Conversatio Divina

Part 9 of 16

Reclaiming the Body in Prayer

How the Flesh Speaks Soul

Robert Morris

01.  Introduction

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. 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.

I’ll never forget the concluding gesture of a dancer who performed the story of a failed love match for the Louisville Ballet. Accompanied by only a single, elegiac piano sonata, her body spoke passion and hesitation, longing and frustration, elation and dejection. And on the final chord, her back to the audience, the slow drooping of her head came like a thunderclap of grief. I felt the impact of the elegant gesture right in the center of my chest and in the tears that brimmed in my eyes. The dancer seemed to inhabit that simple gesture with her entire soul, and in it her body became grief itself.
In like manner, Jesus’ body and soul became the utterance of the Eternal Word, breathing Spirit as easily as we breathe the common air. When he touched another with compassion, his touch and the compassion of God were one. And his flesh, at least on one occasion, shone with the divine Light itself, “brighter than the noonday sun.” As the Athanasian Creed puts it, the secret of the Word’s incarnation was that humanity, whole and entire, was “taken” into God.

03.  Pressing Our Bodies as “Living Sacrifice”

God wants to dwell with us and in us, shaping the neurons of our brains toward the support of virtue and holiness, tempering our passions and purifying our desires so they can be fully restored to their rooting in God’s own desires for the world. As Eugene Peterson puts it in his down-to-earth interpretation of Paul’s call for “living sacrifice,” “Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking around life—and place it before God as an offering” (Romans 12:2, The MessageScripture quotations marked (The Message) are from The Message by Eugene H. Peterson, copyright (c) 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group. All rights reserved.).

Doing this certainly involves acts of intention periodically though the day. We can offer the day to God at dawn; give thanks for food (even the impromptu snack); consecrate our work as we cross the threshold of kitchen, office, school, or construction site; silently bless people as we talk to them; review the day before sleep and offer it all unto God to weave into the pattern of grace that sustains the world. But all this can and, for some of us, mostly does happen at the level of thought and feeling.

To be sure, as we’ve seen, the body is already deeply involved. But just as the Hesychast school of contemplative prayer in the Eastern Church urges us to bring our experience of the mind “into the heart”—that is, to find our way back to the heart-space in the center of our chest as the natural seat of the soul—so there are ways to inhabit more deeply the events of the day.Hesychasm is a tradition of stillness in prayer, most specifically associated with the Jesus Prayer and certain psychophysical techniques, like following the breath.

Instead of rushing about with our minds torn between remembering past events and anticipating what’s coming next, there are tried and true ways of meditative practice that help bring all that we are into the present moment so that we are being fully present. The tradition of contemplative prayer calls this “recollection.” It is the first step toward full-hearted, full-bodied prayer. Dwelling in the moment, focusing only on what we are doing right now, “taking no thought for the morrow,” the next event, the next hour, we can be more open to the God who is present here and now. As we awaken to the fullness of the moment we are in, we are more likely to see it with a contemplative eye, one more likely to see and receive the grace of God.

As we practice all this, the body’s experience is more likely to register the warmth of the water and the heft of the cup we are washing, the taste of an apple, our body feeling of apprehension or appreciation as we listen to a colleague. And in this state of presence, the call to prayer can arise as naturally as breathing. Pleasures want to blossom into praise, perils into petition.

But we can enter in more deeply still. Take the simple act of touch. A colleague once shared with a class of mine his technique for training hospice volunteers in the art of intentional touch. “We don’t have to be huggy-bears to express compassion and care,” he told us. “We just need to put our heart’s intentions more fully into even the most casual touch. Holding hands, or just putting our hand on a patient’s shoulder can be enough—if we are fully present to what we are doing.”

And then he led us in a simple exercise. In pairs, we practiced feeling the difference between “casual” handholding (which can, of course, be comforting), and “intentional” handholding. “Concentrate your mind on your hand,” he told the “helpers” in this simulated practice. “Imagine your love and caring flowing from your heart into your hand. Now slowly and gently take the hand of the patient and keep the intention going as you talk.”

For most people, the difference was palpable. When I later tried the same practices with a Stephen’s Ministry group, and added the element of prayer (“Imagine the light and love of God flowing through your hand”), one woman came out of the experience with tears in her eyes. “I felt the light of God actually touch my heart,” she shared. “I’ve never felt God’s love so closely before.”
The group had learned a specific practice that made meaningful and practical Paul’s call to “yield . . . your members as instruments of righteousness unto God” (Romans 6:13, KJV).

04.  The Body at Prayer

Just so, we can deepen our experience of the body at prayer. From primeval days onward, the body has always been part of worship in dance, kneeling, prostration, and palms open to the heavens.

