We were made to encounter God physically
Prayer is a battle. If we’re honest, we’ve all felt this at some point. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “Prayer is both a gift of grace and a determined response on our part. It always presupposes effort.”
Sadly, Catholic prayer is often restricted to recited prayers. If it’s not formulaic, we feel a bit aimless and vulnerable. Personal, meditative prayer, therefore, is foreign to many cradle Catholics. So, it’s not hard to imagine how many of us would feel when a priest encourages us to “pray with our bodies.”
Yet, this is precisely what Paulist priest Fr. Thomas Ryan suggests. “Christian faith has the highest Theology of the Body amongst all world religions, but it also has one of the lowest levels of actual physical practice,” writes Father Ryan.
St. John Paul II intended to change this once and for all.
Prayer is a battle.
In his work, the Theology of the Body, St. John Paul II emphasizes that because Jesus Christ took on a human body, the messy business of our flesh, and all that it entails, “entered theology through the front door.”
“The body, in fact, and it alone, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It was created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden since time immemorial in God and thus to be a sign of it,” St. John Paul said.
Our late Pontiff’s work is a “theological time bomb” that is poised to reorient Catholic thought in “virtually every major theme in the creed,” according to St. John Paul’s biographer, George Weigel. Weigel also wrote the Theology of the Body will be seen as a critical moment not only in Catholic theology but also in the history of modern thought.
Until that happens, it’s no surprise the ancient practice of yoga has exploded, for a very natural reason. Our bodies have been left out of the spiritual conversation and our souls know it. That to which humans gravitate en masse can always speak to a profound spiritual reality.
Our desire to express ourselves through our physicality is from God. We are not meant to encounter God cerebrally, as though we were merely walking cognition with a heartbeat. This is why the Mass has physicality written right into its rubrics. We make the Sign of the Cross, we beat our breasts, the priest raises his arms to heaven in supplication, and when he lifts the consecrated Host we kneel in prayer and adoration.
Modern psychology is exploring the role that the body plays in treating trauma. Bessel van der Kolk is a professor of psychiatry at Boston Medical School. He says that many forms of traditional trauma therapy leap immediately to talk therapy. The problem with talk therapy, he says, is that trauma often settles in a region of the brain called the periaqueductal gray, an area that has no access to cognition and is associated with the overall feeling of security and well-being.
Thus, emotional healing must also come through unconventional channels that until now have remained virtually unexplored in western psychiatry.
The Catholic Church has always known the importance of speaking to the body in order to speak to the person. Take a look at our sacraments. Our new little bodies are bathed in the waters of baptism; we anoint each other’s bodies with oil in times of sickness and at confirmation; we drink and consume into our bodies the very Body and Blood of Jesus.
As if these weren’t enough, the Scriptures speak to us of the laying on of hands, the confessing with our lips, and of course the “one flesh” union of holy matrimony. Yet, many of us are still uncomfortable with bringing our spirituality into our bodies. We are, after all, “fearfully and wonderfully made.”
Dare we believe in the God-given glory of the body? Could it be that this cumbersome flesh was the means of our fall from grace but, because of Christ’s sacrifice, it has been redeemed?
The body’s purpose is to carry us back home but it must first be united to Christ and laid down for others. “This is my body, given up for you.” If these are the words that Christ instituted for the moment of transubstantiation, they are weighty words, indeed.