In an essay I recently wrote outlining the five types of prayer, I also shared an example of my personal practice using the Pater Noster as a form of contemplative prayer in the vein blending elements of lectio divina and hesychasm of the Eastern traditions. The practice of prayer is much more than the simple recitation of words and should aim to raise one’s conscious connection with one’s concept of the divine – whether that means God as conceived as in most forms of theistic belief systems or connection to one’s inner conception of God or transpersonal consciousness.
This conscious connection doesn’t simply mean a connection of consciousness which will inevitably happen, but also relies upon the support of one’s five natural senses: hearing, sight, touch, smell, and taste. Engaging these five senses fits in well with the sacramental pentad described previously in that, consciously engaged, the singular or multiple engagements of the senses helps to ground the spiritual experience of the into a very physical eucharist or “sacramental presence” which, to varying degrees, can be said to represent the aims of hesychastic practice in the Orthodox tradition, but can also be found in nearly all mystical systems under different names.
There is an oft-cited truism that I’ve seen on more than a few bumper-stickers that states something to the effect, “we are spiritual beings having a physical experience” which has a very strong appeal to me as a Gnostic who believes that each and every individual contains within him or herself a spark of that divine fire that created the kosmos and to which we are striving to return. Part of our experience, however, is to engage the body that is our temporary residence in this incarnation and to make it into a tool that can be used to direct our consciousness back to that henadic point. In India and much of the South Asian subcontinent, this developed into the very complex science of yoga in its different forms, but elements can also be found in the West, an example of which being the Nine Ways of Prayer of Saint Dominic de Guzeman.
The Nine Ways of Prayer outlines a series of postures associated with prayer in the context of Christian devotion and was written by an anonymous Bolognese author, sometime between A.D. 1260 and A.D. 1288, whose source of information was, among other followers of St. Dominic, Sister Cecilia of Bologna’s Monastery of St. Agnes. Sister Cecilia had been given the habit by St. Dominic himself. In the Christian liturgical tradition, there are no shortage of various gestures used to supplement one’s prayer practice such as making the signum crucis (Sign of the Cross), folding of one’s hands, genuflection, among others. The Nine Ways of Prayer describes nine different postures along with scriptural references to help focus one’s mind on God. Below is a great summary as gleaned from the traditionalist Catholic website, Fish Eaters:
First Way of Prayer
Saint Dominic’s first way of prayer was to humble himself before the altar as if Christ, signified by the altar, were truly and personally present and not in symbol alone. He would say with Judith: “O Lord, God, the prayer of the humble and the meek hath always pleased Thee [Judith 9:16]. “It was through humility that the Canaanite woman and the prodigal son obtained what they desired; as for me, “I am not worthy that Thou shouldst come under my roof” [Matthew 8:8] for “I have been humbled before you exceedingly, O Lord [Psalm 118:107].”
In this way our holy father, standing erect, bowed his head and humbly considering Christ, his Head, compared his lowliness with the excellence of Christ. He then gave himself completely in showing his veneration. The brethren were taught to do this whenever they passed before the humiliation of the Crucified One in order that Christ, so greatly humbled for us, might see us humbled before his majesty. And he commanded the friars to humble themselves in this way before the entire Trinity whenever they chanted solemnly: “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.” In this manner of profoundly inclining his head, as shown in the drawing, Saint Dominic began his prayer.
Second Way of Prayer
Saint Dominic used to pray by throwing himself outstretched upon the ground, lying on his face. He would feel great remorse in his heart and call to mind those words of the Gospel, saying sometimes in a voice loud enough to be heard: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” [Luke 18:13] With devotion and reverence he repeated that verse of David: “I am he that has sinned, I have done wickedly.” [II Kings 24:17]. Then he would weep and groan vehemently and say: “I am not worthy to see the heights of heaven because of the greatness of my iniquity, for I have aroused thy anger and done what is evil in thy sight.” From the psalm: “Deus auribus nostris audivimus” he said fervently and devoutly: “For our soul is cast down to the dust, our belly is flat on the earth!” [Psalm 43:25]. To this he would add: “My soul is prostrate in the dust; quicken Thou me according to Thy word” [Psalm 118:25].
