LOVE DEMANDS OUR WHOLE SELVES
Humans are a composite of body, mind, and emotions, all of which together may be called a soul. This soul has only one means of communication with the world outside its own skin: the senses. We need all of them for worship.
At Union Church, we don’t believe that the life of faith happens only, or even mainly, in the head. We don’t like a so-called worship service that consists solely of a talking head and rows of passive listeners. People learn in different ways, but the ones who learn mostly by hearing are in the minority, so we believe love demands that churches provide lots of different types of experiences to draw the whole soul, the whole self, into closer union with the Divine Spirit.
When we are meeting in person, we often have stations for Embodied Prayer in the corners of the sanctuary, where those who wish may go, especially during the Prayers segment of the service, to engage their whole selves in prayer.
- We use our feet to get up and go to these spaces.
- We may kneel, stand, or sit in the prayer corner.
- We may light candles or write things down.
- There are always things to see, hear, touch, and smell, and when possible, taste is also involved.
This page of our website has a dual purpose: to offer embodied prayer activities while we are meeting virtually, and to maintain a list that you can visit and use as and when you choose, at all times. Most of these activities are simple ones anyone may do, anywhere. When noted, a few require a little more in the way of supplies or planning, and there are a few that are larger, more complex activities, perhaps with permanent spaces you may find or create.
EMBODIED PRAYER ACTIVITIES
A. Sacred spaces: We humans are animals, and we come from the earth. You may be surprised how different prayer, reflection, and worship can become if you do it outside. You may be in a private or solitary place, or you may be jogging with people all around. Tune your mind, heart, and body to your surroundings, and watch to see what rises in you. Spend a few minutes just breathing deeply and quietly. Wait and see what rises in your soul. If thoughts that you set aside keep coming back, ask them questions. What is important, that is tugging at you in this thought or feeling? Is there a way you can welcome, engage, or dialogue with it? Does a certain person or feeling or memory come to mind?
With more time and thought: You might enjoy making your worship spot, whether indoors or outdoors, even more special. You could decorate it in a creative and personal way, or place candles, flowers, stones, or other items which have meaning for you in this space. A cushion to sit or kneel on, a small rug, or a certain chair or table, tree or plant can delineate this space. You can also change it to suit seasons of the year, or the liturgical seasons of the church calendar. Learn by embodied experience whether this deepens and enriches your spiritual life. If you have special items, what happens when you touch or hold them? Does the scent of a flower or candle, or the act of lighting the fire, or any other action engage your soul? What happens if you change your position or pray while jogging or dancing?
B. Sacred time: With or without a special place or special items, you could designate a certain time as your time for prayer and reflection. You may use our prayer resources [link to prayer of the week] to trigger your thoughts, feelings, and questions, if you wish. You could imagine God or the Divine, in any form that has meaning for you, sitting or walking with you, talking back—two-way communication, between friends.
C. Lectio Divina: This is an ancient practice that just means “divine reading.” There are all kinds of formal instructions if you want to look them up, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. Find a passage in the Bible or another spiritual book that you are interested in engaging with more deeply than just reading and responding with your intellect. You may like to go to your sacred space, if any. It is also interesting (and more embodied) to change your position at each of the following four steps. And of course, it is entirely up to you and your soul which, if any, of these steps you follow, in what order, and for how long.
1-Read the passage through once, listening with the ear of your heart. Does a particular word or phrase stand out or grab your attention? Spend some time engaging with this word or phrase. 2-Read a second time, looking for what God might be asking or saying to you through this passage. 3-Read a third time and see what response rises in you—what do you want to say back to God? 4-Read a fourth time and ponder what action God might be asking of you in this passage. Then just rest in the Presence. Just be. Be there. Be you.
D. Write: This can be as simple as writing prayer requests on a piece of paper, or writing things you wish to give up or let go of. You can burn these papers if you like, representing prayers rising to God in the smoke, or the transformation of negative things you are trying to release. You can write letters to yourself or to another, which you may or may not send, or you could destroy those, too. Or you can get more involved and…
E. Write a prayer journal: This can be a way of talking with God, talking with yourself, even talking with the earth. You can write a poem or a rant or pages of rambling free-association. Write a story or a journal entry from the point of view of someone in the day’s lectionary [link to RCL] passage. Rewrite this passage or another that is meaningful to you in your own words, making it relevant to whatever is going on in your life. Go even further and…
F. Share your words: If you feel you are finding insights that might be helpful to others, you can share them. This can be personal and individual, such as calling or video chatting with a friend or someone who needs encouragement, or writing a note or letter. Or it could be that you have a gift for expression and could bless many lives by writing a blog, inspirational tweets, or doing video shorts sharing either the insights you have found or your embodied methods of prayer and worship.
