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.