Prayer beyond words

Many people who pray are moving beyond words – whether audible or silent – and using yoga, dance, painting, walking, meditating to connect with God. Prayer that is expressed physically with the body – through the use of a religious object or through a form of art – appears to be on the rise, reflected in the number of books, retreats, workshops and classes on them.

People of faith are also using words to pray in creative ways, such as spiritual journaling. And worshippers are reaching across denominational and faith lines to try different forms of prayer. Today you can find Methodists walking the Catholic Stations of the Cross and Mennonites performing Anglican-based fixed-hour prayer.

Background

Why it matters

As people reach beyond their traditional religious practice for different forms of prayer, they may ultimately influence the way worship is done in their congregations.

Questions for reporters

What do people attain through the practice of prayer that is more than spoken? How far from their own religious upbringings do they venture in seeking out these different forms of prayer? How comfortable are congregations and worshippers in your area with these different forms of prayer?

Kinds of prayer

  • Embodied prayer is the practice of bringing an awareness of the body and the use of it into prayer. Examples include performing liturgical dance or Sufi dances and walking the Stations of the Cross or a labyrinth.
  • Fixed-hour prayer is the practice of praying set prayers at set times of the day and night. While common in Islam – Muslims pray at five prescribed times of the day – in Christianity fixed-hour prayer is most commonly known as a monastic practice. Many Christians, especially mainline Protestants, are now reviving the practice, which is also known as the divine office, praying the hours and common prayer.
  • Lectio Divina is the prayerful reading of the Bible. Originally practiced by Catholics, this contemplative prayer practice has now found its way into many reformed and even evangelical and Pentecostal traditions.
  • Prayer beads are found in almost every world religion except Judaism. Within Christianity, they are most commonly found among Catholics, who pray the Marian rosary. But in the last few decades, there has been a movement within Protestant churches – mostly among Episcopalians – to reclaim the saying of counted prayers on a string of beads. There is also a small but growing use of prayer beads and even Catholic rosaries among pagans, including Wiccans, Asatrus, Druids and Christo-Pagans.
  • Spiritual journaling is the charting of one’s religious or spiritual path through the act of writing. In the last decade, this practice has exploded, perhaps influenced by the scrapbooking craze.
  • Art & crafts – Many artists say the process of creating their work is infused with prayer. They include artists who paint during worship, people who make prayer shawls for others, and artists who create work with religious themes.
  • Dance has always been used as an expression of worship in many religious traditions. That continues, and at the same time people are exploring new ways to use dance as a spiritual exercise, whether or not in performance.

Resources

Surveys

  • “U.S. News & Beliefnet Prayer Survey Results”

    Beliefnet and U.S. News & World Report posted an online survey about the frequency, purpose and results of prayer. See the results.

  • “How we talk to God”

    Beliefnet and U.S. News & World Report posted an online survey about the frequency, purpose and results of prayer.  Read the accompanying article, posted Dec. 12, 2004, at U.S. News & World Report.

National sources

  • Lauren Artress

    The Rev. Lauren Artress is an Episcopal priest at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, where she oversees the use of two permanently installed labyrinths. She is the founder of Veriditas, which describes itself as “the voice of the labyrinth movement.” Dr. Artress travels and teaches people how to pray while walking a labyrinth.

  • Coleman Barks

    Coleman Barks is a retired professor of creative writing and poetry at the University of Georgia and author of several books on Rumi and Sufism. He can discuss the prayer embodied in the dance of the Sufi dervish. He lives in Athens, Ga.

  • Liz Lerman

    Liz Lerman is a choreographer, founder of the  Liz Lerman Dance Exchange and MacArthur Fellowship recipient. Among her most recent works is 613 Radical Acts of Prayer, which takes its name from the Talmudic laws and explores the nature of prayer. The dance company is based in Takoma Park, Md.

  • Sybil MacBeth

    Sybil MacBeth is the author of Praying in Color: Drawing a New Path to God, published in 2007. She conducts workshops in drawing and painting as prayer.

  • In Touch Ministries

    In Touch Ministries is a radio and television First Baptist Church ministry located in Atlanta, Ga. Contact through the website.

  • World Council of Churches

    The World Council of Churches is an international fellowship of Christian churches, built upon the foundation of encounter, dialogue and collaboration. Marianne Ejdersten is the WCC communications director.

  • Doug Pagitt

    Doug Pagitt is founder and pastor of Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis and co-founder of Emergent Village. He is the author of, among several books, Reimagining Spiritual Formation: A Week in the Life of an Experimental Church (Zondervan, 2004). He hosts a weekly radio show in the Twin Cities and online.

    He is a co-author of BodyPrayer: The Posture of Intimacy With God, published in 2005.

  • Nancy Roth

    The Rev. Nancy Roth is an Episcopal priest in Oberlin, Ohio, and author of several books on unusual forms of Christian prayer, including Spiritual Exercises: Joining Body and Spirit in Prayer and An Invitation to Christian Yoga, both published in 2005.

  • Thomas Ryan

    Thomas Ryan is director of the North American Paulist center in Washington, D.C.  He is the author of Prayer of Heart and Body: Meditation and Yoga as Christian Spiritual Practice. He is also the editor of Reclaiming the Body in Christian Spirituality.

  • Jon M. Sweeney

    Jon M. Sweeney is the author of Strange Heaven: The Virgin Mary as Woman, Mother, Disciple and Advocate. He includes Mary in the Old and New Testaments, in various mystical texts including the Quran and the texts that inspired Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ screenplay, and apparitions and visions, the rosary, feast days and issues of difficult dogma for Protestants, including the Immaculate Conception. He’s also the author of The Pope Who Quit, which tells the story of Pope St. Celestine V. 

