Message in a Body
Our faithful bodies try ceaselessly to let us know what is really going on in our deep levels. — Wuellner, Prayer and Our Bodies
Several years back, I began to have increasing and consistent pain in my wrists and hands. At first I ignored the pain and treated myself to mini massages to try to relieve the symptoms. As the pain grew more persistent, I began to wear wrist guards and take over the counter pain medication. Eventually, the pain became so troubling that I couldn’t lift heavy objects and would catch myself unconsciously massaging the painful areas almost nonstop.
Because I couldn’t afford health insurance at the time and didn’t have a doctor in the area, I diagnosed myself (always a bright idea) with carpal tunnel syndrome and tried every home treatment I could find online. As the situation became desperate, I finally called my uncle, who is a physical therapist, for some free advice. He asked me some preliminary questions and then suggested that my symptoms were more consistent with a pinched nerve in my neck and that even though the pain was in my wrists and fingers, I should relieve the stress in my neck to help reduce the symptoms.
That same week, a friend of mine organized a prayer session for me with a group of Christians experienced in praying for physical healing. I arrived complete with wrist guards. As soon as I sat down in the chair–before I even had a chance to tell them what I wanted prayer for–one of the ladies in the group asked if she could lay her hands on me, and to my surprise, she put her hand on the back of my neck and began to pray for release of emotional burdens!
After the prayer session, I met with my counselor and spiritual director to discuss what had happened and began to uncover the fact that I have a tendency to “carry” people emotionally and even to carry other people’s burdens. My ability to be empathetic has always been an asset as I seek to be a safe space for others to share their deep heart and feel heard, loved, and accepted. But I had never realized the emotional–and evidently physical–impact my empathy had on my own health.
Because I didn’t have safe boundaries to protect myself and ensure I interacted with others in a healthy way, I continued to carry emotional burdens unnecessarily. It took ongoing, mysterious physical pain to draw my attention to my lack of self-care. In effect, I was unwilling to deal with my emotional state until my body physically forced me to.
Chapter 3: Listening to Our Bodies in Prayer
This week we’re walking through Wuellner’s Prayer and Our Bodies to discover more about the relationship between our physical and spiritual selves. In this chapter, she describes common physical symptoms like unexplained pain or fatigue and the messages they might have for our emotional or spiritual life: “That symptom is telling us, in the only way it can, that there is something about ourselves, our habits, or our surroundings that we need to know.”
Wuellner suggests that before we grab that bottle of pain pills or snatch a quick nap, we take a moment to listen and find out if that symptom is really a message about something else. “This faithful, alert listening to our bodies,” she writes, “is a holy and necessary part of our spirituality. And what incredible changes it can bring into our lives!”
Now, when I feel that mysterious twinge in my wrists or fingers, I know my body is telling me I have an emotional burden I need to lay down. I have learned to listen to my body’s warnings and trust that there is a problem I need to address, even if I am not intellectually or emotionally aware of it.
Chapter 4: New Ways of Praying for Ourselves
When a physical symptom really is a sign of a physical ailment, Wuellner encourages her readers in the next chapter to pray not just for that one symptom but for the whole person–body, mind, emotion, and will.
Certainly we should listen to the problem, look on the ingrained habit as a signal of stress and need [here she is referring to her example of a man trying to quit smoking], and send encouraging thoughts to the body as it works for health. But we need to remember that what appears to be one problem usually turns out to be a problem of the whole life, and that its consequences are born by the whole body, even though the problem itself may be manifested in one area.
Wuellner warns that sometimes prayer in this way, for the whole person, may reveal some unknown or long-forgotten issue that needs to be dealt with. She encourages her readers to approach these issues gently and lovingly and promises that “God encounters these shut doors [unknown or forgotten hurts from the past] with infinite compassion, knowing we are pathetically revealing our vulnerability. Every tense muscle, every defensive withdrawal is a beloved and wounded child who is to be embraced and restored to life and released to empowerment.”
She also suggests that, when we experience healing of these past wounds, we may discover that whatever symptom indicated a weakness has been transformed into “the source of our greatest empowered giftedness!” Might not this be part of what Jesus meant when he said he came to complete our joy and finish the good work begun in us?
In my story, I also discovered that the reason my empathy manifested as a desire to carry others’ burdens stemmed from a deep underlying belief that God was not trustworthy. Because my trust had been broken early and often, I had internalized the lie that I could not trust God with my own burdens, let alone the burdens of others.
As I began to learn to trust God fully, I have discovered a wealth of emotional strength left over to face life’s difficulties and support those around me (in a safe, healthy way, of course!). If my body hadn’t alerted me to all the energy I was using to carry things that belonged in God’s hands, I would never have discovered how trustworthy God is and how free and strong I feel when God is carrying the heavy load.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at what Wuellner has to say about praying with and through bodies. For today, spend some time quietly listening to your body. What messages is your body sending you? God just might be inviting you into an experience of healing and empowerment for the path ahead of you. Will you accept it?