I recently had a chance to spend some time at a monastery on retreat. I was grateful to be able to pray in the monastic choir, chanting and sitting in silence with the monks and others who joined us for prayer. I was not the only person on retreat. There were also some students with us (the monastery, as Ive noted above, also hosts a university) and a collection of folks who just seemed to show up to pray.
I noticed during our prayer that some of us were used to praying with our bodies and others were not you could tell in the variety of ways people made the sign of the cross, did or didnt bow during the Trinitarian formula (In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen), or seemed at ease or rigid as we went through our worship together. When we prayed Lord, open my lips, we made a sign of the cross with our thumbs across our mouths. When we crossed in front of the altar, we bowed deeply. Some of us knelt. There were a variety of ways that posture, actions, and physicality played a role in our prayer together. I noticed that over time (I was there one week); some of those unaccustomed to the use of body and posture became more comfortable in its use. There is something powerful about these actions being made by a community of people who are worshipping their God a type of beauty and humility all woven together.
In our worship in the Episcopal Church, we also use our bodies as we pray. The actions I noted above would be familiar to anyone worshipping at St. Marys. There are some other ways we use our bodies in prayer as well. Genuflecting, kneeling to receive Holy Communion, bowing in respect as the processional cross is carried in, and there are more. The style or way of utilizing these signs, actions and postures is different for many of us after all, we are Episcopalians! – but they are very much rooted in who we are as a community of faith. This springs, no doubt, from our Anglican heritage and earlier than that in Catholicism and ancient Christianity.
Its important for us to reflect on what we are doing and saying with these gestures, lest they become empty or devoid of meaning. Using our bodies in worship can help to root us in the here-and-now. It reminds us that our relationship is not merely a connection with God via our head (intellect) or our heart (emotions, affect, feelings) God is interested in and wants all of us including our bodies and the lives we lead in these bodies. The body is the proper form of the soul St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us, and so how we live and what we do in our bodies speaks to our souls and the totality of who we are.
The next time we cross ourselves, bow in humility, kneel in submission to God, make a cross over our forehead, lips and chest the next time we genuflect or kneel to receive Holy Communion (or stand reverently), lets be aware of and grateful for these bodies weve been given, and the grace to em-body our faith