G. Invite someone to be a prayer partner: Prayer partners decide on their own how often they will check in with each other, in what way, and for how long. It can be anything from a weekly phone call just to check on each other’s spirits to daily, long discussions, or doing any of these embodied activities with another. The sky is the limit.
H. Write haiku (or any other kind of poetry):
The haiku is an ancient poetic form originating in Japan. The most formal type is illustrated above: three lines with five syllables in the first, seven in the second, five in the third, all centered around one image or thought. Read examples online to inspire you, if you wish. Then, concentrating on one item or image that speaks to you, just try it. Be mindful of the emotions, thoughts, and reactions you have. Does writing a haiku to the rough bark of the old maple tree make you see her more clearly? There she is; there she’s been; for a century or two, enduring wind and rain, ice and insects…what does she have to say to you? Touch her to find out…
I. Draw or paint: If you are an artist, you already do this and don’t need any encouragement or instruction. If you are someone who thinks of yourself as “not having a creative bone in your body,” then pretend you’re four and give yourself permission. Color with markers or crayons. Scribble. Finger paint. Make thumbprint creations with ink. Squish and sculpt with play dough or clay—or even mud. Get sidewalk chalk and create a masterpiece to share with your neighborhood. And while you’re doing it, pay attention. This part of your soul may have a lot to say once you let it out to play.
J. Walk a labyrinth: [We have a fair amount of labyrinth info; should we have a page for that? If so, this could link to it.] This is one of those embodied activities than can be simple or more complex. An easy way to follow the practice is to simply walk a pattern, inside or out, while praying or meditating. If your house is laid out in such a way that you can circle through several rooms, you can use that, or walk around a large rug. You can also lay out masking tape in a simple spiral, either round or squared. Outdoors, you could circle your yard or a flower bed.
If you want to get more complex, you could find a permanent labyrinth in your area to walk. Many towns and cities have one at a religious building or in a park. Search online for “labyrinths near me” and see what you find. (If you are a known member or friend of Union Church, there are two local labyrinths open to you. Contact the office [link to contact form; I will be sure the office has info for my labyrinth; it’s open to members and friends of UC, but I don’t particularly want to post the address here] or The Ark Retreat to find out more.) Berea College also has a public labyrinth.
The most involved solution of all is to create your own. You can find lots of information and instructions online for stone, concrete, grass, or other labyrinths and you can have one in your own yard.
THREE BIG PROJECTS
Finally, here are three options for those who really want to get into embodied prayer activities. These are either large projects, or projects that you can do a step at a time over extended time periods.
1. Create and put on biblical armor: Children and youth may especially enjoy this, but it is good for any age. This comes from the passage in Ephesians 6:11-18, and it is important to understand that this armor represents a battle against spiritual evil, not against human beings with whom you disagree! The passage clearly states, “Our battle is not against flesh and blood,” and far too many Christians have used this sort of imagery to wage war with each other. “Friendly fire” is just as deadly as enemy fire, and is a contradiction in terms.
We all have our inner battles, and for some people it is helpful to envision or even act out a battle against those things that are harming or eroding their soul. The passage lists: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and finally prayer, which some think of as the “communicator” in your battle, keeping you in touch with divine “headquarters.” You can get as involved as you like, making these from foil, cardboard, cloth, or whatever you have access to that suits your fancy.
You can also just pray through them, and visualize putting on your godly armor to face whatever difficulties and trials you may be facing. Does it make you feel safer? Does it make you feel stronger? What might you be able to do today with your armor on, that you might have feared without it? How can wearing your godly armor help you be more protective of others, too?
