The body, universal prayer support

- through Henry Oudin

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What place for the body in prayer? The answers according to four religious traditions, during the last Meetings of the History of the Institute of the Arab World, dedicated to the body.

Between heaven and earth, surrounded by moucharabieh filtering the light, we are on the top floor of the Institut du Monde Arabe. Representatives of four religions came to discuss “the body in prayer”: Jean-Jacques Whal for Judaism, the Catholic priest Sébastien Antoni, the Sufi Claire Bay for Islam and Marie-Stella Boussemart, a Buddhist nun. Huge program inviting to think about the articulation between the flesh and the spirit, to cross the methods, the proximities and the differences between traditions. How does the body become a “support” for prayer and how does prayer nourish it in return?

To each tradition its posture

Praying with all one's soul is already praying with all one's body. And in the four religions represented, it begins with a correct attitude, in which each gesture is charged with meaning. The two feet joined to form one, the gaze lowered and the heart turned upwards, the hands crossed above, while swaying like the flickering of a flame or the trembling of man before God: this is what is traditionally recommended in Judaism, explains Jean-Jacques Whal.

Among Catholics, depending on the time of the ritual, it will be kneeling as a sign of adoration and freedom through the confidence shown, explains Father Antoni; or seated to encourage listening, or even standing as a testimony of resurrection. In addition, we also pray with all our senses: “Hearing so that someone other than you can reach you through words or music; sight to contemplate the works in the churches and the whole of creation; the sense of smell to be sensitive to the scent of incense, witness of the Presence in the absence; the taste because God gave himself to eat to the man who communicates; and finally the touch, by the peace of Christ exchanged, the handshake or the kiss of peace”.

Same impetus of the body towards God in Islam: standing, bowing, prostrating, sitting. It's always a way of training one's being to become more receptive, more present, explains Claire Bay, who insists on the intention of humility, the will to give up the ego. Didn't the preliminary ablutions prepare the spirit by cleaning us of all the faces that we wear in society? And by orienting oneself towards Mecca, one again brings one's whole being towards a point of inner centrality.

The body of course has its say in Buddhism to bring a wish, a tribute, a request, even if the prayer does not express an impetus towards an identified God as for the other traditions, warns Marie-Stella Boussemart. While the cross-legged sitting posture, with the back straight and the gaze lowered, has become familiar to all, well beyond the framework of the Buddhist tradition, it specifically promotes calm of the mind. It is also supplemented by a gesture of offering, as well as by the spoken word for the reading of texts and the recitation of mantras. We also prostrate ourselves, hands joined in prayer – the right representing the method, the left the wisdom. The body then becomes the vehicle of knowledge and the awakening of the spirit.

The same momentum

During a speech of about ten minutes, the speakers thus expressed in turn the specificities of the mobilization of the body in prayer in their respective traditions. Receptacle of incarnation for Christians, springboard for rising towards God for Jews or Muslims, space for experiencing the nature of the spirit in Buddhism, the body is always a point of intersection between the here and the beyond, between matter and what we transcends.

To pray with all your soul is to pray with all your body.

So what does the posture matter if the result is the same? This is the question one might ask, the objective and the benefits seeming so close through the multiple paths. Moreover, the speakers from the different religions on the podium also evoke a certain amount of freedom left in the matter, because the essential thing is ultimately to feel good in order to pray, even if respecting a framework can help. And what frame? It is not always immutable and nuances exist within traditions themselves, they readily acknowledge. Should we stand or sit during the reading of the Gospels among Christians, or that of the kaddish, one of the central prayers of the liturgy among Jews? From one synagogue to another, from one Christian country to another, customs differ. After all, isn't it the intention that counts first, when the body wants to be the carrier of the soul, the receptacle of the spirit?

And with what profit in the flesh? The assistance does not fail to question, in fact, the impact of prayer on the body, in the context of illness in particular. They would have been measured scientifically, assures a listener. There is no lack of studies to demonstrate the positive effects of meditation on health, and even of all positive thoughts, regardless of an original belief, assures Marie-Stella Boussemart. “And isn't prayer a form of meditation? asks Claire Bay. Eternal question...

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Henry Oudin

Henry Oudin is a Buddhist scholar, spiritual adventurer and journalist. He is a passionate seeker of the depths of Buddhist wisdom, and travels regularly to learn more about Buddhism and spiritual cultures. By sharing his knowledge and life experiences on Buddhist News, Henry hopes to inspire others to embrace more spiritual and mindful ways of living.

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