Mar 062011
 

We are about to enter the season of Lent, traditionally a time of prayer, fasting, penitence and almsgiving that is in part meant to emulate the time of Jesus in the wilderness.  There is a significant connection for me between Jesus’ retreat and Franciscan spirituality.  St. Francis of Assisi was well know for the value he placed on retreating to and living in the countryside to commune with nature, and his rapport with animals is legendary.  He found the basic elements of nature serving as divine intermediaries, ministering God’s love to him, and providing him with avenues to praise and love God in return.  In some ways this seems to reflect the wilderness experience of Jesus, for Mark 1:13 says,  “He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.”

As part of a Lenten experience, it can be helpful to follow special disciplines of meditation and prayer, and of further help to integrate them with devotional rituals.  Below you will find a devotional ritual for your home chapel or place of meditation and prayer that can be used during Lent, or any time.  The ceremony is based upon the Canticle of the Creatures by St. Francis, which is perhaps the first known work of literature in the Italian language, composed around 1225.  Traditional Christian imagery and movements have been added to provide a more holistic experience in this ritual.  For example, the four Holy Creatures – ox, eagle, lion and man – are often associated with the four Apostles to whom we attribute the canonical gospels, respectively Luke, John, Mark and Matthew.  They also match with the four archangels – Uriel, Gabriel, Michael and Raphael – and the four elements of classical philosophy, which are earth, water, fire and air.

Your sacred space can be very simple and minimally appointed, or furnished more elaborately if you wish, and can vary from time to time.  You might want to set up an altar, in the east if possible, bearing such items as: a cross, a Bible, a candle or lamp, incense, or flowers.  It can also be quite nice to play soothing serene music.  I find Celtic harp with nature sounds in the background to be most fitting (click for my favorite), and Gregorian chant or adagios of just about any sort are usually very suitable.

For the actual words of the canticle you can use any translation you like.  What follows is a nice English translation I have slightly edited in places, and with further instructions added.  It can be helpful to print it out to read as you perform the ritual.

Begin by setting things up, and then sitting or standing quietly for a moment to center yourself.  Face your altar and cross yourself, then speak the following words with calm reverent intent.

Most high, all-powerful, all-good Lord.  All praise is Yours, all glory, all honor and all blessing.  To You alone, Most High, do they belong. No mortal lips are able to pronounce Your name.

Imagine a beautiful dawning on the horizon before you.

All praise be Yours, my Lord, through all that You have made, and first my Lord through Brother Sun, who brings the day, and the light You give to us through him. How beautiful is he, how radiant in all his splendor.  Of You, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Look up and imagine the stars and moon high above.

All praise be Yours, my Lord, through Sister Moon and Stars; in the heavens You have made them, bright and precious and fair.

Cross yourself, and imagine a winged angel before you, a breeze blowing through his hair and robes.

All praise be Yours, my Lord, through Brother Wind and Air, and all the weather’s moods, fair and stormy, by which You cherish all that You have made.

Turn clockwise 180 degrees, the altar now behind you, cross yourself and imagine a majestic eagle, soaring over a lake of still clear water.

All praise be Yours, my Lord, through Sister Water, so useful, humble, precious, and pure.

Turn clockwise 270 degrees, the altar now to your left, cross yourself and imagine a lion of flames.

All praise be Yours, my Lord, through Brother Fire, through whom you brighten up the night. How beautiful he is, how joyful, full of power and strength.

Turn clockwise 180 degrees, the altar now to your right, cross yourself and imagine an ox cow with a full udder, surrounded by flowers, vegetables, fruits, and herbs.

All praise be Yours, my Lord, through Sister Earth, our mother,
who feeds us in her sovereignty and produces various fruits and colored flowers and herbs.

Turn clockwise to face the altar, recalling all the imagery around you.

All praise be Yours, my Lord, through those who grant pardon
For love of You; through those who endure sickness and trial.
Happy those who endure in peace; by You, Most High, they will be crowned.

Imagine a golden aura or halo shining around your head, then look down, cross yourself and imagine your feet on the soft dirt of a freshly filled grave.

All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Death, from whose embrace no mortal can escape.  Woe to those who die in mortal sin.  Happy those she finds doing your will; the second death can do no harm to them.

Look up into the heavens.

Praise and bless my Lord, and give Him thanks, and serve Him with great humility.

In His name, and unto His service, this space is now consecrated. Amen.

Cross yourself and then sit in meditation and prayer (click for some possibilities).  End by rising, offering either a traditional or spontaneous prayer of benediction, and crossing yourself a final time.

I hope you enjoy this ritual.  I have found it to evoke an atmosphere that is very gentle, harmonious, serene, nurturing and healing.   Please feel free to ask any questions or discuss your experience of it with me.   Maranatha!

