Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Saint Dominic's Nine Ways of Prayer


Prayer is not primarily saying words or thinking thoughts.
It is, rather, a stance. It’s a way of living in the Presence,
living in awareness of the Presence,
and even of enjoying the Presence.
[These words are taken from Everything Belongs, a wonderful book by Richard Rohr, OFM, a priest who leads retreats and writes extensively on spirituality. (p. 31) And yes, my bishop, who is a Franciscan, has pointed out to me the irony of a Dominican beginning by quoting a Franciscan!]

Most Americans, and especially my own branch of Christianity, the Episcopalians, tend to be rather reserved. We like to think of prayer as an interior, mental activity, as something that we do using strictly-prescribed physical actions in church―generally  limited to sitting, standing, and kneeling. We forget that prayer can be a stance, as Richard Rohr says.

People in other parts of the world, and of other faiths in this country, are not so reserved. They are able to see gestures, motions, and postures as a natural outward expression of the interior action of praying. While we may teach children motions to songs and prayers in Sunday School and church camps, we seem to feel that those motions should stop when the pray-er matures.

I don’t know whether we consider ourselves too dignified, or think that our praying is a private matter of which no one else should be aware. Perhaps we believe that our mental prayers require no physical component.

A Reform Jewish rabbinical student, David Zazlow, introduced what he called “prayerobics” in the 1990s in California. To the Hebrew prayer, Kadosh (the equivalent of our Sanctus or Holy, Holy, Holy), he recommended a set of movements that went along with the words and music. Zazlow encouraged his congregations to use the motions, whether praying in the synagogue or around the Sabbath dinner table at home. And―his people loved it! They spread the word, and his prayerobics became widely practiced among our Jewish neighbors.

In the Christian Science faith, prayers for healing are accompanied by touch. It is not necessary to touch the exact point of illness or pain, but the Practitioner establishes and maintains physical contact with the person being prayed with, and often uses movement along with the words of prayer.

The rite of anointing the sick often includes making the sign of the Cross on the forehead and palms of the person being anointed. I have found this to be the most intimate and profound part of that whole prayer, and the people whom I have anointed always seem to direct all their attention to the prayer when I touched them.

The purpose of this little book is to introduce you to the possibilities of physical prayer: praying with the body, mind, and spirit at the same time. I wouldn’t call this prayerobics―to avoid any connotation of exercise or physical health that may come from it, and I won’t call it “Christian yoga,” because there’s no prescribed set of poses (in what follows, I will suggest some general movements, but I have never corrected anyone using them).

It is my fondest hope that you will find some of these physical expressions of prayer to be useful and beneficial in your own prayer life. Feel free to try any or all of them, to adapt them as they seem to meet your personal needs, and to leave out anything that does not feel “right” for you.

Saint Dominic

Domingo Félix de Guzmán lived from around 1170 until 1221. The founder of the Order of Preachers, also known as the Dominicans, he was a deeply spiritual man of prayer. In addition to the Rosary, Dominic left us many writings and sermons on the subject of prayer.

Dominic was canonized in 1234, and he is remembered in the Roman Catholic and Episcopal Churches on August 8th each year. At the time of his canonization, many letters and other written records were collected by his followers.

There are many excellent sources of information about Dominic. For a start, I suggest the Wikipedia, the online Catholic Encyclopedia, and a web search on the words “St Dominic” and “Dominicans.” I would be remiss if I did not also point you to the web site of my Order, the Anglican Order of Preachers.

The Nine Ways of Prayer

Somewhere between 1260 and 1288, an unknown Dominican compiled a list of the ways in which Dominic was said to have used physicality in his prayer life and the practices which he demonstrated or recommended to his followers. The Nine Ways of Prayer of St Dominic was typical of devotional writing in the Middle Ages. Mystical connotations were seen in almost everything, and it embodied a form of personal piety that seems foreign and  perhaps even artificial to us today.

Nevertheless, the book had an immediate and profound impact on the Dominicans and many other Christians.

