On the Role of the Body

To reduce your prayer to the mind alone, with no participation of the body, is just as alienating as to reduce your prayer to what the body can do, with no involvement of the mind. To say that one can pray without the body is just as wrong as to say that one can pray without the mind. If you don’t involve your body, you are never really praying – not in the sense that it affects the ‘quality’ of your prayer, but that it is never YOU who is praying, because YOU are a wonderful unity between body and soul.

Think about it: is a corpse a human being? Or, can a disembodied being (such as an spirit, for instance) be truly human? Christ Himself says: ‘Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.’ (Luke 24:39) If you apply that to prayer, answer these questions: are people in a gym praying? (because they are, after all, doing more physical exercise than most modern ascetics) Similarly, are philosophers the teachers of prayer? (for they are doing more thinking than most modern contemplatives).

I’ve lived the first half of my monastic life in a traditional monastery in Bucovine, and the later half in Western Europe. Very few things differ as much as the attitude towards physical effort (it’s too much to call it ascesis) and its role in one’s life of prayer. Most of us seem to alternate between an exaggerated understanding of the importance of bodily prayer (for that is what these physical ‘exercises’ are meant to be) and the opposite extreme of completely ignoring it. It is usually young people and those who find it still difficult to pray with their hearts and minds who exaggerate bodily prayer. The other ‘team’ is made up of intellectual Christians who believe they have moved beyond these physical exercises and to have dedicated their efforts to a more contemplative type of prayer.

What I’ve learnt so far is that both teams are wrong, because – as usual – the truth is somewhere in the middle. We are human beings; we are neither spirits lacking a body, nor corpses lacking a soul. We are neither walking brains, nor robotic flesh. By definition (God’s definition for us) we are beings made of body and soul; any other ‘composition’ is simply not human. This is basic Christian dogmatics, something I believe we all have in common.

The direct implication of this is that our prayer, too, must necessarily come from our souls AND bodies. If my ‘prayer’ is reduced to my brain, that simply is not prayer; even worse, it isn’t even entirely human, because it does not involve the body. Of course, no matter how much we’d try, to attain a purely spiritual prayer is impossible, because our senses are determined by the physicality of our bodies regardless of our intention (mind you, I’ve said it is impossible to attain it; it is not impossible to receive it as a gift from God, as we see in the lives of all saints). The point is that, when one ignores the body, one prays with only ‘half’ of our humanity.

The other extreme is also possible – I’ve met many good people who exaggerate the role of the body. The result is that their prayer is reduced to a bodily exercise, with very little emotional (I shan’t even mention spiritual) value.  I always wonder how this sort of blindness is possible. A human being without a soul is a corpse, not a human being. As bad as my prayer may be, I’d rather be who I am and stay away from the prayer of a corpse.

I’m neither a spirit, nor a corpse. I am who I am, I am body and soul, a human being as God created me. I pray as who I am, I pray as God’s creation, I pray as a human being: with my soul and my body. Sometimes, one takes over the other, but I should never let go of them. These weeks leading to Easter, I seem to become more bodily and so does my prayer. It helps me a great deal, actually, for these are – for many people, not just me – very dry weeks. My spirit seems to go back to the time before Christ’s Crucifixion and experience something of the desolation and despair of that world. As I await for Christ to die and resurrect for me, all I’m left with is the body He gave me, and I thank God I have bodily prayer to fall back upon.

16 Responses

    • Dear John, I suppose that’s all I can hope for – to remind you (and myself) of things we already know but risk forgetting. A blessed Lent, dear friend.

  • The balance of body and words was something which helped me to really engage when I first become Orthodox, the physical aspects (mostly explained to me by a fellow convert who was more experienced than me) and the fasting helped me find my feet in my new faith and balance the very mental prayer I had learnt before coming home. It has been and still is a steep learning curve to get the balance right, and when we look at the feats of endurance of some of the saints we must remember that this was always with mental prayer as well as the ascesis.

    When we are received by baptism (and I remember it) the Priest does not just say the Prayers but does things as well, the spiting at Satan when we renounce him, the oil, the water is all very physical but acts not only on the body but soul as well. The same happens at the liturgy where we receive what in physical terms is very little but it is supremely powerful and changes reality as we perceive it, or rather we see reality as it is.

    We can see and experience the true unity of physical and mental or spiritual at the high point of each sacrament, what happens at the point of the immersion in baptism is beyond words but there is no difference then between physical and mental it just is, chrismation is similar, you do not see or sense a difference as we do most of the time, it is just you as you are. I have found likewise when at confession no sin is ever body or mind only but both, and at the point of receiving absolution it is me that receives, the words or action alone would not service but only both together. The sacrament of anointing for healing is also very much both body and mind, with both prayers and the anointing have an effect where just prayer dose not have the same effect.

    What happens when the world condenses around the body and blood of Christ at the Eucharist is beyond words, and really there is not way to explain the effect this reality has on us.

    The incarnation after all reminds us that we are body and soul, and it is in both we remember Christ’s suffering and death in a few weeks. We are helpfully reminded of the incarnation through the Annunciation three weeks before the great feast of Pascha.

    • You are right, Phoebe. This unity of flesh and spirit is manifested in all Christian services and rituals, which makes it more difficult to understand why so many of us (myself included) are so ready to ignore the role of the body in our own personal spiritual life.