Feb 272011
 

The Apostle Paul admonished his followers to “pray without ceasing,” which might seem like an impossible goal.  If we take the admonition literally, and also think of prayer in the most common sense of bowing our heads, closing our eyes and speaking to God, then it would be practically impossible.  On the other hand, we don’t have to take Paul literally, but we can understand him to be strongly encouraging us to pray as often as we might. That shift opens the door for attitudes about prayer that aren’t trapped by all-or-nothing thinking.  It is also not necessary for us to be limited by one method of prayer. Christianity actually offers a wide variety of methods we can adopt to enrich our prayer lives, but it isn’t the purpose of this essay to examine or even list all the different ways we can pray.  So it is that this post offers some ideas on how we can more frequently attend to our relationship with the Divine in the course of a typical day for most Westerners, and thereby more fully enter into the heart of God.

If there is more than one way to pray, then perhaps we ought to begin by considering the very nature of prayer.  In The Essentials of Mysticism, Evelyn Underhill says:

[prayer is] that part of our active and conscious life which is deliberately oriented towards, and exclusively responds to, spiritual reality. The being of God, who is that spiritual reality, we believe to be immanent in all things.

In other words, prayer is intentionally giving attention to our relationship with the Divine, here and now.

The Love Affair with God

While we cannot limit the Divine to being a single person in the human sense, it remains that the expression of personal affection and devotion is one of the most powerful ways we can relate to God.  In Vedic terminology this path is called “bhakti yoga” (literally “devotion/participation” + “uniting”).  This experience was clearly part of the life of Jesus, who repeatedly declares his oneness with God, which he addresses as “Abba”, the Hebrew equivalent of “Papa”.

One of the most touching and memorable ways humans share their love with each other is through words and actions that express our feelings of fondness, attraction, admiration and even passion.  We may even acknowledge a sense of attachment and interdependence, such that we cannot fully conceive of ourselves without referring in some way to the beloved.  While the great mystic sages are united in claiming that blind attachment to a human personality is misplaced, interpersonal devotion is nonetheless well founded if we acknowledge that the Spirit of the Living God is shining through each person’s life in a limited and yet wonderfully unique way.  As mystics on the Way of the Heart, we owe it to God, our fellow human beings, and to ourselves to express our love for God as directly as possible within our souls and through our love for other people.  Any attempt to engage that love affair consciously and intentionally is prayer, and the following methods are based upon awareness of that truth.

Ritualized Prayer

When we love others, we often make it a point to share certain times of our lives with them.  We share meals with them, make phone calls or send emails, and we meet with them on holidays and other routine events.  In effect, we demonstrate our commitment to them, and so communicate our love, by establishing and maintaining rituals of interconnection. We likewise ritualize our connections with God in many ways, such as going to church or meditating routinely, or learning and practicing specific prayers at various times.

Building upon this dynamic, one of the most common ways to more fully incorporate prayer into one’s life is through ritually reading or recalling prayers at specific times of the day and night, such as upon rising, at meals and before sleep.  Further steps can be taken by saying those prayers at the turn of specific hours, or setting a minimum number of repetitions to be completed each day.  Praying the Rosary is one of the most widely practiced methods of Christian ritualized prayer, as is the children’s bedtime prayer, “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.”

Perhaps the greatest challenge in ritualized prayer is not allowing the practice to become relatively spiritless, with some mechanical part of the mind simply replaying the words while the majority of one’s consciousness is occupied with anything but attention to the Divine.  Still there is hope that even in those cases the prayer is stimulating the soul in some beneficial way at an unconscious level.  Another challenge is that we may be in a setting where performing ritualized prayer aloud would be uncomfortable.  In these cases there is nothing wrong with performing them entirely within the imagination, making no external sounds or movements to betray the inner work.

There are many traditional prayers suitable for these practices. The Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm are familiar to most Christians.  Hail Mary and the Jesus Prayer are also traditional favorites among Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox Christians.

“Hail Mary” (Roman Catholic version)

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen. (“sinners” is omitted by some people)

“The Jesus Prayer” (according to the rule of St. John Chrysostom)

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us. Amen.

A number of doxologies, or short traditional hymns of praise, are also suitable. Here are two common examples:

“Gloria Patri” (an English version)

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. As it was in the beginning, it is now and ever shall be, world without end.  Amen.

“Praise God from Whom all Blessings Flow”

Praise God from Whom all blessings flow; praise Him, all creatures here below; praise Him above, ye heavenly host; praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.

Of course, many beautiful prayers have been composed by or attributed to Christian saints, and have become standards throughout the Christian community. Consider this one attributed to St. Francis of Assisi:

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life. Amen.

For the purposes of performing ritualized prayer from memory, it is perfectly acceptable to choose shorter excerpts or fragments of prayers. Here is an excerpt from a prayer by Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin:

May Thy life, which is one everywhere, transform my whole being in the unity of Thine image, my heart in the unity of Thy love, my activity in the unity of the works of justice, and my thought in the unity of all lights.  Amen.

