The body in prayer: my experience of prostrations and the Jesus Prayer

“Do not neglect prostration. It provides an image of humanity’s fall into sin and expresses the confession of our sinfulness. Getting up, on the other hand, signifies repentance and the promise to lead a life of virtue. Let each prostration be accompanied by a noetic  invocation of Christ, so that by falling before the Lord in soul and body you may gain the grace of the God of souls and bodies.”

Theoliptos, Metropolitan of Philadelphia

in The Philokalia, Volume, 4 p. 185 (Palmer, Sherrard and Ware, Faber 1995)

In a recent online article Rowan Williams writes:

So: the regular ritual to begin the day when I’m in the house is a matter of an early rise and a brief walking meditation or sometimes a few slow prostrations, before squatting for 30 or 40 minutes (a low stool to support the thighs and reduce the weight on the lower legs) with the “Jesus Prayer”: repeating (usually silently) the words as I breathe out, leaving a moment between repetitions to notice the beating of the heart, which will slow down steadily over the period.”

I have been practising the Jesus Prayer  (the Prayer) since I first learnt it as a teenager. I have taught it, in sermons, on retreats and quiet days and in prayer accompaniment to many others. Although I have been practising prostrations and walking meditation with the Prayer for many years I haven’t so far taught these, or talked about them much to others. The former Archbishop’s piece has encouraged me to write this little blog about how I use these physical postures and movements in the hope that it will encourage others to explore this side of the use of the Prayer.

“Glorify God in your body.” Is St Paul’s clear exhortation to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 6:19) but, probably like many other pious Christians I am very much a ‘head’ person. As a child when my siblings were playing in the garden I would much rather have my head buried in a book. I have had to work at and enable others to liberate me from this.

It was experience of Catholic charismatic renewal, ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’ and praying in tongues when I was fourteen that freed me to be more physical in my prayer (and in life generally). Although I had read The Way of A Pilgrim in my mid-teens it was as a late teenager that I discovered the prayer more thoroughly from the Anglican monks at Crawley Down (Community of the Servants of the Will of God). My, then, Spiritual Director and Superior of the community, Fr Gregory, had a strong friendship with Archimandrite Sophrony at the orthodox community at Tolleshunt Knights in Essex. At Crawley Down the only prostrations associated with the prayer was a deep bow, touching of the floor and sign of the cross at intervals during the communal recitation of the prayer which replaces Compline.

Communal recitation was itself an innovation at Tolleshunt Knights but one that works well and I have used with many retreat and prayer groups. Single voices, reciting the prayer in turn, 50 or 100 times each,  praying the short doxology after each set of recitations.

prayers-around-the-cross-taizeProstrations, often over a prayer stool, had also been a form of prayer that I had learnt at Taizé which I’d first visited as a seventeen year old. At the Friday prayer around the cross there individuals also place their foreheads on the icon of the cross lying on the ground, a powerful form of prayer.

Retreats with the Buddhist monks at Chithurst Forest Monastery in the south downs and at Amaravati north of London (both in the Thai Forest tradition) also taught me the art of bowing the forehead to the ground.

taize-brotherSometime in my late twenties I began to practice prostrations with the Jesus Prayer. Both types of prostration from the standing position (I have never felt comfortable praying sat in a chair and usually use a Taizé style prayer stool or a Buddhist meditation cushion.) For the basic prostration, with each repetition of the Jesus Prayer, I bow deeply at the waist, making the sign of the cross and touching the floor with my fingers, I do this for each of 50 or 100 recitations of the prayer (using a prayer rope to count) and then pray either the lesser doxology or the Lord’s Prayer dropping to my knees and placing my forehead on the ground.

I find this level of physicality in prayer very helpful especially immediately after getting up in the morning and before praying the morning Office, or in the middle of the day. Sometimes if I am tired it is a helpful way of preparing for Vespers. I rarely use this form of prostration before Compline as I find it overstimulating at a time when I want to relax. If I am sleepless because of an over busy mind it can be a good way to switch off thoughts before a cup of camomile tea and a return to bed.

On occasions, for a change, I use the short Greek form of the Jesus Prayer:

Kyrie Jesu Christe, eleison me.

Other times I seek to remind myself of the faith dimension of the words by speaking aloud an extended meditation/ prayer on the meaning of Lord/Jesus/Christ etc. I think this is important so that the Prayer is always an exercise of faith, trust in Jesus and never perceived as some sort of mantra or invocation.

There is a good piece by Saint Ignaty Brianchaninov here. He describes how:

“The bows warm up the body and somewhat exhaust it, and this condition facilitates attention and compunction.”

Of course, this sort of prayer is only for private use. On retreat or holiday I have occasionally practised prostrations for extended periods of several hours at a time; I find the sense of exercise very helpful. It is also a good practise for outside facing the rising sun in a chilly autumn dawn.

I haven’t said much here about uniting the Prayer with the breathing; I would very much encourage this and find it an essential way of using the prayer and extending the prayer into my daily activities.

There is a very good essay about uniting the Prayer with the breath here.

Walking meditation is another way of using the Prayer physically. Again this was something I learnt from the Forest monks. The best way I find is to alternate prostrations with walking meditation. Find a flat area where you can walk up and down a line for about 20 feet and just walk very slowly along the line and back again. Outside in a private area and focusing the eyes simply on the steps ahead. I find it is best not to be too artificial about the pace of walking; just as slow as is possible without being theatrical. I have never been able to combine the rhythm of walking with the breathing although I am told that some people do this; I breathe in the first part of the prayer and breathe out the second part and let the walking look after itself. I find it easier to combine the breathing with the prayer when praying silently in my head but sometimes, and usually with the prostrations, pray the prayer aloud, again only in private.

6a00d8345192a569e201b8d106ae7c970c-800wiThe Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh who met Thomas Merton, practises a much freer form of Walking Meditation that is much more just mindful walking. I sometimes use this with a mindful verse that he suggests:

With every step / a flower blooms.

There are plenty of YouTube films of Thich Naht Hanh teaching this kind of prayer:

I have used this form of group walking meditation, silent walking, with retreat groups, it has a strong bonding quality for a group and can be a good break from sitting and listening in a retreat centre!

You tube clips of prostrations in the Christian tradition

Bowing to the ground with the forehead is normally referred to as the Great Prostration and touching the ground with the fingers while bowing at the waist a Small Prostration. They can be seen in this Orthodox YouTube clip. Further information is available in part 2 of this film.

There is a very helpful page about the use of the Jesus Prayer on the St Vladimir’s seminary website here.

I thoroughly recommend using physical posture with the Jesus Prayer and exploring posture in all our prayer (bowing at the doxology at the end of the psalms in the Office, for example) but there is no ‘right’ way to pray. As St Teresa of Avila wrote,

st-teresa-of-avila-icon-425“mental prayer is none other … than an association of friendship, frequently practised on an intimate basis, with the one we know loves us.”

(The Book of Life 8:4, tr. Peter Tyler)

The important thing with prayer, as Dom John Chapman wrote, is that we pray as we can, not as we can’t (Spiritual Letters 109).

There is a lovely sentence in Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle (1.28):

“It is very important for any soul that prays, whether little or much, that it doesn’t tighten up or squeeze itself into a corner” (tr Peter Tyler).

Posture helps me to pray because it loosens me up; it frees me from my head space and allows me to descend to the heart. It works for me because I am a naturally fidgety person. Other things will work for other people.

Prayer is friendship with God, just as we each find our own ways of friendship we all need to experiment and try things out to find our way of being friends with God. Posture is a form of touch, a making physical our prayer, our friendship. Just as touch is important in friendship, so it can be important in prayer.

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