Why “this body”?

This Body: the sensation of prayer” is the title of some writing I am working on. Here’s the concept:

I am interested in God, in starting, encouraging and deepening a relationship with God, and in the life and sense of vocation that follows. I am interested in the practicalities of what facilitates this relationship. My energy for this writing is from two convictions: the crucial value of body-centred prayer; and that people be released into a positive, trusting, life-affirming experience of God and themselves.

In 1999, I went on a 6-day Focusing retreat. Focusing works with the wisdom of the body through ‘listening’ to the sensations of the body, what Focusing calls the felt-sense. This retreat changed the way I pray. A persistent, daily practice of praying with the sensations of this body has confirmed for me that this lends itself to a powerful unfolding of life in God. (See ‘A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO “THIS BODY”’ below.)

My contention is that through kindly attention to the sensations of this body we can connect into a process of ever-deepening immersion into the reality of God at our centre and at the centre of life. I use the couplet ‘this body’ to try to indicate that there is not an I that is in or that has a body, but rather that this body is me and is distinct but not separate from God.

This body is the locus of the divine-human meeting. This is a core message of Jesus’ life. The experience of spirituality and religion is often an intellectual one: people attempt to approach God through their thoughts. Many of the usual places from which we are taught to pray – our thoughts, feelings, imaginations – are like the tip of the iceberg that is this body, in the sea that is God. What is below the waterline gets ignored but is the largest part. God is encountered through our physical sensations, revealing to us everything we need. Our part is simply, tenderly, trustingly to attend.

This may be simple but is not easy, however. We find it difficult to sit, to relax, to feel into and attend to this body, and to believe that this in itself is prayer. In addition, this attention must not avoid what feels painful, repugnant, wrong, sinful, etc. It is a commonplace to say that pain is the body’s way of telling us that something is wrong. My contention is that attention must precede (though, of course, not preclude) medication lest we lose (physical, mental, emotional, psychic, spiritual) pain’s urgent, purposeful message. This is the way of the Cross.

Our culture and many of us within it are withered and wounded by wrong-headed ideas of a critical, punishing God – an examiner whose standards are impossibly high, who is obsessed by principles of morality and perfection, and who forever demands apology. This is no good and I do not believe God cares about these things. Prayer, especially prayer that touches-raw guilt, shame and stigma often associated with the body, is impossible without a good enough sense of God. We must have enough trust in God as one who desires to give us life in all its fullness, who loves beyond all our intransigent stony-heartedness and who will touch tenderly into these wounds. There must also be enough trust in myself – a trust that whatever I think or feel or imagine or sense in this body has value and meaning and wholesome goodness at root. This body will lead us to a deeper trust in both God and self.

There is any amount of writing on prayer and God. What I think is new about this is the insistence on the value of this body’s offer to carry us to God through the right kind of attention to visceral communication. Much is written about posture and about awareness exercises: these will only be touched on briefly. This writing will deal centrally in very practical ways of proceeding beyond and beneath posture and awareness, with story, exercise and teaching on being with what is sensed inside, allowing God to ‘speak’ to, ‘touch’, ‘heal’ and bring us ‘home’.

I have more than 30 years of experience as a spiritual director, retreat conductor, trainer of spiritual directors and as a hospital chaplain. I will draw on this experience and include connections with Ignatian Spirituality (by which I explicitly do not mean imaginative prayer!), discernment as outlined in the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, and with my experiences in proximity with illness and death.