The Physicality of Prayer

We don’t just have a body, we are embodied. Christianity itself is centered on embodiment, with the incarnation of God into fully human form at its heart. Our bodies are central to who we are and how we experience this life. It makes sense that our physical selves would be part of how we pray.

It’s easy to get the idea that prayer is something we do in our heads, but sometimes what we need most is to get outside of our heads. Often when we place our bodies in an attitude of prayer, our hearts and minds will follow. Physical practices can help in getting out of our own way, in emptying ourselves enough to receive some spiritual nourishment.

There are many ways of cultivating a prayer life that incorporates the body. Singing, walking, dancing, gardening—practices that involve movement, the senses, or the breath can help us feel close to God when we enter prayer through them.

Praying in a different posture can bring about a fresh experience in prayer. The position of our bodies affects how we think and feel. Craig Dykstra, author of Education and Christian Practices said, “You can know things on your knees that you can’t know sitting in a chair.”

Even a simple gesture can make a difference. Praying with hands extended, palms up, offering to God our problems and ourselves, is a physical manifestation of a spiritual attitude. It helps us remember what we want to do. Praying with hands extended, forming an empty cup, ready to receive what God intends for us, is another way to reinforce the spiritual openness we want to bring.

Solitary physical work can be another opening to prayer. Tending the yard, doing laundry, cooking, even filling the gas tank—all can be an opportunity for prayer. We can offer thanks for the strength to do the work, and ask for the ability to work generously. We can use it as a way of noticing the interconnectedness of our lives, praying for those who will benefit from the work we do as well as those whose work has allowed us to accomplish what we’re doing.

And finally, placing ourselves in a different setting can help us step away from the noise of our lives and enter into prayer. We don’t have to go into the woods, or to the beach, or to a quiet chapel to pray, but it can help. We are affected by our surroundings, and so is our prayer life.

What helps you to feel the presence of the divine?

Breathing a Prayer

Part 1 in a series on Breath Prayers

Breath means life, an association so close that breath itself feels sacred. Watching the gentle rise and fall of a loved one’s chest, smelling the sweet breath of a baby, hearing the labored sound of a struggle to breathe—all are deeply felt experiences.

Breath also holds power. It carries the voice, in speech and song, into the world. A wind instrument filled by the breath becomes an extension of the body, magnifying its expression. We move into life by the strength of our breath.

Breath is an intimate mystery, distinctly personal yet not of our doing. Becoming aware of my breath connects me to what is within and what is beyond. In this way, breathing is connected to prayer. Breath also carries the prayers we voice. So it’s only natural that we have many traditions of praying in rhythm with the breath. The flow of air, in and out, is an ever-present stream of life and energy. Watching it, like observing a flowing river, helps focus and soothe the mind.

A breath prayer can be wordless. One possibility is to breathe in health and well-being, and to let go of dis-ease while breathing out. Another way to pray a wordless breath prayer is to focus on breathing in God’s love and care for me, then breathing out that love and care to the people around me and to all of creation. Both inhale and exhale, receiving and giving love, are essential; they complete each other.

These simple, rhythmic prayers are good to take along into the world. Repetition of a brief prayer that touches the heart can change how I see other people, my circumstances, and myself. It offers calmness in the midst of chaos. It offers some comfort when life is difficult. I can practice a breath prayer when walking or washing dishes, while waiting for a traffic light to change or a computer to reboot.

As I practice a breath prayer, it greets me of its own accord when I become quiet, or sometimes when I most need it. A breath prayer is a reminder that God is present. The prayer, and the presence, are available in every moment.

Is there a wordless prayer that you might want to pray with your breath?

You might also be interested in Part 2, Simple Prayers that Fit our Lives or Part 3, Praying the Psalms.

The Spaciousness of Silence

Noise takes up room. Clatter and clamor can make any space feel crowded. Against a sudden onslaught of sound, the body hunches down, closing in to protect itself.

Silence, on the other hand, feels like spaciousness. My body responds to the quiet with an expansion of interior space, where lungs can fill to capacity, drawing a full, deep, calming breath.

A friend accustomed to the crowded city of Hong Kong once told me that sharing small apartments had taught her to create space with silence. Refraining from unnecessary talk or sound helped to ease the stress of tight living quarters.

Why would we refuse the expansiveness that silence offers? With our constant flow of media, we behave like children of the valley, accustomed to narrow views of what lies above and unnerved by the full dome of surrounding sky. In filling our lives with walls of sound, we deny ourselves the chance to experience the exhilarating infinity of creation and the specificity of it that we embody.

Beneath an expanse of stars we experience both our smallness and our place within the infinite universe. In a similar way, when we enter into silence we experience a moment as limitless and ourselves as part of what time cannot measure and space cannot contain.

Silence makes room for the unexpected. It allows us to listen for what we might otherwise miss. Silence is a space in which we can come to see ourselves as belonging, and to know ourselves as loved.

How do you experience silence? Is it stressful or relaxing? What do you notice about your interior life when you find a quiet moment?

In the Beginning is the Breath

The search for meaning begins exactly where we are. If we want to seek connection with ourselves, with others, and with the divine, there’s nowhere else to work from. We don’t have to cross the distance between where we are and where we want to be in order to begin our journey. It starts from here.

It’s easy for me to wander off, feeling overwhelmed at all I don’t know and all I haven’t done. It’s easy to get stuck thinking there must be catching up to do before I can start. But on a good day, I can remember that I already have what’s most essential.

“For I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” and something within me urges me always toward wholeness. I believe it’s a spark of the divine that exists in everyone. My task is to wake up to that life force and pay attention to what’s happening now, without being distracted by what I have or haven’t done in the past or what I might do in the future.

Ok. Sure. But how?

The best way I know to begin being present to what is unfolding in my life, is through the breath. Our breathing is another way we are wonderfully made. Without a thought we bring into our bodies the air that sustains life, and exhale what we do not need to make room for the next breath. Our breath requires no attention, but it is with us every moment. When we are mindful of the breath, it gives us a way to find our balance, clear our minds, and pay attention. When we notice the act of breathing we have the chance to relax body and mind, and become grounded in the present moment.

Even the story of creation in Genesis begins with breath. The Hebrew word ruah, translated as the “spirit” of God moving across the waters at the beginning of creation can also be translated as “wind” or “breath.” Ruah is also the breath of life breathed into humanity by God. Creation begins with ruah; life begins with ruah. It seems fitting that our journey to God would begin with the breath, as well.

Our breath is always available as a starting place, which is good, as starting is something we must do over and over again. No matter how many mornings we wake up, we have to start each day anew. It’s the same with our practice and prayers. Every day we begin again. It helps to have a routine for beginning, and a focus on the breath is elegant in its simplicity. Our breath is where we are. It’s a start.

What helps you to begin again?