The Nine Ways of Prayer is available online here, and a hard-copy version is available from The Thomist Press. My personal copy is printed by Ufficio Libri Liturgici, in Rome, and page references in this work are from that edition. The best original copy extant today is found in the Vatican Library.

Some Practical Guidance regarding Physical Exertion

First and foremost, you should not  attempt any of these postures if you find them physically challenging, and always stop at the slightest sign of discomfort or pain. I recommend that you consult with your physician before undertaking any or all of the physical actions described here.

Nothing in this book is prescribed. We do not know exactly how Dominic performed these actions. The movements, gestures, and postures are therefore only general suggestions, based on my interpretation of The Nine Ways of Prayer. Feel free to adapt them as makes sense to you, from the perspectives of your physical abilities, your prayer needs, and your experience in using them.

What should I pray?

In this book, I tried to focus exclusively on the how of physical prayer. It’s up to you what you pray. In most cases, in the sections entitled The Practice, I will suggest one or more possible phrases or prayers that you might like to use. However, I am intentionally not specifying any prayers, and I hope that you will find those that work best for you.

Organization of The Nine Ways

In teaching The Nine Ways of Prayer to retreats and other groups, I have found it practical to divide them into three groups of three. Although these three groups are purely arbitrary, they seem to help people progress through all of Ways.

The first group I call Approaching God in love and humility. The ways of bowing, prostration, and self-discipline are in this group.

The second group is Reaching for God. The ways of genuflecting, gesturing, and the orans position are in this group.

The third group is Growing with God. The ways of stretching, reading, and walking are in this group.

Your Prayer Journal

I strongly suggest that you keep a prayer journal as you go through your personal practice of these prayers. Your journal can be as simple or elaborate as meets your need. Mine contains three reflections on each Way:
  • When I used this Way, I felt...
  • I would/would not use this Way in my own prayer life, because...
  • I would tell others that this Way...

However, in some ways a journal can tend to get in the way, so use it judiciously. You may wish to write in your journal the first time you use each of the postures, and then come back to it after some time using them to confirm or change your thinking about them.

It is my hope that by learning about The Nine Ways of Prayer of St. Dominic, you may experience growth in your spiritual life, and perhaps adopt some new ways of communicating with our loving God.

ONE:  Bowing

O come, let us worship and bow down,
let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker.
[Psalm 95:6 from the Book of Common Prayer]

Bowing can be a sign of humility – a way of showing that we consider ourselves to be “lesser” than the person or thing to which we bow. Many of us bow at specific moments in our worship: as we approach or leave the altar, when the Name of Jesus is spoken, before we receive the elements of Holy Communion.

The author of The Nine Ways wrote that Dominic was observed “first of all, bowing humbly before the altar as if Christ, whom the altar signifies, were really and personally present.” [All page citations are taken from The Nine Ways of Prayer of St Dominic, Rome, 1987, Ufficio Libri Liturgici, Piazza Pietro d’Illiria, 1, 00153 - Roma – this is from pg 7]
Dominic saw the practice of bowing as more than just a ritual act during worship. He bowed to those who were considered by others as the lowliest people around him. He humbled himself, even though he was spiritual father to many communities and occupied a position in which others might think it more appropriate to bow to him. The anonymous writer of The Nine Ways said that Dominic “would bow his head and his heart humbly before Christ his Head, considering his own servile condition and the outstanding nobility of Christ, and giving himself up entirely to venerating Him.” [pg 7]

Dominic also practiced bowing in worship. He taught his followers to bow whenever they passed before a Crucifix, indoors or outside. He said that this showed “that Christ, who was so greatly humbled for us, should see us humbled before his greatness.” [pg 8] He also encouraged them to bow at that great prayer of praise to the Trinity, the Gloria Patri.

