world to God. This state persisted quietly, to greater and lesser degrees, for over three months, along with a greater sense of being a body, not just “having” one—a body in relationship to a cosmic Love. I was in love with virtually everything and everyone.
Of course, in the simplest sense, the body is never separate from our spiritual practice—or from anything we do or say. The body is never purely physical. In every moment its muscles, membranes, and nerves ripple in tangible expression of our heart’s intentions. Soul speaks, moment by moment, through flesh. Year by year, medical research shows how mind and feeling are not limited to the brain, but radiate via chemical neurotransmitters throughout the body.
The heart’s fears, hopes, and intentions can speak distinctly through the flesh. The uncertain look in the eyes can undermine the claim that we are calm and confident; the tightly folded arms across the chest may signal that we are not as open to someone as we profess to be; a defiantly raised chin might suggest our agreement at the staff meeting was not wholehearted. We can usually tell if the pat on the back is merely pro forma or genuinely reassuring, or the smile of a friend is relaxed and warm or just a ritual devoid of real feeling. Love utters itself in smile and touch, in gesture and gift, and in subtly inviting shifts in the iris and pupil of our eyes. Bodies speak the soul.