Internal Chant

Just as we frequently stir the memory of a beloved in our hearts and minds, we can redirect our awareness to the Divine through frequent, silent repetition of a few words, phrases or a short sentence that naturally evokes spiritual thoughts or opens the heart to God’s presence.  This practice is a sacrifice of some portion of one’s moment-to-moment consciousness, allowing internal space to be devoted to purposes more meaningful than the petty obsessions that too often waste our time and energy.  At first, it may be necessary to frequently remind oneself to return to the chant whenever the mind is not occupied by something of immediate importance.  In time the practice can become more like a constantly flowing stream that one joyfully hears again whenever other sounds have quieted.  Some people practice the Jesus Prayer this way, and you could also employ one of these options, among many others:

Be still and know that I am God.

Thou art with me.

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Love God and thy neighbor as thyself.

As you have done to the least of these, so have you done to me.

I and my Father are one.

Please note that for this form of chanting we have not included any sacred names or words, such as Adonai, Elohim, Emmanuel, Yeshua Xristos, or Maranatha.  The chanting of sacred words, either silently or aloud, is recommended for times dedicated specifically to that purpose, and is often done in conjunction with other rituals and meditations. These matters are important and deserve further attention, but are tangential to our consideration of prayer in the typical course of daily life.

Love Notes & Other Keepsakes

One of the most pleasant ways we express our thoughts and feelings for loved ones is through sharing written words, pictures and other mementos with each other.  Heartfelt letters, poetry, songs, and even greeting cards are tangible manifestations, actual documents, of love.  We can relate to the Divine in the same way, and that is precisely what has led so many people to write their own prayers, or compose spiritual music and poetry.  Many great paintings and sculptures have also been expressions of prayerful states of mind. Other people find it meaningful to keep a journal or diary in which they write entries addressed to God, just as they would write letters to a most trusted friend.

When we receive artistic gifts from others, or make them for ourselves, it is very common to set them out where they can easily be seen and revisited, or to preserve them in collections of keepsakes through which we occasionally reminisce.  People typically frame the most cherished pictures or writings, making them perpetually available.  Many of us also do these things with the spiritual writings and icons we find most inspiring.  Every time we lay our eyes on such artifacts, they provide an opportunity to remember our relationship with the Divine, and to attend to it in that very moment.  Sometimes, and often just when we most need it, these items catch the eye not so much as reminders to attend to God, but rather strike us as personal messages from the Divine, reawakening our hearts and minds to the immediate presence of infinite wisdom and love.

Laborare Est Orare

“To work is to pray.”  This motto summarizes the Rule of St. Benedict, a guide to Christian monks of many orders that places honest work on an equal footing with religious study and formal prayer.  This value is present in the teachings of many spiritual traditions, and so we do well to incorporate it into our own lives.  As noted in the previous section, spiritual works of art often come from a reverent or inspired state of mind, and this can be true for almost any kind of benevolent human activity.  While it may be difficult for some of us to see our occupations in terms of relating to the Divine, it helps to remember that each person we interact with is a child of God, a manifestation of the Logos and a vessel of the Holy Spirit, and that even the most isolated work may touch the lives of others in some way. So we can at least be prayerful in how we work, knowing that to work in the spirit of love for our fellow human beings is to serve God (Colossians 3:23)

Silence

Have you ever noticed the touching sense of peace and comfort communicated by lifelong partners or old friends as they quietly go about their business with awareness of each other?  We can relate with God in much the same way.

Conclusion: Deus Caritas Est

This Latin phrase translates to “God is love”, a timeless axiom reminding us that we can have no truer concept of God than all-knowing, all-powerful, limitless and perfect Love. With this view in mind, we recall that in the Acts of the Apostles it is said, “we live and move and have our being” in God. That statement brings us back full-circle to the initial reference from Underhill, which voices the mystical realization of God’s presence.  When these ideas connect, we cannot avoid considering all of existence as an expression of Divine Love, no matter how distorted or corrupted many of its particulars might seem to us.  Of course, the challenge is to be mindful of this reality, to wake up to it and see it as clearly and directly as possible.  This wisdom is beautifully composed in 1st Corinthians 13:8-13:

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

We are always and everywhere interacting with God, being loved by God, and we are prayerful to the extent that we are mindful of this truth.  All the methods of prayer we have been considering are meant to nurture such mindfulness, and each has its own value. But there is no substitute for the simple moment-to-moment remembrance and appreciation that the Divine is always right here, right now, both within us and without us, and this presence is Love.  Even in moments of the worst struggle and suffering, even in the hearts of people whose words and actions inflict pain, anger and despair, even when reason and understanding fail, and even in our own souls when we betray those closest to us and betray ourselves, Divine Love calls out and patiently waits to be rediscovered, embraced and shared, and this is a deep secret of acceptance and forgiveness.  To be loving is to midwife the Divine in giving birth to Itself, and there is no greater form of prayer than this.

Agape

Dec 302010
 

This Yearning Itself

Today, Mysterious Lord,
for you pours out this pining.
It is a sweet grieving.

As though for a dear father
who has left this world,
or a lost first love,
your memory haunts me.

Reaching out to embrace you
these arms enfold emptiness
and wrap themselves
back upon this burning heart.

Yet here you are
in this very melancholy,
the darkness in waiting,
and the longing light,
this yearning itself.

