Body Prayer: Gregory of Nyssa’s Physical Faith

Body prayer is physical activity that promotes spiritual communion with God, sometimes accompanied by verbal communication, but often simply experienced as spending time doing something together with him.

Dove BackgroundParticipating physically in prayer changes the nature of our conversations with God. For some, action in prayer adds dimension to what would otherwise feel like flat words (Matt 6:7). For others, engaging the body frees us from the tyranny of the mind so that we can listen to the Lord’s voice, not just our own (Isa 50:5). Many of the writings of the Cappadocian fathers wrestled with just exactly how this body participation in communion with God worked.

These three church fathers were born early in the fourth century in a region called Cappadocia, near modern-day Armenia. Two of them attended school together and grew up to be known as Basil the Great and Gregory of Nazianzus.

The third, Basil’s younger brother, also named Gregory (of Nyssa, c. 335–c. 394), did not want to be a professional churchman. He had neither Basil’s administrative skills, nor the other Gregory’s eloquence in preaching. Instead, he used his education to become a lawyer. Big brother Basil did not approve. To force him out of the secular job, he appointed Gregory bishop of Nyssa. Gregory could not resist. As a bishop, he continued to exert his keen mind, however, and eventually became the most proficient writer and theologian of the three.

For many years, the trio corresponded regularly. When the larger church fought over whether Jesus was spirit or flesh, the three men took up the discussion of this paradox in their letters (John 1:14; 4:24). Together they reasoned that Jesus was the same divine substance or essence as the Father—nothing less (John 10:30)—but also that Jesus was human—and thus unique. They argued for three distinct, yet permanently cooperating, persons or “faces” of one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Rom 1:1–4). It is this tri-unity understanding that comes down to us in the Nicene Creed.

In 381, Gregory presented their Trinity concept to a gathering of church leaders at the Second Ecumenical Council, where he lobbied strongly for its adoption. After the council, he traveled to Syria, Arabia, and Jerusalem, helping churches resolve their sometimes bloody disunity over the issue by offering believers the option that Jesus was one whole—both “very divine” and “very human.”

Gregory was the first writer to link Christ’s act of becoming human to save humans with Christians’ acts of eating and drinking communion and getting wet in baptism (1 Cor 11:26; Heb 10:22). He wrote that receiving these physical sacraments played a role in a person’s spiritual cooperation with God: “Since the method of our salvation was made effectual, not so much by [Christ’s] precepts, . . . as by [his] deeds, . . . it was necessary that some means should be devised by which there might be . . . a kind of affinity and likeness between him who follows and him who leads the way.”1

Spiritual gifts did not work apart from observable fruits of this cooperation.2 Prophecy, for example, was a useless gift if it was not physically practiced with love and did not bear the fruit of love (1 Cor 13:8–9; Gal 5:22–23). More than any other writer of his time, Gregory articulated the association: physical signs of faith both point to and participate in mysteries of faith.

Fourth century controversies were not the last conflicts to arise over how one’s body engages one’s redemption. Today, you still cannot attend church for very long before you hear such questions. What is the exact nature of the bread and wine with regard to Jesus’ body and blood? Is sprinkling sufficient for baptism, or must you be fully immersed? Shall we raise hands and dance or keep silence in worship? Will we recite ancient prayers or speak in spiritual tongues? The fact is we do not fully comprehend how the body-spirit mystery works, so we discuss it . . . a lot.

What we do know is that you do not have a body; you are a body just as much as you are a mind and a spirit.3 Modern learning theories and brain science support this scriptural assumption. Multiple-intelligence studies suggest that human understanding grows by doodling and tasting, as well as by reading and taking notes.4 And left brain/right brain studies indicate that the right hemisphere, the faith and religion side, needs more exercise.5

Many religions encourage such exercises as burning incense, lighting candles, walking the labyrinth, tracing mandalas, dancing, and looking at icons because they know that engaging the whole person in worship is powerful. Some of these methods are used by Christians, too. Long before Gregory, the psalmist urged worshipers to “Lift up your hands to the holy place and bless the Lord!” (Ps 134:2 RSV) and implored God to “Let my prayer be counted as incense before thee” (Ps 141:2 RSV). Your body’s posture, your speech, your song, your hearing, your senses of smell and taste, and your hand motions change how you listen to the Lord and how you respond.

Body prayer taps our right-brain listening tools of dimension, imagination, and faith and momentarily sets aside our left-brain demands for black and white, yes or no answers. Instead of worries and wants encumbering the mind, shapes, sounds, and motions occupy it, allowing deeper longings to rise up and be addressed (Ps 42:2). In addition to telling God what is on our prayer list, employing our whole bodies creates space for prayer to become a communion of trust.

Sharing a prayer activity with the Father—rather than simply listing our expectations of him, ourselves, and others—feels more like breaking bread together than flying in for a business lunch (Exod 17:7; Luke 22:15). We relax our need for an immediate word of affirmation, and this allows a sense of God’s intimate presence to sneak in through the back door of action and artistic play. Body prayer allows us to enjoy our time with the Lord. And it is this communion that satisfies our hearts.


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1Gregory of Nyssa, The Great Catechism 37 (vol. 5 of The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers; Series 2; ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace; 1886–1889; 14 vols.; repr. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1994), 502.

2Stanley M. Burgess, The Holy Spirit: Ancient Christian Traditions (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1984), 144–51.

3Richard J. Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), 116.

4Neil D. Fleming and Charles C. Bonwell, “VARK: A Guide to Learning Styles,” n.p. [cited 11 Jan 2006]. Online:

5Dan Eden, “Left Brain: Right Brain,” n.p. [cited 11 Jan 2006]. Online: