Note: You really can’t read this post without some theme music.:)
Catholicism has a love affair with ritual, and that love affair affects how Catholics pray. In recent years, though, in addition to formal prayer, the Church encourages people to explore informal prayer and meditation. I read a CareNote (TM) during the first few months of my spiritual journey about how Buddhist meditation can compliment Catholic spirituality.
My personal favorite prayer position, one that I came up with on my own, is fetal position. It can be in bed or on the floor. Prayer can be formal, informal, or non-existent. When people assume fetal position, it is for physical or psychological protection. It can indicate a desire to escape or to be cared for when one feels helpless. As such, adopting fetal position during prayer symbolizes our willingness to become like children before the Lord, submitting to Him and crying out for His protection. Praying in this position also requires physical effort if you are saying them out loud and thus can serve as an act of penance.
Fetal prayer is especially appropriate for the Advent season, in which we celebrate the Immaculate Conception and birth of Christ and await His return. Every time we pray, confess, or do penance, our faith is reborn. Every trial we endure, we endure because of our belief in the world to come.
Despite its reputation for brutal acts of corporal mortification, the Church throughout the ages, but moreso in modern times, has criticized excessive mortification and stressed the need for humility, realism, and good advice when performing such acts of penance.
On the subject, St. Francis de Sales wrote:
“Hence it is that so many prefer corporal alms before spiritual, the hair shirt, fasting, going barefoot, using the discipline, and other such corporal mortifications before meekness, mildness, modesty, and other mortifications of the heart. Choose then, Philothea, the best virtues, not the most esteemed; the most noble, not the most apparent; those that are actually the best, not those that are the most ostensible or shining.”
Many of the sins condemned by the Church involve some form of self-abuse, suicide being one of them. Excessive corporal mortification can be viewed as a form of self-abuse as well as a source of pridefulness, also a deadly sin. The Church’s belief in the evil of self-harm stems from its belief that the body is a sacred instrument.
When you receive Confirmation, your body in effect becomes a blessed and sacred object. This is why Catholic worship is so physical in nature, involving the use of the human voice, kneeling, the clasping of hands, the act of eating, and more. When you take Communion, you are literally eating the Body and Blood of Christ. Notice that Communion entails the consumption of bread and wine, bread because it provides basic sustenance and wine because it nourishes the soul. Christ provides the basic sustenance so we may find joy in the hereafter.
The body houses the immortal soul and is used in service of the Lord. It was made by God just for you and that makes it special.
What I find odd is that, for centuries, fasting was explicitly intended to be a punishment, and size had naught to do with it. You would also be forgiven when the penance was over. Nowadays, if you are not as thin as society thinks you should be, fasting is re-framed as a form of self-care. If you are fat or “unfashionably ill,” it is an act of penance that you must perform indefinitely, and there is no absolution.
When praying in fetal position, remember the promise of new life that Advent brings and that babies are fat. The circle is associated with eternity and abundance, two words that comprise the essence of Christianity, which promises eternal and abundant life forever. This does not mean, of course, that you must literally be fat to enjoy abundant and eternal life. It just means that, at one time, fat was associated with robust health and the circle, and roundness, still carries positive associations in our culture. My first and my favorite priest, Father L, is a wise, patient man whose love and whose generosity is bottomless. He is an older man, bald, with glasses, and he’s noticeably fat. I’m sure he would be just as lovable skinny, but his girth is not a reflection of his sinfulness nor does it in any way detract from him.
The holidays can be unpleasant and overwhelming for fat people, those recovering from eating disorders, and people who have food-related illnesses. For those who have endured severe depression, anxiety, or PTSD over the issues of food and weight, it can literally be soul-sucking. Everyone else is full of joy and eating food you cannot bear to touch. Internal and external pressures encourage us to self-abuse. We feel the pressure to endure abuses from family because they are family and because it is the holidays. Sometimes self-abuse, like not getting adequate sleep, is a natural reaction to stress. Like the wise virgins who kept their lamps burning in anticipation of the coming of Christ, you must stay alert to life stresses and the temptation to self-abuse.
I mean this in all seriousness. Self-abuse is just as much about what you fail to do as what you do do. Failing to take adequate care of your needs and to set boundaries are dangerous to your well-being. For those who are religious, it is a danger to your soul as for some, it indulges vanity. In others, it indulges the temptation to self-harm. Still, in others, it wears on us and causes us to fall asleep and become burdened with worldly cares.
Resistance is a matter not of snappy comebacks or clever coping strategies, but of the proper disposition. What is needed is a true appreciate of the sanctity of the body as well as the evils of self-harm. If you want to regularly remind yourself of these truths, take better care of yourself, and best use the physical body in serve of the mystical body, include corporal worship into your everyday routine. I suggested the fetal prayer position, but there are other ways.
Try eating a meal on the floor-not off the floor, mind you. Put it on a table, but lower yourself. When you physically lower yourself, you place yourself in a position of spiritual need such that you are not above the sustenance provided for you.
Choose warm, fulling foods to serve on Sunday, particularly after a period of fast and abstinence. Every Sunday is a mini-feast day. Enjoy it.
Speak or sing prayers aloud. Process to your place of prayer-the foot of your bed, a shrine, or whatever it is.
Another Advent prayer position you could try is lying down with hands over the belly, as though you are nurturing a new-found faith within you. This is good for mothers who have not adjusted to any changes to their bodies after childbearing.
Wear comfortable clothing! I cannot emphasize this enough! You don’t want uncomfortable clothing to make you insecure or distract you from your mission.
It can be hard to justify self-care, but once you conceive of it, not as an indulgence but as a duty, some people find the resolve they need.
Stay awake this Advent and rejoice.