Tree and Mountain

The tree meditates
and its leaves grow
youthfully green,
dance in summer winds,
age in noble red and gold,
and then fall
to leave the silvery limbs
outstretched in prayer.

And so may this meditation be
the chant,
the song,
the liturgy,
the ecstatic act of living,
of life flowering through me,
of being lived.

The mountain meditates
and gathers snow,
pours down streams
of tears of joy,
reveals veins
of precious beauty,
and opens it dark eyes
of timeless depths.

And so may this meditation be
the breath,
the silence,
the stillness,
the wonderful fact of mystery,
of mystery flowing through me,
of being mystified.

O mysterious Life,
O living Mystery,
Let me be Thy meditation.

My Bright Little One

Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them,
for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.

Matthew 19:14

my bright little one,
in your face shines pure joy
for the voyage you have joined

your sparkling eyes,
open wide, clear and deep,
welcome all the wonder of this life,
brimming with the simple strength, love and poise
of knowing beyond words
the indwelling, upwelling, outpouring Spirit

show me the way to let you shine through,
not only when in silence I turn within
to sit alone with you,
but always and everywhere, for everyone

you are my heart,
so let my face be yours,
my bright little one

May you know the blessings of
Faith,
Hope,
and Love
in 2011.

Dec 162010
 

Picking up from the previous post, I want to address two common challenges with spiritual practice: The first is discipline and the second is misunderstanding the value of experiences.

With regard to discipline, in observing my own practice and the practice of others, it’s obvious that consistency and persistence can be  huge challenges.  Quite frankly, I believe a central part of this problem is our wanting easy, low-cost, instant gratification. It might be a little reductionist, but it sometimes seems to me that we regard spiritual practice more like a form of entertainment than a way to greater awareness, wholeness, integration and depth of being in ourselves, in relationship with God, and in our presence in this world.  Many of us also want our experiences to be intellectually or emotionally profound, and perhaps even socially or materially tangible.  Any practice that doesn’t seem to fulfill these wishes can quickly be judged as unproductive and worthless, and then we flit off to something different; we can also imagine ourselves as having already “advanced” beyond the need for that practice.   It’s so easy to ignore how often the great saints and sages have asserted the value of commitment to even the most basic practices.  It has even been said that it’s in persisting through boredom with a spiritual practice that we begin to gain the most significant, yet often most subtle, benefits.  Said another way, the most important experience can sometimes simply be the doing of the practice itself.

It might be obvious that we’ve already begun considering how confusion about the value of experiences can be inherent in our judgments about the value of a practice.  Plainly stated, the value of an experience, and therefore the practice that facilitated it, is not necessarily measured by its immediate magnitude. Another aspect of this confusion is in taking an extraordinary experience too literally; there are countless stories of visionaries who have brought horrible suffering to themselves and others because of knee-jerk reactions to their own inner experiences.  Strong desires can lead to mistaking an experience as a direct contact with something that the experience actually only represents.  For example, a flash of light experienced in the depths of meditation may reveal something to us about the presence and action of the Spirit, but it does not necessarily mean that the light was the appearance of a particular spiritual being.  Similarly, just as the on-screen image of a movie actor is not the actual character portrayed, or even the actual actor, so too can dreams and visions about spiritual beings be far removed from actual contact with them.  Even the images of these words are not the actual forms on the computer screen, let alone the actual thoughts in my mind, but are your mind’s perception of the words and the thoughts behind them.  Another potential confusion is taking the magnitude, frequency or total number of one’s experiences as an unquestionable sign of spiritual “progress.” Such an attitude is dangerously self-aggrandizing and a highly volatile fuel for wish-fulfilling delusions.

So, is there some way to minimize these risks without turning spiritual practice into nothing but a heartless drudgery or abandoning it all together?  Yes, to begin with, it might already be apparent that one guideline I’ve found valuable is paying careful attention to the overall integration and harmony of the soul’s different aspects and functions.   Of course, this guideline is itself based upon a very deep, broad and persistent practice of honest self-awareness and caring self-acceptance.  Said another way, it is the practice of being lovingly present with oneself, and thus becoming increasingly aware of the very fluid interconnectedness within us – head, heart, and gut.  Along with this practice of presence, all the great spiritual traditions recommend the mindfulness and application of certain virtues.  In Christianity we traditionally rely on the four cardinal virtues – prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice – and the three theological virtues – faith, hope, and especially charity (or agápē, spiritual love, “the greatest of these“).  But it’s very important to understand that the practice of the virtues is not about forcing one’s external behaviors to conform to some predetermined model of perfection.  The object here is not to build up some new facade in the place of being more consciously whole; in fact, the virtues are first and foremost internal processes. When incorporated with the practice of loving self-presence,  they shed significant light on the ways one is at odds with oneself, suffering from psychic fragmentation and compartmentalization, while also pointing out paths toward greater integration and harmony.  Being fully present with ourselves and working with these virtues doesn’t provide a foolproof guarantee that we won’t make mistakes, yet it can reduce the risks in making them.  When we do make mistakes, these guidelines can help us lovingly embrace them as learning opportunities and thus become even more meaningful experiences in our spiritual lives.  Beyond these very significant experiences, the practice of presence and the virtues may also facilitate a deepening awareness of something in ourselves other than thinking, feeling, sensing and doing – something quiet and still, and at first seemingly tiny and insignificant, yet more vast and powerful than we can comprehend, let alone control.

