By Michelle Francl-Donnay
May my prayer stand as incense before You, my uplifted hands as the evening offering. – Ps. 141:2
Final exams are looming large in my students’ lives these days. Much is at stake. Many of them have returned to the classroom from time spent in the Peace Corps or working in community health care to prepare to apply to medical school. A poor grade in my class will put an end to those plans.
So there is a steady parade through my office, wanting to review the details of computing pH or understand why a molecule behaves as it does. But often the question that brings the pilgrims to my door is broader, and deeper: “How should I study for this class?”
One of the things I tell them is that cognitive research has shown that effective studying is not all in your mind, but that it matters what your body is doing as well. That if you study listening to loud music, you’ll do better on an exam if you listen to loud music while taking it – and of course, the converse.
Contemplative traditions have long known about the intimate relationship between body, mind and soul in prayer. And men and women of faith have struggled with the question, “What should I do when I pray?” It matters.
Screwtape, C.S. Lewis’ sharp-witted devil, advises his nephew to persuade his quarry that “bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget … that whatever their bodies do affects their souls.” I’m not sure that Screwtape is as fictional a character as Lewis would like us to think. All too often I find myself making the sign of the cross to begin grace at dinner – while dashing into the kitchen to grab the napkins the teen-aged table-setter forgot.
Does it matter that I’ve not taken that extra second to sit and collect myself with my family? After all, the words of thanksgiving are being said, certainly God understands that the adolescent boys He created are ravenous.
True, but I wonder if I understand. The right words, even the right thoughts, are perhaps not sufficient. Early Church father Gregory of Nyssa pointed out, “His spaninity is such that it cannot be adequately manifested through verbal signs, no matter how exalted they are.” Am I saying all I could say when I stick to the letters of the prayer and ignore what my body is doing?
Long before C.S. Lewis’ tongue-in-cheek manual on how to fall from grace, both Tertullian and Origen had definitive advice on what posture to take in prayer, echoing the psalmist. Stand, with arms outstretched, eyes uplifted, carrying in the body the very image of the stance that the soul should have in prayer.
There are many postures we can use in prayer. We can sit, stand, kneel, walk, dance, bow, genuflect, lie prostrate. Our hands can be raised, or folded, or held open in our laps. In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola lists many ways to be still in prayer, and recommends none, except that which brings you closer to God. He further advises not being “itchy” in prayer – if you encounter God while kneeling, don’t suddenly decide to stand up.
Christian contemplatives, from the times of the desert fathers on, have counseled bodily stillness in the presence of God. Drawing on these traditions, Augustinian Father Martin Laird, in “Into the Silent Land,” offers clear and excellent advice on still and stable postures for prayer. Be firmly grounded and upright and open. (18th century English poet and mystic George Herbert put it more bluntly, “[pray] not in a huddling or slubbering fashion, or [while] scratching the head.”) It’s hard to imagine a better stance for body or soul.
So I’m on the alert for Screwtape and his ilk, resisting the temptation to pray with anything less than the whole of what God has given me: mind, spirit, soul – and body
I will beg God our Lord for grace that all my intentions, actions, and operations may be directed purely to the praise and service of His spanine Majesty. – St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises.
Michelle Francl-Donnay is a member of Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish in Bryn Mawr. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.