In a previous post I discussed the ethical questions of borrowing spiritual practices from the Hindu and Daoist traditions. Wary of inappropriate cultural appropriation, I have resisted adopting practices outside of a general contemplative Christian framework. However, I realized that Christianity simply does not have the resources for an embodied spirituality that many other traditions such as Yoga and Daoism do. Some may disagree, but this has been my experience. In this post I just want to add a bit more context to the question of embodiment in spiritual practice.
For many years I have been a somewhat consistent practitioner of what has been called contemplative spirituality or Centering Prayer. Fully fleshed out by Trappist monks like Fr. William Meninger, Fr. M. Basil Pennington and Abbot Thomas Keating in the 1970s, the practice modernizes the musings of the medieval author of the Cloud of Unknowing. This form of prayer is Apophatic, in that it attempts to move beyond words, images and ideas about God and into a place of unknowing, or forgetting the world of self, sacrament and matter. Apophatic prayer moves beyond Cataphatic prayer, from creation to creator, from world to heaven. The writer of Cloud states, “During contemplative prayer all created things and their words must be buried beneath the cloud of forgetting.”[i] (The author imagines a Cloud of Unknowing above and a Cloud of Forgetting below the novice meditator.) The practice strives to move the practitioner into the Cloud of Unknowing, the very presence of God’s being, toward a sort of objectless awareness beyond guided meditations, mantras, rote prayers, petitions, visualizations. This is of course a form of (neo) Platonism, moving from body and world to Source and God. And even if the author maintains the goodness of creation, as they do with words, the ultimate experience of God is beyond all words and things.
Centering Prayer is meant to train us in the slow lifelong spelunking to the cave of the heart, to the core of our being where God is actively creating us in each moment. Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk largely responsible for popularizing contemplative spirituality in the 1950s and 60s, in his book Contemplative Prayer wrote: “Monastic prayer begins not so much with ‘considerations’ as with a ‘return to the heart,’ finding one’s deepest center, awakening the profound depths of our being in the presence of God.”[ii] For Merton, contemplative prayer was a practice for achieving the ultimate communion with God, who could be conceived as dwelling at the inmost space of our being, much like the Atman/Brahman (Soul/Source) theology of the Hindu Upanishads. Catholic critics of Centering Prayer however, claim that Centering Prayer is not prayer at all but a form self-hypnosis or even self-worship.[iii]
In recent years, writer Cynthia Bourgeault and Franciscan Father Richard Rohr have become the most visible advocates of Centering Prayer through the Center for Action and Contemplation. They teach the method as a form of prayer and self-discovery.[iv] In recent years, there has been some lovely discussions of the method taking forms not narrowly influenced by the more sedentary Zen sensibilities of the practice. For example, Barbara A. Holmes in her book Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church (2017) surveys the history of contemplative practice in the black church in North America (Mostly the United States) which takes place in spaces that are saturated with the charismatic worship of black churches and the vital spaces of political activism in the wake of Black Lives Matter.
So far I have described spirituality in at least two senses:
Spirituality 1: “The quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things” (Oxford Dictionary). In this sense, spirituality is a dualized concept that sets spirit in opposition to matter. The intuition behind aphorisms like: “We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
Spirituality 2: “An understanding of how life should be lived and an attempt to live that way” (Gottlieb 2012). In this sense, spirituality is a method or practice designed to achieve a religiously-minded goal. Contemplative Prayer it seems is often framed in this way. We engage in the practice to achieve some state of mind or being but also with a hope in some end goal, usually communion with God, enlightenment, Moksha, Nirvana.
However, beyond these two senses of contemplative spirituality, a broader definition is emerging that blurs boundaries between ontological and methodological senses. Many in North America have begun to adopt a more “immanent frame” to borrow Charles Taylor’s phrase from his landmark book A Secular Age. This sense can defined this way:
Spirituality 3: “Spiritual but not Religious”. No longer as concerned with Transcendence, we claim to be spiritual in this sense when we have a vague notion of the world’s sacredness, or when we are in a zone of body-mind synchronization (Flow States or In the Zone). This “New” spirituality is expressed most often in the surge in popularity of the vaguely spiritual athleticized forms of North American Yoga.
It would see that Senses 1 and 2 are compatible, and Senses 2 and 3 are compatible, but Senses 1 and 3 are not compatible. In North America the assumption that one could be spiritual without the trappings of a specific religion is almost an article of faith. We have seen books and seminars on Bodifulness rather than Mindfulness. Art, music, performance, dance, craft, sex, rock climbing, surfing are spoken of as a kind of spiritual practice in Sense 3 above.
Forest Bathing as a therapeutic and spiritual practice has also rocketed into the collective imagination. Zero Waste, Green, Sustainable and Vegan lifestyle-isms have taken not only a moralizing character but a sort of green monastic asceticism. And attending to the dying and death practices has also become an area for discussion both as a form of ecological activism, critique of capitalist professionalization the death industry, and a form of accompaniment-based spirituality.
