The Body in Worship and Prayer

There is a great series of posts about prayer going on at Fr. Ted’s blog. Here is the most recent. In this most recent post Fr. Ted includes a lengthy quote from Origen about how the importance of our bodies in prayer:

“Certainly there are countless attitudes of the body, but that in which we stretch out our hands and lift our eyes to heaven is to be preferred for expressing with the body the dispositions of the soul during prayer. That at least is the way we should act when there are no obstacles. But circumstances may lead us to pray sitting down, for example when we have a pain in the legs; or even in bed because of fever. For the same reason, if for example we are on board ship or if our business does not allow us to withdraw to perform our duty in regard to prayer, it is possible to pray without taking up any particular outward attitude. In regard to kneeling for prayer, this is essential when we are accusing ourselves of our sins before God and entreating him to heal and absolve us. It symbolizes the prostration and humility of which Paul speaks when he writes: “for this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named.” (Ephesians 3:14) That is spiritual kneeling, so called because every creature adores God in the name of Jesus and prostrates itself humbly before him. The Apostle seems to be alluding to this when he says: “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Philippians 2:10).

This quote about attention to our bodies hit on another topic I’ve been thinking about recently. If anyone has ever spent any amount of time in a charismatic church, you know how they love to clap, raise their hands, dance around, fall over, handle snakes, etc. Well, okay, the snake-handling is not so common anymore.

Not since Lord Voldemort returned anyway.

Charismatics understand, at least implicitly, the importance of our body to our praying and worshiping. And I think that is great because a lot of Protestant churches seem to have forgotten that. But, charismatics can also be kind of… funny about it. I don’t mean the questionable stuff like Benny Hinn. I mean that, at least in my experience, most charismatics look down on Catholics and Orthodox as being either “legalistic” or lacking the Spirit because they don’t jump around like charismatics do (and as all Christians should according to those charismatics I knew). Their argument is that if the Spirit is there, then it has to be obvious and we should be really happy and rejoice. It really fits the extroverted personality type. I’m more introverted, I can be overjoyed and simply have a slight smile on my face. But apparently that may not be enough.

Being “slain in the Spirit” is one of the most notable instances of charismatic attention to the body. I never really understood that term, “slain in the Spirit.” The only instance of being slain in the Spirit I see in the Bible was Ananias and Sapphira and they stayed dead.

Be careful what you ask for

Origen points out the importance of attention on the body when we pray and focus on God. Catholics and Orthodox do place at least as much attention to the body as the charismatics do. So if Catholics, Orthodox and charismatics are all so close to each other when it comes to the body, what’s the big deal? Why does crossing yourself, genuflecting, and kneeling come up for criticism (or is simply dismissed) when dancing, falling over, and raising your hands doesn’t? I simply don’t understand this idea. It seems a classic example of doublethink.

Perhaps it is simply that charismatics would claim that Catholic and Orthodox actions are more prescribed during the service, whereas in a charismatic service it’s more “free” for the Spirit to work. But the actions that Catholic and Orthodox perform are not prescribed. At least not wholly. There are moments for everyone to kneel together, but if someone feels like crossing themselves they can do so pretty much whenever they want. And something being “freer” does not make it correct. Saint Paul criticized the chaos of worship in church. He said that a newcomer would walk in, think everyone is drunk or something, and never come back. I have been in some charismatic services that look pretty close to what Saint Paul was criticizing.

The strobe light during worship didn’t help much either

Sadly, the charismatic criticism of Catholic and Orthodox bodily practices during prayer and worship come across as saying “If you don’t do it my way, you’re just wrong.” And I do mean that this is sad because in many ways the practices are really quite close to one another. This could be an area for dialogue and mutual understanding. Kneeling and genuflecting are similar to being “slain in the Spirit” in that both people are “falling” before the holiness and “otherness” of God. Crossing yourself reflects the idea that God is fully present in you (in your mind, in your heart, and in all of you–up, down, side-to-side). Raising your hands in a charismatic service acknowledges a very similar idea.

As Walter Miller said, we are souls. We have bodies. Temporarily. What we do with them during prayer and worship matters. And the things we are doing might not be as different as some people would believe.


~ by crossingthebosporus on July 20, 2012.

6 Responses to “The Body in Worship and Prayer”

  1. Hoorah! Yes, so right. I once attended a Catholic Charismatic service, and that was so close to an Evangelical church I attended when at University that I couldn’t believe they were not the same!

    I once went to an Ethiopian Orthodox Liturgy – the liturgical dancing was so moving – and went back as far as that whole tradition – which is at least 4th century.

    • I’ve really found that the more restrained service of the Mass just fits my introverted personality better. Of course part of that may have to do with some of the worst of charismatic ideas that I encountered with people who claimed that I had to raise my hands, dance, fall over, and speak in tongues or I wasn’t really “open” to the Spirit. It took me a while to get over that kind of spiritual abuse. But now I can look back on it somewhat more favorably, taking the good with the bad, because my time there helped lead me quite directly to Traditional Christianity.

      Although that Ethiopian Orthodox dance sounds like it would be amazing to see.

      • I agree – I’m rather shy and don’t much like the sort of charismatic style – but it has its place, I now see.

        I don’t know if there any examples of liturgical dancing from Ethiopia on Youtube, but it is amazing. We had some Eritreans doind liturgical drumming – a-mazing 🙂

  2. I grew up in a Pentecostal/Charismatic church, and like you, am an introvert. When I was a teenager I got into the whole dancing and hand-raising experience, etc. — but it very quickly became a show, something to do because all the other kids were doing it and I wanted to fit in. For years I was very wary and afraid of shows of emotion in worship. Now, the Catholic liturgy fits me like a glove. Every movement, every gesture is meaningful and has a purpose and expresses true worship. It can be full of emotion when I “feel” it, and even when I’m not “feeling” it, I praise God just by being there and taking part in the liturgy.

    • I passed through the fires of charismatic experience when I was a youth (so to speak). It was a point between the Methodism of my raising and my current Metho-Catholicism that may hopefully one day blossom into full Catholicism. While I felt a lot of resentment about some of the abuses I encountered for a long time, I’m now able to look back on the experience and take the good with the bad (as I think I mentioned to Jess). It was a point on my journey and for getting me to where I am today, it was a valuable and worthwhile point.

      • Yes, that’s a really good point. We can look back now and extract the good stuff which can feed us from the stuff which wasn’t and doesn’t. One of the lovely things about talking with you guys and others is that it shows me how wondrous and various are the ways in which Christians experience and worship God.

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