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. What has it been like for you to pray with the turtle, snow, goats, and floating leaf? Some find nature prompts reconnecting not just to our bodies but the larger body of creation. Nature can awaken us. Look around. What do you see?
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.”[i]
[i] This from my “Playing Bodies, Praying Bodies” in SSJE’s Cowley Magazine, Winter 2021
As you watch, what do you notice?
How do you feel?
The leaf floats. The water carries it along, moving this way and then that way.
Floating is a form of surrender. We have to let go. When we doubt or thrash, we sink. Letting go, we float. Playfulness is also a surrender, letting go to create, to imagine, to risk trying the new. Where are you in need of surrender? Is there something you are clinging to or grasping tightly today? Ask Jesus to help loosen your grip and let go or at least begin.
What might it be like for you to float like the leaf?
And to then let your body move like the river, as it chooses?
Lord Jesus, help us float.
For more on surrender and floating: https://www.ssje.org/2014/03/09/floating-br-luke-ditewig/
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.[i]
[i] These paragraphs are from my “Playing Bodies, Praying Bodies” in SSJE’s Cowley Magazine, Winter 2021
What do you see?
Where are we?
All new to me!
Let’s see where this goes.
I imagine that’s what these goats thought as they arrived in late May for a few months of munching the meadow at Emery House.
This video is when I went down to say hello that first day and their first time over that wall.
Where are you?
What do you see?
What is perhaps new for you to see or notice here with childlike eyes, with playful perspective?
Take a risk. Go over the wall.
Together, further play with your prayer.
Here is a guided experience in Ignatian Meditation. Listen to the audio. If you like, you may read along with the text.
Feel free to pause and take longer in the silences.
Take some time to reflect and perhaps journal about what you just experienced.
What was it like to imagine yourself in the story?
How did it feel to hear Jesus speaking to you?
How did it feel to speak to Jesus?
Did you sense an invitation?
St. Ignatius encouraged repetition. Whether this experience felt muddled or clear, you might go back and pray with this same passage again later.
As you watch, what do you notice? What do you feel?
Sometimes we move quickly. Sometimes we stop in wonder and gaze at what is before and around us.
Fast or slow, we may have fun such that we want or indeed repeat and do it again!
How is your life like going downhill or slowing turning round?
Tell Jesus and listen for a response.
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.[i] 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 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.[ii] Play and creativity naturally open nonlinear ways to discover and express ourselves in prayer, and to hear God.[iii] 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.[iv]
How did you enjoy playing as a child? In what did you lose track of time or return to again and again?
How has a childlike perspective been part of your prayer or in what you have seen in others?
What might it look like to be playful with your prayer now?
[i] Matthew 18:1-5
[ii] Stuart L. Brown and Christopher C. Vaughan (2009) Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. New York, NY: Avery, p60.
[iii] Christine Valters Paintner and Betsey Beckman (2010) Awakening the Creative Spirit: Bringing the Arts to Spiritual Direction. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse, p23.
[iv] These paragraphs are from my “Playing Bodies, Praying Bodies” in SSJE’s Cowley Magazine, Winter 2021
Kingdom of God within and among you – Robert C. Dykstra (2018) Finding Ourselves Lost: Ministry in the Age of Overwhelm. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, p49-52. All of chapter three, “Unrepressing the Kingdom: Pastoral Theology as Aesthetic Imagination,” informs my teaching. I first read it when published as an article. Dr. Dykstra was one my favorite professors at Princeton Theological Seminary.
Coloring Prayer – www.prayingincolor.com
Hand Dance – www.interplay.org – I am grateful for much fun, wisdom, and caring connection by being part of this community. There are easy opportunities for every body. Both books cited in the Welcome section are by InterPlay co-founders: Cynthia Winton-Henry and Phil Porter. Betsey Beckman, co-author of Christine Valters Paintner, is also an InterPlay leader.
This caught me by surprise. I watched in wonder at on the bank of the Merrimack River at Emery House.
As you watch, what do you notice?
Sometimes we move slowly, steadily, deliberately.
With effort over much distance. Turtles like this go up the bluff to lay their eggs in the field. This was the home stretch of a more difficult journey.
We may move with ease or challenge, with pain and with glee. Sometimes we are spontaneous and sometimes prompted by others.
The same is true of our prayer. How would you describe your prayer today or this season?
What do you see or feel in watching this turtle? How are you similar or different?
Take a few deep breaths.
Thank God for what you see. Notice how you move. Listen for what is restoring and life-giving.
