prayers of the body

Another summer we'd studied parables, but camp's new women's director was an artist and possibly something of an iconoclast, so she'd chosen "embodied prayer" as the theme for her staff's bible studies.

Most of us didn't even come from churches where raising hands was a thing, the "frozen chosen" being somewhat suspicious of emotional displays in worship (and in general). We liked our faith predictable as road maps and infused with intellectual vigor, thankyouverymuch.

And yet here we were, a handful of camp counselors sprawled out on the hillside, creating poses to represent the Lord's Prayer, conveying our spiritual journeys through something resembling liturgical dance, and praying with our bodies.

I was twenty years old. This did not resemble any bible study I'd ever been to (and I'd been to plenty), and I wondered if it might actually be possible to die of embarrassment.


Being nothing of an athlete, something of a school nerd, and everything of a virgin, I wasn't particularly connected to my body. The church culture in which I was raised, with its emphasis on the spirit's willingness and the weakness/(inferiority) of flesh, hadn't exactly led me believe that I was missing out on anything.

But when my friends danced on stage at their culture nights, I suspected that I was, sitting in the audience clapping, while they spun breathlessly, a whirlwind of brightly hued costumes and powerful choreography, their practiced footwork connecting them to each other, a shared history, and a physicality that was beautiful and good.

At the after parties, I learned to salsa, fumbling at first and slowly learning to keep pace. When the beat blared, in the low light, surrounded by friends, even an inelegant white girl might begin to feel confident in her own skin.


There was a tongue-talking church I visited once, with mime and prophesy, the whole nine yards. The congregation was as kind as a can be, and a young family even treated me to brunch afterward, but one of their nearly three hour services was enough.

But they jointly sponsored all-campus worship events (of a noticeably freer nature than the ministry meetings to which I was accustomed), and I loved their warm and unencumbered faith expression, so I went, every month. And I rarely had to go alone, like I often did to my own weekly fellowship.

There was something magnetic about the way they worshiped with their whole selves, and it drew us all in together, including my friends of flickering faith in Jesus and sold-out faith in dance.

We raised our hands and felt the Spirit move from the tips of our fingers to the swing of our hips.


That bible study on the hill was before its time, or at least, before my own. A few years later, I would join one of those ancient-future emerging churches and devour a book called Prayer of Heart and Body for a yoga course on meditation, but that summer embodied prayer still seemed silly, even frivolous.

What good was moving our bodies when we could pack our heads full of more knowledge?  (I was a platonist and something of a gnostic back then, though I didn't know it at the time.)

But seeds were planted.

I still remember discussing the posture of prayer, and something about that didn't seem quite as out there as the rest. I could see how kneeling was clearly a posture of deference and humility. Maybe there was something to embodying one's worship after all?

Cross-legged on that hill under the hot July sun, resting my hands on my knees, I closed my eyes and opened my palms, offering prayers and myself to a God who seemed almost close enough to touch.

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