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How to Pray - Why to Engage Your Whole Self in Catholic Prayer
Why the Body is Important (Hint: It's Because YOU Are Important)
Catholic prayer means seeking unity with God. While it is primarily the raising of our hearts and minds to God, it really involves the whole person. Human beings are an inseparable unity of body and spirit. It is wrong to dismiss the body as if it isn’t important. In fact, God created human nature so that every spiritual act - from knowing truth to loving - has to engage the body in some way.
That’s why Jesus instituted the sacraments. Sacraments are physical signs of a spiritual reality. But they are signs that actually effect what they symbolize. As in human nature, the physical and the spiritual aspects of a sacrament are inseparable. The physical aspects are not merely symbolic of a more important spiritual reality. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit actually work through the physical signs to touch our lives with grace.
Here are three reasons our bodies should be engaged in prayer.
1. Our bodies receive God’s goodness.
In the beginning, Our Heavenly Father created the world to express his love for us in ways that our human nature can receive. The Father gave us the five senses to know of His goodness in Creation. This includes the peace and wonder we find in nature, the pleasure we take in food and drink, the ability to experience pleasure, the unity and affirmation we experience in loving relationships, and countless other experiences of goodness. Jesus gave us the Sacraments so we have a way to receive the goodness of his grace in the same way - engaging our bodies and our spirits in his love.
Using Your Body In Prayer
Saint Dominic's Way of Prayer is not well known today, but his meaningful prayer postures are a beautiful way to incorporate movement into your prayer.
2. Our bodies express our spirit.
While this expression is not perfect in this fallen world, in Heaven it will be. But it is still true for us now. Our choice to love someone is not complete unless we show that love physically - physical contact, physical communication, and physical acts of service. The same is true of our love for God. As Saint James tells us (James 2:14-26), faith without works to express it is dead and cannot save us. The same is true in prayer. For our prayer to be a true expression of love, it must engage our bodies and our souls.
How We Pray Matters
3. Staying motivated to pray every day can sometimes be difficult.
It’s not because we don’t want to love God. But for some reason our emotions don’t follow our choice. You may even decide that if your “heart’s not in it,” you shouldn’t even pray until you actually feel like it. Wouldn’t it be dishonest to try to pray when you really preferred to be doing something else?
This attitude toward prayer comes from a misunderstanding of emotion. It assumes (as so many in our culture assume) that emotions speak for our “heart” - the true core of who we are. Not true. In fact, our emotions are mostly tied to our bodies. For example, we’ll automatically get excited about a football game because sports are physically stimulating, even for the spectators. But most of us feel bored at Mass or in a lecture because our bodies aren’t stimulated by those activities - even if we know that they are good things to do. But our emotions can be trained to get excited about learning and about intimacy with God. Students in a lecture can stave off the feeling of boredom if they sit up straight, breathe deeply, and lean forward toward the speaker as if they didn’t want to miss a word of the lecture. Likewise, we can engage our emotions in prayer when we consciously use an appropriate prayer posture to engage our bodies in our spiritual practices.
Consider the prayer posture you are currently using. Chances are pretty good, if you’re anything like me, that you’ve gotten a little . . . Lazy in your prayer posture. Or maybe you have just been unaware of your body while you pray. Make a conscious effort to find the posture or postures that make you most attentive to God during prayer.