Using the Alexander Technique in Liturgy and Teaching

Father Alcuin Schachenmayr 

 

The Alexander Technique has helped me to grow as a monk, teacher and priest. My responsibilities as a Cistercian monk can vary greatly in the course of a single day, but I find my weekly Alexander lesson helps me in the liturgy, in public speaking and the many hours I spend at my desk every day with study, prayer and computer work. I’ve been studying in Vienna for the past six years; the work my teacher and I do together is very flexible. I bring along concerns from my daily life and sometime even the objects or texts with which I work. 

 

Feelings of exhaustion after teaching a long class or presiding at two Sunday Masses prompted me to take up contact with an Alexander teacher. I had had a good experience as a student of the Technique while at university. Resuming lessons after a ten-year break, I soon found that my liturgical activity and public speaking became more creative. With the Technique, not only the musical and rhetorical aspects, but also the use of myself were now opened up to creative choices. I discovered a new domain of control where before I had been struggling along with habitual tension and strain. I experienced more choices during preaching and liturgical movement, making these assignments even more rewarding to me. 

 

As a teacher, I sometimes lecture up to four hours a day. That’s a challenge to physical endurance, When you consider that I have about four hours of liturgical prayer a day. Through the Alexander Technique I started to gain more control over my voice, and that made me feel more relaxed and playful while speaking in public. Since I find it crucial to stand and move while lecturing, I used to get tired fast. The Technique has changed that and made me lighter. That helps attract concentration from my listeners! 

 

Monks in the Christian tradition live in a close connection between study and prayer; in reading sacred texts (lectio divina), what begins as study soon goes over into the realm of meditation. This means that even the way we sit at a desk can have a major effect on our thinking - and our prayer. Bad use of our selves leads to less creative thinking and, yes, less openness to the working of the Holy Spirit. 

 

Most monks living in the twenty-first century need to communicate with others using the same media that everyone else uses: cell phones, emails, computer databases, Facebook. Since a monk has given his whole life to God and the Church, even his administrative work will have a religious dimension. He counsels the faithful, but even quoridian contacts with others should be pastoral; we believe every person is an image of God, every single person is worth the price Christ paid for him or her on the Cross. So the choices, creativity and sense of recollection I gain though the Alexander Technique make a difference in everyday contacts, too: they help to set the appropriate tone, even in difficult situations where patience wears thin. Good use makes for improved communication skills. 

 

The most beautiful work a priest has to do is administering the sacraments. Here, God works through the priest to grant grace and comfort to believing Christians. Of course, the Alexander Technique changes nothing whatsoever about that theological fact, yet if the people involved practise good use of themselves, they will experience these moments in a more profound way. Two examples should clarify my point: a priest hearing confessions in a cramped, hunched-over way will distract from the beauty of this sacrament. Secondly, a priest baptising an infant while clutching various vessels (and the infant!) while he works, will experience the spiritual rebirth of the baby in a merely theoretical way. 

 

My last point concerns liturgical space. Cistercian architecture is famous for its dramatic perspectives, in which severe simplicity is made vibrant through a dramaturgy of light. I belong to Heiligenkreuz Monastery near Vienna, an abbey famous for Romanesque architecture and soaring Gothic spires. To remain aware of the remarkable spaces in which I am privileged to pray and work requires inner discipline. So I apply principles of the Alexander Technique to practise widening my peripheral vision: I let my weight go down through the floor and back and up into the high-arched ceiling to experience the vertical dimension. Liturgical life is full of movement; the Technique also helps with processions, moving through crowded churches, even dealing with occasional disruptions that are part of liturgical life. 

 

My experience shows that the Alexander Technique is remarkably well-suited to a monk’s daily life; to be honest, I hadn’t thought it would pervade so many aspects of my day. Surprising discoveries keep coming, and that makes me grateful I decided to stick with it all these years.