It’s time to write as honestly and openly as I can about my prayer life as I promised in a recent blog. In the blog I mentioned that I have ideas about how to begin worship in ways that can take people into their bodies, help them ground themselves and connect with their feelings. The ability to become more aware of our bodies, to be grounded and connected with our feelings is for me equally essential when it comes to my personal prayer life. Nurturing interior body awareness has helped me to deepen my confidence that I really am created in the image of God and that God dwells in the core of my being as much as I dwell in the beauty of God’s creation. I hear sermons preached about the importance of these two dimensions, but I rarely if ever hear people sharing from their own experience and prayer life how each of us can achieve such depth. I’m going to try and explain, as best I can, how I go about the task. But first, a preliminary thought about God, and the ideas we may have about God which can inhibit our prayer life.
Our dream of God
If we have been infected with a vision of God in which God’s love is conditional on our performance and good behaviour and the prior requirement that we admit to and confess how wickedly sinful we are (and most of us have been so infected to some degree by Christian teaching and social conditioning) then we are already disadvantaged. I don’t know how I came to the belief that God’s love is unconditional, infinite and intimate, but I did, some thirty-five or more years ago.
My theological formation in my twenties in the diocese of Southwark, in direct contact with people teaching and living ‘South Bank religion’ laid strong, healthy foundations and they were reinforced by the teaching and practice I encountered at Westcott House where I trained for ordination. Prior to these experiences, something in me knew that a judgmental, vengeful god who condemned people to hell either because they were simply human and made mistakes, or, much worse, because they happened to have been born in a country where Christianity had yet to arrive or before Jesus had been born, was not only not worth believing in, but was unhealthy and damaging to my flourishing. In my twentieth year, I knew very well that I did not wish to grovel before God at communion as a ‘miserable sinner’ with a ‘sinful body’.
The way we conceive of God is vitally important to our freedom to flourish and our ability to discover the God of infinite love, presence and creativity who dwells in the core of our being. I was never taught this in my youth and I rarely hear it taught in churches now. The church doesn’t really believe in God’s unconditional love and therefore nor do bishops or clergy or congregations or individual Christians. We are infected with ideas of God that are inimical to our flourishing and to our ability to develop a healthy prayer life.
My theological foundations were laid by Honest to God, which simply confirmed what I already believed (or more accurately, didn’t believe). John Robinson contributed another helpful book: But that I can’t believe! published in 1967. In his introduction, Robinson quoted Sydney Carter’s song Friday Morning. The first recording of the song was held back, accused of blasphemy, but Robinson said that for him “it expresses as nearly as anything the kind of faith through doubt from which I believe most of us have got to be prepared to begin again today.” I don’t hear bishops and others today admitting doubt as a healthy starting point in our relationship with God. Here’s the refrain from Carter’s song:
It’s God they ought to crucify
Instead of you and me,
I said to the carpenter
A-hanging on the tree.
I’d already developed an appreciation of beauty, pleasure and creativity prior to 1963 when Honest to God was published, and this appreciation has been another integral ingredient in my spiritual awareness. The elements in my appreciation of beauty will not be unfamiliar to people of a certain age (and maybe of any age) who have grown up in a similar milieu. Thanks to my parents, from an early age I took pleasure in the beauty of the countryside and the natural world; in buildings and townscapes and churches; the quality of the built environment; in art and sculpture, painting and drawing; in drama and theatre, puppetry and pantomimes (including for a putative gay man, the camp pleasure of pantomimes on ice at the Empire Hall, Earls Court). I was taken to the Old Vic in my early teens to see She Stoops to Conquer because Tommy Steele was cast as Tony Lumpkin. All these pleasures remain with me and continue to be valuable ingredients in the nourishing of my spiritual core. Many of you reading this will share similar spiritual pleasures.
