Real Men Pray Naked

Real Men Pray Naked

With my rosary beads clenched in one hand and my heart full of trepidation, I knelt down on one knee, took a deep breath and brought both of my hands together, quietly beginning the words of a familiar prayer in the language that seemed so much better than my native tongue to express the deepness of my faith: creo em Deus, pai todo-poderoso, craidor do céu e da terra....

Before I had grown up to become a firm believer in secularism and a critic of all things religious, I was raised a good Catholic boy of Portuguese descent, mastering the art of praying the rosary from my grandmother who recited it everyday. It was she who insisted on saying prayers in Portuguese because according to her, that language that was far more expressive than English. Even though I’ve pretty much left the creeds somewhere on a shelf in my basement, there are times that I’m drawn back to say something familiar, less motivated because I think there’s an invisible person watching me, but more to express that intangible part of my conscience that rationality and science can’t answer. I don’t make excuses for the contradiction: I live with it.

But what made this particular prayer different wasn’t so much what I said (or in what language I said it) as what I was wearing. Or, what I wasn’t wearing. You see, I prayed naked.

When the film “The Da Vinci Code” came out a few years back, I was struck by a scene where the ultra-religious albino assassin (no, I am not making this up) prays nude, kneeling before a crucifix after a round of self-flagellation. While I can do without that, I remember wondering what it would feel like to pray naked. While the circumstances of this action in the movie are less than admirable (he was going to kill someone after all), the very thought of praying without any clothes struck me as exceedingly intriguing.

Nudity in religions isn’t news at all; take a look at the Digambar Jains of India who are regarded as holy men but never put on a stitch of clothing. In the Western world, however, thanks to the attitudes of Christianity and Judaism, we are encouraged to cover up as much as possible. While Christians have no problem with a barely clothed Christ (the loincloth was added in much later, as condemned criminals were crucified naked, at least during Roman times), the abhorrence for the body has dominated their thinking for centuries . Judaism, too, prefers to talk about the need for “modesty” and the requirement to cover up while performing rituals(1) or doing anything else, such as breathing. Likewise, Islamic law asks and answers the question of whether a man may pray naked (obviously no). I have to wonder who asked that question in the first place.

But I’m not talking about official dogma or religious law, I’m talking about the private practices that individuals do to connect to their spirituality outside of a church, synagogue or mosque. You can find any assortment of Christian nudist groups on the Internet, who often talk about “social nudity” and how it’s not specifically condemned in the Bible, and about how praying naked makes them feel more spiritually aware. While I am skeptical about that last part, I found myself wondering what it would feel like to recite prayer the all-together and asking myself how you prepare for such a thing. (You can also find no shortage of outrage and disgust from other Christians who find such a concept absurd and offensive, but I digress.)

Because of the taboos that our culture places on nudity, I discovered that my curiosity was mixed with uneasiness, and all the childhood superstitions and fears came back in a flood. Wouldn’t it just be the height of blasphemy to pick up a Bible in anything other than a three-piece suit? Would I be tempting fate somehow if I dared even contemplate such a thing? Of course, being forbidden just made it even more enticing. I started scouring as many sites as possible on the subject of prayer and nudity, reading ongoing posts arguing for and against. (Interesting enough, almost all of these sites deal with Christian nudism; there doesn’t seem to exist any Jewish groups promoting Jewish nudism in the same context or any other context.) And I pondered the question: does God even care about this?

Putting aside my usual philosophical objections to organized religion, it would appear ridiculous that a supreme divinity could be offended at the sight of a body it ostensibly created in its own image any more than expressing a loathing for polyester. Our religious rituals and rules come to us as a done, packaged deal: always extant and never having evolved in cultures far away from our own, but reinforced from inherited taboos that we term “our heritage.” So we consider the issue of proper attire (or lack thereof) to be the same across space and time: if they didn’t do it in the past, why do it now? Or we point to codified laws (Jewish halachah or Muslim shariah) to show us that the questions have already been asked and answered and there’s no need to bother with the issue. Yet this is predicated on the notion that it is God’s will we are carrying out, rather than the changing mores of humans at different points in time. If the boundary between the two is muddled, we can conclude that praying naked is offensive to God himself, rather than to the men who crafted the rules in the first place and beat these notions into the heads of their communities subsequent generations.

All of my Internet searching with the topic led me to a blog posting with the same title as this article, “Real Men Pray Naked.” I won’t go into the specifics of that posting here; suffice to say that after reading it, it dawned on me that what I was doing was looking for justification before actually attempting it. Like I said, all those old feelings had come rushing back to me, so what I had embarked on a quest to find a reason to do it, rather than taking a leap of faith (if you will) and just pray. In fact, many of the sites I visited that advocated Christianity and nudism were rife with biblical quotations for it; ripostes used as many quotes against it. Each side was determined to “prove” they could do it (or not) based on the (assumed) authority of the Bible, rather than making a decision on their own. And I was doing the exact same thing, even though I’d eschewed that kind of thinking long ago.

And therein was the simplicity of the blog entry. The author connected creating intimacy with his wife and expanding that intimacy to a spiritual level in one fell swoop because he was particularly acute to presence of God in his life. The intimacy he wrote of wasn’t necessarily sexual, but one of shared joy with the most important person in his life, and that was reflected in prayer. He offered no justifications: he merely did it.

With that in mind, I resolved to go ahead and give it a try, but like I mentioned earlier, I still had trepidation about it. It took a great deal of mental energy to focus on what I was doing, rather than I was not wearing. (I wonder if ascetics go through the same thing before they become sufficiently detached to think it’s even an issue.) For the first time in a long time, prayer did not feel like an obligation or begging some supernatural power for things that I wanted. While the sensation was...different, I can say that it was one of the more focused things I had done.

I certainly don’t recommend it for everyone, and I don’t believe that I will turn into a raging believer because of it: I’m far too skeptical in my older age for that. But for those few moments, kneeling, feeling the old, worn beads slip through my fingers as I moved from one prayer to the next and in that gorgeous language of my youth, I actually felt...peaceful.

1. Exodus 20.26: “You shall not go up by steps to my altar, so that your nakedness may not be exposed on it. ” But also see the puzzling statement of Leviticus 16.23, that implies the High Priest Aaron, after dispatching the scapegoat during the Yom Kippur ritual, proceeds in a nude state to a ritual bath, a practice that seems difficult considering the former injunction in Exodus.