Another weekend at Cuddesdon brings new insights and experiences. Whilst not my first choice, the title of the workshop ‘Embodied Prayer in Orthodox Spirituality’ filled me with a sense of intrigue.
I would class my churchmanship as neither high nor low, but rather open to a smorgasbord of traditions. I therefore, was quite receptive to finding out more about what some might class as the high end of the church where orthodoxy is concerned.
In fact where orthodoxy is concerned the Western church is somewhat of an upstart according to the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch, which claims to use the oldest surviving liturgy in Christianity. However, I digress…
Our main purpose of the day would be to explore contemplative or noetic prayer as well as embodiment prayer – the former both involves silence and stillness (hesychia) and monologistic prayer (i.e. repeating a word or phrase such as the Jesus Prayer) – whilst the latter included prostration and the sign of the cross.
As the latter was more unfamiliar to me I will mention that first. Embodiment prayer, as the name suggests involves using the body in prayer and there are many ways of doing this – whether standing or kneeling or prostrating yourself – all the while offering prayer either using a set form of words or your own words. Some of which postures may seem unfamiliar practices to your average Anglican!
When it comes to making the sign of the cross during worship, it is a gesture that very often gives an immediate clue as to people’s Anglican tradition – that is those of an Anglo-Catholic persuasion. Again, this was something that I was not used to doing either in worship or prayer. Nevertheless, when it was explained using an illustration of an icon based on the baptism of Christ I was able to better appreciate its meaning.
This beautiful icon [which is written not painted] shows the Trinity as a straight line from the heights of heaven to the depths of the waters – we can therefore image our bodies when we are standing upright representing that line. Our heads are warm because of the activity of our brains, from which flows creative energy (the Father), our stomachs are the watery region (the Son submerged at his baptism) and our lungs breathing air in and out (the life giving Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost)
Imagine if you will then, your thumb and first two fingers, held together as a trinitarian symbol, tracing a line from your head to your stomach up to your right shoulder then across to your left and then resting in the middle by your heart – ‘In the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.’ – its symbolism becomes clearer and more affective.
However, it was the practical session on contemplative prayer that was to prove the most rewarding. Noetic prayer, as it is also known, uses a form of silent prayer (hesychia) in which the body is stilled, the ‘chattering mind’ silenced, thus creating a space where you are open to receive God. Of course it’s never that easy to just switch off your thoughts, but it allows an awareness of both intrusions and physical discomforts and lets them be by bringing yourself back to the awareness of the sense of stillness within your whole body. External noises also become absorbed so that they don’t become a distraction. It is into this space that prayer subconsciously occurs.
There is plenty of biblical evidence of being called to stillness in order to hear God’s voice… within many of the Psalms for example – ‘Be still and know that I am God’ (Psalm 46:10) or ‘For God alone my soul waits in silence‘ (Psalm 62:1) – and Jesus takes time to be alone with his Father, no doubt in silence as well… whether in the desert or drawing apart from his followers on occasions.
Of course, I would not, after only a couple of sessions, claim in any way to be an expert, but the technique is basically to find a comfortable place to sit, with both your feet on the ground and to work your way up your body, recognising the sensations in each part as you still yourself, drawing back to your feet, your knees, your hands, etc., should thoughts intrude; all the while becoming aware of your breathing and its natural rhythm……
What was the prayer that formed inside me during this time? Well it actually turned out to be a piece of poetry… from out of the stillness and the silence by which I came into the presence of God
Coming Into the Presence of God
Warmth suffuses the window pane,
As sunshine splashes, in gold and yellow rays
on the cushioned sill;
Sharp shadows are softened and shimmer.
I draw my knees closer
and sink into silent stillness.
The world is on pause.
Invisible neurons continue to fire;
exposed in intermittent patches of tingling energy
through soles of feet and top of scalp.
Pain ebbs and flows,
absorbed in gentle eddies;
while breath synchronises
with the ticking of the mantel clock
and thus fades as if time is motionless…
Even so the heartbeat of the earth
still pulses in sounds it offers;
received in encoded messages,
yet unencrypted to the keen ear.
A solitary bird, unseen, chirrups its joy,
and wood pigeons coo in rhythmic metre,
unfazed by passing traffic’s intrusion.
A creak, a sigh,
the door and I hold our breath;
but the inevitable slam is muted;
fading away, as calmness interrupts
and a sense of presence grows.
Like a glimmer through closed eyelids;
which open as a breeze brushes my skin
Outside, the tender branches of the trees,
laden with buds and burgeoning leaves
ripple and vibrate, echoing the silent force
of life and spirit.
Springtime flowers bend to the earth,
then dip and bob like cheery marionettes;
all proclaiming divine mystery
Recalled back into the room
by gentle chink of plate and cup,
a signal of beckoning refreshment,
and congenial chatter….
Still hold the moment a little longer
to remember another meal
and revelation in broken bread,
gone and yet forever present
The day’s workshops were led by the Reverend Jim Barlow, presently the Assistant Curate at St Peters, Burnham, Buckinghamshire and previously a student at Ripon College, Cuddesdon
*Tamara very kindly gave me permission to use her beautiful artwork in this piece. To find out more about her work please look on her website http://www.tamarapaint.com/