Later, my time at Westcott House laid another essential foundation in my prayer life, another ingredient without which I don’t think it’s possible to develop the kind of deep interiority required if we are to discover how to explore within our bodies the living presence of the holy one. Westcott required me to spend time in silence every day. Mark Santer, the Principal, led a spirituality class for ordinands in the first year, but I don’t remember what, if anything, Mark taught about how to be in silence. Rowan Williams taught about the Fathers and his presence in the House modelled the prayer life and teachings of the mystical tradition. I gave myself to the silence not knowing what to hope for or find there. I gave myself because I was told to and because the three residential staff members (John Armson being the third) were present themselves in silence every morning. My mind wandered. I felt anxiety and I was uncertain about what to expect, but I persevered because it seemed to be important. It has continued to be important ever since. Learning how to be present in stillness and silence is an art that develops over time. What happens in my daily silence has evolved gradually. It’s hard to put into words. As I sit, ‘in the presence’, now, I’m simply ‘there’ or ‘here’, ‘aware’, ‘flowing’, ‘heightened’.
And now I am getting to the heart of this blog, but first I need to introduce the final, key ingredient which helped me develop my practice of the body and prayer. After ten years in counselling and therapy, I followed the example of a priest friend and moved from a gay clergy therapy group to personal therapy in a holistic, integral, body-centred practice at the Chiron Centre in Ealing. Talking therapy is fine, and laid the foundations for the next stage of my development, but I knew I was out of touch with my feelings and emotions. I had feelings, at times powerful feelings of abandonment and despair, but I had no capacity to map my feelings or locate them in my body.
The three founders of the school were gay and German and had trained with Gerda Boyesen. Boyesen had developed a practice she called biodynamic psychotherapy, incorporating the work of Wilhelm Reich and others. The therapy involves massage techniques which seek to release the emotional charge held by the body, dismantling any psychological stress and, using a stethoscope, listening to the peristaltic movements in the stomach, the bowel noises which indicate release of the charge through the digestive system. That may sound as weird to you as it did to me the first time it was described in the training. Now, quite unconsciously, I experience the same movement and release as I move into a deeply centred state when I meditate.
After a year in therapy I decided to train as a therapist myself. Body and Energy was one of the foundational elements of the training and integrated biodynamic massage with talking therapy. The school had a spiritual core to the training, drawing on Eastern spiritual practices.
The therapy and training helped me overcome my habitually defensive stance against opening myself to my feelings and gave me the ability to map my body and locate and describe what was happening inside. The training introduced me to an understanding of the body as an energy system in which our neuroses and physical pains are often the symptoms resulting from unresolved traumas and blocked flows of energy. I was initially as suspicious of the ideas being presented as I was of much Christian teaching which had always struck me as fanciful.
I have integrated wisdom and practice from the Chiron training into my pre-existing Christian faith and teaching and my commitment to silence as the prayer practice which most enriched my presence with the holy. My practice continues to evolve, and that is a basic lesson which the church doesn’t know how to teach – that if we are sufficiently confident, grounded and aware of ourselves, we will intuit when our prayer life and practice is in need of an evolutionary move onwards.
I have found certain Christian contemplative prayer basics to be valuable. They are:
- consistency of place - creating and having a place or space where you can feel enriched and private
- time – praying/meditating/contemplating at a set time each day, a time that suits your own body rhythms
- length – after years of resistance to a timer, I now find a phone app gong timer to be the gentle, helpful reminder of when the time I like to give myself to silence has elapsed
- kindness to self – it’s easy to be self-critical and even to beat oneself up when we discover that our mind and attention have wandered. Be non-judgmental and gentle to yourself, bringing yourself each time back to the present and your interior awareness.
We learn to breathe habitually in a shallow way, not expansively or deeply, but restraining the capacity of our lungs and their capacity to enrich our blood with life-giving, nourishing, energising oxygen. We need to learn to breathe more deeply – we need to train ourselves to breathe, more slowly, and more consciously deeply, taking the breath down below the diaphragm into our bellies. We breathe in a restricted way as a cautionary response to our environment and a fear that we might be too much for other people to handle were we to breathe and live to our full capacity – to be more fully alive and energised.
