Praying with Body and Soul

Body and Soul being as thoroughly linked as they are, one may ponder on the constraints that straight-backed benches, pews, or chairs might put on the spiritual life of Quakers.

Sitting straight in a hard chair is a productive position for thinking clear, intellectual thoughts, so who can be surprised if our Sunday morning meditations tend to be cerebral?

The physical postures of prayer at once express and evoke the emotions of one who prays. When we want to access new realms of prayer and spiritual growth, moving the body and its limbs into a new configuration can be the first step toward moving the soul. To expand our spiritual life, we straight-backed Friends might try out other positions for personal prayer at various times during all of the ever-sacred days of the week.

Sitting cross-legged on the floor or on a cushion, as many Buddhists do, can, if we are limber and practiced enough, still the mind as effectively as the straight-backed chair. But again, when the body is upright and the back tight, the rational mind may readily prevail over other prayerful instincts.

Kneeling with head bent over clasped hands, Catholics have long taught us, is a bodily posture that expresses and evokes supplication, a mode rather under-developed among Friends. Ave, Maria! Hear a supplicant child! Imagine or even try it: down on knees, head lowered, eyes closed, hands clasped, words pleading, strength, pride, and ego melting. Do we Friends know how to do this human prayer?

Are we aware of how it expands the heart?

For the expression of heartfelt obeisance, perhaps the Muslims are our best models. Would you be embarrassed to kneel with your forehead on the ground and your rump in the air? If so, is it because you value your own dignity more than your intense and humble fealty to God? How many in your meeting would be willing one day to move aside the chairs and benches, to kneel shoulder to shoulder, forehead to the ground, silently entreating A salaam alainu (God give us peace)? Until we pray for peace with body and soul, how will it ever come?

Watch a mother doubled over in anguish, clutching at her womb and crying out, Oh, God, save my baby! to know how to pray for the world’s children. It is not possible to make this prayer sitting up in a straight-backed chair.

Did you ever want to lie spread-eagle on your back on the floor in a gesture of absolute surrender? Take my life and let it be/ Consecrated, Lord, to Thee. Maybe not so good to do in the middle of meeting for worship, but it would be fine at home.

Where is the joy in worship when we do not dance or sing "a joyful noise unto the Lord"? Conversing with God as you drive alone can reveal to you your own intentions. Chanting a Buddhist mantra as you walk can gather your focus. May I be peaceful, free, and light in body and spirit. Be sure to find opportunities to pray in these ways during the week’s long, lovely days.

And then practice praying as you hope you will be able to do when you are dying. Lying flat and long on your bed, eyes closed, hands crossed over your chest, breathing slowed to almost nothing. You request nothing, cling to nothing, remember nothing, are nothing. Into your hands I commend my spirit. In good times, this prayer brings deep serenity. When the best time comes, it will bring you back to God.

Elizabeth Boardman

Elizabeth Boardman, clerk of San Francisco (Calif.) Meeting, is a peace activist who recently visited Iraq. A grandmother, she develops and runs healthcare programs for frail elders.