The Practice

  • Standing relaxed before an altar, a cross, a shrine, or a beautiful vista, focus your attention on the object in front of you. Breathe gently.
  • Think about the nature of the object you have chosen, then on its significance in your life and its meaning in terms of God’s relationship with you.
  • When you have thought for a while about the object’s beauty, power, meaning, and importance, take a deep in-breath, keeping your gaze fixed on it.
  • Slowly bow from the waist, exhaling as you do so. Depending on your health and physical condition, the bow should go as deep as is comfortable and safe for you. The depth of the bow is not the point. Its meaning is that you acknowledge the presence of God in the object, that you humble yourself before God.
  • As you bow, do not keep your eyes on the object, but close them. If closing your eyes is uncomfortable or unsafe for you, simply allow your gaze to move with your head, then close your eyes at the end of your bow. Maintain a mental image of the object and its surroundings.
  • At the bottom of your bow, take another in-breath, hold it a moment, and then release it. Keep your eyes closed and the mental image in mind, perhaps reflecting on how God might see it.
  • Close your eyes and slowly straighten up, breathing in as you do so. Open your eyes and return your gaze to the object before you. Gently exhale and open your mind to whatever insight God wishes to give youperhaps into the object itself (what it is made of, who made it, what it means to those who see it), or some other thought that God supplies.
  • Repeat the bow, breathing the same way as before, but this time pray as you bow down, perhaps saying:  “Glory to God” or “Alleluia.” As you straighten up, continue with a prayer like, “Praise to you, O Lord.”
  • Alternatively, and especially during Lent, you might pray, “My Lord and my God” and “have mercy on me.” As noted above, Dominic used to bow as he prayed the Gloria Patri:  “Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit:  (said as you bow down) As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen. (said as you straighten up)” [Book of Common Prayer, pg 141]
  • Repeat the bow, this time using any prayer or holy thought that occurs to you. God speaks to us in God’s own way, when God chooses. Do not be concerned if you cannot think of something – just repeat the prayer that you said in the second bow, or continue to meditate on the object itself.
  • When you have finished, stand quietly for a moment and thank God for allowing you to learn to pray in this way. Record your thoughts in your Prayer Journal.

TWO:  Prostration

Then David said to the whole assembly, “Bless the Lord your God.”
And all the assembly blessed the Lord, the God of their ancestors, and bowed their heads and prostrated themselves before the Lord
and the king.
[1 Chronicles 29:20 NRSV]

Prostration is not a common practice among Western Christians. If Episcopalians have ever seen it done at all, it was probably at a Good Friday liturgy or an ordination, and only the celebrant or ordinand did it. It is not a physical gesture that we ordinarily use, and our churches are certainly not constructed so as to enable a whole congregation to do it!

Therein may lie prostration’s greatest value:  it is so different from everyday prayer postures that it has a significant impact when we try it.

The Nine Ways tells us that when Dominic used this posture, “his heart would be pricked with compunction” [pg 10] and he would utter these words from Luke’s Gospel, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” [Luke 18:13 NRSV] That prayer came from the scene where the humble tax collector stood in the Temple next to the self-righteous Pharisee. He saw himself in a very poor light. He felt that he had no right to stand proudly before the Almighty. The Gospel says that he could not even look up to heaven, but only stood and beat his breast. Of course, Jesus' point was that it was the Pharisee who should really feel unworthy.

Is it right for a Christian to feel so unworthy? Should we encourage people to view themselves in such a humble way? While it is uncommon for anyone today (especially in this success-oriented society) to demean himself or herself, the truth is that we are all sinners [Romans 3:23]; we are all unworthy to ask or expect anything from God.

As long as our humility is not self-destructive, as long as we realize that in spite of our unworthiness God still loves us enough to send Jesus to save us, then there is nothing wrong with being reminded of our true station. On Ash Wednesday, we are told “you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” so what could be wrong with prostrating ourselves before God in humility?

The Practice

I recommend that you try this posture with something sturdy, such as a chair, beside you, to steady you as you move up and down.

