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.

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.

Born to Rock–Gently

My mother told me that when I was a baby, I would often get in a crawling position in the bed and rock myself to sleep. And I’ve been rocking ever since. My band director in high school poked good-natured fun at me as I rocked back and forth in my chair playing the trumpet. Whenever I go into a room where several chairs are available, I always gravitate toward any rocker I can find.

Rocking is a gentle movement. It’s a gentle activity. And it seems to me that gentleness is a quality our world needs more of.

Father John-Julian wrote a poem entitled “Psalm 23”. The first two lines are perfect: “The unhesitating gentleness / of pure divinity.”* Reading those lines, I realized anew how gentleness lies at the heart of that psalm in the Bible. It is also characteristic of Jesus as he gently touched the sick and patiently taught the multitudes.

One of the things he taught is usually translated as “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” I prefer to translate it as “Blessed are the gentle . . . ”

I think I have come to appreciate gentleness more and more over the years. I love to see gentle butterflies flitting from flower to flower. Yesterday I witnessed one bird gently feeding his mate. Sitting on my back deck (rocking in our swing, of course) I just enjoy watching the leaves on the trees move gently in the wind.

I am not naive. I know that there are violent images of God in the Bible and that Jesus too is pictured occasionally as responding in less than gentle ways. And violence is part of nature.

Nevertheless, I believe that if we are going to have an earth to inherit in the generations to come, we need now to begin practicing gentleness. And we can begin by simply noticing it all around us, affirming that it is announcing the presence of the divine. Such attention has the power change us; to make us more gentle.

Hopes truest measure:

The gentle kindness of God

Is more than enough

*Fr. John-Julian, “Psalm 23” in The Paraclete Poetry Anthology: Selected and New Poems, edited by Mark S. Burrows (Paraclete Press: Brewster, Massachusetts, 2016), 64.

As always, if this meandering blog moves you, please feel free to share it with others and encourage them to become followers too.

Haiku Spirituality

This may be the last in this series of blogs on spiritual practices that can help us to sharpen the divine image within. All have been time-tested practices that have helped individuals grow spiritually. We have considered silence, journaling, holy reading (lectio divina), Gospel reading, and meditation. Today I want to affirm a newer practice that I have been doing for the past few years. It is composing haiku.

I write haiku for two reasons. First, it is fun. Yes, spiritual practices or disciplines do not have to be onerous. At least some of them can be fun and bring joy.

The second reason is that writing haiku helps me to be present. It helps me to be present to what I see and to what I read. For example, a day or two ago, I was walking around our neighborhood and noticed a tall weed on a hill-side. The ‘weed’ had a bushy head of yellow.  Almost immediately haiku began to work its way into my consciousness. Eventually I wrote:

Springtime on hill-side

A four-foot weedy plant grows

Topped by yellow blooms

Writing haiku about nature helps me to be present to God in God’s creation.

Writing haiku also helps me to be present to my devotional reading. I have composed at least one haiku for each of the 150 psalms and I am presently writing a haiku in connection with my Gospel reading of the day. After reading a resurrection story in Luke’s Gospel earlier this week, I wrote the following;

Disbelieving men

Wild words of foolish women

Jesus is risen

The haiku form in English is simple–lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables. But straining to make your experience of being present fit that pattern is not necessary. There are times when 4 syllables instead of 5 seem to work best. However, I do try not to have more syllables than the norm.

I heartily recommend Haiku–the Sacred Art: A Spiritual Practice in Three Lines by Margaret D. McGee. This book helped me to get started with writing haiku as a spiritual practice. It is a treasure.

Haiku devotions

Demanding one’s attention

Centering on truth

 

Meditation

I decided to be blunt even with the title!  We have been thinking about spiritual exercises that can help us to sharpen or brighten the image of God within us. We have looked at the value of silence, journaling, holy reading, and focusing on the Gospels. Today, I want to mention meditation.

Meditation can be done in a variety of ways. One may write a non-analytical ‘meditation’ on some spiritual reading; perhaps how it spoke to your current situation or how it opened up new understandings of spiritual realities. (Writing non-analytical is hard for some of us to do!)

One can look intently at an aspect of nature; a leaf, a flower, a gentle stream, a soaring mountain. It is possible to encounter the beauty and creative glory of God in such a sustained look.

A third form (and I am certain there are others) is to use one’s imagination; visualize the scene you have read about and then let it unfold in your imagination. Sometimes, important truths may be revealed.

Here is a short imaginative meditation I experienced some years ago. I focused on Ezekiel 36:26, “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”

This is what I wrote in my journal. “During a meditation on Ezekiel 36:26, I saw God remove from my chest a heart of stone. I thought he would throw it away and give me the promised heart of flesh. Instead he took my stone heart and placed it next to his chest. He held it there and it was transformed. Perhaps it was my original heart decalcified. Or maybe not. It was, at least, my old heart being given new life and pliability. And it was returned to me.”

