Spirituality is concerned with our experience of meaning, purpose and value. These are not purely ‘mental’ phenomena. Meaning is experienced in our bodies at least as much as through thoughts and ideas. This is the meaningfulness that comes to us through our senses and our participation in shared activity; including work, creativity and sexuality. We may encounter spiritual significance in the act of rocking a baby to sleep, walking a limestone edge, rebuilding a wall or cradling a lover. Meaning is discovered through our participation in a spiritually-charged world. As Ben Wood has written in his reflections on 'Enchanted Quakerism', “meaning is not something we impose from within, but something generated by the world around us - world always infused with divine presence.”
Many modern Friends feel somewhat semi-detached from the body and the physical world, as a result of academic over-education and sedentary occupations. This often manifests in a hunger for physical activity. For many Quakers and others, spiritual experience is often discovered in activities such as walking, running, yoga or dance, rather than the traditional practices of the Quaker way.
But traditional Quaker spirituality also has a strongly communal, public and embodied aspect. Quaker worship, discernment and testimony are collective, physical practices. Our physical presence with each other is crucial to the practices of worship and discernment. In worship, we do not just practise waiting on God in the privacy of our own heads, but crucially in the physical presence of our Friends. The experience of worshipping together in a gathered meeting has a distinctive, embodied ‘feel’ - vividly described by Isaac Pennington as ‘like an heap of fresh and living coals, warming one another insomuch that a great strength, freshness and vigour of life flows into all.’ ('A Brief Account of Silent Meetings', 1776).
Modern Quakers seem to neglect the significance of the body. In marked contrast to other contemplative traditions, we do not teach or reflect on the importance of physical posture in the practice of Quaker worship. We seem to assume that our openness to the divine Spirit is completely independent of how we sit, or even whether we are physically present at all, as in ‘online Meetings for Worship’. By contrast, early Quakers seem to have been more sensitive to the physicality of spiritual experience. William Penn’s most famous description of George Fox did not focus on his values or beliefs, but on the visible prayerfulness of his body - 'the most awful, living, reverent frame I ever felt or beheld, I must say, was his in prayer.' (Quaker faith & practice 2.72)
The gradual process of spiritual flourishing is not primarily a matter of ideas or consciously held values. It seems most often to be a kind of flowering that happens in our lives below our conscious awareness. The life of the Spirit is visible in our faces and bodies and may have very physical effects, including dramatic highs and lows of energy, or periods of deep joy, sadness, illness and renewed health. This embodied spiritual experience is suggested by the traditional Quaker image of 'the Seed', which points to the flourishing of new life and vigour that rises in us without our conscious willing or intention.
The poet Galway Kinnell suggests something similar in his magnificent poem ‘Saint Francis and the Sow’, which is saturated with an awareness of the earthy, physical and embodied aspect of spirituality:
Saint Francis and the Sow
The bud stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;
as Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch
blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow
began remembering all down her thick length,
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine
down through the great broken heart
to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them:
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.
How do you experience embodied spirituality? Have you encountered the flourishing of spiritual life in physical experience or activity?