What do you remember? What might you be invited to return to?
How did you feel doing that?
What is it like putting movements with words?
Was there a movement that stood out to you as more inviting? Why might that be?
Was there a movement that was challenging or for which you felt resistance? Why might that be?
Take some time to reflect and journal about this experience.
from the SSJE Rule of Life, Chapter 44:
“Each us of has been given the divine spark of creativity and imagination, and as we grow in our conversion to Christ, so should our gratitude and reverence for these gifts. Fear and inertia quench the spirit. Faith in the Giver of all good gifts will lead us to use the opportunities our life provides for developing our creativity and using our imagination. …
Our stretching towards fullness of life is an act of faith in Christ who is the living Word through whom all things have their being. … We are called to realize his life-giving presence within our own selves and bodies and to share in his ongoing creation.”
How do you realize God’s life-giving presence in your body?
How might praying with movements such as these shapes–a creative and imaginative expression–help you attend to and hear God?
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.[i] In 2015, 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. Try doing one thing at a time. 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.[ii] 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.[iii]
I hope this program helps facilitate your prayer with simple practices. Each section has a short video and questions for meditation, then teaching and suggested practices.
I draw from my personal journey of learning to pray more with my body and from leading retreats at our monastery and for various dioceses and parishes. I enjoy praying outside gazing at trees and water … and in front of a fire. I took the opening meditation videos at Emery House, our rural site in West Newbury, and along the Charles River next to us in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
If you are able and it is helpful to think of entering a time of retreat, you might read this about how to make a retreat at home and then use this program for ways to pray on your retreat: https://www.ssje.org/2019/03/31/retreat-at-home/
Whether for five minutes or for a whole day, whether amid the ordinary or an intentional time of retreat, take some time to be with God. Here are the first invitations: stop, sleep, and savor. Take a couple small steps to slow down and breathe. Be still with a cup of tea, coffee, or hot chocolate. Savor your choice. Gaze at a fireplace or out the window. Notice what your body wants. Slow down to listen, to pay attention to love. This program invites the physicality of grace to embody our prayer.
[i] Cynthia Winton-Henry (2016) Move: What the Body Wants Kelowna, BC: Wood Lake, p157.
[ii] Cynthia Winton-Henry (2009) Dance—The Sacred Art: The Joy of Movement as a Spiritual Practice. Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths, p38.
[iii] These paragraphs are from my “Playing Bodies, Praying Bodies” in SSJE’s Cowley Magazine, Winter 2021.
Join us at the Monastery for any or all
5:30 P.M. Holy Eucharist
Sung service of scripture, prayer, and Communion with organ, incense, and sermons preached by one of the brothers.
6:30 P.M. Supper
Join the brothers for homemade soup, salad, and bread; meals are often taken in silence.
7:15 P.M. Brothers’ Common Room
A salon-style gathering of silence, prayer, and conversation; topics presented by brothers.
8:30 P.M. Compline
Chanted Psalms to close the day; the Church’s lullabies, bidding peace and safety until the morning.
– – –
Student Tuesdays has resumed and will continue weekly.
Location: The Monastery in Cambridge
Saturday 8:30 am to 12:00 noon, May 11, 2024
Led by Br. Lain Wilson
Secular love poem, metaphor for the Church and God, image of Christ’s relationship with the soul. The Song of Songs has been understood and used across the centuries in these and other ways. How can we pray with this evocative expression of love and desire while (and by) respecting and paying homage to its long history in Christian tradition?
Location: The Monastery in Cambridge
Saturday 8:30 am to 12:00 noon, March 16, 2024
Led by Br. David Vryhof
Simply put, mindfulness is the practice of cultivating awareness in day-to-day life. It is a practice that has roots in several religious traditions and that has been proven to be enormously helpful in helping people overcome various forms of suffering (fear, anxiety, depression, etc.) and live lives that are more peaceful, centered and integrated. This workshop will provide an introduction to mindfulness from a Christian perspective and offer practical suggestions for deepening one’s practice.
Location: The Monastery in Cambridge
Saturday 8:30 am to 12:00 noon, February 10, 2024
Led by Br. Curtis Almquist
There are so many tedious, sometimes-delicious reasons not to forgive other people; perhaps this is why Jesus speaks about forgiveness relentlessly. Forgiveness is as challenging as it is liberating, a new lease on life. We will explore biblical and psychological insights about forgiving and being forgiven, “unbinding and setting the captive free.”