A Trans-Religion Spiritual Practice

Last month I wrote about my experience with the Jesus Prayer. Here is another affirmation of the Jesus Prayer from perhaps my favorite modern poet, Scott Cairns.

Prayer in general, and the Jesus Prayer in particular, has become the sustaining focus of my waking days, and it has become a surprising accompaniment to my nights. I sleep less, waking every few hours–sometimes more often–to find the prayer on my lips. I spend a good bit of each night walking through the dark house, standing before the wavering vigil light of our family altar and icon wall, remembering friends and family–the living and the dead–in prayer. The more I do this, the more I want to do this. (p.257)*

It is important to note, as Scott does, that the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”–my preferred short form) can be used as we imagine the faces or names of our friends and family. God or Jesus will be merciful on “me” by blessing them.

My focus today is on two practices found in the Christian tradition that can be used with the Jesus Prayer or with other short prayer patterns. They are the Anglican Prayer Beads and the Orthodox Prayer Rope

Anglican prayer beads

And one hundred knot prayer ropes:

Ancient ways to pray

The use of something like prayer beads or ropes can be found in Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Sikhism, and Bahai. In those religions as in Christianity it is a way to focus one’s attention on prayer or meditation.

The Orthodox prayer rope is an ancient practice of the Orthodox church. The one I own is composed of 100 individual cloth knots separated into groups of 25 by 4 plastic beads. I use it in the evenings with a specific prayer for courage and peace and a heart full of love for God and compassion like that of Jesus. This is the prayer on the first three plastic beads. I follow this with 25, “Jesus my Lord, have mercy on me”, 25 “Jesus, my friend, have mercy on me”, and 25 “Jesus, my love, have mercy on me”. The last 25, I pray “Jesus, our savior, have mercy on us.” As I pray that last 25, I picture different people and needs in our world that I want God to bless or meet. On the last bead I give thanks for a God who always listens.

Anglican prayer beads have only been around since the late 1980s. I discovered them in the 90s. They are a blending of the Roman Catholic Rosary and the Orthodox Prayer Rope. The are composed of 33 beads–the number of years of Jesus’ life on earth. When I bought the prayer beads it included a wonderful leaflet that gave a variety of ways to use the beads including “rosaries” for the seasons of the Church year and patterns based on the Jesus Prayer, a prayer of Julian of Norwich, a Celtic Prayer, and several others. I have used these prayer beads off and on for over twenty years. (My first set eventually ‘wore out’ when the string holding the beads together broke!)

The use of either of these ways is not a magical cure-all or a sure-fire method of spiritual growth. They are simply a time-tested method that has helped me to focus more clearly and more often on my life of prayer.

*Scott Cairns, Short Trip to the Edge: Where Earth Meets Heaven–a Pilgrimage. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007. I also encourage you to check out his poetry.

The Jesus Prayer

Earlier we began to look at various practices that can help people to experience the presence of God. The practice I mention today is peculiar to Christianity, though other religions have their own mantras that might help their devotees to experience the divine Presence.

The Jesus prayer is not found in Scripture, but was developed in an Eastern wing of Christianity called Orthodox. The full form of the prayer is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” Shortened forms are also used. The repetition of this prayer was an attempt to follow Paul’s injunction to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

The prayer can be prayed in two ways: vocally or as a breath prayer. So, as a person goes about his or her daily routine they can repeat softly the Jesus Prayer. Or, they can repeat it silently in sync with their breathing in and out.

It was the latter form that attracted me when I was around 30 years old. The form I used was shortened. I would breath in thinking “Lord Jesus Christ” and breath out “have mercy on me”. I would do this as I walked around the seminary campus. I would do it as I drove. I would do it in quiet times. I would do it before going to sleep. I don’t remember how long I had been praying in this way, but eventually a strange thing began to happen. Sometimes, without thinking at all, I would simply take a deep breath for whatever reason and the words “Lord Jesus Christ” would, uncalled for by me, appear in my mind; and of course, I would breath out and consciously think, “have mercy on me”.

For the past 40 years or so, I have used the Jesus Prayer, off and on, as a way to center my thoughts on the presence of Jesus. It has been a source of strength and peace.