Wishing to teach the brethren to pray reverently, he would sometimes say to them: When those devout Magi entered the dwelling they found the child with Mary, his mother, and falling down they worshipped him. There is no doubt that we too have found the God-Man with Mary, his handmaid. “Come, let us adore and fall down in prostration before God, and let us weep before God, and let us weep before the Lord that made us” [Psalm 94:61]. He would also exhort the young men, and say to them: If you cannot weep for your own sins because you have none, remember that there are many sinners who can be disposed for mercy and charity. It was for these that the prophets lamented; and when Jesus saw them, he wept bitterly. The holy David also wept as he said: “I beheld the transgressors and began to grieve” [Psalm 118:158].
Third Way of Prayer
At the end of the prayer which has just been described, Saint Dominic would rise from the ground and give himself the discipline with an iron chain, saying, “Thy discipline has corrected me unto the end” [Psalm 17:36]. This is why the Order decreed, in memory of his example, that all the brethren should receive the discipline with wooden switches upon their shoulders as they were bowing down in worship and reciting the psalm “Miserere“ [Psalm 50] or “De Profundis” [Psalm 129] after Compline on ferial days. This is performed for their own faults or for those of others whose alms they receive and rely upon. No matter how sinless he may be, no one is to desist from this holy example which is shown in the drawing.
Fourth Way of Prayer
After this, Saint Dominic would remain before the altar or in the chapter room with his gaze fixed on the Crucified One, looking upon Him with perfect attention. He genuflected frequently, again and again. He would continue sometimes from after Compline until midnight, now rising, now kneeling again, like the apostle Saint James, or the leper of the gospel who said on bended knee: “Lord, if Thou wilt, thou canst make me clean” [Matthew. 8:2]. He was like Saint Stephen who knelt and called out with a loud cry: “Lord, do not lay this sin against them” [Acts 7:60]. Thus there was formed in our holy father, Saint Dominic, a great confidence in God’s mercy towards himself, all sinners, and for the perseverance of the younger brethren whom he sent forth to preach to souls. Sometimes he could not even restrain his voice, and the friars would hear him murmuring: “Unto Thee will I cry, O Lord: O my God, be not Thou silent to me: lest if thou be silent to me, I become like them that go down into the pit” [Psalm 27:1] and comparable phrases from the Sacred Scripture.
At other times, however, he spoke within himself and his voice could not be heard. He would remain in genuflection for a long while, rapt in spirit; on occasion, while in this position, it appeared from his face that his mind had penetrated heaven and soon he reflected an intense joy as he wiped away the flowing tears. He was in a stage of longing and anticipation like a thirsty man who has reached a spring, and like a traveler who is at last approaching his homeland. Then he would become more absorbed and ardent as he moved in an agile manner but with great grace, now arising, now genuflecting. He was so accustomed to bend his knees to God in this way that when he traveled, in the inns after a weary journey, or along the wayside while his companions rested or slept, he would return to these genuflections, his own intimate and personal form of worship. This way of prayer he taught his brethren more by example than by words.
Fifth Way of Prayer
When he was in the convent, our holy father Dominic would sometimes remain before the altar, standing erect without supporting himself or leaning upon anything. Often his hands would be extended before his breast in the manner of an open book; he would stand with great reverence and devotion as if reading in the very presence of God. Deep in prayer, he appeared to be meditating upon the words of God, and he seemed to repeat them to himself in a sweet voice. He regularly prayed in this way for it was Our Lord’s manner as Saint Luke tells us: “. . . according to his custom he entered the synagogue on the Sabbath and began to read” [Luke 4:16]. The psalmist also tells us that “Phinees stood up and prayed, and the slaughter ceased” [Psalm 105:30].
He would sometimes join his hands, clasping them firmly together before eyes filled with tears and restrain himself. At other times he would raise his hands to his shoulders as the priest does at Mass. He appeared then to be listening carefully as if to hear something spoken from the altar. If one had seen his great devotion as he stood erect and prayed, he would certainly have thought that he was observing a prophet, first speaking with an angel or with God himself, then listening, then silently thinking of those things which had been revealed to him.
On a journey he would secretly steal away at the time for prayer and, standing, would immediately raise his mind to heaven. One would then have heard him speaking sweetly and with supreme delight some loving words from his heart and from the riches of Holy Scripture which he seemed to draw from the fountains of the Savior. The friars were very much moved by the sight of their father and master praying in this manner. Thus, having become more fervent, they were instructed in the way of reverent and constant prayer: “Behold as the eyes of servants are on the hands of their masters, as the eyes of the handmaid are on the hands of her mistress . . .” [Psalm 122:2].
