Prayer Is a Physical Experience That Requires Physical Choices

Sometimes, I prune this blog. I cut away old posts I come across which, upon my later reading, no longer seem to me to be worth sharing. Deletion is the writer’s tool and prerogative. Yet one post I deleted continued to make an impression long after the piece had been removed from this site.

It had to do with prayer. In a conversation with a reader of this blog (a subscriber, no less), that reader brought up a detail from a long-ago post that remained with her still, a detail from a post I had been glad to remove. The detail she mentioned was the fact that I frequently sit cross-cross applesauce on the floor in order to pray.

What an embarrassing disclosure to have made so publicly, I later came to think. What an unnecessarily personal admission, and what vanity to think anyone would care to know this. I do not recall what point the blog post made to which this detail was germane. Whatever the point, I apparently judged later that either the point itself was not worth making or my piece did not make it very well. Either way, no doubt I was helped in coming to this view by the growing feeling that what I had let out about my own habit of prayer was frivolous.

Now, upon reflection that has advanced still farther, I have again changed my view. I have come to see why a detail like this is perhaps not frivolous, and why it made a lasting impression on at least one reader.

We are physical creatures, after all.

And prayer is a physical experience.

The aim of prayer is spiritual communion. Yet the act of praying is physical, requiring physical choices. In order to pray, one first makes decisions about the physical body’s participation and disposition. Are hands folded? Is the head bowed? Are eyes closed or are they open and gazing? Is the voice silent or lifted?

Even the decision to change nothing about the physical state, on the theory that prayer needs no physical act to be heard, is itself a choice. And it is hard for me to imagine anyone committed to prayer as a pursuit following such a theory. We are physical creatures, and more fully we are beings of body, soul, and spirit. All three enter in if the self is to pray, and the body is arguably the beginning.

To pray, the body relinquishes attention. Stating the matter one final time: We are physical creatures—perhaps despite our hope not to be. The body generally distracts or commands the soul. Our will pays heed to our physical being’s interplay with the physical world. Prayer thus begins with the body bidding the soul to let go. One places the body in a reverent or unusual pose, or in a simple motion, not only so the soul can turn away, but also so the soul is chastened and instructed to turn away. That is, so the soul turns from the body toward the harder work of looking into the expanse that only the spirit can touch.

“The clothes make the man,” we say, and while this is not literally true, it conveys a truth. In a similar sense and to a similar extent, we might also say, “The body makes the prayer.” Therefore, of course we want instruction in this aspect of prayer, or at least an example to think about.

Teach us to pray, says an unnamed disciple in Luke 11:1. He speaks for us all. It is natural to wonder whether we are praying correctly, whether our prayers are accomplishing their effect, whatever the effect ought to be. In this light, I can see how a disclosure about the physical detail of someone else’s prayer might not be frivolous, because it provides a reference point. It offers an inference about the chastening and instruction another soul requires, along with the demeanor and posture another follower finds appropriate for his or her own turn to the expanse.

So, here is a further detail. Here is an update about the disclosure I have now re-disclosed: Lately, I have not been sitting criss-cross applesauce so much.

The photo picks up the spot in my study where that praying generally took place. I would sit on the floor before the table in the background. But that table is gone now. A padded chair has come into the room that fits very well in this corner. As a result, it now feels absurd to me to go to the floor in that spot, because a chair is sitting right there, available and waiting. Accordingly, I quietly sit in the chair now, praying. Through repetition of this habit, the chair is becoming sanctified in my mind to this purpose, and I am exploring whether comfort—the comfort of a nice chair—is any obstacle to my soul being chastened and instructed.

Barriers

[Today, three brief excerpts on the theme of the teachings of Jesus, all from my latest book, You Did Not Choose Me, But I Chose You. Below is the third of the passages and here are the first and second. Here is how to obtain the book.]

What are we to do with the teaching of Jesus? This is another way of asking what are we to do with the Bible, which contains the teaching he said and did along with the teaching he validated. He told us what we are to do with it. We are to keep his teaching. We are to obey.

Consider what we do instead. We enshrine. Apart from the Bible’s personal teaching, we stake out its descriptive details and defend these. We posit that the observations of science can make no claim against the picture these details happened to paint within scriptures conveying this personal teaching to a different people in a different time.

What are we to do with the teaching of Jesus? He told us. We are to obey.

Consider what we do instead. We idolize. We touch the Bible with our hands to swear oaths as though we believe the divine resides in an object. The divine resides in us.

What are we to do with the teaching of Jesus? He told us. We are to explore it, dwell on it, question it—because the knowledge and understanding that come of all this will equip us to obey.

Walls around the Bible will separate us from its contents, including walls made out of reverence.

Finished

[Today, three brief excerpts on the theme of the teachings of Jesus, all from my latest book, You Did Not Choose Me, But I Chose You. Below is the second of the passages and here are the first and third. Here is how to obtain the book.]

John’s gospel describes Jesus at the end of his mortal life saying, “It is finished.” Jesus hung on the cross knowing his heavenly work was being accomplished through his death. He hung on the cross also knowing his earthly mission had been entrusted to those he had chosen. Perhaps only the account by John, the longest surviving of these chosen successors and the one who completed this earthly work, could include Jesus saying these words.

Taken together, in English, the four biblical gospel texts sum to about 65,000 words. Paperback novels are longer than that. John said Jesus did far more than what is included in these brief texts (John 21:25), meaning the apostle was aware how much he had left out.

He wrote what he had been led to write. Apparently, the last living apostle was given not only an inspired recall of what Jesus had told him (John 14:26), but also an inspired understanding of how little needed to be recorded in order for Jesus’ teaching to be conveyed.

Commands

[Today, three brief excerpts on the theme of the teachings of Jesus, all from my latest book, You Did Not Choose Me, But I Chose You. Below is the first of the passages and here are the second and third. Here is how to obtain the book.]

What if there was an anti-gospel in which the commands of the devil were spelled out in quotable verses?

The commands of this anti-gospel might include:

“Watch for infractions against you and nurture hostility toward those who commit them.”

“Evaluate people in terms of status. Undermine those with equal or higher status than you and fight to keep down those whose status is lower.”

“Compare yourself unfavorably to other people. Pine for what they have and hate them for having it.”

“Minimize the specialness of your life. Discard the special opportunities it presents to you and discredit its special calling.”

When we learn that Jesus said, “Obey my commands,” we place the stress on “commands” and we hear this injunction as a burden. We ought to place the stress on “my” and hear this for what it is: a liberation. Before Jesus gave us his way, we were already obeying a set of commands.