body, daily prayer office, health, spiritual disciplines

Frank Answers About Being Present to God and to our Bodily Selves

I was asked to give a Lenten talk to a group of pastors about a pastoral self-care, both spiritual and physical. The following remarks concern developing a discipline of personal prayer and taking care of one’s body. What I recommended to clergy applies to lay people as well. So I put this on my blog for anyone who might find it helpful.

We all need dedicated times to be present to God and to our bodily selves. In both we address our soul, that which makes us uniquely who we are. But our souls are not separate from our bodies. I could just say: you should have a time for personal prayer, maybe first thing in the morning using a good prayer book. I could just say: you should get regular exercise and watch your diet. What I want to discuss is: why we should do these things.

I think clergy are so busy taking care of the spiritual needs of parishioners that they equate doing the work of God with having a relationship with God. But we might not take time to cultivate our own personal relationship with God even though we are doing the work of God. And because we are on the go with our pastoral responsibilities and family responsibilities we don’t take time to care for our own health and physical wellbeing. I’m going to suggest in this blog article that the two can be related.

What all of us, lay people as well as clergy, need to do in our busy lives is to take time to be present to God. That’s really what devotional time is for. When leading or participating in public worship our minds are divided between being present to God and being present to the congregation, and I think God sometimes gets the short end of our mindfulness. That’s why we need to have a time when we are present to God, just as busy marital spouses need times just to be present to each other.

I’ve enjoyed discovering and reading the anonymous late 14th century work entitled, The Cloud of Unknowing. It was not published until the early 20th century, and has appeared in several updated versions that are almost like translations (reading Middle English is not easy). One of those versions was put into contemporary English by the well-known spiritual writer, Evelyn Underhill.

The book counsels a young student to seek God, not through knowledge and the faculties of the mind, but through intense contemplation, motivated by love, and stripped of all thought. This work can be seen as a wider reaction to the scholasticism that was common in the universities of the 12th and 13th centuries. Our anonymous writer says that we can be present to God by putting all thoughts and desires under a “cloud of forgetting”, and thereby piercing God’s cloud of unknowing with a “dart of longing love” from the heart. In other words, forget what you know and open yourself to what can be discovered. This form of contemplation is not directed by the intellect; it is directed by the heart, the seat of love and devotion.

“For [God] can well be loved, but he cannot be thought. By love he can be grasped and held, but by thought, neither grasped nor held. And therefore, though it may be good at times to think specifically of the kindness and excellence of God, and though this may be a light and a part of contemplation, all the same, in the work of contemplation itself, it must be cast down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And you must step above it stoutly but deftly, with a devout and delightful stirring of love, and struggle to pierce that darkness above you; and beat on that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love, and do not give up, whatever happens.” [ The Cloud of Unknowing and other works, Trans, by A. C. Spearing (New York: Penguin Classics, 2001).]

When we sit in our corner chair catching the first light of day and open our daily devotional book or breviary (a prayer book based on the daily prayer services of the church that constitute the liturgy of the hours) and read the appointed psalms and biblical readings and collects with plenty of pauses to meditate on the words in a non-critical way and contemplate, what do they tell us about the God whom we desire to know? Our unknown author suggests that we shed everything we think we know about God and just go where the text leads us. This is not easy, because we think we know a lot or have preconceived ideas that we have picked up along life’s way. And we sometimes read the Bible in a utilitarian way—to mine it for practical advice for life or (for clergy) homiletical nuggets.

As an exercise I suggest turning to one of the psalms or readings assigned for the day in a breviary such as For All the Saints (American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, 1994, 1995) or the Benedictine Daily Prayer: A Short Breviary, ed. Maxwell E. Johnson (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2005) or The Book of Common Prayer (1979, 2007), pp. 37-146. The psalms are especially meaningful prayer texts because they cover the whole range of human emotions and responses to God.

Read the passage slowly, pausing between verses. Pay less attention to the biblical writer’s situation than to the God whom the writer addresses or who speaks through a prophet. How does the God addressed in this passage undo what we think we know about God? Deal especially with the hard passages in which the writer feels judged or cut off from God. How do we understand God’s judgment in the light of Christ? Pay attention to this God. Wrestling with this God will result in spiritual growth.

