Caring for the Body
Given the consistent biblical affirmation of the significance of our bodies, part of our spiritual pilgrimage is to seek a sacramental approach to life in which the body is understood to be sacred because it is the place where God’s Spirit has chosen to dwell. We can begin by simply learning how to care for the body more intentionally. As Elijah’s story demonstrates, there is a real connection between care for the body and our ability to continue deepening our relationship with God and to carry out God’s purposes for our life faithfully over the long haul.
For me, caring for the body began with slowly shifting my living patterns—eating better, drinking more water, getting more rest rather than resorting to the short-lived benefits of caffeine, working my way slowly into a more active lifestyle that included walking, running, and biking—some amazing changes started to take place. First of all, I began to have more energy and experienced a real lift in my spirits. I experienced one of God’s gifts to us in the body—the endorphins that are soothing to the emotions, that ease pain and elevate our moods. Because I exercised outdoors, I began to experience those moments as times of significant connection with God through the expansiveness of the creation, the beauty of nature, and my gratitude for the opportunity to enjoy life in a healthier body.
I discovered that some of my spiritual practices began to coincide quite naturally with my physical disciplines. Times of running and walking became moments of turning my heart toward God. Because evening has been the best and most consistent time for me to walk and jog, I found myself naturally using those times to engage in the examen. While my body was occupied with physical activity, my heart and mind were freed up to reflect on my day and invite God to help me notice those times when the Spirit was at work guiding, protecting, comforting me. Somehow the privacy afforded by the waning light and the expansiveness of the night sky created a setting that was quiet and safe enough for me to allow God to help me see those times when I had fallen short of love that day, to confess sin, to release the day’s burdens, and to look toward a new day with hope and fresh resolve.
Interestingly enough, even secular medical research indicates that exercise and spirituality go hand in hand. We now know that exercise brings mental and physiological changes, including the flood of body-made opiates that induce what we call the “runner’s high.” This physiological dynamic can create a change in consciousness, a kind of expansiveness in which the runner feels more integrated with his or her surroundings and the Creator himself.
Listening to the Body
Our bodies have much to tell us if we can only figure out how to listen. In fact, often times God speaks to us through our bodies. Most times, the body is the first to know if we are overcommitted , stressed, uneasy, or joyful and when we need to attend to something that is causing us pain or disease. Elouise Renich Fraser, in her book Confessions of a Beginning Theologian, writes about the significant role that listening to her body has played in her personal and theological journey.
“My body, once ignored and despised, has become an ally in the reorientation of my internal and external life. It lets me know when I’m running away, avoiding yet another of God’s invitations to look into my past and the way it binds me as a theologian. I can’t trust my mind as often as I trust my body. My mind tries to talk me into business as usual, but my body isn’t fooled. Insomnia, intestinal pain and diarrhea let me know there’s work to be done.”Elouise Renich Frasier, Confessions of a Beginning Theologian (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 31.
Paying attention to what we are experiencing in our bodies can open up windows of insight that might otherwise remain closed to us. For instance, the experience of consolation and desolation as it relates to discernment is, in many ways, a bodily experience. The flow of lifegiving energy through our bodies or a sense of life draining away from us is experienced in the body if we are in touch with it. God’s assurance to the people of Israel is that the ability to choose life and follow God was not to be found in some faraway place, but rather in the intimacy and immediacy of paying attention to our bodies. “No, the Word [of God] is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe” (Deuteronomy 30:14, NRSVUEScripture quotations marked (NRSVUE) are taken from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition, copyright © 1989, 2021 The National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.). What we need to know about how to be well and how to choose life is already there for us in our bodily knowing if we will just pay attention.
Paying attention to what gives our bodies and our spirits a sense of life or drains life from us can help us stay connected with God’s guiding presence. When I honor my body by “listening” to tension, discomfort, lightness, or joy and wonder, and ask, Now what is that about? often God speaks into that awareness with truth and insight that proves very helpful over the long haul.
Praying in the Body
While we might think of prayer as an activity that engages us primarily on a soul level, the Scripture tells us plainly that the body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, and a temple, after all, is a place of prayer and worship. Prayer is primarily about deepening our intimacy with God, and intimacy develops as we bring more and more of ourselves into God’s presence—including our bodies.
“To pray with soul and body means,” says Jane Vennard, “praying with all of who we are: our physicality, our emotions, our intuitions, our imaginations, our minds and all of our experiences. Therefore when we pray with body and soul, or love with body and soul, or belong with body and soul, we are believing, responding, surrendering with all of who we are.”Jane Vennard, Praying With Body and Soul (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Press, 1998), 5.
When we pray, our posture and our bodily position can be an important aspect of our communication with God. To settle into a relaxed and comfortable position, letting go, allowing a chair to fully support our bodies, breathing deeply in a way that releases tension, can be a very tangible way of telling God that we are bringing our whole self into his presence—body, mind and spirit. With our bodies we are telling God that we trust him and rest in him and are available to him.
Have you ever been in a worship service and noticed your body’s desire to kneel down? Have you ever felt so humbled in God’s presence that you wanted to lie flat on your face? Have you even longed to curl up and be held by God? Any of these sensations can be your body’s way of telling you how it wants or needs to pray and can serve as a guide for you in your praying.
Kneeling or even lying prostrate on the floor can give physical expression to the posture of our hearts or lead us into a more prayerful, humble stance before God. Praying with our palms up and hands open can be a way of expressing our openness to God and our willingness to receive whatever he wants to give. When words become inadequate to express our joy and praise, we pray with our bodies by lifting our hands or moving or dancing.
Walking meditation is also a powerful way of connecting with God. There are several ways to meditate while walking, but the simplest is to take a slow, “sensing” walk in which the express purpose is to be with God and consciously commune with him through the physical senses. I remember the first time I took a hike in the woods for the express purpose of paying attention to manifestations of God through nature. The warmth of the sun felt like God’s presence warming me. I noticed a whole world of bugs, plants, rocks, trees, streams, and animals that were blissfully unaware of the things that seemed so big in my life, and all of a sudden many things that had seemed all-important shrank to a more appropriate size in my heart. As I sat on a tree trunk that had fallen across a stream, I prayed and felt myself rejuvenated by the beauty and the silence. As I walked, I came upon a puddle in a dried tire rut that was teeming with hundreds of tadpoles, and it reminded me that life can spring up anywhere, even in the dry and rutted places of my own life. I paid attention to how good it felt to be in my body, climbed a hill until my heart beat fast, got sweaty and lay down exhausted when I got back—full of a sense of the immensity and yet the nearness of God.
If that’s not prayer, I don’t know what is!