September 8, 2010

Dominic's Nine Ways of Prayer

Many who want a deeper prayer life find themselves unable to devote longer periods of time to pray because of distractions and the absence of devotion.  And it is true: one should not pray longer than one has devotion.  Christ himself warned us against using empty words in prayer or praying mindlessly.   But how then do we develop the kind of devotion where we are able to give our full attention to God for longer periods of time?

St. Dominic was able to pray for more extended periods of time with greater intensity because he used his body in prayer.  He and his first brethren experienced how praying with one's body stirs up devotion in nine ways.  In this post, we will explore the first of these: bowing in prayer.   Dominic would bow whenever he came before an altar or crucifix or whenever anyone prayed, "Glory to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit."

This practice was not simply mechanistic: Humbly bowing his head was a heartfelt response for humility Christ embraced for his own sake and the sake of the whole world.  By practicing this bodily gesture he gave his heart a chance to be devoutly mindful of the Lord's unimaginable and inexhaustible love.    

The heart does not always respond the way it should and has a tendency to forget what is most important.   Our freedom in Christ was bought at a great price.  He did not simply wish us to be free of the power of death, he offered his body and died that we might live.   The only proper response to such love is to freely love in return with our whole being - to offer the Lord a grateful heart.   But we are so fickle.  We fail to remember the gift we have recieved and our hearts grow often grow cold without our even being aware that this has happened.

But when we bow our heads in prayer it serves as a reminder to our heart and things that ought never be forgotten are called to mind once again.   What we do in with our bodies informs the heart.  At the same time, as our hearts are moved with devotion, our bodies become capable of offering true spiritual worship.  The bow that stirs loving gratitude suddenly becomes the expression of a true devotion, a real commitment to Christ.

This first way of prayer addresses a truth about the way God made us and the way He chose to save us.   When He created us in his image and likeness, our bodies were not inconvenient after thoughts.  The image of God in us is somehow manifest in our bodies - from infancy to old age.  This means that what we do with our bodies always has a spiritual dimension, something beyond this world that looks out to the Lord either accepting or rejecting that world.  Similarly, just as our salvation was worked out through the crucified body of Christ, our prayerful response also involves our bodies - the Christian body is meant to become a spiritual offering to God, and a humble bow which gratefully acknowledges God's unsurpassable love is one way to make this offering.  


  1. For the past couple of days I have been reading "Introduction to Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition" by Gabriel Bunge OSB. I have especially focused on the chapter "Prayer Gestures" that discusses the prayer-body connection like your posting above-- I especially liked the last paragraph in your posting.


  2. We sort of miss the impact of this a little in our modern day but amidst the Albigensian heresy of the time, any suggestion that the body could be used for good in any way other than through constant punishment would have been very foreign to the people of St Dominic's time.

    The Mass-goer of today is used to changes in posture and so this is perhaps more habitual than meaningful in prayer for many of us. Is this something that you personally have found challenging, and if so, how have you sought to overcome it?

    PS. I'm a lay Dominican and a big fan of St Dominic's 9 Ways... but this habitual nature of postural prayer is a challenge for me, always good to hear from others as to how they get past that sort of thing!


  3. Dear Catherine - You raise an important concern about the habitual nature of postural prayer. I am not practiced enough with it to offer any real helpful advice. In general, our prayer inclines toward the habitual - as it should. The problem is when it becomes mindless, empty gestures. But this also happens with our words as well. The only safeguard is devotion to the Lord, a devotion that grows as our loving knowledge of Him increases. This is why contemplation is a key to the Nine Ways - beholding the Lord in faith keeps that devotion alive that makes our bodily movements in prayer a true act of worship.