For me, the exploration of Yoga and Qigong (still very amateur) are motivated by a blending of Senses 2 and 3 of spirituality. Because Centering Prayer tends to have a strong Sense 1 and 2 motivation, engaging the body has been less a part of the conversation in contemplative prayer circles in my experience. We focus on the power of silence and stilling the monkey mind. Of slowing down and not being in movement all the time. Centering Prayer finds God in the center of our being. This is powerful stuff! I think practicing stillness and silence will always be important to my practice. But could an Embodied Contemplative Spirituality help us de-center the Self and thus de-center the presence of God? Not only found in some core Essential Self, but within the wider Ecological Self that is hopelessly entangled, hybrid and open to the more-than-human world. Rather than contrasting Transcendence and Immanence, to speak of Inscendence as the intertwined threads of the tapestry of Being.[v] Not as distinct domains of reality but as folds and contours in the evolving fabric of Cosmos.
Does Embodied Contemplative Prayer resonate? What practices do you engage with that you would consider a form of Embodied Spirituality?
[i] The Cloud of Unknowing (Image Classics) (p. 65). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
[ii] Merton, Thomas (2009). Contemplative Prayer (First paperback ed.). New York: Crown Publishing Group. pp. 5–6. ISBN 978-0-307-58953-8.
“Indeed the Eucharist is itself an act of cosmic love: Yes, cosmic! Because even when it is celebrated on the humble altar of a country church, the Eucharist is always in some way celebrated on the altar of the world. The Eucharist joins heaven and earth; it embraces and penetrates all creation. The world which came forth from God’s hands returns to him in blessed and undivided adoration: in the bread of the Eucharist, creation is projected towards divinization, towards the holy wedding feast, towards unification with the Creator himself.”
–Pope Francis, Laudato Si, #236 (several quotation marks excluded)
People sometimes ask me why I like to attend Mass. So many have grown up under the obligation of going to church and when they reach adulthood breathe a sigh of relief when they are no longer required to go. Like a strange or creepy partner, many of my friends don’t understand what I see in this seemingly archaic and painfully boring rite. The Mass is essentially the exact same words, interchanging seasonal flourishes and lectionary readings. On top of that some priests (all too many it seems) have spiritually checked out and are often clearly coasting on autopilot through the rote prayers and recycled surface level sermons.
But just as a water strider (Gerridae) is able to glide along the surface of a pond due to water’s properties of maintaining surface tension, there is a kind of spiritual surface tension to the Mass. It is pretty easy to stay on the surface, and many Anglicans and Catholics (especially if it appears they are there for someone else) do. In order to sink more deeply into the Eucharist, I find that it is easier to simply relax into the flow of liturgical waters rather than try to extract relevant meaning from the spoken words or sermon by an extra effort of attention.
In fact, I don’t really go for the scripture readings, the singing, the community or the sermons. I go for the Eucharist. I love the Eucharist, as I will try to describe here, because it is an act of practicing God’s presence in something as humble and unassuming as a wafer of bread. This practice of presence helps me to find that presence more readily in myself, other people, mother earth and our vast evolving cosmos.
When talking about the Eucharist in Christian circles, it is common to take one of two views: First, that the Eucharist (sometimes spoken of as Communion) is symbolic of the sacrifice of Jesus, and the common communion of his followers. Second, is the Catholic dogma of the Real Presence, which states that by speaking the words of Jesus in the New Testament during the Last Supper, the celebrating Priest effects a change in the substance (true essence) of the bread and wine whose accidents (appearances) remain the same.
Generally speaking, modernity has attempted to demystify the world; to rid the world of superstition, ghosts and animating spirits. The material world is governed by predictable laws that govern the world, and God has been banished to a sort of cosmic Turner-of-the-Ignition.
After the Protestant reformation, the Eucharist took a more symbolic meaning for many Christians as scientific materialism became mainstream, viewing the Real Presence as a kind of superstitious magical thinking.
Even those who profess a Roman Catholic identity tend to see the Eucharist through a strictly realist metaphysics that straightforwardly affirms that the bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Jesus during the consecration. Interestingly, this has led to a rise in reports of Eucharistic miracles wherein host bread mysteriously transforms into what appears to be sinew and flesh (morbid, I know).
While the doctrine of the Real Presence does affirm that Jesus is really, truly and substantially present in the Eucharist, the accidents do not change in any way that is perceivable by our senses. Thus Eucharistic miracles that affirm a material basis to the theology of the Real Presence appeal to the predominant modernist mind which is hungry for visible proof, substantial evidence and explanation of religious belief that can be used to counter incredulous atheist claims of superstition.
