Practice Paying Attention

As many of you know, haiku is an important spiritual practice for me. It is so because it requires paying attention. However, one can pay attention without writing haiku. I encourage us all to pay attention in 2021. To that end, I share a poem by Luci Shaw from her fine collection Eye of the Beholder: Poems. It is entitled “Attending” with the note that Simone Weil called this “prayer”.

You begin with a singular gaze into any
thing, any Other. As you witness the moment
you practice the discipline of detail. Focus,
allowing yourself the access of steady regard.
It senses your attention and you will
find yourself joined in mutual love.

–Pebble. Bare twig. Raindrop hanging from
twig–a lens for landscape to enlighten the eye.
–Blue hyacinth, its invisible fragrance
drowning the air as you open the door.
Breath until it fills you and lifts you.
–Thunder, so unambiguously itself
unfurling its huge sail over heaven.
Giver of rain and green lettuce. Let it come
and offer your thanks.

A holy silence as the church fills. Hearts wait.
The priest’s homily before Eucharist,
and then, the Host taken without hesitation by our
waiting mouths. Let each be so present that
it leaves its truth, its hint of the real, its crease
in memory. Inhabit it with simplicity,
and find there a wholeness of intention.

It matters not if you understand each metaphor in this poem. Perhaps it would be good to slowly read it again. But whether you do that or not, take a few moments as you rise from you computer screen, to pay attention to some little thing–perhaps something outside in nature, or a painting or portrait on your wall, or the taste of slowly eaten food and drink, etc.

It is in paying attention that we realize our encounter with what is good and true and beautiful–Reality.

May you all walk a good path in 2021.

Peace,
LaMon

Getting Through the Pandemic and Other Troubling Times

My advice is simple: holy habits, daily religious or spiritual exercises. I wrote briefly on this some months ago, but felt encouraged to write in more detail.

What do I do each day as part of my spiritual routine?

First, I light a little candle and sing a short chorus or song. No one would want to hear me!

Then I use a bit of liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer. The liturgy is a prayer that I make my own. Right now this is what I am praying; “Lord Jesus, be with us for morning has dawned and the day has come. Be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts, and awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in Scripture and the breaking of bread. Grant this for the sake of you love. Amen.” Those familiar with the BCP, will recognize that I have altered a prayer for early evening for use in the mornings.

Next I read a passage of scripture from the Gospels. I use the suggestion for the day’s reading found in the BCP, but any regular structure would work as well. After reading, I begin writing in my journal. I reflect on the passage; asking questions, making comments, writing haiku, etc.

Following that I read in others books of the Bible or other spiritual readings. Right now I am reading slowly through Kahlil Gibran’s Jesus the Son of Man: His Words and His Deeds as Told and Recorded by Those Who Knew Him. These are images and thoughts by Gibran who attaches them to imagined people in the time of Jesus. Again, I make comments in my journal about what I have read.

I close my journal writing and my morning devotions with notes about the past day, about the day that is before me, and sometimes with written prayers.

In the evenings, I have a much shorter devotional time. I again begin with a bit of liturgy from the BCP. Then another reading. Presently I am in Brian Doyle’s delightful book, A Book of Uncommon Prayer: 100 Celebrations of the Miracle and Muddle of the Ordinary. Then I pray for family, friends, churches I love, countries I love, and for the environment. I close with the Lord’s Prayer.

The only other element in both morning and evening periods would be short silent pauses with slow breaths in and out.

These holy habits have helped me to get through a lot in these past few months. I am not recommending that you follow in my own pattern, but if you do not have a specific daily pattern of holy habits, I encourage you to start. And if you do, I would love to hear from you about what those are.

help for each day:
enduring difficult times
with holy habits

Peace, LaMon

Making Habits Holy

Ritual is routine infused with mindfulness. It is habit made holy.

The quote above is in a book by Kent Nerburn entitled Small Graces: The Quiet Gifts of Everyday Life. Ritual becomes routine, or even a rut, when it is thoughtlessly done. The habits we develop in life can become holy if we pay close attention to what we are doing.

I have mentioned here before about some of my daily habits like prayer and journaling. However, Nerburn is not writing about things like this that seem important or vital. No, he is picturing small graces or quiet gifts.

He illustrates what he means with a morning ritual.

I take my morning mug of coffee in both hands and lift it ever so slightly toward the sky. I am alone. There is no one to see. This is my private gesture–my acknowledgement, my offering, my moment of thankfulness for the gift of this awakening day. . . . My morning cup of coffee . . . partaken with mindfulness . . . is a small act of worship, an act of consecration, a prayer of thankfulness to the awakening day.

I also have a morning habit. When I first get out of bed, I go the the sink in our restroom. I turn on the facet, running water into my hands, and I rinse my face three times, practicing an ancient Celtic Christian ritual. With the first, I say silently, “in the name of the Father.” With the second, “and the Son”. With the third, “and the Holy Spirit, I welcome this day.” Now here is the key to making a routine into a ritual or a habit into something holy. I must think about what I am saying. And I must mean what I say. I confess that some mornings, I just got through the motions and what I do had no spiritual blessing about it at all. But when I am mindful in doing it, the morning begins with a touch of holiness.

If you have some little ritual that you do most days, I would love to hear about it in a comment. If you don’t have any, perhaps you will be able to discover one that can be a daily blessing–if done mindfully.

paying attention

ritual is like rich soil

nurturing flowers

As always you are welcome to share this blog with others. If you want to receive my blogs in your email, simply toggle the follow button. May your day be filled with mindfulness and peace. LaMon

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