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Center for Action and Contemplation
Embodied Knowing
Embodied Knowing

Embodied Faith

Friday, August 12, 2022

Episcopal priest and CAC teacher emerita Cynthia Bourgeault shares a story about the body’s integral role in sustaining our faith:

In many spiritual traditions of the world, the body is viewed with fear and suspicion, considered to be the seat of desire and at best a dumb beast that must be trained and brought into submission to the personal will. But what is missed here—and it is of crucial importance—is that the moving center [1] also carries unique perceptive gifts, the most important of which is the capacity to understand the language of faith encoded in sacred gesture.

There is a famous story attributed to Russian Orthodox archbishop Anthony Bloom [1914–2003] . . . that makes this point quite strikingly. A young man came to him for spiritual consultation, angry and distressed because he couldn’t make any sense out of his Christianity. The dogma and theology seemed like so much bunk, and the creeds frequently made him furious. He yearned for a life of faith. . . . What did Father Anthony suggest?

The archbishop listened intently and then made a rather surprising suggestion: that the young man simply go home and make one hundred full prostrations a day for a month.

Now in Orthodox practice a full prostration is not a simple bob-and-curtsy, as genuflection tends to be in the West. One goes flat out on the floor, face down, with arms outstretched; holds the position for at least a good long in-and-out breath; and then slowly rises to one’s feet. . . . When he returned a month later, [the young man’s] eyes were glowing with faith, and the creeds no longer made him angry. The reason, as the archbishop knew full well, is that through the deep, rhythmic gestures of bowing and emptying himself, the man came to understand something that could not be found by the mind. It lived in his body. In connecting with his body, he reconnected with the wellsprings of his faith.

According to Bourgeault, our bodies and their natural movements can offer us spiritual insights in a way that the intellectual mind simply cannot:

It’s amazing how those learning experiences invariably wind up among our most vivid childhood memories. From learning to ride a bicycle when I was seven, I came to know something about interior balance, getting the hang of something from the inside out. From learning to float, I discovered that trust means relaxing and letting something else hold you up. From ecstatic lovemaking, I learned not to fear dissolving into oneness. The language of spiritual transformation is already written deeply within our bodies. . . .

In terms of the spiritual journey, trying to find faith with the intellectual center is something like trying to play a violin with a saw: it’s simply the wrong tool for the job. This is one reason why all religious traditions have universally insisted that religious life cannot be done with the mind alone; that is the biggest single impediment to spiritual becoming.


[1] “The moving center basically is about intelligence through movement. It’s the way that our body is able to put its tentacles out and explore and gain information from the world. It’s that whole realm of things that we don’t do directly with our intellectual rational brain but that deeply engage us. We drive a car, ski down a hill, sail a boat. It gets in our bodies. That kind of intelligence, which we mostly underuse, is a huge reservoir of connectivity and information with the world.”

Adapted from Cynthia Bourgeault, Introductory Wisdom School Transcript (Albuquerque, NM: Center for Action and Contemplation, 2021), 17. Available through the CAC’s online course, Introductory Wisdom School.

Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Way of Knowing: Reclaiming an Ancient Tradition to Awaken the Heart (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2003) 28–29, 30–31.

Explore Further. . .

Image credit: Kazuo Ota, Untitled (detail), 2020, photograph, Unsplash. Nick Moore, Untitled (detail), 2018, photograph, Richmond, Unsplash. Jordan Whitt, Cataloochee river (detail), 2016, Cataloochee, photograph, Unsplash. Jenna Keiper & Leslye Colvin, 2022, triptych art, United States. Click here to enlarge image.

This week’s images appear in a form inspired by early Christian/Catholic triptych art: a threefold form that tells a unified story. 

Image inspiration: There is knowledge in our muscles and bones. When our body encounters the world, a door into deeper understanding can be opened.

Story from Our Community:

The more I embody Spirit and trust my True Self, the more life guides me in the right direction. One of the most challenging — and rewarding — parts was forgiving the unconscious acts of violence that “I” and “us” have both endured and created. I am personally responsible for the world and I have the power to change this with compassion, forgiveness, and understanding. I finally feel a sense of belonging on all levels. We are part of this collective consciousness, and still have work to do.
—Nienke J.

Share your own story with us.

Prayer for our community:

God, Lord of all creation, lover of life and of everything, please help us to love in our very small way what You love infinitely and everywhere. We thank You that we can offer just this one prayer and that will be more than enough,  because in reality every thing and every one is connected, and nothing stands alone. To pray for one part is really to pray for the whole, and so we do. Help us each day to stand for love, for healing, for the good, for the diverse unity of the Body of Christ and all creation, because we know this is what You desire: as Jesus prayed, that all may be one. We offer our prayer together with all the holy names of God, we offer our prayer together with Christ, our Lord, Amen.

Listen to the prayer.


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