    Sweeney is the author of Praying With Our Hands: 21 Practices of Embodied Prayer from the World’s Spiritual Traditions, which looks at dance, foot-washing and work, among other activities, as forms of prayer.

International sources

  • Diane Bloomfield

    Diane Bloomfield is the author of Torah Yoga, a Jewish-themed yoga book and program that she teaches in the U.S. and Israel. She also founded the Torah Yoga Association. She gave a Beliefnet.com interview on the intersection of Judaism and yoga.

  • Celia Rothenberg

    Celia Rothenberg is an assistant professor of religious studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. She contributed an article on three forms of Jewish yoga practiced in North America to the November 2006 edition of the journal Nova Religio.

  • Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church

    The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has an official website that provides resources on houses of worship, beliefs, prayers and current news.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Patricia D. Brown

    The Rev. Patricia D. Brown is director of Spiritworks, a nonprofit, online resource for the exploration of Judeo-Christian spirituality. She is the author of Paths to Prayer: Finding Your Own Way to the Presence of God. She is based in Pittsburgh.

  • Chaplaincy Institute of Maine

    The Chaplaincy Institute of Maine (ChIME) trains chaplaincy candidates and others in several nontraditional prayer techniques, including body prayer. It is located in Portland, Maine. Email through the website.

    Contact: 207-347-6740.
  • Dervish Retreat Center

    The Dervish Retreat Center in Spencer, N.Y., holds classes in the whirling dance of the dervish, a form of Sufi prayer.

  • Janet Ruth Falon

    Janet Ruth Falon is a creative writing teacher and the author of The Jewish Journaling Book: How to Use Jewish Tradition to Write Your Life and Explore Your Soul.

  • Oasis Ministries for Spiritual Development

    Oasis Ministries for Spiritual Development in Camp Hill, Pa., is a ministry for spirituality and contemplation. It has single day events, year-long training and retreats for training and education.

  • Gabrielle Roth

    Gabrielle Roth is the author of Sweat Your Prayers: The Five Rhythms of the Soul. She co-founded The Moving Center, a place for dance and movement, in New York City.

  • Donna Schaper

    Donna Schaper is the senior pastor at Judson Memorial Church in New York, N.Y., and co-author of Labyrinths From the Outside In: Walking to Spiritual Insight – A Beginner’s Guide.

  • Robert VerEecke

    The Rev. Robert VerEecke is a Catholic priest and pastor of The Church of St. Francis Xavier in New York, N.Y. He has written about liturgical dance and dance as prayer and leads workshops on embodied prayer in the Boston area.

In the South

  • Cell of Peace

    Cell of Peace is an ecumenical group that meets to do Lectio Divina and contemplative prayer in the Dallas area. Sandy Guancial is coordinator. Email through website.

    Contact: 972-722-6029.
  • Barbie Hunt

    Barbie Hunt is an artist who creates paintings, pottery and other works drawn from her own Christian faith and journey. She lives in Madisonville, Ky.

  • Mike Lewis

    Mike Lewis is a Christian artist who travels to churches and other groups and paints portraits of Jesus during worship services. He lives in Nashville, Tenn.

  • Chris Tiegreen

    Chris Tiegreen is the author of Creative Prayer: Speaking the Language of God’s Heart, published in 2007, in which he describes how dance, painting, singing and other activities can be used as prayer. He lives in Atlanta.

In the Midwest

In the West

  • Kristen Johnson Ingram

    Kristen Johnson Ingram is the author of Beyond Words: 15 Ways of Doing Prayer. She explores the way nonverbal acts like listening to music or taking a walk can be performed as prayer. She is a preacher in the Episcopal Church and lives in Springfield, Ore.

  • Jacqueline Shea Murphy

    Jacqueline Shea Murphy is an assistant professor of dance at the University of California, Riverside. In 2004, she helped mount a program at the university called “Red Rhythms” on American Indian spirituality through dance.

  • Richard Peace

    Richard Peace is a theology professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., and can discuss belief in miracles. He is the author of Contemplative Bible Reading: Experiencing God Through Scripture, which describes Lectio Divina from an evangelical perspective, and Spiritual Journaling: Recording Your Journey Toward God.

  • Jane Rickenbaugh

    Jane Rickenbaugh teaches sacred dance at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, Ore.

  • Banafsheh Sayyad

    Banafsheh Sayyad is a dancer and choreographer, performing contemporary mystical Persian dance. Sayyad has said that she approaches dance as prayer. She is based in San Diego.

  • Sharon Soneff

    Sharon Soneff is an artist and blogger and the co-author of Faith Books and Spiritual Journaling: Expressions of Faith Through Art. She lives in San Clemente, Calif.

  • St. Mark’s United Methodist Church of Tuscon, Ariz.

    St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Tucson, Ariz., has a “way of the cross” that worshippers are encouraged to walk as part of their religious practice. Email through the website.

    Contact: 520-297-2062.
  • Jane Vennard

    Jane Vennard is a United Church of Christ pastor and retreat leader. She is the author of Praying With Body and Soul: A Way to Intimacy With God. She lives in Denver.

    Contact: revjev1@aol.com.
  • WomanSpirit Center

    The WomanSpirit Center of Bellevue, Wash., is an interfaith community of women that offers retreats, workshops and activities, many of which include unusual forms of prayer, such as hiking, beachcombing, journaling, centering prayer and meditation.

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