On Praying With the Body, According to St. Dominic

Interview With Sister Catherine Aubin

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ROME, MARCH 23, 2005 (Zenit.org).- To pray with all one’s body is to love with all one’s heart, says Dominican Sister Catherine Aubin, author of a book on the subject.

The French nun, who holds a licentiate in psychology and a doctorate in theology, has just published the book «Prier avec son corps à la manière de saint Dominique» (To Pray with the Body According to St. Dominic), published by Cerf.

Sister Aubin is a professor of sacramental theology and spiritual theology at the Regina Mundi Pontifical Institute, the Claretianum Institute of Theology of the Consecrated Life, and the University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome.

Q: What inspired you to write such a book?

Sister Aubin: For 10 years I lived in Saint-Denis Street in Paris where there is a community of Dominican Sisters. There I met people, in search of interior unity and peace, who practiced techniques and physical exercises such as Zen, Transcendental Meditation and others.

At the same time, as a young religious, I was discovering Dominican spirituality and I had an authentic «sudden illumination» about St. Dominic’s nine corporal ways of prayer. So I decided to write a book, one of whose messages is to say to those who practice these techniques that «in the Catholic tradition, we also have a pedagogy of prayer with the body, which might respond to your search.»

Q: What do you understand by «praying with the body»?

Sister Aubin: When one loves, that love is manifested with gestures, words, smiles. The same happens with prayer. The living Christ is before me, in me. How will I manifest my love to him?

In the book, St. Dominic is the teacher. His prayer was so fascinating that his first brothers transcribed what he said and did, with nine images in which he appears at prayer.

Each attitude of the body corresponds to a spiritual attitude and enables the latter to manifest itself. The gestures represent what is hidden and illustrate the movements of the heart. For example, the gesture of bowing corresponds to humility; kneeling to trust.

Q: Could you explain what these nine ways of prayer are?

Sister Aubin: The first way to pray is to bow. St. Dominic humbles himself before the altar in which Christ is alive on the cross, with his bleeding side to make us understand that he is communicating his life to us. St. Dominic’s interior disposition is one of humility of heart.

The second way is to prostrate oneself. St. Dominic is prostrated on the floor and weeps, with compunction of heart, pierced by the awareness of his sin.

In the third way of praying, St. Dominic scourges himself on his knees; his desire is to be like Christ in his passion.

According to the fourth way of praying, St. Dominic kneels and rises, and his soul is full of confidence in God’s mercy on him, his brothers and sinners.

In these first four ways of praying, St. Dominic’s body is on the ground. We come from the earth; it is the place of origins, the place of our limitations.

The four corresponding dispositions — humility, compunction of heart, discipline, and trust — are spiritual dispositions that recognize our dependence and the primacy of God.

These first four ways of praying may be grouped around an attitude: acceptance, acceptance of the condition of creature before God, acceptance of God as creator and savior, acceptance of one’s own limitations before him who is infinite.

In the fifth way, the saint rises and stands, without leaning on anything, as a prophet or as Jesus himself. His attitude is that of the resurrection, he is standing in his body and heart. His arms and hands manifest his listening to the Word. Gradually, he becomes silent to listen and to allow himself to be led by the One who speaks to him through the Scriptures.

Then his arms open majestically in the sixth way, to embrace and imitate his Friend who has given his life for him on the cross. His gesture with his arms in the form of a cross means life given for Christ, and life received by the saint. A gesture of crucified-resurrected, which leads St. Dominic to give life back to the young boy who has fallen off his horse. …

In the seventh way, he continues the movement of his arms, stretching them determinedly to the heavens, with his hands either clasped or open, as if he were to receive something from heaven. The tension of his whole being shows his desire to be with the One who is in heaven and with us every day.

His body, just like his heart, witnesses to his prayer which is elevated, which rises like an arrow: He knows the One he addresses and he knows his prayer will be heard, as it corresponds to that of Christ: the promise to send us the Holy Spirit.

It is the moment of the encounter with God in a face-to-face dialogue. These three ways of praying pivot on an attitude, that of an encounter with God, face to face, as with a friend.

In the eighth way of praying, St. Dominic is seated at a table, reading and listening to what the Lord says to him through his Word, and in the last way he is seen with a companion going off on a trip on the paths of the world to transmit what he has contemplated.

In this way, St. Dominic illustrates Jesus’ friendship with his friends — a friendship in which not only time is taken to sit together, but also to walk on paths together. These last two ways are ordered around a gift: the gift of God in his Word and in his life, the gift of God leads to giving and to giving of oneself.

The nine ways of praying are divided therefore in three stages: acceptance, encounter, gift. They enable us to enter in his way of salvation to cure us of our devaluation of ourselves and to listen to what the Lord says to us: I receive you as you are; you are my friend, be fruitful, give fruit.

Q: Can prayer with the body create greater intimacy with God?

Sister Aubin: It is the path proposed by this book, namely, to begin on the way of inwardness and the body is a precious help in this pedagogy.

We realize that biblical anthropology gives specific, dynamic functions to the different parts of the body, which also symbolize the intentions of the heart. For example, the neck may symbolize the place of honor, of weight, but also of affection or humility. In this way one passes from the «neck of the body» to the «neck of the heart.»

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