Later I began to use the prayer vocally, but I will wait until next time when I will write about the use of prayer beads and a prayer rope.

praying for presence

repetition stills the mind

peace can enter in

Gospel Reading

In my last blog I talked about there being many spiritual practices or exercises that can help us experience the presence of God or the Divine. Most of the religions in the world seek to find and follow a path or paths to God. I have found spiritual treasures in careful readings of the Tao Te Ching, the Upanishads, the Dhammapada, Zen writings, the Songs of Kabir, a host of poets, and, of course, the Bible. In the Hebrew scriptures, I have been especially drawn to the Psalms, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs.

However, most significant to me has been reading the four gospels in the Christian scriptures. Some 25 years ago, a spiritual adviser encouraged me to focus my scripture reading solely on the four gospels–at least for a time. Of course, as a Christian since childhood, I had read in the gospels off and on for many years, along with all the other books in the Bible.

However, as I began to focus primarily on the life and teachings of Jesus, I was changed. Jesus became more than just the one who died on a cross and rose from the dead for the sake of our ‘salvation’. Jesus became the paradigm for how I was to interpret everything else. Jesus became the model or example for how I was to live and think. In this eye-opening understanding of Christ, my own connection with God deepened.

Of course, I read many things these days, but my pattern always includes a portion of a gospel reading. I read and then reflect and/or pray in my journals. (Unless I am determined to write a few lines in a journal, my reading can become shallow and meaningless.)

In the next few blogs I will write about other practices that connect me to God through Jesus Christ. However, if you want to try this practice, I suggest that you begin with a journal to write in and begin reading the Gospel of Luke, and next on through Mark, Matthew, and John. Then repeat and repeat and repeat. For 25 years it has not gotten old!

Pathway(s)

Pathways to God is not strictly speaking about how one can be ‘saved’ in the traditional Christian sense. It is about how we can experience the presence of God. In one Hindu pattern there are three ways–the way of knowledge, the way of selfless work or action, and the way of love and devotion. In Neo-Platonism, the divine can be approached through beauty, truth, and goodness.

As in other religions and philosophical traditions there exist a variety of routes to the presence of God, so in the Christian spiritual tradition there are many practices or disciplines that have been used successfully. One important thing to remember is that not every Christian practice will be effective for every person, nor will one Christian practice always and forever be effective. That is, your particular needs in the spiritual life may change from time to time, so that what was helpful before is so no longer. Other practices need to develop.

For example the practice called Centering Prayer is very popular today among many Christians. It is a way into silence by quieting or emptying your mind. As I noted, many Christians have found this practice helpful. Me–not so much. But I would never denigrate the practice. It has helped a lot of folks. It is one way into silence.

A pattern that has been a better one for me also includes silence, but it is not the same kind. I no longer try to empty my mind, but I want to fill it. I have taken the advice of the Apostle Paul, “From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise.” (Philippians 4:8)

There is one who embodies all of these. That one, for me, is Jesus Christ. So, I try to fill my mind with him. In the next few blogs I will share some of the ways that I do this. I hope you will join me.

As always, anything you find helpful that I have written, feel free to share it with others.

Retreat Reflection on Silence

It has been a while since I last wrote, but time is now my own again! Yesterday, I was copying some retreat notes into another book and remembered an experience I wanted to share.

At a retreat last year, I was meditating on Zephaniah 3:14-20. One line in verse 17 was translated as “He will renew you in his love.” This translation is based, not on the Hebrew, but later translations. The Hebrew text reads, “He will be silent in his love.” While “renew you” fits the context better, “be silent” resonated with me. I was, after all on a largely silent retreat. This was my reflection:

“Pat and I have loved each other for well over fifty years. That love has often been expressed in laughter and exuberance. But it has also been expressed in silence–holding hands on the beach, sitting together on the porch in the mountains. Sometimes God’s love is like that. Or better, our love is like that–God and me. I can sit in silence and know the silence of God with me as a love that words fail to express. I like exuberance and singing, but I also enjoy just sitting in silence with my loving God.”

Where love is present
Silence can be beautiful:
Calm moon-lit waters



Christmas Means Love

This website is about pathways to God. Perhaps the straightest way is the way of love. And that brings me to Joan Osborne. One of my favorite Christmas songs is her singing “Christmas Means Love”.

She sings about the birth of Christ bringing us the message of love. She affirms that Christmas should be a time to share joy and love with our neighbors. The love message of Christmas can compel us to help one another.

Then in the middle of the song, she has a talking part. There she speaks of her desire for one thing–to spend Christmas with the one she loves.

I believe that in our experiences of love with one another whether it is familial love or romantic love or compassionate love we are traveling the way of God. Along this way, every experience may brush up against the glory of the God of Love.

May your Christmas be filled with deepest and sweetest love. Now let’s listen to a bluesy Joan Osborne.

 

Silence and the Way of Taize

A few years ago, the University of Virginia conducted an experiment. Each participant was given a mild electric shock. They all said that they didn’t like it and would pay money never to experience it again.  Then each of them were put into rooms alone for up to 15 minutes with all distractions, e.g. cellphones, music access, reading material, removed. They did have a shock button. Within those 15 minutes, 66% of the males pushed the button and 25% of the females! I will let you wonder what that might say in terms of spirituality and gender. My point is that many people in the modern world seem allergic of silence. Silence, however, is important in all spiritual traditions.

I don’t remember when I first became aware of the Taize form of worship, but I have been a fan for many years. True confession though: I have never been to the French town of Taize where Brother Roger and his small band of Protestant brothers formed a religious community after World War II.

Taize worship emphasizes Scripture reading, silence, and simple choruses. Brother Roger was not a fan of long sermons! Many of the choruses come from passages of Scripture, mostly of the Gospels or the Psalms. Brother Roger emphasized singing a simple chorus multiple times in order for the song to move from the lips to the heart.

Apart from the music, the service revolves around Scripture reading and silence. The silence is, for many, an opportunity to meditate on the reading or perhaps to pray as the reading has moved you.

I have only found one church in Birmingham that has an occasional Taize service. The music was wonderful and the Scripture readings were meaningful. However, the periods of silence were hardly long enough to get settled. Perhaps they knew their congregation might have started looking for some shock buttons!

I encourage you, if you are not already familiar with Taize, to find some of its music and listen to it. It can be easily found on the Web and, if you are an oldie like me, you can buy some music cds. (I own ten!) Perhaps listening to and singing some of these choruses will put you in the mood to spend a few minutes of silence alone with your God.

Here is an example with Bless the Lord.  Sing along with it–let the words move from your lips to your heart.

Images from a Contemplative Retreat

It was still dark as I walked to the guest cafeteria. The Rosemary bush was waiting:

Early morning walk                                                                                                                              Caressing the Rosemary                                                                                                                        The day’s first blessing

Later walking to the chapel to chant with the monks and praise God another blessing from Nature:

The path to worship                                                                                                                              Covered in Honeysuckle                                                                                                                      Aroma of God

I have always been blessed to experience the beauty and glory of God in Nature. It was no different at Mepkin Abbey whose beautiful grounds boarding on Cooper River afforded ample opportunities for silent meditation.

In blessed silence                                                                                                                                    I heard the presence of God–                                                                                                              Music of Nature

I came to the retreat hoping to grow in love for God and acquiring more of the compassion of Jesus. One day I walked in a labyrinth marked off by wildflowers.

In the labyrinth                                                                                                                                      Unbidden a song arose:                                                                                                                        More love to Thee

In those seven grace-filled days, I also meditated on Scripture. With the psalmist, I learned to sing my own song, “All my life I will sing to you, my Jesus.” Over and over again as I read in the Gospels, I experienced the glad-hearted kindness of Jesus.

Blessed are the kind                                                                                                                              For they are children of God                                                                                                              Kindness is divine

I was loved by God on this retreat and I returned home with more love and compassion for others–at least for a time. The ordinary world often makes compassion difficult, doesn’t it? So, my growth in love and compassion is far from complete. But in that wonderful retreat perhaps I sprouted a new blossom or two.