  • Perhaps if we think of praying with body and SOUL, the discussion will enlarge even more and make even more sense. The intellective power of the soul is only one of three powers of the soul. If I’m praying only mental prayer then I’m not engaging the rest of my soul (the “appetitive” power and the “incensive” power). It’s amazing how God made us! A dualistic model (body vs. mind) provides a good introduction, but it also tends to play into the thought blinders we have in the West, of black/white, good/evil, reward/punishment, citizen/criminal. Even so, at least the “body vs. mind” discussion breaks us out of the grip of the crudest western concepts that favor the intellect and denigrate physical activity.

    • Dear Peter, you are right, of course. I never want to provide more than an introduction in these posts – something simple and practical, something we can all relate to and make use of in our lives. To talk about the distinctions some of the Fathers see in the soul is way too complicated and advanced for me, especially since not all of the Fathers refer to them, and even those who do have various ways to understand these distinctions. The most useful things for me are the simple things – I am a great believer in the ‘back to the basics’ motto of the old monastics I’ve met in Moldavia. Small and simple things, practical things, things I’ve learnt and checked from my own experience – that is all I want to remind you (and myself) of in these posts.

  • I have come to realize, in my study and shared life with Orthodox folks, that the matter at hand is rather complex. Not only the subject but also how we engage in the discussion of it. For, in truth, our experience and our articulation of it can never be separated or confused.

    For one thing, the vocabulary – soul, mind, heart, spirit – is not consistent among authors both ancient and contemporary. What is more, the “dualistic” and “vs.” and “balance” attitudes are not just a Western problem. It is present in the East as well. It is a problem all of us sinners have no matter where we spiritually locate ourselves. So, I am brought back to trust. Do I trust that if I invest the whole of me with perseverance and trust in the Holy Spirit’s transformative mercy and grace, that I will be saved? Do I need to understand the physics of electricity before switch on the light so I don’t stumble and fall? The human – me and you – are mysterious. Who can understand the human person and his/her operation?
    I am a simple believer and your words nourish and nurture me. They encourage me to lean into wholeness with regard my “body and soul”. I favor the terms “union” and “synergy” and “integration” when it comes to both my relationship with God AND the relationship of the facets of my own being.

    So, to be sure, there seems to be a “middle way” or “third option” with regard to body and soul. Simply put, I will live a whole life, in Christ.

    AND there seems to be a “middle way” or “third option” with regard to the very discussion of the relationship between body and soul. Simply put, let faith seek understanding but not at the expense of the elegant simplicity of authentic experience that cannot sufficiently be articulated.

    • I agree, dear Lazarus. In many ways, that is what I was trying to express in my answer to Peter (see above). I’d rather have a basic and practical understanding of things, then simply go ahead and DO these simple and practical things, in the hope and trust that experience itself will teach me the more subtle ones. That’s why I love the old Egyptian fathers so much – they are so simple, their words of advice are so practical (‘go into your cell and never leave it; your cell will teach you everything about prayer’). My own experience has taught me (through painful lessons) that one of the greatest temptations is to complicate things, to leave the certainty of the basic and simple things and to go chasing complex theoretical concepts with little importance for my own (quite basic) spiritual life. There is use in reading about these complex things, of course; but it’s still the simple ones (pray daily, pray with your mind and your body, confess with simplicity and humility, receive the Divine Gifts as often as possible etc) that build the foundation of our real spiritual lives.

    • May God bless all of us, dear Dumitru. Please pray for me and the monastery, too. We need all your support and all God’s blessing.

  • Praying with the “body and soul” is risky business. Perhaps that is why we erect a false dividing wall of hostility between body and soul. Perhaps that is why we would rather dissect and analyze prayer instead of entering into prayer or “go through the motions” physically without attentiveness.

    Maybe it is a control issue. Entering into the prayer life of Jesus by the Spirit with my body and my soul could mean something might happen over which I might not have control.

    Maybe the invitation to enter into prayer as a whole person is God mercifully “calling my bluff” when I say to Him I want to have a regular and consistent disciple of prayer.

    • I’m sure this is the case with many of us – fear (including fear to lose control of who we are through prayer) can be a dreadful thing. On the other hand, fear can also be wonderful: fear of death, fear of losing one’s only chance to discover one’s true identity, fear to be separated from Christ and so on, all of these types of fear have produced saints from the very beginning. There is no absolute rule which can be applied to everyone.

  • Fr.Serafim, I just watched your video on Monasticism that you posted last year. Forgive me for posting here but I just have to say that the things you talked about touched me in a special way and I feel blessed to have the opportunity to have viewed it. Thank you for what you do. I am not Orthodox, I am Protestant. I would love to be Orthodox but I am married and my wife is very much Baptist and has been her whole life. I, on the other hand, did not grow up in the church so my mind is probably more open to things. I have read and studied the Orthodox faith and have attended Divine Liturgy at a local Greek Orthodox Church. I have experienced a feeling of “home” which I can’t really explain to anyone. I would welcome your prayers and just to let you know, the videos do reach people that might otherwise never hear about you and your work on the monestary. Thanks again and God bless you.

    • God bless you, too, dear Larry. Have patience and grow in faith – you’ll see, the right time will come for everything. Just give yourself to prayer; it will teach you everything you need to know, and it will show you all you need to do. Please pray for me and the monastery.

  • Thank you very much for this wonderful spiritual text father Seraphim. And one part of Saint Patrick’s confession about prayer: But after I reached Ireland I used to pasture the flock each day and I used to pray many times a day. More and more did the love of God, and my fear of him and faith increase, and my spirit was moved so that in a day [I said] from one up to a hundred prayers, and in the night a like number; besides I used to stay out in the forests and on the mountain and I would wake up before daylight to pray in the snow, in icy coldness, in rain, and I used to feel neither ill nor any slothfulness, because, as I now see, the Spirit was burning in me at that time.

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