Ways to Pray: Meditation and Movement
On the blog this Lent, I’ll be sharing some different ways to pray, reflect, and meditate, through words, song, movement, and art. This week’s post explores prayer through meditation and movement.
In case you missed them, here are the previous posts in this series:
Prayer is about conversing with God. But sometimes we forget that conversations are two-way communications. It easy to do all the talking, but prayer is also about listening, about opening your heart and mind to God’s spirit. To listen, to hear God’s voice—whether that voice comes as a personal realization, through the words of someone else, or maybe just as a calming sense of peace—we first have to be silent ourselves.
In the church where I grew up, we had a poster hanging up outside the Sunday school rooms that read:
Perhaps this phrase from Psalm 46:10, “be still and know that I am God,” was just a reminder for fidgety kids, like myself, to sit still during Sunday School, but I think of it as a reminder that if we can stop and listen, we will find that God is always with us.
In an age where multitasking is the norm, it can be hard to silence our own thoughts. One way to do practice quieting our own voices in order to feel more keenly the presence of God is through meditation. Meditation, which is a type of contemplative practice, has a rich history in Christian and other religious traditions.
Centering prayer is one of the more recent forms of Christian contemplative prayer, which focuses on being aware of or coming to know God. It was developed in the 1970s by Trappist monks (yes, these are the monks who brew beer!) at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. Centering prayer is a form of meditation that focuses on silent prayer. Contemplative Outreach describes Centering Prayer as “a receptive method of silent prayer that prepares us to receive the gift of contemplative prayer, prayer in which we experience God's presence within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than consciousness itself. This method of prayer is both a relationship with God and a discipline to foster that relationship…” and moves “beyond conversation with Christ to communion with Christ.”
Fr. M. Basil Pennington, one of the monks who created centering prayer, gives these steps to practicing Centering Prayer (Pennington, Fr. M. Basil. "Centering prayer: Refining the Rules". Review for Religious, 45:3, 386-393.):
Sit comfortably with your eyes closed, relax, and quiet yourself. Be in love and faith to God.
Choose a sacred word that best supports your sincere intention to be in the Lord's presence and open to His divine action within you.
Let that word be gently present as your symbol of your sincere intention to be in the Lord's presence and open to His divine action within you.
Whenever you become aware of anything (thoughts, feelings, perceptions, images, associations, etc.), simply return to your sacred word, your anchor.
If you would like to learn more about Centering prayer or other contemplative practices, or watch a video about how to use Centering Prayer, Contemplative Outreach and Contemplative Outreach, Pittsburgh are great resources. And centering prayer is not just for adults; here is a blog post on Grow Christians about how blogger Tina Clark uses breathing prayer, a similar practice, with her teenage children.
As I mentioned above, I have never been good at sitting still. The traditional image of someone meditating—sitting perfectly still in the lotus position—doesn’t work for me. Fortunately, there are many types of prayerful meditations that involve motion and movement. Instead of focusing on a word or phrase, as you do in centering prayer, you use movement or motion to center yourself.
Once such form of meditation is Tai Chi. Tai Chi originated as an ancient Chinese martial art based on the philosophy of the forces of yin and yang. Today, Tai Chi is practiced across the world as an exercise characterized by gentle movements, which can improve mental and physical health. Some of the essential principles of Tai Chi include: integrating the mind with the body, control of movement and breathing, mindfulness, harmony, and serenity. Often described as “meditation in motion,” Tai Chi can be used as a way to explore contemplative prayer. Rev. Lorraine Cook writes, as she introduces Tai Chi to her own church, “I find also that this prayer of the heart [another type of centering prayer] becomes absorbed into my movements as I move with the rhythm of the Tai Chi form.”
There are numerous places to learn more about Tai Chi and find classes—including at St. Brendan’s! St. Brendan’s hosts a Tai Chi class on Tuesdays at 1:30 pm. All are welcome—regardless of skill, ability, or experience.
Many religions across the world incorporate forms of the contemplative practice of meditation, and especially mediation with motion and movement, in their traditions. And many Christians have found benefit from exploring these other traditions, as the blogger on Contemplative Monk writes, “Meditation is like a car that takes you from one state to another, but you’re the driver. You determine the direction your spiritual practice goes in.”
Here are a few other religious traditions that engage movement and motion in meditation and prayer; some you may know about, and others you may be less familiar with:
You probably have heard of the rosary. Most frequently associated with Catholic traditions, people use a rosary (prayer beads with a specific number and order of beads) to guide them through meditative prayer. Many find that the act of tangibly moving their fingers from one bead to the next helps them not only remember the prayers but also helps keep their mind from wandering so they can focus on the prayers. Learn more about the Catholic rosary here and the Anglican rosary, which uses different prayers and a different number of beads, here. Prayer beads are used in many other religious traditions as well, including Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and the Bahá'í Faith.
If you’ve had the opportunity to observe Jewish prayers, you may have noticed that many people sway while they are praying. This is called shuckling, or shokeling—from a Yiddish word that means “to shake.” This practice dates back to at least the 8th century and is often used to increase concentration.
In the Sufi tradition, a form of Islamic mysticism, the Mevlevi order are known as the Whirling Dervishes, named for their whirling Sama ceremony. As part of this prayer ceremony to honor Allah, the semazens (the participants) spin in a meditative state. Check out this 2-minute video about the Sema ritual performed by the Semezens from the Mevlevi Order of Whirling Dervishes in Turkey and this ceremony performed by Ihab Balha and his wife Ora for TEDx Talks.
Psalm 46:10 says, “be still and know that I am God,” but this message does not necessarily mean we must be motionless to pray. Perhaps the psalmist was reminding us to still our hearts, to quiet our own voices, so that we can become more aware of the presence of God. Whether we do this through silent centering prayer, through Tai Chi, or through some other form of meditation, the goal is the same: to allow ourselves to be in the presence of God. As Psalm 46 repeats in verses 7 and 11, “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.” God is with us—we need only listen.
Grace and peace,
P.S. Here’s a fun fact: scientists are now able to see the positive effect prayer and meditation can have your brain! Check out this story NPR did on Neurotheology back in 2009.
A member of St. Brendan's since 2014, I enjoy being a part of this welcoming and giving community of faith. However, I am not a theologian, biblical scholar, or official spokesperson for The Episcopal Church. If you read anything on this blog that is inaccurate or contrary to the teachings of The Episcopal Church, please consider it my error and let me know! If you have any questions, comments, or ideas for future blog posts, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.