Sometimes, when looking at the ceiling of the cathedral, I wonder if those slight marks are smudges left by our angel wings. I wonder what soars up there, like an upside-down water fall, as we pray together. I wonder if the tips of our wings brush the stone. I think they do.
One of the poverties of the Anglican tradition of worship is that its emphasis on beauty and form is so heavily prescribed, that the human body is left on the scrapheap of prayer.
Anglican and Episcopal worship is beautiful, when done well, and I was drawn into the church because of that beauty. Evensong and compline are two of my favorite Episcopal traditional forms of worship and it was Choral Evensong that first lured me into regular church attendance. The eyes feast on the furnishings of the church. The ears feast on the music of the church. The eyes and heart bear down on the poetry of the church’s prayers so carefully crafted by poet-theologians. For a moment, hands take bread and lips touch cup, but there is little else for the body to do. Most of our worship is cerebral, asking the body to sit in an uncomfortable pew and wait until the service is over as if the body were some annoying child whose eyes search parents for the permission to laugh and play. No. No laughing. No playing. Sit. Behave. Be still.
But the body is a sensual being. Feet want to feel green grass. Hands want to form clay. Chests want to feel breezes. Arms want to feel the touch of a friend desiring connection. Cheeks want the feeling of the lips of a loved one kissing – entering air-space, an invasion of love and tenderness.
So body is very important. John O’Donahue says that an old farmer in his village in Ireland considers the body to be an angel of the soul and I love to imagine that when I sit for meditation. I love to imagine wings from my back and sometimes their tips touch the ceiling even while I sit on the floor of my bedroom with its 20 foot-high ceiling soaring above my wall of icons like a reverse water-fall . I like to imagine the people I am praying for and think of their wings. Rebecca’s would be pink and sky-blue. Kathryn’s would be teal and yellow. Nina’s would be turquoise and taupe with new flecks of grey.
What would it take for us to use our body for prayer more than we do?
My trick is one I learned from an old Irish shepherd who prayed on grass while the sheep nibbled. It takes place in my breathing and my hands. I sit comfortably cross-legged. As I breathe in a long, deep breath – slowly to the count of three or four or five, I move my hands from hovering out to my side at chest-level, and draw them in to my chest and imagine light being drawn into me. I hold my breath some and then exhale deeply out and move my hands back out to their hovering position, all the while imagining darkness being drawn out of me – illness, painful stories in hear in ministry, terrible things I see and hear done in the name of Jesus by careless, sexually and sensually repressed people, anger, frustration, grief and loss.
I believe that the movement of our body, our breath, and the acknowledgment of the light and dark – are all important in our prayers. I also believe that The Holy Spirit sits behind me with her hands cupping my wrists, helping me to move my arms in and out when I am too sad or tired or sensually constipated to move them. And I believe that she sometimes even exhales for me when my body is tempted not to exhale, not to be open to the new coming breath with its inherent vulnerability.