Sixth Way of Prayer
Our holy father, Saint Dominic, was also seen to pray standing erect with his hands and arms outstretched forcefully in the form of a cross. He prayed in this way when God, through his supplications, raised to life the boy Napoleon in the sacristy of the Church of Saint Sixtus in Rome, and when he was raised from the ground at the celebration of Mass, as the good and holy Sister Cecilia, who was present with many other people and saw him, narrates. He was like Elias who stretched himself out and lay upon the widow’s son when he raised him to life…
This example of our father’s prayer would help devout souls to appreciate more easily his great zeal and wisdom in praying thus. This is true whether, in doing so, he wished to move God in some wonderful manner through his prayer or whether he felt through some interior inspiration that God was to move him to seek some singular grace for himself or his neighbor. He then shone with the spiritual insight of David, the ardor of Elias, the charity of Christ, and with a profound devotion, as the drawing serves to indicate.
Seventh Way of Prayer
While praying, he was often seen to reach towards heaven like an arrow which has been shot from a taut bow straight upwards into the sky. He would stand with hands outstretched above his head and joined together, or at times slightly separated as if about to receive something from heaven. One would believe that he was receiving an increase of grace and in this rapture of spirit was asking God for the gifts of the Holy Spirit for the Order he had founded…
Through his words and holy example he constantly taught the friars to pray in this way, often repeating those phrases from the psalms: “Behold, now bless ye the Lord, all ye servants of the Lord … in the nights lift up your hands to the holy places, and bless ye the Lord” [Psalm 133:1-3], “I have cried to Thee, O Lord, hear me; hearken to my voice when I cry to Thee. Let my prayer be directed as incense in Thy sight; the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice” [Psalm 140:1-2]. The drawing shows us this mode of prayer so that we may better understand it.
Eighth Way of Prayer
Our Father, Saint Dominic, had yet another manner of praying at once beautiful, devout, and pleasing, which he practiced after the canonical hours and the thanksgiving following meals. He was then zealous and filled with the spirit of devotion which he drew from the divine words which had been sung in the choir or refectory. Our father quickly withdrew to some solitary place, to his cell or elsewhere, and recollected himself in the presence of God. He would sit quietly, and after the sign of the cross, begin to read from a book opened before him. His spirit would then be sweetly aroused as if he heard Our Lord speaking, as we are told in the psalms: “I will hear what the Lord God will speak to me. [Psalm 84:9]. As if disputing with a companion he would first appear somewhat impatient in his thought and words. At the next moment he would become a quiet listener, then again seem to discuss and contend. He seemed almost to laugh and weep at the same time, and then, attentively and submissively, would murmur to himself and strike his breast…
When he read alone in this solitary fashion, Dominic used to venerate the book, bow to it, and kiss it. This was especially true if he was reading the Gospels and when he had been reading the very words which had come from the mouth of Christ. At other times he would hide his face and cover it with his cappa, or bury his face in his hands and veil it slightly with the capuce. Then he would weep, all fervent and filled with holy desires. Following this, as if to render thanks to some person of great excellence for benefits received, he would reverently rise and incline his head for a short time. Wholly refreshed and, in great interior peace, he then returned to his book.
Ninth Way of Prayer
Our Father, Saint Dominic, observed this mode of prayer while traveling from one country to another, especially when he passed through some deserted region. He then delighted in giving himself completely to meditation, disposing for contemplation, and he would say to his companion on the journey: It is written in Osee “I will lead her (my spouse) into the wilderness and I will speak to her ear” [Osee 2:14]. Parting from his companion, he would go on ahead or, more frequently, follow at some distance. Thus withdrawn, he would walk and pray; in his meditation he was inflamed and the fire of charity was enkindled. While he prayed it appeared as if he were brushing dust or bothersome flies from his face when he repeatedly fortified himself with the Sign of the Cross.
The brethren thought that it was while praying in this way that the saint obtained his extensive penetration of Sacred Scripture and profound understanding of the divine words, the power to preach so fervently and courageously, and that intimate acquaintance with the Holy Spirit by which he came to know the hidden things of God.
Many of the elements of prayer mentioned in The Nine Ways of Prayer should be familiar to one degree or another by anyone who has attended liturgy at any Roman Catholic Church. Genuflection, prostration, penitential “thumping of the breast”, standing dieu garde, holding the hands open, standing cruciform, kneeling in adoration, sitting in a position of reflection, and circumambulation are all well-attested postures used in Catholic liturgy and other Christian liturgical traditions and can be powerful physical aids to establishing a conscious connection during prayer. If one of course has some physical disability, it might not be possible to engage in all of them, but the frame of mind can be adopted and the gestures can be adjusted to the comfort and physical needs of those who should need to do so.
