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.