2. Cook foods from the Bible: If you really like cooking and baking, you can go a long way on this one! There are books and websites with as many as 50 recipes of the foods mentioned in the Bible, from Esau’s “pottage” (Genesis 25:29-34; probably a red lentil stew) to Ezekiel’s strange multi-grain, multi-legume bread (Ezekiel 4:9-17). This embodied activity is just as enriching (physically and spiritually) if you keep it simple, eating grapes, dates, flatbread, or whatever comes up in your devotions. You can also connect with those ancient times by eating food you would normally eat, but made over an open fire. Use your imagination and make it meaningful for you.
Take time to ponder: Does it make you feel more connected with the story and its characters to eat the way they did? If you light a real fire, smell the smoke and feel the heat as you cook, does it make those long-ago times more real to you? What kinds of ideas, feelings, or questions come to you that might not ordinarily? What are some ways those earlier people thought about God, each other, and the relations between humans and the Creator that are different than the ways we think now? How do those ideas relate to you, if at all? Is there anything they inspire you to do differently?
3. Communion from the ground up: This is a very involved activity, and requires advance thought and planning. We have done it with a youth confirmation retreat, and may offer it again in the future, but you can do it yourself. Try creating a communion service that starts all the way back in the soil, sun, and rain that brought you the food.
You will need: unground wheat or barley, seedless red or black grapes, olive oil, and salt; a blender or grinder, a flat griddle or frying pan, preferably cast iron, a small mixing bowl, spoon, and cup for each person, measuring cups and spoons (if you wish); a rolling pin, spatulas or turners. (If you are doing this with a larger group than one family, extra blenders, griddles, rolling pins, and utensils are helpful. You also need one or more clean work surfaces.)
This activity is most meaningful, the closer you can come to the source of the foods. You probably don’t actually grow your own grains, but you may grow some grapes or know someone who does. Find some information online about the growing of these foods and discuss what it takes. What might it be like to be the people who grow, harvest, process, pack, ship, and sell these foods? Touch and smell the foods and think about the process they go through to feed us.
For the bread:
Put about 1/3 cup of grain for each person (up to four people at a time) into a blender and run it on high until the grain becomes flour. If you have more than four people, you either need extra blenders, or will have to make several batches. Watch online video clips of people grinding grain by hand with various kinds of grinding stones. (If you are really motivated, you could try that, too.) Smell the olive oil and discuss or watch the process it goes through from olives to oil. If you were the grain or the olives, and if you could feel, what would you think about this process? Add salt to the flour, if desired, about ½ teaspoon per cup of flour, and mix well. Divide the flour into each person’s bowl (about 1/3 cup per person) and let them mix in about a teaspoon of oil. Now put in 4 teaspoons of lukewarm water and mix until it’s a fairly firm dough. You might need slightly more or less water—you can begin with 3 teaspoons and adjust as needed, and you can also add a bit of flour if necessary. Each person can knead their bread as they want it—for crispy, cracker-like bread, knead as little as possible, just until it’s well blended. For chewier bread, knead for a few minutes. Flatten into rounds with hands or rolling pins—the thinner the crispier—and cook at medium high in a slightly greased skillet for 2-3 minutes for the first side, and less for the second side. Discuss how the people in the Bible would have cooked these on hot stones or over fires. (You could do yours over a fire, too, carefully.)
For the juice: This part is easy—for us! Just put the grapes into the blender and blend on high, then add a little water until it’s the right consistency. No need to peel them, if you have a powerful blender—a VitaMix is ideal. Discuss or watch videos of people trampling the grapes and consider how much harder (and more embodied) that would be, and also learn about the further steps that would be necessary to turn the juice into wine. Again, if you were the grapes, would you be enjoying yourself?
For the communion: You may use any liturgy, or none. But while you take the bread and juice into your body, take into your soul the lessons you have learned from them and from watching and participating in this process. Share with each other the thoughts, emotions, and insights you have gained. In what ways are you communing with the plants, with the people who got them to your table, with your ancestors, and their ancestors, all the way back to ancient times, and with each other? Why do you think this ritual ceremony historically means so much to us, bringing us into communion with the divine, both Creator and Creation?
At Union Church, we believe that love demands our whole selves—that we worship with our whole selves, commune with our whole selves, and encourage the depth of whole selves in those around us, both in our families and in our communities. As you try these and other embodied prayer activities, we pray that you will grow more and more into your whole self, and that you will grow to joyfully meet love’s demands on your life.