Dancing the Magnificat

A muscular missive from The Merry Mystic

This week’s installment of The Merry Mystic features me dancing.  No, really.

Have you ever seen liturgical dance that touched your heart?  Is physical movement a part of your spiritual practice?  Please scroll down and leave a comment.

Best blessings,



I gather my weapons. No one else in the house is awake yet, save only the cat, and he’s too concerned now with the contents of his dish to pay any further attention to me. I ease the back door open and slip outside. The dew on the back steps chills my bare feet. The neighboring cottages are quiet, and there’s no one in sight. Good. I’d just as soon not be seen. With silent steps I make my way down the path, past the parking lot, past the old hotel, and onto the empty beach. I place my weapons carefully on the sand. I kneel, preparing myself.

Preparing myself, but not for violence. I have never used a weapon in earnest against another creature. I am a student of a traditional martial art—Karatedo Doshinkan—and my weapons this morning are simple wooden ones: the bo (a six-foot staff) and the tonfa (a pair of short sticks with handles). Each morning, when I can, I come to this beach on Lake Michigan to train, sometimes with weapons and sometimes without them. Each morning I begin with an opening ceremony of kiotsuke (gathering ki, life-energy) and rei (showing respect), preparing for my daily training in the way I first learned twenty years ago. And each morning, as part of this ceremony, I kneel and pray.

Hanshi Isao Ichikawa, the founder of my system of Karatedo, opened each training with this traditional ceremony, which includes a time of kneeling silence. I never heard him give any instruction on what to do with this silence; it wasn’t his way to tell when he could show. I don’t think he thought of it as a time of prayer, but that’s what it is for me. In fact, my whole morning training is often a time of prayer—a time of heightened awareness of God’s presence.

The training itself involves the practice of many kata, traditional training dances. To learn a kata, a student watches a teacher carefully and attempts to imitate the movements. The kata are fully packed, containing many self-defense techniques. They bear wisdom from out of the past, and they reward close study. I have worked with these kata for twenty years, and practiced the techniques with partners. In the process I have lost some of my old fear of physical conflict. Why I should have had such fear I don’t know: I haven’t been in a fight since I was a child. Why I should have lost that fear is another mystery: there’s no guarantee that I would win a fight now, or even that I would choose to try to defend myself against an attack.

Such questions have receded in importance for me. Kata contain self-defense techniques in the way that poems contain words; a kata is not merely a collection of techniques any more than a poem is merely a vocabulary list. In one way, the kata are strictly programmed forms that must be learned and followed; in another way they allow freedom, because the movements can be, and should be, expressed with feeling. The movements are not to be mimicked robotically, but thoughtfully adapted to the body and spirit of the person doing them.

Hanshi taught these movements carefully, but also used to emphasize that technique isn’t everything. In one rare moment of explanation he suggested that we try to perform kata as a mother sings lullabies to her child. When singing a lullaby it doesn’t hurt to have the vocal technique of a professional singer, but that isn’t the most important thing. What really makes a lullaby beautiful, with or without perfect technique, is the mother’s feeling for her child. And I find that when I am properly mindful a kata can be an intensely prayerful dance with God.

This morning, I start with my time of kneeling silence. The lake, which was noisy with waves all night, is at rest now, and the sun is not yet up. I kneel in the cold damp sand, eyes closed. I reflect with gratitude on my shivering body: I am a 48-year-old man, no great athlete, no paragon of strength or beauty, yet all my limbs seem to be working this morning, and we are all, as scripture says, fearfully and wonderfully made. I think about my teachers—the late Hanshi, Shihan Dean, Shihan June, Shihan Leone, Hanshi Nobuo Ichikawa. I picture them in my mind and pray my thanks for them. I offer my training to God, and ask that God watch and receive my practice. I wait and listen in the silence. And when it’s time, I open my eyes, and rise, and begin.

I begin, of course, with physical warm-ups. Some of them look pretty silly. I must confess, this is the part I’d rather not have anyone see. I’m vain enough to hope that, if anyone does pass by this early in the morning, they’ll at least wait until I’m doing something more impressive than swiveling my hips and swinging my arms. That’s another kind of fear I’ve worked on over the last twenty years—the fear of looking ridiculous. And now I do hear an approaching noise. It’s a rushing, murmuring sound. I look around, but no, it’s overhead: swans! In a V-formation they pass above me, heading up the shoreline. Up where they’re flying, the rising sun already touches them, and they shine a brilliant white. They don’t seem to have taken any notice of me and my ridiculous wind-milling.