Take time also to pay attention also to your bodily self. When it comes to the care of the body, I think clergy can be so busy tending to the physical needs of parishioners that they forget to take care of their own bodily needs. We visit the hospitalized and ill, a few of whom may be suffering the medical consequences of their own poor life style choices. This ought to be a clue that we should pay attention to our own behavior. But all of us may get up and out without eating a good breakfast, drive through fast food eateries on our way to work or appointments, and don’t find time to go to the gym, or swim in a pool, or even attend a yoga class.

As we must have a time to be present to God, so we must have a time to be present to our bodily selves. A way to develop an awareness of our body is to do a body scan meditation in which we review our body from head to toe, pausing on each part.

I think the best posture to do this is to lay on the floor with legs spread open like a V, feet falling toward the floor and arms at an angle with the body with palms facing up to rotate the shoulders down to the floor, thus opening the chest. Or stand up with your feet hip distance apart for balance with palms facing forward to rotate the shoulders back. Or sit up straight in a chair with feet firmly planted on the floor and hands resting on your knees with palms facing up to rotate your shoulders back. Or sit on a cushion on the floor with legs crossed and with hands resting on your knees with palms facing upward to rotate the shoulders back.

First take a long deep breath through your nostrils, then breathe it out through your mouth like a big sigh. (My yoga teacher calls this the “falling-out breath”.) Do this several times. Then rest in the natural flow of your breath and allow your whole body to relax and your mind to begin to settle.

The scan works best if you follow the direction of someone leading you through it. But it could be done mentally if you focus on each individual part of the body: crown of the head, eyes, ears, nose, mouth, jaw, neck, shoulders, upper back, middle back, lower back, buttocks, chest, heart, abdomen, lungs, pelvis, intestines, genitals, right thigh, right knee, right calves, right ankle, right foot, right toes, left thighs, left knee, left calves, left ankle, left toes. Don’t skip any part of your body. What sensations do you experience at each part? Do you feel any tingling?  Any heat, electricity, pressure, openness? Notice what arises and move on.

 As you scan through your body go slow enough so you can ask yourself how you relate to each body part. With kindness, judgment, dismissal, confusion, etc.? Ask yourself what kind of movement some body parts are asking for.

Now expand your attention to include your entire body in a comprehensive way. Have you felt a dance of sensations as you have moved from head to toe? Is there anything in your experience of your body that is solid, unmoving? Is there any center or boundary to the field of sensations? How does the body scanned in this meditation undo what you thought you knew about your body?

Our bodies have been shaped by our life experiences, by the way we use them in our daily work, by diseases we have had, by our habits (for example, slouching over our computer keyboards). As you rest in awareness of your whole body, if particular sensations (e.g. pains, tensions) call to your attention, attend to them but don’t try to manage or manipulate your experience; don’t grasp or push anything away. Simply open your mind to the dance of sensations as they move around your body. Feel your life from the inside out.

What has your contemplation of God in your reading revealed to you about God? What has your body scan meditation revealed to you about your body—about yourself? Where might your sense of the presence of God and your sense of the presence of your body be joined together? Did God in the reading seem distant? Did your body seem distant to you? Was God judgmental toward his people? Were you judgmental about your body? Did your body feel grounded where it touched the floor? Does God’s presence seem grounded in God’s creation? Did you feel pain in some places in your body? Does God express pain over the faithlessness of his people? Whatever you felt or sensed in your body, can you sense the same thing about God, especially the sensation of pain? Can your pain be joined with God’s pain? Can God’s pain be joined with your pain? Is this what it means to be “in Christ,” that our pain and God’s pain are joined in the suffering of Christ?

God has “blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love” (Ephesians 1:3-4).
“So if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17)
“For our sake God made Christ to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him [Christ] we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
“God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19)

God was “in Christ.” We are “in Christ.” Can we come to see that whatever happens to God in Christ happens to us in Christ and that whatever happens to us in our bodies happens in the body of God in Christ? Is that not how feelings of love and devotion arise?

What do we need to do to cultivate our relationship with God? What do we need to do to pay attention to the needs of our body? Where are these two needs joined together? Meditate on these things.

Pastor Frank Senn, STS


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