For many of us mystics, awareness of this other within ourselves is both fascinating and frightening – fascinating in its penetration into a very deep mystery of the soul, and frightening in our awareness of the comparative smallness and powerlessness of that part of us we most often identify as “me”, or what we commonly call the “ego”.  One risk associated with the fascination is confusing such an encounter with the mystical union we desire. A risk with the fear is the ego coming up with all sorts of excuses to avoid accepting and adjusting to the greater reality, including quitting a practice because we’ve realized how much it has been motivated by serving the ego; sometimes that’s just a sign that the practice is actually working!

Finally, with spiritual practice, like the rest of life, let’s acknowledge that there is no way to eliminate risk; even in retreating to avoid some risks we fate ourselves to take others.  So the question I’ll leave you with is this: What risks do faith, hope and love call upon you to take?

Agape

Dec 122010
 

Across all religious traditions, there are warnings about risks in spiritual practice, and especially practices of the mystical variety. This post is about exploring some of those risks, all of which I have experienced the hard way.

I’ll begin approaching this issue from the observation that each of us has a tendency to judge some particular kind of experience as especially meaningful or rewarding, and so we can naturally focus our efforts on spiritual practices that we believe improve our chances of having such experiences.  However, because no practice has a 100% return of the desired results, the effect of partial reinforcement can push us toward a kind of addiction in which we feel compelled to try harder and harder to get the high, no matter what the cost.  In effect, we run the risk of our practice becoming a drug that we use to attain our particular favorite high. Casinos profit obscenely from this phenomenon, and so do some people in the spirituality/religion business, but I digress.

From this point, let’s consider some different categories for experiences and practices people commonly consider meaningful or rewarding in their spiritual lives.  This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it’s a good starting place and you are welcome to add some ideas of your own.  It will probably be fairly easy for you to look at the list and pick out a few things at each end of your own like-dislike scale.

  • Intellectual – These experiences are about the discovery, acquisition, processing and communication of information, ideas, and insight.  Along with such effects through the usual academic pursuits, this category would include those from all forms of analytical, theoretical, and speculative thinking, as well as from visions and related psychic experiences.
  • Social – These experiences are dependent upon relationship with other human beings, and involve themes of acceptance, belonging, support. roles and responsibilities, status, esteem and power.
  • Physical – This category involves increased or decreased sensory stimulation.  Nature, art, ritual, ceremony, service to others, dietary observances, exercise, sex, austerities, and the bodily aspects of meditation and prayer all have relevance.
  • Emotional – Here we are speaking of heightened or lessened feelings, such as pleasure, pain, comfort, discomfort, satisfaction, frustration, excitement, sadness, happiness, anger, peace, confidence, anxiety, fear, release of tension, relief from boredom, and so on.

It’s apparent that these categories aren’t completely discreet from each other; they are interconnected.   In considering that interconnectedness, you might have already noticed how much the emotional category serves as the final arbiter of our choices.  We can come up with lots of rationalizations and justifications for pursuing one thing more than another, but the deeper we look the clearer we see that we’re more likely to follow through with something if we believe it promises some sort of emotional satisfaction for ourselves, whether it is comfort in having done the “right” thing or even a kind of masochistic satisfaction.  Even the continuation or cessation of our own physical lives is subject to this dynamic.

It’s not my intention to encourage self-flagellation about our very deep and powerful tendencies to serve ourselves.  I am convinced that emotional self-interest is an inextricable part of human nature, and any attempt to pretend otherwise only leads deeper into a life of unhealthy illusion.   These observations are instead made primarily to point out some of the most crucial dynamics leading to imbalance, disharmony and fragmentation in our souls.  Likewise, they suggest that our choices about spiritual practice can actually contribute more to psychospiritual dysfunction than to well being, even when they really feel good.

There are many different directions we could go from here, and I encourage you to explore whatever seems to lead you into a place of deeper self-awareness, honesty and wholeness.  In the next post I will offer a few further considerations.

Agape

Dec 052010
 

Psalms 46:10a – Be still and know that I am God.

A thoughtful friend once gave me a plaque bearing these words, and it has a central place on the altar in my study. This scripture has long been very meaningful to mystics and non-mystics alike.  It suggests there is something about the act of being still, of letting go, of surrendering, that somehow brings us closer to God, or at least delivers us to a greater sense of peace.  Rather than go further with interpretations of how it can be meaningful, in this post I want to offer two different meditation techniques that incorporate this passage.   It is recommended that you not practice both in the same sitting, and perhaps not even in the same day.  In fact, I would suggest working with one for a week or two before moving on to the other.

A side note before going further:  I’ve added a link to the blog tool bar for a page about Meditation Methods.  It begins with a basic meditation you can use to lead you into and out of other methods such as these.

Meditation #1

(Please note, this meditation may not work exactly as described in languages other than English. I invite readers fluent in other languages to comment and/or submit appropriate variations.)

Once you have become settled, relaxed and centered, inhale fully and then slowly whisper aloud the full translation of this passage, stretching the words out through your entire exhalation. Open your heart, mind and body to respond naturally to the words. Be aware of your response in all ways, observing, attending to and absorbing in the whole – intuitively, intellectually, emotionally, and physically:

Be still and know that I am God.

Inhale, and then slowly whisper:

Be still and know that I am

Continue to shorten the statement by one word each time, stretching the words out through the entire exhalation, always allowing your whole being to respond naturally to the words:

Be still and know that I
Be still and know that
Be still and know
Be still and
Be still
Be

Inhale and exhale silently, attending to the silence itself. Inhale again, and then, as you exhale, begin rebuilding the statement one word at time:

Be
Be still
Be still and
Be still and know
Be still and know that
Be still and know that I
Be still and know that I am
Be still and know that I am God

Once again, inhale and exhale in silence. You now have some options: You can repeat the entire process as many times as you wish, you can repeat it silently within, or you can simply sit in silence and stillness. No matter what course you follow, it is recommended that eventually you take several minutes to just be still.

Meditation #2

The original Hebrew of this sentence is beautifully poetic and makes a fine chant. It can be transliterated as, “Harpu u’de’u ki-anokhi Elohim.” The pronunciation is:

harpoo oo’de’oo kee-anokee eloheem

This meditation is not as oriented toward insight as the previous method, but rather is aimed at gently guiding you into deeper stillness and openness to God.

Once you have become settled, relaxed and centered, inhale fully and then slowly chant the Hebrew words in a strong clear voice, resonating from your chest.  Chant the words out through your entire exhalation. It should be louder than your usual speaking voice, and more like the volume you might typically use when singing with a group.

After a few repetitions, begin to gradually lower the volume, so that after at least a dozen repetitions you are chanting at a whisper. Within a few more repetitions you are only mouthing the words before you shift to continuing the chant silently in your heart and mind.

Eventually you can let go of the internal chant to more fully abide in the stillness and silence in which the chant has been occurring all along. Simply allow any sensory perceptions, thoughts or feelings to come and go like background noise as your awareness remains centered upon openness to God.  Even thoughts and feelings about God are not to be dwelt upon, but rather allowed to pass by as one abides in the silence and stillness from which they are born and to which they return.   If you find yourself becoming distracted and attached to some sensation, thought or feeling, that’s okay; just gently return to the silent chant for a while, and as often as you need.

I hope you find these methods beneficial.

Agape

Dec 032010
 

The New Man: An Interpretation of Some Parables and Miracles of Christ

This book has been out of print for some time now, though there are reasonably priced used copies available.  The title and image are linked to free online versions.

Table of Contents

new man

Click here to read the book!

I The Language of Parable
II The Idea of Temptation in the Gospels
III The Marriage at Cana
IV The Idea of Good being above Truth
– The Miracle at the Pool of Bethesda
– The Good Samaritan
– The Laborers in the Vineyard
V The Idea of Righteousness
VI The Idea of Wisdom
VII Simon Peter
VIII The Idea of Prayer
– Introduction
– The Necessity of Persistence in Prayer
– The Necessity of Sincerity in Prayer
– Response to Prayer
– Request in Prayer
IX The Sermon on the Mount
X Faith
XI The Kingdom of Heaven
XII Judas Iscariot
Appendix

If you are a Christian, or any other seeker, who is beginning to look for more than literal meaning to the messages of the New Testament, then you’ll find this book a powerful starting place.  If you’re already well down that path, then you may also find things here that not only resonate with your own thoughts and experiences, but can bring fresh insights and challenge you in new ways.

Dr. Maurice Nicoll provides a profound view of the depths that we might plumb in the parables and messages of Jesus. Nicoll’s concern is not as much with historical or theological views of Jesus, but rather how the Gospel accounts of his life and teachings can show us the way to fulfill our potentials as spiritual beings. In the front of my copy (Fifth Impression), Nicoll clearly states his purpose in “A Note on the Author”:

The intention is to indicate that all teaching such as contained in the Gospels, and many other older and newer teachings, in the short period of known history, is about transcending the violence which characterizes mankind’s present level of being. It affirms the possibility of a development of another level of being surmounting violence.

Nicoll’s poignant interpretations are significantly shaped by his impressive background in medical, psychological and philosophical studies; he was a student of Freud, Jung, Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. He believes the central psychological idea of the Gospels is the movement toward rebirth, which is to awaken as a person with a deeper understanding of self and others. Nicoll calls this movement “inner evolution”, and stresses that it must be engaged by the whole person – thoughts, feelings and actions.

One key he offers to using the Gospels for this kind of work is to view the various characters and elements as symbolic of aspects or dynamics of the soul.  For example, he takes up the symbolism of the Pharisee* not so much as a member of an historical group, or even a way of characterizing others in one’s life, but as:

…the Pharisee in oneself, to the insincere person in oneself who, of course, cannot receive any real and genuine psychological teaching without turning it into an occasion for merit, praise and award.

Another significant element of Nicoll’s view is a hierarchical appreciation of the relationship between the human and the divine.  In fact, this seems to be the very basis of his views on prayer.  He posits that prayer is an attempt to communicate upward to heaven, and as such requires persistence to the point of “shameless impudence,” yet, perhaps ironically, with a sincerity born of utter humility: “Unless a man feels he is nothing, prayer is useless….”  Even so, Nicoll makes it sound as though enough pious nagging will force God into serving us as we wish: “Only persistence and intensity can cause the higher level to respond.” (my emphasis)  On face value we might find these views troubling, but it would be extremely unfair to take Nicoll on face value, for he also says:

And let us also remind ourselves that the attainment of this higher level possible for Man is called heaven or the Kingdom of Heaven in the Gospels and that it is within a man, as a possibility of his own inner evolution or re-birth of himself, and that Man at the level he is on, as an unawakened creature, an unfinished experiment, is called earth. These are the two levels, the higher and the lower, and some very great differences exist between them, as great as the differences between a seed and a flower. Thus communication between these two levels is difficult. The mission of Christ was to bridge, to connect, and to bring into correspondence in himself these two levels, the divine and the human….

Nicoll insists that “by an evolution of the whole psychic man, that is by an evolution of all his mind, his love, his will and his understanding”, the “Man of the Kingdom”, the “New Man” of Christ in us, can be born.  In the end, it seems to me that Nicoll has essentially come around to saying one’s prayers are more likely to receive a positive response as one’s whole being is more attuned to the divine.  In other words, one is more likely to get what is wanted because one is more likely to persistently and sincerely pray for what is most in harmony with the divine.

Some readers will find one of the most challenging themes of the book to be about placing Good above Truth (Nicoll’s capitalizations).  For Nicoll, issues of Truth are inevitably interwoven with differing perspectives of understanding and opinion. His concern is that doctrines and laws too often stand upon that very subjective and all too often self-serving foundation, because the person who has not attained a higher level of Good “can twist the higher Truth to suit his vanity.”  It isn’t that doctrines about Truth are to be ignored, but rather should be seen as stepping stones meant to lead us to higher levels of knowing and being Good.  So it is that even the most hallowed doctrines are misunderstood if they are not considered secondary to Good:

The Mosaic Law, or, at least the ten commandments, are instructions from the side of Truth, as to how to attain a level of Good, where, as commandments, they have no further meaning. But if they are taken as an end, and not as a means of an end, they become stumbling blocks.

Nicoll speaks of this shift of priorities from Truth to Good in the Gospel language of the first becoming last and the last becoming first.  He argues that this reversal is central to the mission of Christ, for it places our understanding of Truth within the context of Good, and not vice versa, which enables us to serve the higher purposes of doctrine, the spirit of the law rather than merely the letter.  This seems to connect well with Jesus’ statement that “all the law and the prophets” hang upon our love for God and our fellow human beings.

Finally, throughout the book it’s clear that Nicoll urges his readers to engage the challenging work of connecting with the higher levels within themselves.  While he speaks much about the honest self-awareness, genuine humility, integrity and commitment such attainment requires from the human being, he doesn’t have much to say about Divine Grace.  This omission is unfortunate because Grace is such a significant element of the Good News.  Perhaps Nicoll would say the capacity and the opportunity to do that work are themselves gifts of Grace.

[* In fairness, it’s worth noting that although the stereotype of the Pharisee is often used disparagingly among Christians, Jesus and the Apostles actually had some good friends and supporters among the Pharisees, such a Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, and Gamaliel.]

Nov 112010
 

Welcome to the Way of the Heart!

I’d like to begin this blog with a spiritual practice that can be used to directly engage the mystical Way of the Heart.  The Heart of Love is a method of meditation and prayer that works with the most profound and powerful teachings of Jesus:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment, and the second is like it, that you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

As you have done to the least of these my brethren, you have done to me.

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.

It takes very little reflection to know this method involves everything taught in the quote above: Love for God and our fellow souls is at once the motive force, the immediate sentiment, and the practical aim of this work.  It makes use of our human intelligence in the most graceful and subtle of ways – an internal cultivation of love that stimulates a more living and visible operation of hope and faith in our relationships with others.  It puts the Way of the Heart into immediate practice.

This method is developed through four phases.  It is recommended that the first phase be practiced alone for at least a week, and then each phase can be successively added over a period of several weeks until you are finally practicing all four phases in each sitting.  Once a working familiarity has been developed with each phase, then the practitioner may place more or less emphasis on various phases, and even rearrange them, as desired. Some people might find this method suitable as the mainstay of their regular devotionals and inner work, while others might prefer to use it less routinely.  This method is an excellent practice for anyone who wishes to serve in spiritual healing, for it helps in keeping one’s soul open to the flow of higher energies and tends to infuse one’s healing prayers with the special sweetness of selfless love.