I’ve trained in many other places: on top of a peak in New Mexico, on a lawn in California, in a gym in New York, in a field in Germany. Mostly, I’ve learned not to be self-conscious about training alone. When I was a seminary student at the Earlham School of Religion, I did my morning trainings on the lawns of the nearby Quaker Hill Conference Center. When I first started my studies at the seminary, knowing little about the culture, I was afraid that people at Quaker Hill might take exception to apparent aggressiveness of some of the training; I imagined some frowning Quaker giving me stern advice about it. I needn’t have worried: even the deer at the wood’s edge were undisturbed by my morning trainings. Maybe they could tell that for me the training has little to do with aggression, but much to do with prayer. However that may be, I don’t have to be self-conscious about training alone here on the beach this morning.  Such fears have also receded for me: despite my apparent solitude, I know that I am not training alone.

Warm-ups completed, I move into a time of practicing kata. I begin with the seven Kyoku kata—the sunrise kata—and I pray them repeatedly to God with my body, wordlessly. In this time of prayer I do not communicate verbal concepts to God: no praise, no request, no thanks, no complaint. We show more than tell, and dance more than show. This is an essentially kinetic prayer, a dance to God and with God, an expression of what it means to be alive and incarnate, performed with full feeling.

The sun rises to touch me. The hour wears away. There is no room for fear or self-consciousness. My fearfully-and-wonderfully-made body becomes hot and tired and stuck all over with sand. And as I train, I become more aware of God, and I feel God’s eyes on me. And a slow elation rises.

Beach Training

Every summer for the last eleven years I have hosted a Karatedo Doshinkan special training on beaches of Lake Michigan. This year it isn’t going to happen: I’m just too busy finishing at my seminary and preparing (I think) for ordination. My heart is heavy — I’ll miss you so much, my training friends! Here’s a poem I wrote, a sestina about training on the beach.

Beach Training

We come here every summer, to the bright shore returning.
Glad to be together, full of life, we paw the sand.
We anchor our stand by the water's edge and let fly the flag,
White cloth flipping in the breeze, its free red circle,
Drawn by the master's hand, lifting up and away.
We kneel.  A rush of swan's wings passes above the water.

Some days we practice throwing into that icy water.
With rolling motion the bodies rise and fall, like waves returning:
One partner grabbing the other, sinking, turning away,
The other arcing over, head-first in the water, escaping the sand.
The heat of the sun and the cold of the lake chase themselves in a circle.
Seagulls wheel away from the splashing, and from the flapping flag.

The wind dies.  Dead fish wash up.  The flag
Hangs flat and limp.  We take a break, drink water.
Aware now of our breathing, we smooth on sunscreen, sitting in a circle.
Time is up: we leave the shade, to the beach returning.
The sun presses us down hard toward the scorching sand.
Striking, ducking, advancing, retreating, the afternoon wears away.

Worn away, too, are all superfluities, worn well away.
Distractions followed us all as far as the first unfurling of the flag --
A plan for dinner; a pretty girl's bare feet in the sand;
A check-engine light -- they fade from heat and want of water.
In their place, a new strength comes, flowing and returning,
Everything else under the sun shrivels within our circle.

Around the fire at night we talk, cooking and eating in a circle.
The fire pops like the sand in our teeth; we wave mosquitoes away.
The conversation turns to those who will not be returning,
To those now gone, like him who drew the circle on the flag,
Never now to train with us, here by the edge of the water.
We ease our aching limbs into sleeping bags, now full of sand.

Up again at dawn.  Every day sweating.  The sand
Sticking to us like cinnamon sugar sticks to the hot circle
Of a deep-fried doughnut.  It isn't washing off in the freezing water.
Blocking, turning, rolling, pulling in and pushing away,
Moving in the old ways, here beneath the flag,
Every thrust safely deflecting, every attack returning.

Here by the water, burned and bleached, everything wears away
In the end.  Tending my tired joints, I slowly fold up the flag.
From the empty circle of sand a spiral rises, like a swan returning.