Any Christian wanting to pray will be tested. Difficulties in prayer often manifest themselves in weaknesses of our bodies that get in the way of our hearts and minds ascending to God. The apostles’ behavior in the Garden of Gethsemane exemplifies this common trial. Jesus had called them to keep watch with him, but three times he found them sleeping. He rebuked them saying, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mt 26:40-41). Does this sound familiar? It certainly does to me, reminding me of all those times I procrastinated on homework, did not get enough sleep at night, and ate too much at dinner before going to the warm chapel to pray before the Eucharistic Lord in Adoration, then quickly falling asleep. And sleepiness is just one way that our bodies can become an obstacle to prayer.
However, often the problem in prayer is not the body but the spirit. For in our fallen state, not only the flesh but the will and the intellect falter. Sometimes we don’t want to pray when we ought, say when going to Sunday Mass or, for religious, attending choral Office. Or we spend the time that we set apart for prayer jealously brooding over the ways others have hurt us. Or we can be so caught up in our own thoughts and anxieties that we forget to raise our minds to God. Finally, in prayer we can fail in myriad ways to meet God in mind and heart through acts of faith, hope, and love.
When we run into these spiritual obstacles to prayer, our bodies become invaluable helpers. We can say to God, “Lord, my spirit is not cooperating right now, so let my body pray instead.” Here we see one benefit of the liturgy — where we worship God through ritual bodily actions. The Dominican Fr. Thomas Philippe comments that in the liturgy “the Church permits the body to have its own part in prayer, thus disposing us for interior worship and, by the same token, allowing our interior worship to irradiate our body.” This is one of the great advantages of praying the Divine Office Dominican-style, which is a kind of spiritual calisthenics. The repeated motions we do many times a day — genuflecting, kneeling, standing, bowing, sitting, standing, bowing, genuflecting — truly train in prayer our bodies and through them, our whole selves.
But the body can help us even in private prayer by preparing us to remain in the presence of God, attentive to his Word and open to his Gift of the Spirit. Three bodily acts work especially well for this. First, we can pray by simply being alone and silent (see Mt. 6:6). We tend to so spiritualize solitude and silence that we forget that they are, firstly, bodily realities. We would do well to seek them often, even in brief moments, as aids to prayer. Second, genuflecting and kneeling are time-tested gestures of our adoration and supplication of God. These postures serve as a physical reminder for us of the majesty of God and as ways for us to humbly submit ourselves to him. Third, gazing calmly or even glancing quickly at a holy image can raise our minds to God. Works of beauty that depict God, the Crucified, the Blessed Mother, or other holy things can engage our bodies without much effort, providing an occasion for us to remember God and to love him. Thus it can be helpful for our prayer to note the churches we pass when driving or walking down the street; or to keep a small crucifix or an image of the Madonna on our desk while we study, glancing at it once in a while; or even to fix our eyes on a stained-glass window or the ceiling of a beautiful church if the preacher loses our attention as he goes on too long.
In these and many other ways, our bodies express our desire to pray. If by God’s grace we habituate our bodies to small acts of physical prayer, they will be great helps for us in those moments when our spirits feel their weakness.
Image: Léon Lhermitte, La prière, église Saint-Bonnet.