Br. Joseph and I spent this last weekend at St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Philadelphia. They’re an incredibly active and engaged group of folks, so much so that during the announcements at the 9am service, a member of the choir pointed out a shortcoming in my sermon. She said, “Br. Aidan, thank you for that wonderful sermon. But you forgot to mention the power of prayer.” She was absolutely right! I made sure to correct my mistake for the 11.15 sermon, which you can listen to here.
I can often get so caught up in my spiritual, archetypal, metaphorical language that I forget to include the how-to. I can wax poetic all day long about desire and its centrality to the life of faith, but how does one actually get to that desire and allow it to shape one and draw one closer to God?
I have found in my own spiritual life that the key is the body. The body is an instrument upon which the breath of God blows to make its song. We Western Christians have so imbibed the Enlightenment heresy that the body and spirit are two separate entities, the one naturally subservient to the other, that we have terribly impoverished our prayer. The body doesn’t lie. If the life of discipleship is a life lived in closer and closer alignment with the Truth, which is the revelation of God’s abundant life in Jesus Christ, we cannot afford to leave out an essential barometer of truth: the body.
When I pray, whether with scripture or song or while gardening or doing centering prayer, I ground myself first in my bodily experience. In the morning, for instance, when I sit for lectio divina, before I even look at my text, I close my eyes and turn my attention to my breath. I begin to breathe more deeply and consciously, drawing myself into the experience of being in my particular body on that particular morning in that particular space. Simply turning my attention to my breath is already a prayer, connecting me as it does both to the spirit (breath) and the body in which that spirit makes its home.
The body does not lie. When I begin my prayer by grounding myself in my bodily experience, I discover the truth of who and where I am in that moment of my life. If I am tired, I acknowledge my fatigue. If I’m sad, I move my attention to the tightness in my chest or the burning behind my eyes. My mind always seems to be active–or over-active–so I make a point of not attaching to a story about the feelings I am noticing in my body. They may be connected to a memory surfacing or an experience from the previous day, but that’s not so important at the moment. What am I feeling now?
I find that I don’t even have to do anything with the knowledge my body is giving me. I simply breathe into the experience of being in my body. God may move me to a particular place with that knowledge, or I may simply sit with the feeling of being me for a few minutes. My entire prayer may be moving deeper and deeper into the feeling I discovered when I started to breathe. And what a gift, to give myself permission to be who I am in that particular moment with no expectation that I change.
And yet, I always do change. Because to enter fully into the truth of my experience is to move closer to the incarnation of Jesus in my own heart. In that movement, I become more truly who I have always been. Sometimes this process is gentle. Sometimes it is like walking into fire. But as the old hymn says, “the flame shall not hurt thee; I only design / thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.”
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