Imaginative meditations rarely come easy for me, but occasionally they meet some need in my life. They may give me some spiritual insight or encouragement. Just as God can speak to us through our memory and through our reason, so can God speak to us through our imagination. None of these three are infallible, but each one can be useful. So, I encourage you to give meditation a try.

I suggest you might read Luke 9:28-36. Read the story a couple of times. Then close your eyes. Place yourself in the role of one of the disciples. Let the story unfold in your imagination. Be sure to visualize the surrounding environment. What did the hillside look like? What about the sky? The more details, the better. Additions and/or differences may appear from the original story. That is to be expected, since you are now a participant. When the story ends, take a moment to write it all down. You may continue to reflect on this for days to come.

 

A More Peculiar Practice

I have recommended three practices that have helped me to grow spiritually. They are silence, journaling, and holy reading. These three can be found in many books on the spiritual life. Today’s practice is more peculiar to me.

Some 20 years or so ago I began to see a spiritual adviser. It was a time when I was considering a change of vocation and/or denominational affiliation. It was recommended that I begin seeing Rev. Steve Holzholb. One thing he advised changed my life. He suggested that I not read quite as much scripture in my morning devotions. At that time I was reading an Old Testament passage, a Psalm, a New Testament passage, and a Gospel passage. He said, “LaMon I want you to read only in the Gospels for awhile and nothing else.” 20 years later, I simply cannot omit reading in the Gospels everyday I do my devotions.

As a Protestant Christian, I had interpreted Scripture and life largely through the writings of Paul. This is the normal Protestant pattern. Paul’s writings become the grid by which we understand everything else.

Following my adviser’s suggestion, I began reading a passage from the Gospels daily. It took months, but eventually, my grid changed. No longer did I see everything through the eyes of Paul, but instead through the eyes of Jesus. I interpreted Paul by way of Jesus and not visa versa. If I am a better person now that I was 20 years ago, one of the reasons is that I immersed myself in the Gospel stories and teachings of Jesus.  I believe this Gospel reading has made me more compassionate, forgiving, and welcoming.

It can work for anyone. Simply determine that, except for some vocational necessity, e.g. teachers, preachers, etc., you will read only in the Gospels for awhile. Do not read whole chapters. Read shorter selections. Read slowly, listening for a word from God about which you might write and pray in your journal. As I said, I started doing it “for awhile” and continue to do it some 20 years later–though I do now add some other readings from time to time.

May Jesus himself be your teacher.

[As always, if you find what I have written helpful, you may share it with others. You might encourage them to ‘follow’ these blogs as well.]

Holy Reading

I am looking at practices that have helped me and countless others throughout history to make the divine spark within us glow more bright or, if you prefer, the divine image within us appear more clear. I am examining ways that have helped me to grow spiritually. We have considered the importance of silence and journaling as two such practices.

Today we look at the practice of Holy Reading. As you might expect, in the history of church it has a Latin name: lectio divina. Traditionally, it was a way to read scripture, but its steps can be applied to many different types of literature. It is reading for formation rather than information. The latter type of reading is important in many contexts, but it is not the focus of Holy Reading. In Holy Reading we are wanting to be formed more and more into the divine image.

Holy Reading has four steps.

The first step is to read. Traditionally the chosen passage is read twice–slowly. You are not reading the passage just to get to a check-off place, but to imbibe its spirit. Read it first, slowly. In the second reading, you may notice a word or phrase that attracts you. You can stop the reading there or continue to the end of the passage.

The second step is to meditate on that word or phrase. You don’t try to analyze it–that is the old desire for information creeping in. You chew on it. You turn it over in your mind. Perhaps you make a kind of mantra for it, reciting it silently or softly. As you do so, sometimes the phrase or word will change. That’s ok. Just go with it.

The third step is to pray. Begin to talk to God about whatever that word or phrase is leading you to. The prayer usually flows naturally from your meditation. You might say that the phrase has moved from your mind to your heart.

The final step is to contemplate. In this case, it simply means to rest in God’s presence after the prayer is finished. Some practitioners say that this is the goal–if we must have a goal–of Holy Reading.

Two other points. First, spiritual growth cannot be simply programmed. These four steps may not all happen each time or in the order I listed them. Sometimes, some of the steps will hardly be needed before one rests in God. I often use a truncated version of Holy Reading as I journal, i.e. I look for a word or phrase that attracts me, then I write about why it seems significant to me. Many times I will then write a short prayer.

Second, I believe that God is at work transforming us, so if a particular practice seems to fall flat on certain days or even over a longer period of time, don’t despair or give up. Let us be faithful to do our part and trust God to do the greater part.