Use your body as a prayer

'All Night Worship Service' (2019; 2021) by Kristine Mays.
Ron Cogswell/Flickr/CC BY 2.0 Deed


I wasn't able to attend Ash Wednesday service this year, so I received my ashes outside my metro stop first thing in the morning. For the first time in many years, the act felt risky to me. I was heading into my new office environment—and an organization-wide retreat—where I wasn't sure who else might be observing this solemn, visible practice, as well as unsure of how my new colleagues might regard it.

As it turns out, I was the only person in a group of 70 who had ashes. Several people remarked on it throughout the day, most to say that they wanted to receive theirs or were planning to after work. It also became an interesting conversational doorknob for some folks—a way to acknowledge and respond both to the act and my choice. Ultimately, the impromptu social experiment created a simple, direct way for others to see me, and for me to see my own religious practice in a different light.

I am thinking a lot this Lent about how I can better embody my faith, as in, make it less cerebral and more visceral. Two contexts over the last few years have led me to this commitment. The first is parenting. Once I was past pregnancy (the essence of embodiment), I shifted into regular existential mind trips about my children's safety, futures, souls, etc. as well as constant heartbreak about their beauty, mortality, and divinity. In order to continue functioning, I often hold these feelings at arm's length; otherwise, I would simply lie abed and weep.

The other context was the pandemic, which contracted my universe and put me in deep survival mode. Now that we are lifting our heads again to the wider world, I'm appreciating anew the power of proximity, shared air, and communal experiences, and I'm re-discovering how physical presence, as well as the opportunity to use all five senses, enriches my daily living.

Considering these factors together, I see now that I have disconnected from my physicality. I opt for discerning with my head instead of my body. I default to words rather than corporeal experiences. I am in constant motion yet inattentive to the movement.

Having actual ashes on my forehead—feeling them itch, getting them stuck under my index fingernail—recalled me (as intended) to the day's spiritual implications, and it prompted me to think of how I might reconnect my head and heart to their ever-softening vessel, my body. Here, I see two tacks:

Bring emotion close so my body has a chance to respond. To quote psychologist Adam Grant, "Feelings don't define you. They're clues to values that you may be neglecting." I want to pay closer attention to what my body is telling me when I walk outside on a cold day, play make-believe with the kids, scan the daily headlines, scroll on social media, read a gorgeous sentence, catch up with a friend on the phone ... the list goes on. I don't want to hold the feelings at bay but instead pull them in for a good hug. And I want to practice asking myself in these moments: What emotions are bubbling up, how are they affecting me, and what are they inviting me to discern?

Move my body so it evokes new feelings. Consider this the inverse approach to help me get out of my own head. As I wrote about recently, since I've returned to more in-person events post-pandemic, I've found I cannot sing or listen to singing in any public setting without crying. I have cried at church, at movies, at musicals, at my own voice lessons. I don't go in expecting catharsis, but then something about allowing breath to flow freely through me, about sharing space and air with other people, moves me in unexpected ways. I will unpack this more as part of my Lenten journey, but the signpost remains: I want to practice putting myself in more situations where my body leads and my feelings follow.

Just as I did the morning of Ash Wednesday, I feel hesitant and a little nervous. What exactly am I opening myself up to with this Lenten journey? The answer, I hope, is simply more—more sorrow, more rage, more exuberance, more awe, and more connection between firmament and flesh.


Prayer #397: (E)motion

What motion will inspire an emotion that powers more motion?

What emotion will fuel a motion that invokes more emotion?

Put my body at the heart of this virtuous cycle, and keep me moving toward discovery.