  • Standing relaxed with plenty of space before and behind you, take in a deep breath and hold it. Focus your eyes on an object, such as a Cross, or close them and visualize any object that brings you into God’s sacred presence. Exhale slowly.
  • Take in another slow breath, and as you exhale slowly, lower yourself to your knees (using something sturdy for support, if necessary). Do not close your eyes.
  • Once on your knees, slowly breathe in again. As you exhale slowly, continue a smooth motion of leaning forward onto your hands. Use your arms to support yourself as you lower your body onto the floor or ground. Keep your knees close together, just as they were in the kneeling position, but do not press your legs tight against each other.
  • There are two possible positions for your feet:  either extended straight back or pointed to the left and right. Choose whichever is comfortable for you.
  • There are several possible positions for your head and arms:
§  Placing one hand on top of the other at right angles, lower your forehead onto your hands.
§  Place your head on the floor or ground with a cloth or handkerchief under it if necessary, either resting on your forehead or turning so that you rest on one cheek.
§  If you are not resting your head on your hands, place your arms at your sides or extend them like a cross.
  • Once you are fully prostrate, gradually relax your whole body. Feel the floor or earth supporting you. You may now close your eyes, if you wish. Continue to visualize that image with which you started. Breathe slowly in and out. 
  • Feel yourself humbled. Do not do anything that causes pain, but a feeling of awkwardness or discomfort is not unusual―we are not usually in this posture and we would be very distressed if someone forced us into it. But we are not forced, except by the awareness of our sinfulness and the awesome goodness of God.
  • You may wish to repeat, silently or aloud, the words that Dominic used, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” or any phrase that works for you.
  • You should remain prostrate for at least a minute or two, but not longer than five minutes. If you begin to feel any pain, dizziness, or weakness, it is time to get up.
  • Using your hands and arms, carefully rise to the kneeling position. Using a support, return to standing. Take one or two deep breaths, and thank God for allowing you to learn to pray in this way. Record your thoughts in your Prayer Journal.

THREE:  Self-discipline

How happy is the one whom God reproves;
   therefore do not despise the discipline of the Almighty.
[Job 5:17 NIV]

As I said earlier, the original anonymous Nine Ways of Prayer was written during the high Middle Ages. Therefore, it reflected a spirituality and practice that was common at that time. I don’t want anyone thinking that this is a scene out of The DaVinci Code! I do not advocate flagellation or other forms of harsh self-discipline.

However, I don’t think it’s right to rule out the practice entirely as something strange and barbaric from the Dark Ages. The physical harshness possibly served a purpose and must have been very familiar to people of that time. The importance of reminding ourselves physically that we are sinners who are saved only by the loving grace of God has not changed.

How, then, can contemporary Christians use physical self-discipline as a form of prayer? One of the simplest ways is a gentle striking of the breast. It should be forceful enough to make a barely audible thump, but not enough to interfere with your breathing or hurt in any way.

Many Episcopalians and other Christians already use this type of gesture when saying, “Lord, have mercy” or similar words at various points in the liturgy. It is often accompanied by a bowing of the head or a slight bending forward of the shoulders.

The Practice

  • Kneel or stand. Fix your gaze on a Cross, statue, or other image. Think of what it means to you. Breathe in slowly and hold the breath for a few seconds. Exhale slowly.
  • Breathe in slowly. As you exhale, bow your head or lean forward slightly with your shoulders. At the same time, make a loosely-closed fist with your hand and gently touch it to the center of your chest, making a soft “thump.” Leave it there.
  • Slowly breathing in and out as you have been doing, and continuing to strike your breast each time, pray this or another prayer, slowly and reverently:  “Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof; but only speak the word and my soul shall be healed.” [Luke 7:6-7, paraphrased]
  • Repeat this several times, pausing after each repetition.
  • When you have finished, straighten up and relax, keeping your gaze fixed on the Cross or image before you.
  • Take one or two slow, deep breaths, and thank God for allowing you to learn to pray in this way. Record your thoughts in your Prayer Journal.

FOUR:  Kneeling/Genuflecting

Being found in human form, Jesus humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.
    Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
[Romans 8:26-28 NRSV]

First, let me say that, if like me, you find it physically challenging to execute this gesture, you can still do it in your mind―visualizing it.

