The Body at Prayer

Prayer, in the Desert Tradition, was not an abstract mental or verbal process. It involved the whole body, and made use of postures and gestures, words and signs, objects (like prayer-ropes and hand-crosses), “visual aids” (like Icons and lamps or candles) and even olfatory stimulation (like incense). The whole person was at prayer, not only in communal or liturgical contexts, but in private prayer as well.

An excellent paper on the body at prayer in the Coptic Orthodox Tradition is by a young Coptic scholar, Bishoy Dawood, who is a Ph.D. candidate in Theology at the University of St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto. His English translation of the Coptic Agpeya (Horologion, Book of Hours) is available at
The following are some extracts from this insightful and very helpgul paper; the whole text can be found at

“Many in the West tend to look at prayer life as a mental thing: we praise, we thank, we confess to, and we confide in God – with words. And yet, some kind of bodily movement always accompanies our prayers. Indeed, a great body of Christian wisdom has long known that while we think or pronounce our prayers, our bodies, too, are at work expressing and shaping our souls. In the Coptic tradition it is the Liturgy of the Hours and the Divine Liturgy that become the occasions of formal psycho-physical prayer. Liturgical postures and gestures involve the whole person, for Christian prayer is not merely a mental activity, but rather one that proclaims and seeks to realize the union of body and soul. It recognizes, through the liturgy, that such unity is how God intended to create and save the human person….
coptic prayer 1
One of the central features of prayer in the Coptic Church, particularly as it developed in monastic circles, is precisely that the body is continuously involved in various actions during prayer. Unceasing prayer has been a feature of Egyptian monasticism from its very beginnings in the fourth century. John Cassian’s Conferences with the monks of Egypt in the late fourth century witness to the importance of unceasing prayer while working. In his interview with Abba Isaac, John Cassian notes one of the many formulas used by the monks: “O God, be pleased to save me: O Lord, make haste to help me” (Psalm 70:1). Abba Isaac explains that the Psalm suits all occasions, whether a person is working, ministering to others, on a journey, going to sleep, eating, or even tending to the necessities of nature. While the ascetic practices and bodily postures of sitting in silence and repeating the Jesus Prayer using prayer ropes or beads (which are found in the hesychastic tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church) never found their way into the Coptic Church, the monks and nuns did recite the Jesus Prayer and the Psalms from memory while they were engaged in manual labor.
Coptic monk praying in original cave of St. Anthony.
Coptic monastics were indeed wary of the hesychastic practices of the Jesus Prayer that developed later in the Eastern churches, and it may seem that such suspicion is somehow a teaching against engaging the body in formalized asceticism – for example, of sitting in silence and using the recommended breathing exercises. Yet the suspicion of hesychastic practice is not, in fact, a suspicion of the use of the body in prayer, but instead simply a rejection of the complicated system of hesychasm. Fr. Matta el-Meskeen, for instance, in his book on Orthodox Prayer Life, comments that hesychasm made the method of unceasing prayer lose its former simplicity.
He claims that the method of unceasing prayer “shifted from its ascetical position as a humbling practice by itself to a mystical position, with programs, stipulations, technical and mechanical bases, degrees, objectives, results…” Instead, he prefers the simplicity of praying while working and in common human duties, which is likewise a practice found in both Eastern and Western Christian monasticism, stating that this allows for God to share in human work, and helps the person to discern God’s calling in regards to work. It is believed that work by itself does not help to save a monk or nun from distractions and temptations, but that the necessity of repeating short prayers along with working helps to keep the mind occupied. Labor mingled with constant prayer, whether short formulas of Psalms or the Jesus Prayer, allows the person to express his love for God continuously. This practice of praying unceasingly while working became one of the accepted forms of prayer in the Coptic Church….
coptic prayer 3
From the very beginning the Copt’s prayer is physical: before he even addresses the Lord, whether in solitude or at church, he removes his footwear. This directly follows from God’s command at the burning bush, telling Moses to remove his sandals because he stood on holy ground. Coptic Christians carried on this Jewish tradition of removing the shoes, signifying the necessity of setting aside the cares of world, and at the same time recognizing the holiness of the locations of prayer. The body then accompanies his words by assuming three main positions: standing, bowing, and prostrating. To Western eyes such movements may recall popular portrayals of prayer in Islam, which always tend to show a group of unshod worshipers prostrating in a mosque. But while Muslim worshippers may appear exotic, prostrating is a common practice shared by all Eastern Christian communities, one that even predates the advent of Islam. How then do these customs function in Coptic worship?
coptic prayer 6
Standing facing the East is the most frequent prayer position. The person praying usually holds his or her hands outwards in the ‘orans‘ position, which is a common Christian position of prayer, frequently portrayed in ancient Christian art, including in Coptic iconography. At other times, hands may be kept down to the sides or held together as a sign of standing in humility before God. Some people choose to hold a cross in their hands as they stand in the orans position; in this case, the sign of the cross traced over the body ends with kissing the cross. Fr. Matta el-Meskeen explains that the kiss is appropriate, as the grace of encountering God in prayer was made possible through the Cross. It symbolizes the thanks offered to Christ crucified. There are some exceptions to standing continuously in prayer, such as for health reasons, but sitting is also permitted during the liturgical readings of the Psalms and the Epistles. However, during the recitation of the Psalms of the Agpeya, the common practice is to remain standing.
coptic prayer 4
The second main position is bowing, of which there are two kinds: a quick bow, and a profound bow. The quick bow involves a sign of the cross and a slight bow of the head when beginning to pray, and when glorifying God in a prayer, such as in the Trisagion and the Doxology. The second kind of bow, the profound bow, is where a person remains bowing for a short period of time to receive a blessing, an absolution from sins by a clergyman, or the blessing from Christ’s presence on the altar during the Divine Liturgy….
coptic prayer 5
The body at prayer also serves as a medium of expressing the Coptic Christian tradition: for corporal acts, one might say, can be theological statements. ‘Reading’ them like this is known as a typological interpretation. In this way the Old Testament’s events and personalities are allegorically interpreted in the light of Christ’s revelation in the New Testament. Thus, a typological interpretation finds bodily movements as particularly rich bearers of Christology. On the other hand, the actions of the body in prayer and this theology affect the praying person’s psyche, as we have seen, for example, in what Fr. Matta relates in his own experience of lectio divina. This view offers what would be called a tropological interpretation, which in turn shows how the body is a medium for theological anthropology.
In terms of the typological interpretation of the body as medium of Christological faith, the worshiper emulates in his standing, bowing, and prostrating the Semitic, Hellenistic, and Roman positioning of the body before rulers. These bodily postures, practiced in front of a secular ruler, were later incorporated liturgically, and as such they were seen as appropriately reverential postures to assume before Christ the Pantocrator (“ruler of all”). This is further emphasized in the fact that Copts pray facing the East, waiting for the return of Jesus in glory; his return as the enthroned Pantocrator is portrayed in the iconography that is placed before the worshippers. In this way, standing, bowing, and prostrating for prayer transform the body into a medium to express the Lordship of Jesus….
Thus, the body at prayer, according to the Coptic Church, is a medium of expressing the whole of Christology, salvation history, the repentance of an individual, and the rising up to a new life, both in the present life and at the eschaton. When we limit our notion of prayer to what we think and what we say or sing, we neglect a great part of what we are: corporeal. But in excluding the body we also miss a symbolically and experientially rich mode of worship, one that in fact safeguards and transmits the content of faith.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: