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)


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.


Feb 202011

In Part 1 we considered the idea that serving love above all other things can sometimes lead us to break laws and ethical standards.  This idea begs us to further consider what principles we can use to help bridge the gap between the ineffable mystery of love and the concrete reality of this world.

Non-Judgment and Equality

Peter’s example in Caesarea clearly shows us that our role is not to judge people, at least not according to a literal reading of laws written for a specific culture thousands of years ago. So if even the “Rock” would not judge another person’s purity or cleanliness, even with the backing of scriptural law, then who is any of us to do so?  Once Peter managed to pass through this test and let go of the temptation to judge in that particular way, we see his actions showing us an interconnected principle that is just as much a sign and symptom of love – he welcomed Cornelius, a Gentile, as an equal.   He refused to allow Cornelius to kneel before him and said, “Stand up. I am only a man myself.” (Acts 10:26)  It is also important to understand that this position of non-judgment of another person’s worthiness of love is not taken with the disclaimers so popular among modern evangelicals, like “for all have sinned and fallen short,” or “hate the sin and not the sinner”, but the declaration that God does not play favorites.  If Peter felt called to recognize and love a Gentile as an equal before God, and did so in a time when the legalized taboos and consequences make ours look tiny by comparison, then who are we not to recognize and love others we might be tempted to judge as sinful, impure or unclean?

I suspect the progression of the law of love over the written law, with all its cultural limitations and prejudices, was at least part of what Jesus had in mind when he told the Apostles they would do even greater things than he had done.  It could be argued that the most pervasive influence of the Christian spirit on the evolution of Western society and government, and often despite the Church’s own institutionalized prejudice, has been the continuation of that progression toward recognizing the equality of each person, protecting that equality, and providing for each person’s basic well being.  Even so, in each societal shift the Church has experienced the call of radical love in conflict with Bible-based fears about the supposed sanctioning of sin.  Worse yet, those religious arguments were, and still are, used by some individuals and groups as justifications for threats, violence, and heinous acts of terror in the name of Christ.  Thankfully, however, radical love has led most of the Western world to let go of conventions like slavery, Jim Crow laws, the oppression of indigenous peoples, prohibitions on interracial marriage, and restraints on the rights of women.   Today the vast majority of Christians consider those injustices as contrary to the spirit of Christ’s love, though it seems to me that many of us are nonetheless still repeating the pattern with regard to other issues, including sexual orientation, gender identity and economic status.

Answering Legal and Moral Problems

Why would we adhere to laws and ethical standards that are out of their time and cultural context rather than answer the call for a more expansive and inclusive expression of love?  It’s my conviction that the basic problem is fear, in part because we have been taught the fear of God is the beginning of knowledge. (Proverbs 1:7)  From that staring place, I suggest our pattern of prejudice is further based on the fearful belief that God does play favorites, and so upon the fearful hope that we can win a place among the favored.  Unfortunately, there are lots of scriptural passages that can be used to support such attitudes, which in turn seem to justify arrogantly judging others’ worthiness to be treated as equals, and then being insensitive and cruel to those considered unequal.  There is also the ordinary human fear of change, and especially of letting go of traditions that have benefited oneself even though it has been at the unfair expense of others.  Aside from these factors, there is also the perfectly reasonable fear of living in a chaotic world without rules to help settle differences on what is relatively good and right in particular situations.

There is a real need for written laws and ethical standards but, in order to not be limited to fear as our only legal and moral guide, we also need our laws and ethics to be subject to the evolving wisdom of love – otherwise we risk them becoming rigid spiritless idols of prejudice and tyranny.  This need is one reason legal and ethical systems have developed that permit changes in our understandings, and even the amendment or elimination of rules that we discern are no longer adequate.   But how can we come to know the evolving wisdom of love so that we may express it more fully?  For Christian mystics the answer begins with turning inward to realize our union with Christ, the Logos, the Light of Universal Reason, and thus with God, Love itself.  That union then achieves both wider and deeper realization through honoring every human soul’s essential connection with Love, and thus with each other.  This great work is what best enables us to judge in the only way that I believe we are truly called to do.  In practical terms, our calling is to always respond to life’s problems by trying to discern how the Spirit moves us to answer this question: What is the most loving thing to do? To have that intention as our prayer, our principal ethic and our mission, combined with the understanding that different people may come to different answers, is to have an inner guide to radical love, the kind of love Jesus actually lived and charged us to progressively spread beyond all prejudicial boundaries, no matter how sacrosanct they may seem to be.

Feb 132011
This post is a significant revision of a note written for my Facebook page in 2009. I retitled it “Radical Love”, and have since found there are books with the same title.  This post does not reference any works by this title.