Of all human postures, the one most associated with prayer is kneeling. Even more than bowing, it is a symbol of humility and honor to another. The greatest kings have done it:

Now when Solomon finished offering all this prayer and this plea to the Lord, he arose from facing the altar of the Lord, where he had knelt with hands outstretched towards heaven. [1 Kings 8:54 NRSV]

Kneeling is the physical sign of lowering yourself. When you kneel, you usually can’t look another adult directly in the eye:  you have to look upward. Genuflecting (from the Latin for “bending the knee”) is a temporary form of kneeling, similar to a bow. Most Episcopalians don’t genuflect very much, but Dominic used this gesture to remind himself of God’s glory and his own unworthiness.

I believe that humility can be a good practice, as long as we remember that our paradigm of living humbly is Jesus himself. We are not debasing or devaluing ourselves. Doing so would deny the reality that we are created in God’s own divine image and are God’s precious children. Rather, we acknowledge God’s great love and care for us, for which we are completely unworthy, and our response to that reality is complete humility.

The Practice

You will note that this is very similar to The Practice of Bowing (First Way).

I recommend that you try this posture with something sturdy, such as a chair, beside you, to steady you as you move up and down.

  • Begin standing in a relaxed posture. You might want to use a cushion of some sort, although you can kneel right on the floor or earth. Focus your attention on Jesus, using a mental image, Crucifix, or other object.
  • Remind yourself of your own humility, as well as Jesus’ humility in his complete sacrifice of himself for you.
  • When you have thought briefly about humility, take a deep in-breath.
  • Without straining, kneel with one knee on the cushion or the ground, exhaling as you do so. It is always a good idea to hold on to something (a rail, a chair, etc.) as you kneel, in order to maintain your balance.
  • As you genuflect, keep your eyes focused on the object. You may prefer to bow your head or to raise it, as seems appropriate to you.
  • When you have knelt, slowly take one deep breath in and out. If you wish, you may remain kneeling for as long as you like, meditating on the humility of Jesus and your own. You may wish to pray, “Lord, have mercy” or the Greek translation of those words, “Kyrie eleison.
  • Slowly rise up, breathing in as you do so. Gently exhale and open your mind to whatever insight God wishes to give you.
  • You may repeat the genuflection as many times as seems right and comfortable to you. Take care that you do not hurt or tire yourself, and be especially careful not to allow yourself to get dizzy from repeated kneeling and rising.
  • When you have finished, be seated and take one or two slow, deep breaths. And thank God for allowing you to learn to pray in this way. Record your thoughts in your Prayer Journal.

FIVE:  Gesturing

I will bless you as long as I live;
I will lift up my hands and call on your name.
[Psalm 63:4 – NRSV]

This practice requires a bit of explanation. The best source for that is a lengthy quotation from The Nine Ways. [pp 15-16]

Sometimes, when he was in a convent, our holy father Dominic would stand upright before the altar, not leaning on anything or supported by anything, but with his whole body standing upright on his feet.

(1)  Sometimes, he would hold his hands out, open, before his breast, like an open book, and then he would stand in great reverence and devotion, as if he were reading in the presence of God…
(2)  At other times, he joined his hands and held them tightly fastened together in front of his eyes, hunching himself up.
(3)  At other times, he raised his hands to his shoulders, in the manner of a priest saying Mass, as if he wanted to fix his ears more attentively on something that was being said to him by somebody else.

We should take these three postures used by Dominic only as examples, and then discover which of these―or which other ones―work best for us.

The purpose of this form of prayer is to use physicality to express ourselves silently. Gestures that are natural for our culture, such as opening the arms in anticipation of a hug, reaching straight ahead as if striving for something, and folding the hands in the “standard” prayer position may well prove to be the best for you to use.

