Spiritual Exercises

Lexio Divina: The Fifth Spiritual Exercise

GetAttachmentThumbnail-1The first four spiritual exercises form a group of practices that lay a foundation for all that is to come, and yet are a complete spiritual ‘workout’ in themselves. The purpose of this first group is to help us become proficient meditators, able to quieten the mind easily so we may hear the voice of the Spirit clearly. For this reason we refer to this first group collectively as “Learning to Be Still”.  As you practice, you will develop the concentration, spiritual sensitivity and focus that will help greatly as you add other practices to your prayer life.

The purpose of the second group group of practices is that of “Learning to Listen” and they help us develop the biblical practice of Contemplation. If the first group creates a sacred space where God may speak, the second group helps us to hear and clearly interpret that voice.

The first exercise in this group has been referred to by many names over the centuries, but is most commonly known by its Latin name, Lexio Divina, or the practice of Divine Reading. It is a simple yet intensely nourishing way to encounter God in the scriptures; not as a concept to be analysed and dissected, but as a lover, writing love-letters to his beloved. It is a method of encountering the scriptures where the Bread of Life may be slowly chewed, savoured, digested and incorporated into our lives. It is definitely not a fast-food fix, but the slow and deliberate partaking of a shared spiritual banquet with the beloved.

The Practice:

Begin by bringing yourself to a place of quiet rest. The best way to do this is to use one or more of the first group of exercises in order to enter that peaceful state of spiritual attentiveness and receptivity where the mind quietens down and the distractions of life are put aside for a while.

Now choose a short passage of scripture. You are going to slowly chew this passage, word by word, extracting all the spiritual nutrients you can. Try to avoid allowing your mind to start categorising, analysing and comparing, and just enjoy the savour of the phrase on your tongue. Take a slow, mindful in-breath and as you exhale repeat the word in your heart. Take another breath and chew it over slowly, allowing the Spirit to make it personal to you. Take another slow breath and ‘swallow’ that word, even as the Angel told the Apostle John to “eat the scroll” (Ezekiel 3:3), and let it’s nourishment feed your soul. Remember, we are after revelation, not information – to hear the voice of the the beloved rather than learn facts about the beloved.

Here is a good scripture you might like to start with, from As usual, we will use the breath to help create a devotional ‘rhythm’ to the practice; slowing us down and helping us to avoid racing through the exercise in an effort to get to the finish line!

(Breathing in…)
Be Still… (Breathing out)   x3
(Breathing in…)
And Know… (Breathing out)   x3
(Breathing in…)
That I… (Breathing out)   x3
(Breathing in…)
Am God… (Breathing out)  x3 

Now take a few moments just to let that phrase rest in your heart before slowly and deliberately repeating the practice. 

Another way of using this practice is to slowly build a whole phrase (and some phrases work quite well if you then reverse the process:

(Breathing in…)
Be Still… (Breathing out)   x3
(Breathing in…)
Be Still and Know… (Breathing out)   x3
(Breathing in…)   
Be Still and Know I Am… (Breathing out)   x3
(Breathing in…)
Be Still and Know I Am God… (Breathing out)  x3 
(Breathing in…)
Be Still and Know I Am… (Breathing out)   x3
(Breathing in…)
Be Still and Know… (Breathing out)   x3
(Breathing in…)
Be Still… (Breathing out)   x3
(Breathing in…)
Be… (Breathing out)  x3 

One final very simple example (and one of my favourite practices) runs like like:

He must increase… (Breathing in…)
I must decrease… (Breathing out…) 

There are countless other scriptures that may be used this way. You can even use this to really chew over your favourite hymn or if you have more time, to contemplate the Lord’s Prayer or pray through one of Paul’s prayers in Ephesians. Some other short examples are:

“My Life is Hidden with Christ in God…”  (Colossians 3:3)
“Vast, Unmeasured, Boundless, Free…”  (Samuel Francis)
“The Lord’s my Shepherd, I Shall not Want.”  (Psalm 23:1)
”My God, and My All…” St. Francis Assisi
“In Him we live, and move and have our being.”  (Acts 17:28)
“Amazing Grace, how sweet the Sound…”  (John Newton)
“His banner over me is love.”  (Song of Solomon 2:4)
“I am me beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.”  (Song of Solomon 6:3)
“Thou has made us for Thyself…”  (St. Augustine)
“Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  (Desert Fathers)
“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness gentleness and self control.”  (Galatians 5:22-23)
“May the Words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.”  (Psalm 19:14)

Spiritual Exercises

Waiting on the Lord: The Fourth Spiritual Exercise

C1BFE592-BA8E-4AB6-9645-4B39E977678AThe fourth spiritual exercise builds on the skills learnt in the first three exercises but really gets to the heart of the matter. The purpose of all the spiritual exercises is to habituate ourselves to living deeply in the presence of God through every moment of the day. By learning the spiritual skills needed in order to keep heart, mind, emotions, body and soul attuned to the “still, small voice” (1 Kings 19:12),  we also enable ourselves to ‘de-tune’ the antennae of our minds from the incessant, neurotic and often pathological mental chatter that forms a constant internal commentary that chops reality up into pieces then sets those pieces to war against each other. As Dipa Ma said, “Our lives are just stories”. Unfortunately, those stories are often confused, jumbled, bear little resemblance to reality and so often resemble horror stories rather than the experience of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. By cultivating the ability to calm the waters of the heart and clean the mirror of the mind, not only do we perceive reality clearly, from the perspective of stillness and peace; but we become deeply aware of the wonderful presence of God that permeates all of reality and bubbles up from the core of our very being. Our world and everything in it is transformed and we agree with the angels who declared that, “the whole earth is full of glory” (Isaiah 6:3)