Imagine what it would be like to be taught from infancy that God wants to be feared, gets violently jealous and angry, hates a specific list of behaviors, severely punishes the people who do them, and expects us to reflect these same attitudes and actions with each other.  Imagine you have also been taught that all these things have been literally dictated by God into a single book of lore and laws revered for thousands of years as the supreme encapsulation of absolute and unchanging Truth.  Well, for many of us Christians that’s not hard to imagine because it’s so close to the way we were raised.  Now imagine how you would feel when the most scripturally literate, charismatic and miraculous person you’ve ever met also speaks and acts in ways that violate those laws, and even claims a divine right to do so!  I think this is what it was like for the Apostles and others of their time to be in the presence of Jesus.

A Radical Idea: Breaking the Law in Order to Fulfill It

Scriptural laws, such as the Levitical laws, were deeply established as the basis of the Apostles’ world; the law dominated their identity as a culture, as families, and as individuals.  But Jesus shook things up with a radical teaching about a relationship with God and other human beings that was chiefly based on trusting God’s limitless love and listening to God’s Living Word spoken in our hearts, rather than uncritically obeying the words spoken by religious authorities or written in a book, even the Bible.  This devotion to love as the primary arbiter of righteousness and morality is what enabled Jesus to break the letter of the law in order to best serve its spirit, which I think is part of what he meant by “fulfilling the law” (Matthew 5:17).  His teaching did not set aside the Bible, but clearly placed it beneath loving God with all one’s heart, mind and strength, and loving others as oneself (Matthew 22:36-40).

To me, the Good News that God is infinitely loving, combined with the Great Commandments, is the essential formula of Christian life whether we call it mystical or not.  But as inspiring as many people have found it, to countless religious authorities and devout people of Jesus’ time that message was unacceptably threatening, just as it seems with many of us Christians today.  Yet the Apostles were close enough to Jesus to see the Divine Light, the Logos, shining through him even, and perhaps especially, when he repeatedly violated the law in fulfilling the higher law of love.  They constantly had to face tough questions about how far they should go in putting love above and beyond the laws that defined their very lives and, in fact, threatened their lives if they went too far.

If you have read the Acts of the Apostles, you know that after the death of Jesus this issue came to a head and they were deeply troubled by it.  Specifically, there was concern among them about who was and was not worthy of Christian love, and how that love could be properly expressed.  Could someone who was not Jewish be considered a sibling in Christ?  After all, those who weren’t Jewish didn’t practice all the purity codes prescribed by the Bible and Jewish tradition.  It was seriously risky to freely socialize with “impure” people, to eat with them, to touch them, let alone baptize them and treat them as beloved family members.

One of the most crucial moments of transformation on this issue is recorded in Acts, chapter 10.  Peter, the “Rock” of the Apostles, had two visions that led him to say:

God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. … I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism…. (Acts 10:28, 34)

This realization is echoed in Romans 2:11, showing from that point forward the Apostles became more inclusive with their ministry, freely violating laws in the process.  It seems obvious to me that they were beginning an ever-expanding expression, a progression,  of Jesus’ teaching to put love above all other considerations. The lives of Jesus and the Apostles illustrate that Christian life is meant to be a vital, growing, evolving presence of love in this world, whether we are speaking of the whole Church, of specific congregations, or of the individual follower of Jesus.

The best examples provided by Jesus and the Apostles always take us right back to the two greatest commandments: love God with all that you are, and love others as yourself. For followers of Christ, love has never been, and never will be, more adequately captured by any other written or spoken laws.  Love is always outgrowing whatever else we want to idolize as perfect and permanent, even the literal words of the Bible.  Love forever challenges us to let go of whatever else we might cling to in the desire to feel more comfortable and confident amid all the uncertainties of life.  But, in the absence of laws settling all sorts of specific behavioral issues, are there more specific principles we can apply to be more complete and vital lovers of God and other people?  The Beatitudes reveal a wonderful set of such principles, but something very crucial is demonstrated in that early struggle of the Apostles in their post-Jesus ministry, and that’s where we will continue in Part 2.

Feb 062011

jesus-sweating-blood-in-gethsemaneThis is a perennial topic in spirituality, and Christian devotion is certainly no exception. We have our ascetics who have glorified the value of suffering to the point of practicing the most extreme forms of mortification.  We’ve had clergy and elders who have directed the faithful to always quietly submit to whatever abuses, cruelties or injustices they may have suffered as trials of faith.  I’ve heard of Inquisitors who went into raptures of ecstasy at hearing people cry out to God as they burned at the stake.  Mother Teresa allegedly did not allow patients in her care to receive pain medication because she believed it was so important for people to suffer with Christ.

As mystics we seek to know union with God, and to live in accord with our faith in and knowledge of that union. How does suffering, our own and that of others, fit into this context?