In my personal practice, which is deeply influenced by the Hesychastic practices of Eastern Christian contemplative traditions, the two most common postures I adopt during prayer are those of standing, kneeling and sitting with my knees pulled up to my breast with my head lightly resting between my knees. I have personally found these postures and gestures to be sufficient to putting myself in a contemplative mind-set whereby I can focus on my connection with the primordial nous, or God. Hesychastic practice has a varied history and set of rules, but the overall aim is to align the body, mind and heart in single-pointed concentration on God (very similar, in some respects, to the goals of establishing dhyana in yoga). These basic, inward focusing, postures has led some to refer to hesychasts as “navel-gazers” which, despite being more than slighty pejorative in intent, is actually pretty accurate.
In traditional Hesychastic practice, the singular prayer most often used is the famous Prayer of the Heart, commonly known as the Jesus Prayer: “Κύριε Ἰησοῦ Χριστέ, Υἱὲ τοῦ Θεοῦ, ἐλέησόν με τὸν ἁμαρτωλόν.” (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.); or, simply, “Jesus. Mercy.” Other variations of this exist and can also include the Trisagion: “Ἅγιος ὁ Θεός, Ἅγιος ἰσχυρός, Ἅγιος ἀθάνατος, ἐλέησον ἡμᾶς” (Holy God, Holy Strong, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.), or, as an option for Gnostics and esoteric Christians, the Adoration of the Lord of the Universe: “Holy art Thou, Lord of the Universe. Holy art Thou, whom nature hath not formed. Holy art Thou, vast and mighty. Lord of the light and the darkness.” While some may assert that these prayers are to be recited in a manner consistent with japa or mantrayoga, I cannot over-emphasize that while there are superficial similarities, this is not the case. Instead, one should focus on using stilling the body and experiencing God “heart to heart”.
Amongst some Sufi sects as well as in other ecstatic paths (Voudon and Santeria being great examples) another way of physically engaging in prayer can be through ecstatic dance. Although I am not personally one for dancing at the clubs that I go to, when I am attending sevis at a fête, I can barely resist letting the music of the drums move my feet as I dance with others in honor of the various saints, lwa and spirits present. While some may express some shock at the context, sacred dance even has its role in the expression of the earliest Christian communities which appear at surface level to appear no different in ecstatic expression than many contemporary Pentecostal services. Paul himself, in response to one community “getting a little out of hand”, was forced to write about it in Corinthians. Interestingly enough, there is scriptural evidence in the Gnostic Gospels which indicate that liturgical dance was practiced by more than one community in the 1st and 2nd centuries:
“Glory to Thee, Father! (And we going round in a ring answered to Him:) ‘Amen!’ Glory to Thee, Word! ‘Amen!’ Glory to Thee, Grace! ‘Amen!’ Glory to Thee, Spirit! Glory to Thee, Holy One! Glory to Thy Glory! ‘Amen!’ We praise Thee, O Father; We give Thanks to Thee, O light; In Whom Darkness dwells not! ‘Amen!’(For what we give thanks to the Logos). I would be saved; and I would save. ‘Amen!’ I would be loosed; and I would loose. ‘Amen!’ I would be wounded; and I would wound. ‘Amen!’ I would be begotten; and I would beget. ‘Amen!’ I would eat; and I would be eaten. ‘Amen!’ I would hear; and I would be heard. ‘Amen!’ I would be washed; and I would wash. ‘Amen!’(Grace leadeth the dance.) ..dance ye all.” – The Hymn of Jesus
While we may never know what form the dance actually took, if it was performed at all, contextually we can probably assume that it took a similar form as what it practiced in contemporary Jewish festivals as a roundel, or perhaps something very similar to what neo-Pagans would recognize as their so-called “spiral dance”. Regardless of the form that it took, it is a great example of engaging the physical being in prayer. For many dance as an act of prayer may seem like a revolutionary concept in spiritual engagement, but in the words of “saint” Emma Goldman, “If I can’t dance I don’t want to be in your revolution.”
Naturally, there are many directions one could go in exploring different ways to engage the body in prayer. It is my hope that by providing some examples one may be moved to find a way that works for themselves as a spring-board toward enriching their prayer life. Not every method will be as appealing for some as for others, but the important thing is to find something that works to help oneself meaningfully engage and become physically connected to their experience of the divine as they know it.
Icon of Jesus as "Lord of the Dance"