This seems to be an unfortunate foray away from the power of the rite. As I pilgrim’d into the catholic tradition, I struggled with the strongly literal emphasis on the dogma of the Real Presence in the Eucharist. I was trying to wrap my head around the doctrine of Real Presence with a sort of concentration that sought to shift my mental perception of the host. I seemed to be trying to get my mind to accept that the Real Presence was true with my mind rather than perceive it as real with my heart. It was like trying to taste salt with my finger. However, I have found that just as the Mass requires a different kind of attention in order to enjoy, experiencing God’s presence in the Eucharist is more about a practice than a perception.
Many years ago, before I was catholic, I was living in West Jordan, Utah. One day, I walked past a field of wheat that had not yet been converted into single family dwellings. The sun was hitting the short stalks of maturing grain like the teeth of a comb and I stopped to watch as they strummed and swayed. As a Mormon I had participated in the weekly Sacrament Meeting for most of my life, wherein bread and water were reverently passed to the sitting congregation by young men in white shirts and ties. Each week we saw this bare bones ritual as a means of renewing our baptismal covenants. We would take the bread and bow our heads in prayer while the young men finished passing the trays throughout the quiet bare-walled chapel. This was a time for grateful reflection and hopeful prayer.
Standing over the field of wheat, intuiting a sacramental theology of the Real Presence that I would later embrace, I felt that for most of my life, the primary emblems of the sacrament (for Mormons as small torn pieces of bread and water) were eclipsed by my rush to symbolize them. The bread was quickly chewed and swallowed and I moved on to prayer. Forgotten was bread’s iconic participation in the Divine by being an element of creation. By this I mean that the bread is inextricably inter-connectedness with sun, air, water, insects, worms, fungus, bacteria, soil and human labor. By reducing the bread to a symbol that marked an inward spiritual exercise, I was neglecting the ways in which the bread was inviting me into a deeper sense of an expansive cosmic mystery. This is what a more catholic, sacramental approach has done for me in the Eucharist.
As Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh writes beautifully of the Eucharist in his book Living Buddha, Living Christ, “The Eucharistic rite encourages us to be fully aware so that we can touch the body of reality in us. Bread and wine are not symbols. They contain the reality, just as we do.”[i] Nhat Hanh’s theology of Inter-being develops a classical Buddhist doctrine called Dependent Origination. Devoid of a discrete soul, the self emerges in relation with many aspects of Reality. There is no thing called a flower, only an interconnected web of non-flower phenomenon that converge like a wave in a vast ocean and eventually fold back into the cosmic waters from which they emerged. Surely, if creation can be experienced in a morsel of bread, God can be as well.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s Buddhism of differs from a Christian theology of the soul, the True Self that is deeply connected with the Source of Being we call God. However, learning of the doctrine of the Real Presence, Nhat Hanh couldn’t help but connect it to this fundamental property of the Buddhist cosmos.
Thus Buddhists who meditate speak of their spirituality as a practice. This is because they are practicing being fully present to that interconnected, emergent, always changing Reality in every moment. Zen/Chan Buddhists in particular have honed this skill of mindful awareness by doing all sorts of other things as well, from archery to washing the dishes to sweeping floors.
Starting with my experience near the wheat field, continuing through my reading in Buddhism, and my eventual conflicted conversion to Catholicism, I began to see the Eucharist as a practice of the presence of God. The more attuned I was to God’s sacramental presence in the world, the easier it was to perceive the Real Presence in the Eucharist and vice versa.
In the quotation at the beginning of this essay, Pope Francis speaks of the Eucharist as an emblem of Divinization. The Eucharist is not as some place marker for an eventual eschaton but as an icon of a mystery that is always, already at our feet. As Gerard Manley Hopkins writes in a much celebrated poem: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” The Eucharist, hitched as it is to everything else in the cosmos, shows that in Nature “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.”
When I sit attentive to the Real Presence of God in a wafer of bread, it becomes easier to discern that presence everywhere else. Participating in the Eucharist or sitting before the Blessed Sacrament ensconced in a monstrance is an invitation to practice God’s presence is something as humble as a morsel of bread. We then take that attention with us as we consume the body and blood of Christ through our mouths and into bodies and then go forth (the Latin meaning of Mass) into the world as a tabernacle of God’s presence; an invitation as Saint Teresa of Avila wrote to be God’s hands and feet in the world.
Sometimes, I watch as people approach the altar for the Eucharist. They reverently bow and take the Eucharist into their outstretched hand or open mouth from the Priest or server. Often, that same person will, out of habit, continue to genuflect or bow to the tabernacle behind the altar as they return to their seat. This is of course a common act of piety when crossing in front of the altar or tabernacle. However, to my mind it seems to demonstrate that they have not fully internalized the implications of the Real Presence: YOU are now the tabernacle. Live accordingly.