Relating the Body and Spirit: Ancient Prayer Today

Relating the Body and Spirit: Ancient Prayer Today

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By one’s choice for God, one wills for life instead of death. Death exists because mankind turned away from God. Death is not punishment from God; it is separation from the Giver and Sustainer of all Life. However, because Jesus Christ tramples down death by death, and upon those in the tomb bestows life, vile death is conquered. Here and now, we pass through illness and death but take heart because He has overcome the world—and all its sufferings. Life, and its intended fullness, is the reality to which we have the choice to aspire.

Faith, like wellness, is dynamic, individual, and universal. Faith, like wellness, exists on a continuum, spanning entire lifetimes. Body and spirit symbiosis is an eternal journey towards God with practical meaning in this life. While illness often makes us vulnerable, and in our tender needs we may more readily open our wills to God, God does not will for us to be ill. In fact, the Giver of Life grants us vitality and renews each breath. Ultimately, God saves the world from its present sufferings. I desire the Truth, spiritual and physical, and have come to believe in the intricacy of our bodies and spirits. Many issues are embedded in this topic. I am concerned with fostering wellness of individuals’ spirits and bodies within a frame of ancient Christian prayer. By this frame, the body acts: fasts, concentrates, and is realized. It is true that illness can profit the soul, but in wellness each of us may branch out and germinate goodness proactively throughout today’s American society. We can feed our spirits with prayer and strengthen our bodies with fewer toxins, moderate exercise, and peace of mind that works as leaven throughout one’s whole self.

Sometimes personal sufferings teach us greater love for others. Problems, such as depression, a broken back, a gluten intolerance, become “spaces” in which one has the opportunity to fervently pray to God for healing. Fr. Roman Braga says, “Suffering is good, not only for Christians, but for everyone, because if you do not suffer, you do not understand anything. […] After you experience suffering, you understand more—and better—things in this world, much deeper than those who do not experience any suffering (church bulletin May 3, 2015).” We tend to invest in prayer when we feel pain, and the importance of prayer is in its exercise of the spirit. Prayer builds hope. Hope counters sorrow. Joy is possible, and more wellness a by-product, in perceiving the symbiosis of the body and spirit. The Kingdom of Heaven is within us as God reconciles our bodies and spirits according to His will. St. Isaac the Syrian says, “’If you are pure, then heaven is within you; and in yourself you will see angels, and with them and in them, the Lord of Angels.’ The Fathers of the Orthodox Church teach that all these experiences are beyond any expectation of the humble man, for the ascetic in his humility does not feel himself worthy of this” (qtd. in M.V. Lodyzhenskii). Ancient Christian perspective allows a fuller picture of wellness and is used as the premise to my message on the relevance of spirit-body symbiosis.

This New Year’s, 2015, a woman from our parish was in a severe auto accident. Upon opening her body and repositioning her organs, doctors counted it a miracle that she had survived. Initially, she couldn’t speak and her body was badly broken and bruised. Yet, she signed the cross on a loved one’s forearm. Two times before in her life, she had been diagnosed with cancer. She had survived. Two months after her accident, she returned to church for an evening service at the beginning of Great Lent. We spoke together in the quiet dim of the banquet hall before others arrived. With a chuckle, she said God didn’t want her yet. She said that though her children are grown, God willed for her to be here with us, that there was more for her yet to do here in life. Suffering is a gift of perspective. Because of this woman’s personal suffering, she felt love for others in pain. That evening in service, I closed my eyes as the words of the Lenten hymns moved through me. I felt the truth of personal suffering as a sure way to empathize with others, and to love them. Because of my own sorrows in earlier times with infertility, marriage, and conversion to the Orthodox Christian faith, I care deeply about others’ body-spirit wellness.

I think it is impossible to be fully well, both spiritually and physically, on one’s own outside of God. Thankfully, the mind of the Church (or general outlook on life consistent these 2,000 years since the time of Christ) passes along a simple truth concerning wisdom. Wisdom is discernment to understand things in connection to God and eternal meaning and purpose. Fr. George Morelli tells how many in the early Church did not leave the world but rather “energetically engaged with it” (xii). Christians learned from the teachers of the time, and they investigated and probed “wide-ranging perspectives found there, and sought to use whatever was valuable in it so as to learn what could be profitable and useful in proclaiming and understanding the Gospel of Christ, and helping people address the foundational issues which they faced in their lives.”

