Yesterday I prayed silently and loudly…with my hand.
Yes, you read that correctly. No typo here. I prayed with my hand.
First, it seemed weird, maybe even a bit hokey. I felt self-conscious. I, like so many of us “frozen chosen” Presbyterians, am accustomed to prayer as a disembodied, intellectual exercise. When we’re asked to acknowledge the reality and gift of our bodies and then engage them in worship, we tend to become self-conscious. Liturgical dance or our discomfort with foot washing ceremonies are good examples of this “dis-ease,” as theologian Marcia Mount Shoop, author of Let the Bones Dance: Embodiment and the Body of Christ, describes our discomfort.
But something happened when I began to pray with my hand. Most fundamentally, I realized that it really can be done. That the body can be as much a channel for the Spirit’s “helping us in our weakness to pray” as our minds can. That the competing dualism of mind, soul and spirit versus body that we Presbyterians tend to honor at least unconsciously in how we worship- despite a prevalence of emerging scientific data that supports a more unified understanding of our physicality- is really a fallacy.
As my hand began to move, caress the air, and cradle in my arms two-and-a-half-year-old Madeline, who lies in a hospital bed waiting for a bone marrow match to help her fight a rare disease, my body began to mimic the tender motions first of this little girl’s mother, and then, as I would imagine them, of a God who’s “got the whole world in God’s hands.” This God would, I anticipated with my hand, cradle Madeline in His arms. This God would caress her with His healing touch. He would press His command, “Be healed,” into the palm of her hand.
So there we were, a handful of women in Wendy Farley’s women’s theology seminar, all praying with our hands, thanks to Marcia having paid us a visit to talk about her book.
If the picture still sounds hokey, maybe that’s because we’re all at least a bit uncomfortable living in our own skin and being attentive to what our bodies, as flash points of our emotions, sensations, and experiences, not just our minds, tell us about who we are. But, Marcia’s book is a deft reclamation of the importance of the body as the unifying site of both thought and emotion, the conscious and the unconscious, sensations and, as she puts it, “feeling.” This feeling, not to be confused with emotion, under girds all of these various physical experiences; similar, although not identical to Friedrich Schleiermacher’s “God consciousness,” it is the thing that distinguishes human beings as made in God’s image, even as it also connects us with all other living things in our universe, to the degree that it makes us “response-able,” as those who act and are acted upon as selves always in flux.
Marcia looks through three lenses of her own deeply personal experience, rape, pregnancy and motherhood, in order to make some modestly universal claims about the three-fold nature of reality- tragedy, relationality and ambiguity. These she invites the church to respond to with three dispositions of redemption: compassion in response to tragedy; interdependence, to relationality; and adventure to ambiguity. Worship and our life together as a church can become fertile ground for embodying these dispositions through our habits and practices and learning to dance the way the prophet Ezekiel envisions.
My Sudanese friends, whenever they worshipped in the refugee camp, liked to jump up and down in a somewhat idiosyncratic, hunched-over position.. I asked them why they danced this way. They said, “we are riding on Jesus’ back.”
Can we mainline Protestants dance, too? If so, what would it look like for our dry bones to come alive and groove to the beat of God’s compassion, interdependence and adventure?