Stuff sputters in our heads. Like corn kernels popping out, into, over, and beyond the bowl, words, thoughts, and information pop, pop, pop. Emotions roll back and forth, bumping into each other. Sadness sighs and sags. Anger flares up. Fear fidgets, fingering wounds, circling questions, pushing to fight or flee. All the more so now, stuff sputters from pandemic-related grief, trauma, and weariness. We are holding so much. Life is hard, and it can be hard to pray.
Often, we keep the stuff sputtering inside our heads as with a tight mental lid: separating it from the rest of the body. About five years ago, I began practicing InterPlay, a system of facilitated group improv movement and storytelling. It’s a bit like recovery for serious people, helping us relearn how to play and connect with our whole bodies. I have been learning about that tight metal lid and opening it to witness and release what comes out.
Pre-pandemic, guests often arrived at the Monastery looking haggard and worn. We welcomed them with the invitation to slow down. The advice we shared with guests here can apply just as well to what you can do at home, or wherever you find yourself. Rather than multi-tasking, try doing one thing at a time. Remember who you are as a human being by doing nothing. Savor food and drink. Pay attention to what catches your attention. Don’t just look. Stop to linger and gaze. I always give guests permission to sleep, encouraging them to indulge in this retreat trinity: go to bed early, sleep in, and take a nap. Take the rest your body wants, not how you force it to behave.
God created us in bodies. God lived among us, fully human. God still comes in and through our humanity, especially in our bodies. As you would on retreat, remember and honor the physicality of grace in your daily life. Stopping, sleeping well, savoring, and gazing help restore the freedom and felt-sense of unmerited favor. Satiated, well-rested, and still, we are better prepared and open to hear what God is saying.
After slowing down, many still struggle with how to pray. What shall we say about our pain? How might we hear God speaking to us? Jesus blessed children, and told adults to be more like them (Matthew 18:1-5). What might children teach us about how to lift the lid and pray our sputtering lives?
Play. Imagine. Improvise. Make it up. Risk doing something you haven’t done in ages or ever. Let yourself have fun. Play is fun such that you want to keep going and lose track of time. Move. As InterPlay teaches, fling your fingers as if throwing paint on the walls. Scrunch up your face. Open your face wide and stick out your tongue. Shake your body, first gently and then like a wet dog. Droop and let yourself hang. Color something, anything – whether it’s abstract, in a book, or simply doodling the names of people or concerns on your heart. Get down on your knees or up close to what catches your attention.
Play is not an activity but a state of mind core to our biology. Play and creativity naturally open nonlinear ways to discover and express ourselves in prayer, and to hear God. It is not all nice and positive. Play helps express pain and sputtering emotions, without having to speak. Praying with playful movement and other arts is something anybody can do. This is healing for the weary, worn, and grieving.
I have been going outside far more this past year, and whenever I can, I do so in the woods. Often, I’m jogging, but even then, I try to pay attention. I stop to gaze and raise my hands up like trees to the sky. One day I spotted something, stopped, and crouched down. To my delight, I saw I toad … breathing. Something happened inside of me. I remembered my own breath, wondered at my own life, gave thanks for this toad body, my body, for breath and beauty.
Seeing and being in nature somehow connects us further with our own bodies and with God. When teaching Embodied Prayer online this fall, I included short videos of animals from Emery House, and participants loved them. One commented that the animals prompted her reconnecting not just to her body but to the larger body of creation. She was more aware of herself as well as the great tree in her yard, and they enjoyed a hug. Nature can awaken us.
Gazing up, I felt the cold, icy field under my back. I saw the cloud-covered, fog-draped sky with deepening darkness. I was awake, alert from a walk in the woods. Invited to receive, I laid down, surrendered to the earth and sky. I felt calm, present, open, and energized. I smiled as the mist kissed my face with sprinkles. The fog and fading light enfolded me.
Grace is a calm, released rest, like evening dew on the field or floating in water. Like electricity, it is my heart pounding and my heavy breathing when snow shoeing. It is energized alertness amid the ordinary after exercise. When my hand, elbow, or toe moves unrestrained in a dance, grace is in its free movement. How is grace expressed in your body? When do you feel most fully alive, whether calm or energetic? How do you welcome more of it?
Gathered for worship, some bow, kneel, or make the sign of the cross. What other movements express your feelings and beliefs, your prayer? Especially when you’re alone, what might embody your anger, joy, sadness, trust, anxiety, desire, longing, or thanksgiving? Play with it. Try it out. Your audience of One loves, invites, and is waiting to see you.
Put a shape to your words, to embody the intention. We believe Jesus loves us. We say Jesus loves us. But it’s often hard to feel that love. Try wrapping yourself in a hug. Stay there. Feel the warmth of your hands holding yourself. In this shape, say “Jesus loves me.” How does that feel?
What next? Perhaps stay in this shape, rest here, like a child taking it in, needing more than a three-second hug. Perhaps gently rock back and forth. Perhaps caress and rub your shoulders and head. Our bodies contain wisdom and communicate. Are we listening? A parent rocks a child to sleep. A child sways to calm herself.
Instead of putting a shape to words, another way is to let your body move first and then notice what is being communicated. When making a snow angel one evening, a person came to mind as I lay in the snow. Feeling held, I sensed God upholding my friend. Impromptu, with increasing playful glee, I made about ten more snow angels, each a loving prayer for a different person.
St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, taught playful prayer, particularly by using God’s gift of our imagination. Children can remind us how. They usually see many possibilities in a box – house, stable, spaceship, boat – and play out storylines within it. Read a scripture story and imagine being in it. Imagine all the senses: what the boat looked like, what people were wearing, the smell and taste of the salt spray, feeling waves violently rock the boat and finding Jesus asleep in the storm. Speak to Jesus about the experience and listen for Jesus’ response. Praying with movement is a kinesthetic imagination.
What is sputtering and popping in your head? With childlike playfulness and trust, lift the lid with some shakes, deep breaths, thrusting at the air, swinging round, and being still in whatever shapes your body takes. Especially in times of such grief, distance, and weariness, attend to the gift of and wisdom within our bodies. Sleep, savor, and gaze. God gives grace including physically. Play with your prayer. Move for an audience of One, praying your life. Reach up to the clouds, and kneel down to breathe with a toad. Intercede with snow angels. Wrap yourself in a hug, and hear Jesus saying: “I love you.”