Aids to Prayer

Prayer should be, and for those truly holy women and women is, a spontaneous communication (even communion) with God – even a continual and continuous process: “Pray without ceasing” [1 Thessalonians 5:17].. . For us less worthy human beings it is not always so spontaneous or so natural. Or even always easy.
monk_praying_among_rocks
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 olfactory stimulation (like incense).
MIDEAST ISRAEL JEWISH SUN BLESSING
Some of the “aids to prayer” had their origins in Jewish tradition: see, for example, Uri Ehrlich “The Nonverbal Language of Prayer: A New Approach to Jewish Liturgy” [Mohr Siebeck, 2004]
nonverbal prayer
The whole person was at prayer, not only in communal or liturgical contexts, but in private prayer as well. None of these aids to prayer should ever be seen as more than that: “aids to prayer”. They are not forms of “magic” to make prayer more efficacious! They are symbolic and psychologically significant actions intended to assist the body, the heart and the mind in preparation for prayer. They assist in focussing attention, and refocussing away from the worldly to the heavenly. We must not become dependent on the “aids”; they must not become “crutches” or “talismans” without which we cannot pray effectively. They are “aids:”, no more, no less.

A series of postings will begin shortly looking at traditional “aids to prayer”, and considering:
hand washing
Washing [if only the hands]
Posture [Standing, Bowing, Kneeling, Prostration, Sitting]
sign of the cross
Hand positions [including the Sign of the Cross]
Facing East
Removing Shoes
Vestments [including head covering]
hand cross
Using a Hand Cross
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Using a Prayer rope
Wearing a Pectoral cross
Icon corner
Icons
menorah
Candles or Lamps
Incense
Agpeya 2
Using a Formula first [The Agbeya, The Jesus Prayer]
Vocal and Non-vocal Prayer
Breathing
Praying in a Special Space
Praying at a Special time

Numbers of recent psychological studies have shown that rituals can be powerful in changing and establishing both emotional, psychological and even physical states. This is not about “magic”! It is about inducing a psychological, emotional and physical state appropriate for the occasion (in this case, prayer).

“Recent research suggests that rituals may be more rational than they appear. Why? Because even simple rituals can be extremely effective. Rituals performed after experiencing losses – from loved ones to lotteries – do alleviate grief, and rituals performed before high-pressure tasks – like singing in public – do in fact reduce anxiety and increase people’s confidence. What’s more, rituals appear to benefit even people who claim not to believe that rituals work….. Despite the absence of a direct causal connection between the ritual and the desired outcome, performing rituals with the intention of producing a certain result appears to be sufficient for that result to come true….”
Francesca Gino and Michael I. Norton “Why Rituals Work”, “Scientific American”, May 14, 2013

“In recent years, a number of fine books have been published in the popular press which explore the relationship between prayer and the body, and which advocate, in different ways, the worthiness–sometimes even the primacy–of the body as a place of revelation about and communion with the Divine. For anyone who has struggled with an ambivalent relationship to the body (and who hasn’t?); for anyone who has pondered our ambiguous Christian heritage, which on the one hand proclaims the goodness of God’s creation and the resurrection of the body, but on the other hand has too often promoted a disembodied, even body-hating notion of holiness; for anyone who has wondered how to listen to one’s body in prayer and how to find God in and through our bodily selves; books such as Flora Slosson Wuellner’s “Prayer and Our Bodies”, Nancy Roth’s “The Breath of God and A New Christian Yoga”, Tilden Edwards’s newly reissued “Living in the Presence”, and Martin
Smith’s “The Word is Very Near You” (with its marvelous section on “The Body at Prayer”) are valuable resources, indeed.
embodied prayer
Celeste Snowber Schroeder’s “Embodied Prayer: Harmonizing Body and Soul” [Liguori, Missouri: Triumph Books (An Imprint of Liguori Publications), 1995] is a worthy contribution to this burgeoning literature, exploring in simple and straightforward language the ways in which we can enlarge the capacity of our bodies to become a sacred space for prayer. The book draws on the author’s experience as a liturgical dancer and educator who, according to the book’s end-notes, frequently leads workshops for various churches and conferences in the areas of embodied prayer, dance, and spirituality and the arts. A work of frank and impassioned advocacy, the book invites us to learn to listen to our bodies, rather than simply (as many of us were taught) either to ignore or to control and dominate them. A truly biblical spirituality, the author argues, is one which encompasses the body as well as the mind and the spirit, one which invites us to heal our estrangement from our bodies and to welcome them as friends, as places of encounter with God.”
Extracted from http://www.holyhunger.com/articles/Review%20-%20Embodied%20Prayer.pdf

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