Trust in God’s slow work                                                                                                                      Transformation takes ages                                                                                                                    For each one of us

Addendum:

  1. As always, as you are moved, you may share this with others.
  2. If you are interested in retreats you may check out this web site: http://www.theanchorage.org.

The Mystic Path: Dark Night of the Soul

Dark night of the soul

Waiting for the veil to lift

And new lights to see

Along this mystic path we have looked at four stages: awakening, purification, illumination, and union. In this format it looks like a fairly straightforward process. It is anything but! In actuality it looks more like a spiral, however, even that image may be misleading. In talking about the spiritual life, our language by necessity must include metaphor.

A spiritual experience that many who travel this path have undergone was called by John of the Cross, the dark night of the soul. Stated simply, in this experience, God is helping us to grow in love. We are learning to love God for God’s sake and not simply for the God’s blessings.

The dark night affects us in various ways. We may feel a loss of the presence of God. We may have an acute sense of our own imperfections. We may experience a kind of spiritual lassitude. Even our will power may seem diminished.

In the book of Job, Satan asserts that Job only serves God because God has blessed him. Take away those blessings, and he will turn away, so says Satan. (An aside: I believe the Book of Job is more parable than literal. After all, have you ever known anyone who argued back and forth in poetry!) In the end, Job endured, though not without a monumental struggle. And the light returned.

One of my favorite passages in the Hebrew scriptures is Habakkuk 3:17-18: “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation.”

In the dark night, our desires are being cleansed. It is not pleasant. It is not easy to

endure. But endure it we must, if we are to grow in love for God.

The Mystic Path: Union with God

We have noted the experience of awakening that often is the first step along the path. This can be followed by purification or purgation in which we acknowledge our sins and attempt, with God’s grace, to overcome the dark traits of our personalities. Next can come illumination in which we experience the presence of God such that we begin to understand more and more about who God is and what God desires for us. The final stop along the mystic path is called union.

On sweet occasions

Goal of Christian devotion

Union with our God

As might be expected, this stage can only be described by metaphor and symbol. Some mystics compare it to a transformation, e.g. wood becoming flame in fire, or a drop of water becoming wine when immersed in a great sea of wine. And, St. Paul wrote about being conformed to the image of Christ–becoming like Christ. Deification is a word the Eastern Orthodox Church has used for centuries. We do not become equal with God, but they affirm that we acquire the divine nature. In 2nd Peter, we discover that we can “become participants of the divine nature” (1:4).

Another favorite image among the mystics is spiritual marriage. It is a union characterized by love. The Song of Solomon is a favorite book for these mystics. Human love becomes a metaphor for the loving union of a person and God.

However it was characterized, the mystics all have had a burning desire to experience the fullness of God. They desire this more than life itself. So, they seek after God, and by God’s grace, they can have moments of true union. Only in the life to come, can the union become more permanent.

Union with God in this life and the life to come is characterized by 5 qualities.

1) It is marked by a union of minds. The mystic begins to share God’s values, ideas, and wisdom. Because of this union, they often understand intuitively what God would have them do different situations.

2) It is marked by a union of hearts. The mystic begins to love what God loves. The true mystic, united with God, has compassion for all that God has made.

3) The third mark should go without saying, but it is often not clearly understood. If we share God’s values and love what God loves, we will desire union with one another. To be united with God, one must in one way or another, be immersed in the life of the people of God.

4) The fourth mark is joy. One of my favorite mystics, Richard Rolle compared the person united with God to a music pipe always playing joyful songs of love to Christ.

5) The fifth mark is peace. One of my favorite hymns expresses this well. It is “Like a River Glorious” by Frances Havergal:

Life a river glorious, is God’s perfect peace,

Over all victorious in its bright increase;

Perfect, yet it floweth fuller every day;

Perfect, yet it groweth deeper all the way.

Hidden in the hollow of God’s blessed hand,

Never foe can follow, never traitor stand.

Not a surge of worry, not a shade of care,

Nor a blast of hurry touch the spirit there.

Stayed upon Jehovah, hearts are fully blest;

Finding as God promised, perfect peace and rest.

This is not the last thing I want to say about this beautiful mystic path, but perhaps that is enough for today. As always, if you find what I have written helpful, feel free to share it with others.