Ritual, Rosaries, and Prayers Written in Flesh

This is a reprint of a guest post I wrote for the Fratres Dei blog. Be sure to pay some love forward and check out Rachel’s amazing blog about embodied spirituality and contemplation in the material world!

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I was raised in a spiritual tradition almost entirely bereft of embodied ritual. This wasn’t necessarily my parent’s fault: I was very fortunate to grow up in a household that was supportive of both my Christian faith and of my asking tough questions. My parents always supported me whatever church I decided to attend or not attend, and I had room to grow and explore. So it was of my own volition that I delivered myself into the hands of the non-denominational evangelical cultural conglomerate that ruled much of early aughts Christianity.

If you were a passionate, spiritually-minded teen in 2008 it was hard not to get pulled into the religious force behind WWJD bracelets, the CCM music boom, purity rings, and flagpole prayer circles. This hyper-Americanized, hyper-Protestant form of Christianity focusing on individual salvation, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and increasingly creative evangelizing of one’s neighbors was almost ubiquitous. I’m being general in my description of the movement because I know that my teenage brain flattened nuanced doctrines and my faulty memory has lumped the many, many churches I attended in together. I’m more interested here in expressing the theological impact these experiences had on me than cataloging them perfectly, so I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush. 2000s evangelicalism was the wide gate through which many entered into their own spiritual journey, and not every cultural contribution of the movement was negative. But hindsight gives us the maturity to see the holes in the fabric of our religious traditions, and for me, those holes were the absence of ritual.

In my teen years, church service followed a general formula: a half hour sermon on whatever the preacher felt like bookended by modern praise and worship music. There was the passing of the offering plate, and sometimes testimonies or announcements, but that was it. During church, the body clocked out. You were supposed to sit still, listen, learn, and most of all, believe. The believing was paramount; at the end of the day it was the only thing that mattered. You could live a holy life (mostly defined but what you abstained from) and do good works of kindness and charity (advisable but not grace-administering), but right belief was the stuff of a true Christian. And while I do think that belief is a cornerstone of Christian life, the churches of my youth pursued right belief with absolute, idolatrous abandon.

This dominant theology made seasons of religious doubt especially gutting, and when I grew frustrated with wanting more of religion, with wanting ways to do religion in my body, to touch it and taste it and hold it for myself…there was nothing. The only reprieve I had from total alienation from the body was the rock band praise and worship nights I occasionally attended. They were the only religious spaces in which I could cry or raise my hands or dance myself into an ecstatic state that purged me of all the pent-up emotion from months of stillness.

I could have sought out different spiritual practices to fill this gap, but for a long while, I didn’t. Churches with more ritual structure veered dangerously close to Catholicism, that seat of superstition and corruption I had been taught to distrust, and other spiritual practices of embodiment, like meditation, sacred movement, or labyrinth walking, were demeaned as gateway drugs to the occult new age. So I lived in a place of fear and increasing frustration, traversing the same dead-end paths of circular logic. I tried in vain to shake myself out of spiritual stagnation with more Bible study, more attentive listening, more holiness. Nothing worked. All the while, the trappings of other religions, the ancient blessings and the prayer beads and the breathwork and the candles and the holy oil called my name.

In college, I pressed as hard as I could into the world of nondenominational Christianity before realizing that tree would never bear enough fruit for me to live on. So I evaluated my options. I explored Judaism and Wicca, ever seeking out that sense of sacred time and religious ritual that drew me undeniably, and I attended services in other denominations, starting small with the Lutheran church before working my way up to that terrifying and beautiful taboo, the Catholic Church. While I was studying for confirmation in the Episcopal Church, I was also learning about the magical practices evident throughout Christian history in both folk religion and the faith of monks and mystics. All the while, I dismantled the walls of fear I had built around my faith brick by brick, with probably more agonizing than was strictly necessary. I let my body take the lead in this task, prayerfully following my natural worship inclinations.

As a child, I had been possessed by the urge to kneel or cross myself in church. So I learned the form and function of the traditional mass, and all the bodily congregant responses. I armored myself with the rosaries and candles that had bewitched my young imagination. I learned the names of the saints and a few credal prayers, since my tongue ached for holy incantations to speak times of trouble or need, and I used folk charms to bless my home and ward my friend’s bedrooms from nightmares, since my hands itched to make manifest God’s protection in the material world. Despite what evangelicalism had taught me, these spiritual practices didn’t alienate me from God or lead me down a path of superstition. On the contrary, my new embodied rituals were empowering and balancing. They helped me quell the obsessive moral anxiety a lot of us pick up during a childhood spent in Awanas and Friday night lock-ins, and they deepened my respect and reverence for God considerably. I felt like I had been trying to carve out a spiritual life on stone with a blunt chisel, and someone had just handed me creamy sheaves of paper and fountain pens, pencils, and watercolors in every shade. With the right tools, so much more was possible.

When I started on my journey into embodiment, I was so afraid that my body would betray me. I had been taught that she was an ugly byproduct of our fallen nature, that she was a hysterical playground for the devil’s deception. I had been taught that only the rational, unemotional mind could be trusted to steer a faith life, and that religious experiences should be subjected to constant scrutiny lest they deviate from right belief in any way. And while I am a proponent of spiritual discernment and slow, prayerful spiritual growth, I think that we’ve been taught to sell our bodies short.

Much of the ministry of Fratres Dei is focused on embodiment, on tapping into the natural giftings and inclinations of our bodies and listening to them. This flows from a theology that sees the body not as a ball and chain our soul drags around, but as an inherent, essential expression of our spiritual reality. When I had the pleasure of seeing Rachel, our resident spiritual director, last week at a wedding, she led us in an unbridled dancefloor experience that can only be called spiritual. I was once again reminded of how right and good it is to express our shameless joy and celebrate loved ones with our whole might in the bodies that God has given us. It’s a journey that I’m happy to be on, late on arrival or not, and I look forward to all the things I’m going to experience and learn in this body as I grow.

If you’d like to get in tune with the stirrings of your soul in your own body, Fratres Dei offers personalized spiritual direction sessions and monthly ecstatic dance meetups for that very purpose. We’re excited to meet you and learn more about the wisdom your body brings to the conversation.

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