Thursday, April 12, 2012

Praying in the Flesh

One of the weird things about humans is that we have bodies. We are not pure spirit like the angels; we are spirit and flesh united. Nor are we souls trapped in bodily shells; our bodies are crucial parts of who we are. They inform how we experience the world, how we feel, and how we think. Because it’s the only thing we know, it’s easy to forget how interesting this conjunction is. From a Christian perspective, we are both spiritual beings in a corporeal world and corporeal beings in a spiritual world. We cannot divorce our bodies from our spiritual lives; they are the vehicle through which we accept or reject God’s love.

Christians throughout the ages have certainly noticed the body’s relationship with the spiritual life. This is especially evident in the medieval Christian texts we discussed in class. Peter Damian, for example, clearly appreciated the body’s ability to encourage sin, noting how “the desire of sensual allurements” (p.130) that led Adam and Eve to sin continued to plague mankind. As Professor Fulton described in class, Peter Damian was exceptionally sensitive to “sins of the flesh,” and strove vehemently to obstruct them in the clergy.
The methods Peter Damian encouraged to avoid sin are similarly rooted in the appreciation of the body’s influence on spiritual life. He advocated clerical celibacy and self-flagellation –both of which are experienced fundamentally in the body. Furthermore, the primary defense he offered to sinners is prayer –particularly, praying the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Praying is not something typically described as something done bodily –it seems, rather, like a means of escaping the physical world to the spiritual one. However, I disagree. I would like to use the rest of this entry demonstrating that praying, particularly praying the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is action done in both the body and spirit.
Praying can be hard. In my experience at least, one of the main reasons praying can be hard is that we have bodies. We are able to do many things besides be in communion with God. We have thoughts that wander, backs that hurt, senses that distract us, and desires (such as hunger, thirst, fatigue) that stubbornly draw our attention away from what we are trying to focus on. One of the benefits of having beautiful forms of prayer like the Little Office is that, rather than trying to resist these impulses, they incorporate them into the act of praying; both the external form of the prayer and the text of the prayer itself redirect our senses away from the things that distract us and focus them on God.

I’m sure you all did the readings and saw these already, but I found the illustrations in Painted Prayers to be just beautiful. Such lovely images surely help to focus the one in prayer on their subject:

In addition, there are many visual images that can be found in the text of the Office --more than I could possibly include in this entry. Here are a few of the ones that struck me the most:
  • “Who is she that comes forth as the morning rising, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army set in array?” (Canticles 6,9 in Prime)
  • “Hail, O refulgent Hall of light” (Canticles 6,8 in Lauds)
    --Cathedrals may not represent Mary, but after praying this phrase every day, they cannot but remind one of her.
  • “O Angels of the Lord, bless the Lord; O heavens, bless the Lord.
    O all waters that are above the heavens, bless the Lord; O all powers of the Lord, bless the Lord.
    O sun and moon, bless the Lord; O stars of heaven, bless the Lord.
    O every shower and dew, bless the Lord; O all spirits of God, bless the Lord.
    O fire and heat, bless the Lord; O cold and heat, bless the Lord.
    O dews and hoar frosts, bless the Lord; O frost and cold, bless the Lord.
    O ice and snow, bless the Lord; O nights and days, bless the Lord.
    O light and darkness, bless the Lord; O lightnings and clouds, bless the Lord.
    …” (Canticle of the Three Children)
    --How much more effective than simply saying, “O everyone, bless the Lord.”
 Although the Little Office can be recited (and probably was by the majority of lay people in the middle ages and after), even greater richness of the prayer is achieved when it is sung, as it was intended to be. I refer you to these recordings of the Te Deum and the Ave Maria. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a good recording of the Little Office, but I did want to include a recording that gives an idea for how it would sound. Here’s a recording of Compline from the Divine Office. It may not have the same psalms and prayers as the Little Office, but I believe that the Little Office probably has the same rhythm to it. It’s also in English. 

The Little Office engages the sense of touch less explicitly than it does sight and sound. Instead, the theme of Mary as Mother of God permeates the prayer, evoking the feeling (as in physical contact) of the Lord. The primary example of this is the theme of Mary pregnant with the infant Jesus. I’ve never been pregnant, so I don’t know what that feels like, but I’m sure it’s unmistakable. Even those who do not have children, however, can relate to the feeling of having a baby nestled against you, as referenced in the line, "He Whom the heavens could not contain rested in your bosom." These relatable sensory images really bring home the physical reality of the Incarnation of the Lord.

