Deep Roots of Bodily Movement in Christianity and in Asian Ritual

Vietnam-dancers“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” proclaims John’s gospel. Christianity is not just a religion of the invisible mystery of the Holy One, but a religion in which divine love took a body in Jesus Christ. Through the ages Christian worship has involved embodiment. The culture of Vietnam has been shaped by a strong sense of veneration for ancestors, Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism before the first Christian missionary arrived in 1533. In all of these bodily movement has been a part of ritual practice. A deep bow, a kowtow, was a part of Confucian ritual expression. In Buddhism, dance was associated with prayer. For example, the Lotus dance, Mua Hoa Dang was performed at the Imperial Palace when the emperor was asking Buddha’s blessing for peace and prosperity for the country. Many variations of the traditional Lotus dance are shared today.

In 1583 Spanish Franciscans from Manila went to Vietnam and a few years later Spanish Dominicans went there also. During the next century the style of Christianity which was spread in Vietnam had characteristics of the Iberian Catholicism of that period. In the book In Our Own Tongasian-madonnaues: Perspectives from Asia on Mission and Inculturation, Peter C. Phan writes of the missionaries to Vietnam: “These Portuguese missionaries, just as the Spanish ones, brought with them their own brand of Iberian Catholicism wherever they went to evangelize, whether in Latin America or in Asia, and transmitted it to their converts.” (“In Our Own Tongues” 93) Phan goes on to explain, “Iberian Christianity was largely popular Catholicism, in the sense that it was the form of faith believed and practiced by the common folk, not the intellectual and hierarchical elite, and it displayed a predilection for the visual, the oral, and the dramatic as the means of communicating the gospel.” (94) Dance and drama were among the methods used to share the Christian story.

Eugene Louis Beckman’s Religious Dance in the Christian Church and in Popular Medicine extensively documented the enduring importance of dance in prayer in Spain. Spain has more dances associated with worship than any other European country, so it is quite natural that the priests took dance with them to missionary countries. “The Council of Toledo which discouraged rowdy and inappropriate dancing for feast days encouraged St. Isidore of Seville to compose a ritual with elaborate movements in 678. This ritual which included boys dancing was incorporated in the Mozarabic Mass.” (Kirk 23) In many parts of Spain there have been elaborate religious processions that have included dance. Vietnamesemale-fans Catholicism is known for elaborate processions which both looks back to European ideas and to Asian ideas of processions.

In 1645 the French missionary Alexandre de Rhodes asked Catholic leadership in Rome for more assistance for Asian missions and this led to the French having much influence in Vietnam. De Rhodes developed a method for writing the Vietnamese language with Latin letters rather than Chinese characters. The official script of Vietnamese used today is based on his work. The first books printed using this script were two books written by de Rhodes, Cathechismus and his Dictionariium. De Rhodes’ comments on devotion to Mary written in 1651 are a good place to start in considering the value and importance of movement in prayer in Vietnam.

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Wife, mother of three, grandmother of three. Web developer, amateur photographer, kayaker, dancer.

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Posted in Body Prayer, Choreography, Dance, Global OutReach, Liturgical dance, Religious dance, Sacred Dance, World Dance

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