The Roots of Suffering

Let’s avoid the temptation to slip into distraction with ontological tail-chasing about why suffering exists at all.  My preference is to begin by simply accepting the existential reality, and from that place begin considering what meaning it has for me.  And, before going further, it may be helpful to note that there are two general classes of suffering:  The first is the basic experience of physical and emotional pain immediately resulting from loss, injury or disease,  and the second is the additional suffering we create for ourselves with our mental responses to the fact or possibility of such things.  While this post has relevance to the first class of suffering, it is actually the second class that is of primary concern.  That sort of suffering is something we have more opportunity to prevent or transform, and not only for our own benefit but also because it so often spills over into the lives of others.

It first occurs to me that suffering reveals our illusions, or at least our attachments to them.  It is actually our resistance to accepting illusions for what they are that causes so much of our distress and dis-ease in life.  Sometimes this happens when we get what we thought we wanted, only to find the reality is significantly different from our dreams.  Sometimes it happens because of the experience of impermanence and our vain struggles to preserve what was.

“Attachment” and “impermanence” seem to be key words here.  It’s simple enough to see how our desires to keep and hold what pleases us must always be thwarted by the reality of impermanence here in this world.  A deeper truth of this is that we tend to define ourselves through our attachments, though we might not realize it, either on the whole or with specifics.   But anyone who has experienced a significant loss – like the death of a loved one, the breakup of an intimate relationship, the loss of a career, an ability, a reputation, a home, or even membership in some group – to some degree knows that anxious sense of having lost something of the self.  Sometimes in these situations we even ask ourselves, “Who am I now?”

So we can see how in the depths of such suffering one often, if not always, perceives a blow to one’s own self-concept, and there is little to nothing we want to protect and preserve more than the self-concept; it is simply the survival instinct, if nothing else.  The truth, however, is that the personal self is temporary.  It is always changing and, despite a more or less constant sense of a “me”, that “me” is obviously never precisely what it was a little while ago.  It is memories of “me” that largely form the collage each of us habitually relies upon for a self-concept, the patchwork emblem we have of the present “me”.  So at best the self-concept is a fluid theory or working hypothesis of who and what we have been and are becoming in this world.  At worst it is an illusion we mistake for a concrete actuality, the psychological equivalent of an idolized statue standing on fragile clay feet, destined to eventually be broken.

The Transformation of Suffering

I think this issue is close to the very core of the mystical impulse.  On the one hand suffering urges us to desire the eternal, to identify with it no matter how paradoxical that may seem.  On the other hand we are drawn to the fleeting unique beauty of impermanent things.  Is there an unresolvable opposition here that begs us to abandon one for the other?  There are many ways we can respond to this juxtaposition, but it seems the general tone of Christian mysticism is to focus on Love.  For us, the value of suffering can begin to be found in its revelation of our illusory attachments and reminding us of our obsession with protecting and preserving the self-concept.  We are thus provided the opportunity to transform temporal suffering from something to be fled at all costs into a catalyst for more fully knowing eternal Love.

Among other ways, people have tried to define Love as the very principle of union itself, the reintegrating power that resolves oppositions and dissolves separation into oneness.  However, when two or more join in love, another one often arises from them.  So it is with all forms of Love as we know it, and so it is that the principle of union is never the last word on the meaning of Love.  Love transcends the duality of separation, union, and the birth of the new.  It is in Love that we know and rejoice in both the eternal, transcendent mystery of non-duality and the temporal ever-becoming, ever-passing wonder of the relative world.

So, for Christian mystics, what are the implications about the suffering of others?  First and foremost it is a reminder of our shared humanity, and that awareness combined with the focus on Love naturally delivers us to compassion, kindness and service.  Yet, as the human heart and mind strive to express something of Love, it is often said that one can only love another to the extent that he or she loves self.  It’s easy to get the idea that one must place self-love first and foremost on some sort of love agenda, as if we would otherwise have less Love to offer others. On the other hand, much has also been said about forgetting self in the love of others, as though time spent in loving self always robs others of Love. But these distinctions reveal our fear that there is some absolute limit to our ability to express Love, if not a limitation in Love itself; it is an assumed lacking that reduces infinite Love to a temporal commodity rather than an eternal good.  Notions such as these are veils on Love’s transcendence of all dualities, for genuine love of self and genuine love of others each have the effect of magnifying the other, despite the suffering that may be intertwined with them.  Like mirrors facing one another, notions of giver and receiver evaporate into the infinite depths of their shared reflection. And so it is that in expressing compassion and kindness in response to the suffering of others, we become a unique temporal flowering of the transcendence of eternal Love; we actually participate in the mystery of the Incarnation, and thus, in the language of our tradition, shine as the light of Christ in this world.