Father Gabriel (Bunge) begins this fourth chapter of Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition on “Prayer Gestures” by noting the common western complaint that Christianity is supposedly hostile to the body and gives too little attention to the role of the body in the spiritual life. Such a complaint is based partly on the assumption that Christian “methods” should be the same as those of non-Christian religions, and partly on ignorance. However, the wealth of bodily expressions in prayer have been gradually lost in the West since the beginning of the second millennium.
He then turns to the “original, unwritten tradition” of prayer gestures to probe “in what spirit the holy Fathers made use of them”.
Father Gabriel notes how contemporary people have become fundamentally sedentary creatures.
What a difference between that and the characteristic posture for prayer of men in biblical times, and also of the Fathers! Not sitting in comfort, but rather standing at the cost of some effort is the hallmark of the one who prays. He “stands in the house of the Lord, in the courts of the house of our God” and “in his holy place”, whether he is a self-righteous Pharisee or a remorseful tax collector who scarcely dares to stand at a distance. (141)
Thus Christ exhorts His disciples to “Rise and pray” (Lk 22:46) and the early Church continued this expectation that both public and private prayer were done standing. While Origen tells us one may also pray in other postures if one has a serious reason such as sickness or travel, such exceptions only prove the general rule.
The question arises as to why one should pray standing. For the Fathers, this was far from arbitrary. As Origen wrote:
Nor may anyone doubt that of the countless postures of the body, the posture with hands outstretched and eyes uplifted is to be preferred to all [the others], because one then carries in the body too, as it were, the image of that special condition which befits the soul during prayer. (145)
What is significant here is that there is a correspondence between the body and the soul during prayer.
Like sacramental actions, methods and gestures in prayer must also be meaningful that is to say, the body must reproduce visibly what is taking part in the soul. As it is understood in the Bible, standing to pray is the bodily expression of the profound reverence of the creature before the exalted majesty of its Creator, in whose presence even the angels stand. …
The outward posture, however, does not only give bodily expression to the interior attitude, it also has an immediate effect upon this disposition. Without the effort of standing – and of the other prayer gestures, which will be discussed later – our prayer will never attain the proper fervor, said Joseph Busnaya, but will remain “routine, cold and shallow”.
Thus there is a genuine reciprocity between one’s internal disposition and external posture. This is the “special property” of the soul, which in the body’s posture creates, so to speak, a suitable “icon” of itself, which therefore always precedes it, as Origen says in this connection. Once such a visible representation exists, though – once a suitable gesture has been formed and has become a “tradition” in the course of salvation history, then the individual cannot forgo it without harming his “interior condition”. By making it his own, on the other hand, and “practicing” it diligently, he forms and strengthens within himself that same interior disposition that once created the gesture… (145-146)