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PRAYING WITH OUR BODIES

PRAYING WITH OUR BODIES

After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, ‘Father…’
John 17:1

More than about anything I have ever written or taught, people tell me how much they like learning Palms Down/Palms Up. People take to this ancient and simple way of praying. They like turning Palms Down as a physical gesture of letting to into God’s hands their worries, fears and struggles, then turning Palms Up to receive from God.

An article my wife, Rita, showed recently gave me greater understanding of the appeal of Palms Down/Palms Up. The article was “6 Simple Brain Games That Will Make You Feel Stronger, Happier, and More Resilient,” in Readers Digest, August, 2016. One of the “simple games” the article recommended was called “Palms Up.” The instructions for Palms Up were: “Hands open, turn your palms to face the ceiling, and count to 15. Before you finish you should notice a more open mind-set.”

The article gave me added appreciation for why praying Palms Down/Palms Up is so powerful when it said:

Researchers credit a phenomenon called embodied cognition for this powerful mind-body effect, in which our brains take mental cues from physical gestures. When we offer someone a helping hand, ask for help, or prepare receive something, our palms are upturned; when we reject something or push someone away, our palms face out.” [Emphasis added]

I read how “our brains take mental cues from physical gestures” and thought about the time I dropped to my knees to pray when my father was very ill. We don’t just think and say our prayers but express them with our bodies. Theologian Craig Dykstra observed “…you can know things on your knees that you can’t know sitting down.” (50 Ways to Pray) Because our brains do take mental cues from our physical gestures the Bible records a great variety of physical gestures in praying: (e.g., standing, kneeling, head bowed, head raised toward heaven, bowing forehead to the ground, sitting, lying, leaping, raising arms, sitting, and pounding the chest.)

There is an interesting passage in C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, where senior demon Screwtape is advising his nephew demon Wormwood in effective manipulation and temptation of humans:

At the very least, they can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls. (Screwtape Letters, Letter 4)

Our bodies are an essential part of what it means for us to be human. However, from the earliest days the Church has been dogged by the gnostic heresy that denies the importance of the body. But God created us a body-soul unity, so that Scripture does not hesitate to call our bodies “a temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19). It pleases God for us to present to Him our “bodies as a living sacrifice” which is our “spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1).

The Readers Digest article was spot on! Our brains do take mental cues from our physical gestures. And C. S. Lewis was right! Our bodily positions do affect our prayers. But of course, we already knew that from the Bible! This week, why not explore different bodily positions as you pray! Pray Palms Down/Palms Up. Pray standing up. Pray kneeling. Pray with arms lifted towards heaven, or forehead to the ground, or sitting, or lying, or looking towards heaven as Jesus did in today’s Scripture. Or, if you want to, dance!

Grace and peace,
Tim

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