Phase One: The Heart of Love Received from the Exemplar

It is always advisable to begin and end such work with a mindful ritual such as lighting a candle and perhaps some incense, and crossing oneself. After settling into a centered and peaceful state of meditation, offer a prayer of submission to the Divine Will, expressing your desire to know and serve it through love.

Next, call to mind the image of someone you consider to be a great historical embodiment and exemplar of love.  For many Christians, Jesus will be the only suitable figure, though others may be attracted to another, such as Mother Mary, St. Francis of Assisi, or Mother Theresa.  Imagine this person standing in front of you with a loving smile.  See within his or her chest a flaming heart, radiating love out through the whole body in rich hues of pink, ruby and golden light, like a splendid sunrise.

Feel the warmth on your face and chest. Let yourself respond emotionally to this great soul’s love, smiling in return.  Imagine your exemplar reaching out to cup your heart in his or her hands, and the flames of love flowing into and igniting your own heart. If you feel moved to weep with gratitude, or smile or laugh with joy, allow that to happen as you continue to meditate upon this person as an embodiment of Divine Love, a living vessel through which God loves the world, including you.  To accept this love is itself an act of love for God, for the exemplar, and for yourself.  You may speak with your exemplar if you wish.

In your meditation, consider that to ancient people the heart was not merely symbolic of emotions, but was also the seat of intuition, inspiration, beauty, peace and harmony.  There is much to discover here about the nature of love, which includes far more than our feelings of affection and sympathy.

When you are ready to end the meditation, simply let the image fade.  Offer a final prayer of thanks and return your consciousness to the external world, though now infused with an elevated awareness of love.

While most people report this exercise to be positive and uplifting, some people may also find themselves challenged by various kinds of discomfort with the work.  For example, feelings of unworthiness, guilt or shame may arise.  It is important to simply be aware of all our feelings, both pleasing and uncomfortable, accepting them as indicators of deeper processes occurring within our hearts and minds.  In effect, they present us with opportunities to learn more of what we really believe about ourselves and our relationships with the Divine.  In response to such observations, it is important to remember that accepting the infinite grace of Divine Love is not about using the head to strategize a path toward righteous worthiness, but is rather about simply opening the heart to the immediate fact of God’s freely given mercy and affection.  With this understanding, where we find self-condemning thoughts and feelings of self-loathing, we have the opportunity to practice acceptance, forgiveness and healing of our own humanity, as well as truly nurturing ourselves toward more virtuous living.

Phase Two: The Heart of Love Shared with Those We Cherish

Proceed through the previous phase and just past the point where your heart is ignited by the exemplar.  Allow the image of the exemplar to fade, and in its place imagine someone among your friends and family with whom you share a deep bond of love.  Perhaps this is someone you know to be in extra need of receiving love at this time. See him or her smiling in the warmth of the pink, ruby and golden light radiating out through your body.  Imagine yourself reaching forward to hold that person’s heart in your hands. See and feel the flames of your heart flowing through your arms to ignite his or her heart with love.  Speak with this person if you wish.  Meditate upon the love you have shared, how it has been expressed between you, and how it might grow.

When you are ready, allow that person’s image to fade. If you feel moved to do so, allow the image of another cherished friend or family member to arise, and then repeat the entire process.  You can continue through as many loved ones as you wish, eventually ending the meditation as before.

As with the previous phase, this can be a very touching and joyful exercise, and yet it can also prove challenging.  In focusing on your love for another, you might discover areas of uncertainty or sense something lacking.  For example, you might realize that in some way you have not been as expressive of your love and affection as you might be.  This could be due to various fears or inhibitions for either or both of you.  You might also discover you have resentments, frustrations or other negative feelings about the individual that seem to prevent you from more fully and freely loving him or her.  As you practice the exercise with different people in mind, you may become more aware of how your love differs from one person to another.  With some people your sentiments might be more affectionate, with others more appreciative or admiring, while for others more compassionate or sympathetic.  In any case, this phase of the Heart of Love can help you learn about how you feel, think and behave in your relationships with loved ones, and thus provide you with many opportunities to refine your ability to love each person in your life in a way as unique and meaningful as he or she is.

Phase Three: The Heart of Love Shared with Those Who Challenge Us

Work through the first two phases, and now begin extending your love toward someone you feel has mistreated or offended you in some way, or someone you have difficulty trusting.  Give just as freely and energetically to this soul as you did in the second phase. Meditate upon the many pearls of wisdom in loving those we may not find easy to love. Reflect on what it means to love someone you do not necessarily like.  Ponder how you might manifest love for this person more outwardly. As before, repeat the process until you are ready to end the meditation.

Phase Four: The Heart of Love in All

After working through all the previous phases, meditate upon the universe as existing within the Flaming Heart of God, the One in whom we live and move and have our being. Recall that your heart is aflame with that same Divine Fire, and that it is actually a spark of that Divine Fire, as are all the hearts of God’s children.  Allow all the implications of meaning, virtue and action to flow freely through your heart and mind, with neither resistance nor attachment, but with awareness, acceptance and love.