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.

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.

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.]