As I sit in silence, I become present to myself, present at this moment, present in this place, present to the mood of the day, noticing my hitherto habitual mood, centring and grounding myself, rooted in the earth. I become conscious of the way I am breathing, slowing and deepening my breath. I imagine that I am breathing in the life-giving, life enriching energy of God – and in part, that’s physically exactly what is happening. But it helps if I imagine that with each inhalation and exhalation, I am breathing in from God’s rich, creative environment, infinite wisdom, goodness, love, and energy, and to feel the flow of this enriching life down into my core energy centres:
- down below my diaphragm into my belly, the place where food is digested and converted into energy, energy enriched by my breath, flowing and nourishing
- and then, gradually working my way up my body (and this can take the whole of my meditation time), next to my solar plexus and the diaphragm, the centre of courage and potency in my imagination, again fuelling my courage and enriching my capacity to speak boldly and truthfully about God’s presence in creation
- and up again, to my heart, pumping blood and oxygen and life giving energy about my body, aware of the love which flows through my being, love that is mine, innate, the unconditional love of God flowing from my heart through my whole being, and aware that my whole being is immersed in love, the loving energy of God flowing through and enriching the whole of creation. I might picture this as the particles the large hadron collider is searching for, invisible but passing through my body all the time, so that I am effectively immersed in God’s energy
- and up once more to my mind, where wisdom energy abides, taking the energy of each breath into my head, allowing energy to flow and inspire my mind and my wisdom. I might imagine the crown of my head open to the infinite, cosmic energy of the universe, flowing throughout the whole of the cosmos, because the divine, the holy, the glory of God is immersed within every atom and infuses all creation
- the gong usually sounds now. I notice the sound and remain in my space, slowly noticing thoughts and concerns for people. I may hold individuals in my energy awareness as I continue to breathe slowly and deeply.
I’ve mentioned energy a number of times already and in particular in the context of the biodynamic psychotherapy training at the Chiron Centre, but I have yet to describe what I mean by energy as used in this context. I mean that which flows through creation and gives life to the cosmos and to every living being. I mean the breath of God, the energy of love, the energy centre which is every human being, and the ‘psychic’ energy which flows within and around and between us. Our hearts, the core of our being, are energy centres, pumping life-giving oxygen around our bodies and energising our hearts of love.
As I meditate and breathe, and move my attention from one centre to the next, I imagine the energy of life flowing, within me and into me and allow it to flow through my body, through my arms and legs to the tips of my fingers and toes and the crown of my head. I feel it flowing, tingling, goose bumps, life and aliveness, pleasure and excitement, the erotic, sensual and sexual. Energy breaks taboos, especially Christian taboos about sex and the body and intimacy and pleasure. The Christian taboos can suppress energy and, in so doing, of course suppress our physical experience of the life giving, pleasure creating, energising life of God, Creator and Evolutionary.
I mentioned presence when writing about imagination. The experience of ‘presence’ can occur throughout my meditation time. I experience myself being immersed in creation, creation infused with the presence and energy of God, holy, divine, sacred, the fabric of matter alive and radiant with flowing energy. It’s holistic, integral, infusing and enfolding.
Is what I have described a pattern of prayer and contemplation that is mine alone? I doubt it, and yet it seems to be far removed from the traditional Christian teachings about and descriptions of prayer. For me, it exemplifies Jesus’ teaching in John 10.10: “I have come that they may have life, and may have it in all its fullness.”
I have woven my own practice from the many ingredients described above. There are many teachings and practices available today that respond to people who seek to change the dynamic of their life. They may wish to reduce levels of anxiety and stress. They may seek something more profound and possibly spiritual. Whatever path people choose, the same energies, the same body processes, and, if you believe in the supernatural and transcendent, the same God, the same creative energy, the same life force, is at work, whether it be mindfulness or yoga or body work or meditation, Buddhist or Christian, that the person chooses to adopt. For my money, it’s better for them and for the planet that they choose to do something that enhances their self-awareness, self-esteem, deepens their capacity for stillness and silence, and risks opening them to an encounter with the sacred, than risk being deadened by the lack of imagination and institutional prejudice they might meet in many churches.
This is a lengthy blog. Writing about prayer and the body has required many words and much explanation. It may sound complex from my description and it may seem as if my mind is busy, with so much going on. In reality, it’s simple. It simply requires us to give ourselves to be present and open and expect to find present within ourselves the dream of God.