St. Basil states that understanding the natural world and describing creation is useful for Christians and non-Christians alike. Understanding the world to understand God is “thyrathen Sophia.” Because God created the world, attention to nature reveals its Creator. Nature includes the world beyond one, as well as the intricate workings of one’s unique body. Morelli explains, “The world’s search for knowledge is to be studied, sifted, evaluated, used wherever appropriate, or rejected where not appropriate.” Thus, a Christian’s open mind is not relative to merely what she thinks and feels, but relates all things to God. With faith, a person chooses to believe in God. It is with faith that one may also choose not to believe in God. When one seeks God, however, God helps that person realize all things, including one’s own life, as always having been a part of Him. Then, one feels the reality of God’s “personality” as loving, true, just, and merciful.

The difference between seeking wisdom as a Christian and seeking enlightenment as a non-Christian is essentially location of self, the entire human person including one’s mind, body, and spirit. A person who has faith in God seeks relationship with Christ, while one who has yet to declare faith in God may seek relationship with the world He made. I believe both routes may lead to God. Wisdom is a gift from God. Wisdom changes one’s heart as it fills one’s mind. However, if one places too much trust in one’s own body, including one’s own mind, it is possible to displace Christ. This is dangerous because the Spirit of Truth does not force Himself upon an individual. Cooperation with God is true enlightenment, and its forms are myriad. Likewise, cooperation outside of Christ can lead to dangerous passions like pride, greed, anger, and lust. While it’s exciting to realize God’s dynamism, it is terrifying to consider the complications of the world outside of love and goodness. Without a fight against the appetite of such passions, we may unknowingly serve unholy gods who feed our dark appetites and lead us away from what is true and good. Each person has a choice for God, and we are not so unlike one another. We might, therefore, offer one another compassion and understanding, even forgiveness, recognizing the great struggle we have in common to avoid merely feeding a body and silencing the spirit.

In the West today, Christianity is taken out of context, broken from a 2,000-year tradition, and misrepresents the character of Christ. We must pause from thinking we know Him and seek with our bodies and all of their faculties to perceive the world in relationship to God. A relationship with God happens only through prayer, and prayer is one’s efforts to realize and then feel the existence of God. Fr. Braga says prayer is permanent dialogue with God that confirms He exists, and He exists inside one’s own conscience, eternally:

Prayer is not about how much you read from the prayer book, or how long you kneel; prayer is your whole life. When you eat, when you drink, when you drive a car, when you discipline your children, you are in a state of prayer. Life is a Liturgy. It is not only in the church that the Liturgy takes place; the Liturgy is outside the church building too. The entirety of life should be a Liturgy—if you feel the existence of God. But you have to get that feeling of the existence of God. (church bulletin, May 3)


Sources:

1. Hymned each Easter in the Orthodox Church.

2. Mutually beneficial relationship between one’s unique body and all of its sensory organs (including mind) and one’s spirit (or the “soul,” also understood as the heart-mind engagement).

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Lea Povozhaev

Lea Povozhaev earned a PhD in Rhetoric and Composition from Kent State University in 2014 and an MFA in Creative Writing from The University of Akron in 2007. She spent a semester abroad in Russia studying at Nizhni Novgorod State University in 1999, where she was first introduced to Orthodox Christianity. Lea teaches writing part-time as she focuses on writing and presenting her current research on wholeness of body and soul. Two of her recent works reflect the culmination of her writing pursuits as a creative non-fiction writer who believes in merging reflection on one's personal life with current social events. She recently (June 3, 2016) had an interview with Ancient Faith Radio on her memoir: check it out! Lea aims to continue writing, researching, and presenting and invites inquiries from the audience to share her work ranging from academic (Medical Rhetoric—arguments in current health care and their implications for those who value the sanctity of life), creative and personal (focusing on family life and Orthodoxy). She lives in Ohio with her husband and their five children. Read more about Lea and her work here.