Taste & Smell
Admittedly there are less tastes and smells to be found in the Little Office than there are examples of the other senses, but there are a few. Here are some that stood out the most to me:
  • “For you my soul has thirsted; for You my flesh, O how many ways!
    In a desert land, and where there is no way, and no water: so in the sanctuary have I come to You , to see Your power and Your glory.” (Psalm 62)
  • “Butter and honey shall he eat” (Isaiah 7:14-15).
    --Pointing out that the Lord had to eat; He, too, was made of flesh!
  • “Like choicest myrrh, you have yielded a fragrance of sweetness, O holy Mother of God.” (antiphon for psalm 118 in matins, and elsewhere)



  1. Yes! Prayer involves our whole person, not just our souls. I love the way you read the Office of the Virgin as a way of engaging our bodies along with our souls in prayer: what better offering could one make to the one who bore God in her body! One correction to what I may have suggested in class: I do think that the physical buildings (cathedrals) were most definitely built with Mary in mind. She was (and is) the quintessential Hall of light! The problem is rather with collapsing the mystery of Mary as Mother of God into the mystery of the Church as the body of Christ; the two are clearly related, but they need distinction which the claim that "Mary is the type of Church" tends to elide. We will be talking more about this!


  2. LP: This is a great post on several levels. I like your focus on the body, especially your notice of prayer as a physical, bodily act–a discipline, really (of a species with the sort from which our academic disciplines came, and I can attest that my body feels the effects of my two disciplines). In addition to the many reasons you mention, this is so appropriate given the centrality of Mary’s body (and Christ’s) in previous authors. Thank you for posting the pictures from Painted Prayers (Think of the bodily control and discipline that went into creating those images!), and the recordings. You really highlight the performed and sensual aspects of these devotionals.

    Your note on the Canticles about all of the things that are called upon to bless the Lord makes me think of a compliment to your theme of the body: mindfulness. I agree that calling out each specific thing is more “effective.” It also encourages the caller’s mindfulness–purposeful awareness–of all of these things.

    Your examples show how these devotions are immersive. You mention Peter Damian and his focus on the body. Surely this total sensual involvement contributed to his enthusiasm for the Hours. One observation: With all of this material, a brief conclusion could have helped your readers really grasp your points. Anyway, nice post.

  3. I like your idea of the Little Office as something that completely immerses all of our senses, something that necessitates a kind of ‘active praying’. I think that Peter Damian would approve of this method of this active praying. It seems to me that the development of complete prayer redirects out body to- in his eyes- utilitarian means. While I’m sure that he would be perfectly happy for the world to self-flagellate, I think that he would have accepted prayer as a kind of substitute flagellation, for the layperson. I think this follows along with his agenda of spreading worship of the Virgin Mary from the clergy to the common man. By making your body physically uncomfortable (from kneeling or standing still for long periods of time) as well as engaging your senses and breaking a mental sweat, you’re completely sublimating all of your physical desires into something pure and holy. The creation of manuscripts, the process of intricately illustrating scenes of the Virgin’s life, could also be one such sublimation. The labor involved in producing art worthy of the Queen of Heaven is a process that echoes the daily recitation of the Little Office- monks would spend days, months, years, on a single piece of devotion! I think Peter might be willing to accept an illuminated Little Office in place of a hair shirt.

  4. LP - Your post is so interesting! And it made me think of all the tradition in the Catholic Church surrounding the body. Unfortunately, because of my recent class on the place of suffering in religion, this led to me thinking about all the times that the body has been used as a tool for suffering in prayer. I’m sorry if this is a little off topic. It’s just something that’s been on my mind for awhile!

    In many cases, women (and men) participated in a tradition of hurting themselves as a form of penitence. Yes, these actions were done in both body and spirit. I just don’t want to accept that this is a ‘good’ form of prayer. Maybe that’s just the modern in me speaking.

    MCS- You said, “By making your body physically uncomfortable (from kneeling or standing still for long periods of time) as well as engaging your senses and breaking a mental sweat, you’re completely sublimating all of your physical desires into something pure and holy.”

    Now there is, of course, a big difference between physical discomfort and self-flagellation. I just wonder where/how/if we should draw a line? I mean, when did these self hurting practices stop? And when did prayer in the Christian become purely a mental exercise?


  5. I too have been thinking about the ways in which liturgy/praxis engages human senses. I think that in school, at least, and probably culturally, I have been trained to value sight at the cost of my other sensory input. I read, and I read, and I look, and I type, and I read-- we talk about "imagery" and metaphor as though they are "visuals," bringing content to the "mind's eye". I sometimes wonder what it would be like if most of my data came through some other sense; if I got most of my information orally, as in a mass, perhaps, without at prayer book, might I be more willing to discuss my "mind's ear" (or is that, like, schizophrenia)?

    I wonder too whether or not some of your "imagery" is not working on more levels than we realize; "ice and snow," "frost and heat," etc. are perhaps invoking memories of touch sensations as much as anything else.

    I also think that taste and smell get short-changed in our discussions about "imagery" and language. The "sweetness" or "bitterness" so often invoked in Scriptural passages, or writing about them, are perhaps straightforward. But what might it be like to read Mary described as "golden" and think not only of precious jewels or pure metals or wealth, but perhaps to taste sweet golden honey, or to smell the wax of a honeycomb? Color of course invokes a sight memory, but perhaps we have assumed that this was always the case because of the way we prioritize visual input.