The Practice

These are only some of the positions that you may wish to try. Feel free to find what works best for you.
  • Standing with your arms loosely at your sides, slowly breathe in and hold the breath. Slowly exhale.
         As you breathe in again, slowly bend your elbows and raise your hands out in front of your chest, palms up, into a position as if you were holding a book in front of you. You may either keep your forearms straight, so that your hands are the width of your chest apart, or you may gently lay one hand on top of the other at a right angle (as if you are receiving Communion). Look down at your hands.
         You might pray, “Thy Word, O Lord, is a lamp unto my feet, a light unto my path.”
    [Psalm 119:105 – KJV]

         This is a contemplative gesture. Imagine that you are reading a book that contains all of God’s love for you―all of the help, reassurance, and encouragement that you have ever needed. Feel the joy of that book and feel God’s desire to touch you with the Eternal Word. Slowly breathe in and out several times in this position. On the last exhalation, lower your arms to their starting position.
  • Take in another slow, deep breath reaching your arms up and out in front of you, palms upward.
         You might pray, “Come, Lord Jesus” softly and slowly several times.
         This is a welcoming gesture, so think of yourself as inviting the whole world to come to you in love and compassion. You may see yourself as the one giving the love, or the one receiving it, or both. Breathe in and out slowly several times in this position. On the last exhalation, return your arms to the first position.
  • Breathing deeply again, raise your hands toward your shoulders, turning the palms inward so that they face each other across your body. Bow your head so that it is between your open hands, but do not touch them to your head.
         You may wish to pray, “The Lord bless me and keep me; the Lord make his face to shine upon me and be gracious unto me; the Lord lift up his countenance upon me, and give me peace.”
    [Numbers 6:24-26 – KJV, paraphrased]
         This is a gesture of gentleness and devotion. Feel God’s peace and love come to you. Feel God embrace you with an outpouring of calming love. Continue to breathe in and out for a time. Then return your arms to your sides.
  • Feel free to invent and try various other gestures, keeping those that work for you and leaving the others behind. Repeat the breathing pattern and use any prayers that seem to fit.
  • When you have finished, take one or two slow, deep breaths, and thank God for allowing you to learn to pray in this way. Record your thoughts in your Prayer Journal.

SIX:  The Orans Position

If anyone would come after me,
he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.
[Luke 9:23 – NIV]

May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.
[Galatians 6:14 – NRSV]

When Dominic prayed in this position, he was seen to be imaging Christ on the Cross. Today, priests celebrating the Eucharist are often seen to extend their arms into this position, called the orans position (orans means “praying” in Latin).

Might it be presumptuous for us to imitate the position of Jesus on the Cross? Could we even begin to imagine the agony that he felt in this position, the sorrow for what this world had demanded of him, the compassionate love he felt for us poor sinners?

We do not assume this position because we count ourselves the equals of Christ, but because we recognize the necessity to take up our own crosses in life, to endure whatever trials and hardships may come our way.

The Practice

  • Standing with your arms loosely at your sides, slowly breathe in and hold the breath. Slowly exhale.
  • As you breathe in again, raise and open your arms outward from your sides, palms turned upward. Stop at shoulder height, arms comfortably extended to your left and right―do not stretch. Breathe out slowly. 
  • Bow your head and pray, thinking of Jesus’ sacrifice for you. You may wish to pray something like, “My Jesus, mercy.” 
  • Take several deep breaths.
  • Looking heavenward, pray a prayer of praise, such as “God of glory, God of love!” Breathe deeply, feeling the love of God and the glory which God sends upon you.
  • Breathing out, lower your head and arms to the starting positions. Repeat as you like.
  • When you have finished, take one or two slow, deep breaths, and thank God for allowing you to learn to pray in this way. Record your thoughts in your Prayer Journal.

SEVEN:  Stretching

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.
My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.
[Psalm 121:1-2 – KJV]

This is a position that reflects a longing to touch God. All our desire, all our mission in this life’s journey is to be united with God. We feel drawn toward union with our Creator, a union that cannot be achieved until our time in this form of life is over. Until that day, our longing is expressed physically by reaching toward God.

