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.

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.

My Most Valuable Practice

In writing about practices that have helped me grow spiritually, I began in the last post talking about the importance of silence. I would add one or two comments. Unless you live isolated from modern life, it is almost impossible to escape the roar of traffic or the sounds of neighbors. I have found a free app called Insight Timer that helps me block out most of that noise with quiet sounds like flowing rivers or tinkling bells. It also allows me to set the timer for 10 minutes (or more or less depending on my desire). If you think it might help you, give it a try.

Now on to practice #2. It is journaling. WAIT, don’t quit reading! I know that journaling may not help everyone, but it is the single most important practice that I do because it helps me with most of my other practices.

The value of a daily journal is at least three-fold. It helps us to know ourselves as we write about events in our lives, our thoughts, and our feelings. It can also help us to relate to God. I often find myself talking to God as I write. It also helps us to concentrate. More about that in a moment.

So, what do I write in my journal? I usually begin by writing some comments on my morning scripture reading. Knowing that I am going to write something, helps me to concentrate on the reading. I’m not just reading to check off a daily accomplishment. I am reading to find something meaningful for me in that moment. Journaling helps me to do that.

I also write about my life. Since most of my journaling is in the morning, I usually detail some of what happened the day before and what I plan for the coming day.

And I usually write some short one or two sentence prayers. Perhaps I will thank God for something that happened the day before or an insight I discover in scripture. Perhaps I will ask God to help me in general or specific ways as I reflect on scripture and my life. It’s sort of like sending a text message to God. (Sometimes, not often, I will write out a long prayer, usually of thanksgiving.)

I do a few other things from time to time, but these seem most important to me. I do not spend a lot of money on fancy journals. I often just buy a spiral bound note book.

I began journaling on December 16, 1977. I have written over 2000 pages, maybe closer to 3000. The goal is to write every day, but I don’t. In the past, I might miss several days in a row. Being retired, it is easier to write almost daily. The important thing to remember is that if you miss a week, don’t give up. Simply start up again on the day when you can.

If you are not already keeping a journal, I encourage you to give it a try in 2018.

(As always feel free share any of this with others you think might benefit. Thanks for reading!)

 

This Morning’s Meditation

This morning I read Luke 1:39-56 which is called The Magnificat or Mary’s Song. One spiritual exercise that I practice occasionally is writing a haiku related to what I have read. I do this to focus my attention on the text and to find some specific meaning for me at this particular point in my life. This is what I wrote:

Mary’s mighty God

Forgets not His promises

To raise the lowly

Afterwards I found myself praying for our President-elect. The prayer went something like this:

That he might care for the poor suffering people of our world and of our nation, I pray that You would soften his heart. Create within him a heart of compassion and give him the wisdom and courage to oppose those who seek only to increase their power and wealth at the expense of the lowly. May Mary’s God be Donald’s God.

Finally, this morning I turned to a meditation by Richard Rohr in Preparing for Christmas: Daily Meditations for Advent. He also looked at the Magnificat. He pointed out that Mary’s Song and the teaching of Jesus both emphasize that attachments to power, prestige, and possessions will numb our hearts and dull our spiritual perception. I believe he is right.

May the God of Mary and of Jesus be our God in 2017