Just as we aren’t required to be huggy-bears to communicate caring, we don’t necessarily have to leap, shout, speak in tongues, or fall prostrate to engage the body in prayer (though for many of us, any of the above might be a good idea). Even the smallest gesture can change the quality of prayer and with it the sense of relationship with God.

Decades ago, in the midst of a difficult period, I could no longer pray with words. Somehow, in this fog of doubt and confusion, I found myself simply turning my palms up in a mute offering-plea-surrender to the Mystery I no longer understood. For the moment, it sufficed to keep a bare intention toward God alive, and after the spiritual darkness passed, it became a basic prayer gesture that can say anything from “Thank you” to “Please” and from “Here am I” to “Come, Lord Jesus.”

Years later, this small gesture communicated itself to another seeker who saw my hands lifted slightly, close together, in wordless prayer just before I began the consecration prayer of the Eucharist. Watching this body prayer, she emulated it herself, then and there, and found “an unexpected sense of openness to receive” which she had never felt before. It has been part of her ever deepening life of prayer since.

When we consciously inhabit traditional gestures like bowing the head, spreading the arms, bending from the waist, placing the hand on the heart, sitting quietly or kneeling, the body has a chance to speak itself to God. All evoke different senses of relationship to the Holy. The one most alien to almost everyone I know is the prostration, still common in sectors of the Eastern Church.

There’s a great story of a Russian bishop’s advice to a man who came wanting proof of God’s existence. Much to the man’s surprise, the bishop told him to go home and do one hundred prostrations a day for a month, then return. No arguments, no proofs, not even prescribed prayers, just the full prostrations, slowly and mindfully. After a month, the man returned alive with a sense of God, whom he had come to know through his body.

I can well believe the story: I fully expected my first truly intentional prostration to “speak” submission and lowliness, perhaps even humiliation, which is what such a posture looks like from the outside. What happened was a total surprise. As my torso bowed forward, head touching the ground, I felt surrounded by a great Vastness and deeply at peace. Stretching forward to lie prostrate, every-thing in me felt very safe in surrendering completely to God. Lying in this position, it seemed both easy and joyful to relax into grace. More than that, both the Vastness and the grace seemed to penetrate my flesh and touch my heart, wooing me deeper into a relationship I both yearn for and resist mightily.

05.  The Marriage of Flesh and Spirit

Truly intentional prayer allows God’s Spirit to mingle with our bodies and spirits freely, drawing us more deeply into alignment with the grace that flows like a river through every moment of our lives.

Recently I witnessed what seemed a vivid marriage of flesh and soul with Spirit manifested in an extraordinary liturgical dance. The setting was an inner city storefront church. A haggard-looking woman stood to give her testimony of deliverance from prostitution, petty theft, and addiction to heroin, cocaine, and “so much stuff I don’t want to talk about it.” She’d been clean for two decades, though the years of waste had aged her prematurely. In thanksgiving for another year of grace, health, and meaningful life, she offered her body to God in dance.

The movements were neither complex nor polished, but joy radiated from her eyes and face and every limb. Soul and body were utterly at one in every movement, speaking past shame and current release, thanksgiving, surrender, humility, and adoration. But at least for me, her body spoke not only her soul’s word, but the Word itself. In that moment, she was married to God, and her face was transfigured with joy.

I can’t help but believe this was a moment of “knowing” in the biblical sense, a dance embodying the conjugal union of flesh and soul with Spirit—the marriage celebrated in The Song of Songs, which the great Rabbi Akiva called the Bible’s “Holy of Holies” as he argued against the prudish folks who wished to banish it from the Hebrew canon as too “carnal.”Adapted from Olat Re’iyah, vol. II, 3-4. Historical notes from Mo’adei HaRe’iyah, 333-334, as quoted in and http://www. He knew, as have so many Christians through the ages, that God not only desires to dwell among us but within us wholly, soul and body alike, lovingly “lifting humanity” into Christ’s unique union with the Source of all.

And I’ve lived long enough in this body—no, as this body—to believe that when aligned with God and God’s purposes, “all its occasions dance for joy.”


The Rev. Dr. Robert Corin Morris is the executive director of interweave, an ecumenical and interfaith learning community based at Calvary Episcopal Church in Summit, New Jersey. a parish priest for thirteen years, he has been engaged since 1981 in a wide-ranging public ministry linking issues of well-ness, spiritual growth and service to the common good. a trained spiritual director, he is a Bishop’s chaplain for clergy in the Episcopal Diocese of Newark and teaches on occasion for the Upper Room’s Academy for Spiritual Formation. Bob is the author of three books, Wrestling With Grace: A Spirituality for the Rough Edges of Daily Life, Suffering and the Courage of God, and Provocative Grace: The Challenge in Jesus’ Words. He lives in South Orange, NJ, with his wife of forty-one years, Suzanne.