The anonymous author of The Nine Ways said this about this position:

While praying [Dominic] was often seen to reach towards heaven like an arrow which has been shot from a taut bow straight upwards into the sky. He would stand with hands outstretched above his head and joined together, or at times slightly separated as if about to receive something from heaven. [pg 22]

The Nine Ways makes it clear that Dominic felt his closest connection to the Divine in this position, sometimes appearing to be in an ecstasy of union with God. He did not remain in this position for a long time, but always came out of it refreshed and renewed.

The Practice

If at any point this position makes you feel dizzy or unsteady, stop at once. You can also do this while seated. Do not remain in this position long. If you feel any strain or other discomfort, lower your hands immediately.
  • This position is best practiced outdoors, where you can see the sky. However, it can also be done inside, preferably somewhere that has a high ceiling. If whatever is above you (for example, an ordinary tile ceiling) is distracting, close your eyes as you practice this position.
  • Standing with your arms loosely at your sides, slowly breathe in and hold the breath. Slowly exhale.
  • As you breathe in again, raise and stretch your arms upward, raising your chin as you do so. Avoid lifting your shoulders.
  • Look toward the heavens. Close your eyes if appropriate. The palms of your hands should face each other, shoulder width apart. Spread your fingers. You should not be tense or strained, so consciously relax if necessary.
  • Pray a prayer of longing for God, such as “Father, make me one with You.” Take one or two slow, deep breaths.
  • Slowly bring your hands together above your head. Clasp them, intertwining your fingers if you wish. Offer your life to God, perhaps praying, “Let my prayer be set forth in your sight as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.” [Psalm 141:2 BCP]
  • After a brief time praying in this way, slowly lower your arms to your side, exhaling and relaxing. Take one or two slow, deep breaths, and thank God for allowing you to learn to pray in this way. Record your thoughts in your Prayer Journal.

EIGHT:  Reading

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures
to be written for our learning:
Grant us so to hear them,
read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them,
that we may embrace and ever hold fast
the blessed hope of everlasting life.
[Book of Common Prayer, pg 236]

It may surprise you to think of reading as a form of physical prayer. Our bodies are always active, moving and doing things, so any action that seems to stop those activities might appear to be the opposite of a physical gesture.

However, sitting in stillness, moving little, and exercising the eyes and brain is very much a form of physicality. Dominic used this Way on a daily basis, after praying the canonical hours and after meals. The Nine Ways says that Dominic “withdrew to some solitary place, to his cell or elsewhere, and recollected himself in the presence of God. He would sit quietly, and after the sign of the cross, begin to read from a book opened before him. His spirit would then be sweetly aroused as if he heard Our Lord speaking…” [pg 27]

Dominic’s reactions as he read made it appear as though he were in a conversation with the writer of the book. At times he would smile, laugh out loud, even weep. He often appeared to be in discussion with the book, now listening attentively, now engaging in inner dialogue. He had a little ritual that he followed, which we shall follow in The Practice of this Way.

This practice is not the same thing as Lectio Divina, as practiced by some monastics. There is no prescribed pattern of reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation, although you may find yourself doing those things. It does not matter particularly what you read, although it ought to be something that is conducive to prayer. Plan to set aside a reasonable amount of time, not less than fifteen minutes, for this prayer.

The Practice

  • In a quiet place with adequate light for reading and as few distractions as possible, be seated comfortably. You may hold the book (or other reading material) in your hands or rest it on a table or stand. Your posture should be relaxed and comfortable, but not slouching or reclining. Your feet should be flat on the floor.
  • Before you begin reading, focus your attention on the book. See it as if for the first time. Pay attention to its size, color, binding, paper. Recognize that you are about to enter into a dialogue with it, to share its knowledge and receive its message for you. If you are reading a Bible or Gospel book, you may bow your head to it or kiss it before you begin.
  • Say a brief prayer of preparation, such as “Your word is a lamp to my feet, a light to my path” [Psalm 119:105 NRSV] or “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart, be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.” [Psalm 19:14 KJV]
  • Begin reading mindfully. You may hold the book, move it about, or anything else that places you in an intimate relationship with it. Pause frequently to consider what God is saying to you as you read. Feel free to engage in conversation with God, asking questions, agreeing or disagreeing, thanking God for speaking to you in this way. Change your position as needed to remain comfortable.
  • When you have finished, or the time allotted for reading has run out, turn your attention away from the book. Look upward or at something else in the room or scenery. Clear your mind and let God speak to you in your thoughts.
  • Pray in thanksgiving, perhaps saying, “Father, give me the gift of understanding.” If you have been reading the Gospel, you might say, “By the words of the Gospel may our sins be taken away.”
  • Take one or two slow, deep breaths, and thank God for allowing you to learn to pray in this way. Rise carefully and put the book away with reverence for what it has taught you. Record your thoughts in your Prayer Journal.

NINE:  Walking

So be careful to do what the Lord your God has commanded you;
do not turn aside to the right or to the left.
Walk in all the way that the Lord your God has commanded you,
so that you may live and prosper and prolong your days
in the land that you will possess.
[Deuteronomy 5:32-33]

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking …” [Walking, by H.D. Thoreau] Thoreau appreciated the benefits to body and soul of this type of gentle exercise.

It is likely that Saint Dominic rarely rode a horse or traveled in a carriage. In the early years of the thirteenth century, most people got around simply by walking, and Dominic must have walked hundreds of miles in his life. It was his practice to take advantage of the time spent walking in a variety of ways. One of his preferred ways was to let the rest of his party get far ahead of him, and then to walk alone, meditating as he did so. It was said that he prepared his sermons, came to understand the Scriptures, and debated with devils as he did this! Certainly Dominic’s powerful preaching was, at least in part, a result of the time he spent in solitary walking from place to place.

It is also important to mention the labyrinth as a specific way of walking. Although based in mythology (the den of the Minotaur on Crete was reached by negotiating a complex labyrinth), Christians are most familiar with those in the great medieval cathedrals, such as Chartres and Reims.

A labyrinth used for prayer is a means of meditation, self-examination, and personal renewal. Although I will not specifically discuss the use of a labyrinth in this section, I encourage it as a very useful form of this Way of prayer.

The Practice

This form of prayer needs no explanation, but I will offer some basic advice.
  • Always walk where it is safe to do so. If you are in a place that is new to you, try to find out in advance where the roads and paths go, whether there is anything that will be difficult, such as rough or steep terrain.
  • Avoid walking in dangerous environments. Here, I am speaking of high-crime areas.
  • Be aware of the weather forecast for the places you will be walking.
  • Always make sure that someone knows where you are going and when to expect you back. If there is no one around, leave a note in a prominent place with this information on it. 
  • Walk alone, or agree in advance with your companion(s) that you will do nothing to disturb each other or intrude on each other’s solitude as you walk. You may decide to begin and end the walk with a quiet conversation, but the majority of your walk should be silent and private.
  • Plan your route and time. You do not want to walk for an hour, be extremely tired, and then realize that you have to walk another hour to get back where you started! The same goes for a walk that is all downhill for the first half, then all uphill on the return.
  • Pray before you begin, perhaps saying, “Lord, you are the Light of the world. Whoever follows you will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” [John 8:12, paraphrased]
  • As you walk, clear your mind and let God speak to you. If there is something that you want to think about as you walk (i.e., some specific purpose for setting aside this time of prayer) keep that in mind. Do not be distracted by stray thoughts, just return to your intention. Don’t hesitate to let God take you to places you didn’t plan to be, and do let beautiful scenery speak to you.
  • At the end of your walk, take a moment to thank God for allowing you to learn to pray in this way. Record your thoughts in your Prayer Journal.


There are, of course, many ways to pray, and it is my hope that each person finds the ones that meet his or her needs at various times in life. I hope that The Nine Ways of Dominic, and physical prayer in general, have helped to expand your repertoire of forms of prayer.

It is my prayer that God will bless your prayers and speak to you in them, and that you will grow in your relationship with God through the time you have spent with this little book.

Brother Tom Hudson, OPA
(C) 2011, The Rev. Thomas J. Hudson, OPA - All rights reserved.