In ancient times in the Orient, mighty rulers would have many servants whose job it was to ‘wait’ on them. This is not the same as a modern waiter, waiting tables in a restaurant! As the King sat in regal splendour, the servants would quietly and attentively kneel around the throne, silently watching their Lord should he require their service. Their eyes fixed on his every movement, it was enough to be in his presence and demonstrate their love and devotion by their undivided, silent attentiveness. 

In an age where most prayer is ‘transactional’, where we go to God in order to have our list of wants fulfilled and where we treat Him as our personal Divine PA, to learn to simply ‘wait on the Lord’ is a wonderful if radical concept. Like the woman accused of ‘wasting’ her perfume on Jesus, to waste an hour of our life in simple, silent adoration is possibly the best use that could possibly be made of our time. When the Bible speaks of ‘waiting on the Lord’ it is this practice to which it is referring, and the early readers of scripture would have easily imagined what it was like to sit in the awesome presence of such a mighty King. Again and again, the scripture enjoins us to “Wait, I say, wait on the Lord” (Psalm 27:14). Eye to eye, face to face, close enough to share our very breath, we discover the truth of what old Father Faber wrote five centuries ago:

Father of Jesus, Love’s reward,
What rapture it will be.
Prostrate before Thy throne to lie,
And gaze, and gaze on Thee!

In many ways, this deep place of intimacy with God is similar to the experience of the High Priest as he entered the Holy of Holies each year; bereft of sensory input, mute in the presence of Divinity and overwhelmed by the ‘other’ that could only be apprehended when the ‘self’ retired. In actual fact, the way into the Holy of Holies may be seen as the deliberate stripping away of self, as the outer court of the flesh is passed through, atonement is appropriated and cleansing is received. As the Holy Place is entered, the mind and emotions are illuminated, transformed and then then gladly yield their ‘lordship’ of the soul before the worshipper could pass through the veil into the realm of the Spirit, the Holy of Holies.

Because of this it is recommended that you take some time to follow this same route, working through some of the earlier practices until you feel the body come to rest and the mind begin to yield to the spirit before you settle yourself to a period of Waiting on the Lord. The more deliberately you lay the foundational practices, the easier it will be to remain in an undistracted state and wait on the Lord in perfect peace for an extended period of time. If you find yourself getting distracted by thoughts, emotions or other distractions, just take a step back to the preceding exercises before once again settling into the glorious presence of the one who created you.

The Fourth Spiritual Exercise

Find a comfortable and stable position, sitting or kneeling as you find helpful. As you follow the previous practices and your body and mind come to rest, become aware of the only real physical activity that is going to be happening during this time – your breath. Let a gentle smile appear on your face – you’re in the presence of one who loves you more than you can imagine!

Be aware that there is nothing you can do to make God love you more than He does at this moment. This is not a moment for doing anything, just simply for being. As you follow your breath, feeling the rhythmic rise and fall of your belly, remember that Jesus said that, “out of your belly shall flow rivers of living water.” (John 7:38).  The well is within you – there is nowhere you need to go! The presence of God dwells in and flows out of this new Eden, the garden of your heart (the word translated ‘heart’ in the scripture is actually the word for ‘belly’ or ‘womb’). Sense the Presence of God in that Eden. Find the Presence there in the cool of the day, in the space created by the cessation of negative emotions and incessant thoughts. Walk with your God. Wait upon Him. Gaze upon Him. Don’t try to conceptualise what is happening, just enjoy this moment of spirit to spirit intimacy, eye to eye, face to face, mouth to mouth, breath to breath.

Perhaps after a moment, thoughts intrude or interruptions come. If that happens, just refocus, follow again your breathing until peace comes and then re-embrace this Divine Lover. Don’t be disillusioned if the sense of the Presence waxes and wanes, such is the nature of all intimate encounters. Just accept whatever you find – you are not doing this to get something our of God but simply to offer Him your uninterrupted attention. Don’t look for esoteric experiences or great revelations, just be content to sit with Him and receive whatever is happening as a gift. And stay as long as you wish – five minutes is wonderful, ten minutes is better. Soon half an hour will seem but a moment and an hour far too short a time for such bliss!

As I write this, I can sense this deep abiding Presence right now. When I close my eyes between sentences, I sense deeply the Source of my being, renewing and pouring love into my heart. As you learn to wait of the Lord, you too will find that this glorious awareness will begin to bleed into other areas of your life and find that the place of Paradise is not only within you but available in the here and now, simply by turning your attention within to the Source. Eventually every moment of every day becomes suffused with the fragrance of heaven, and this Presence pours out from your inmost being even in your darkest day. This is the secret of every mystic of every age and every creed. This is the place of rest that is spoken of in the Bible in Hebrews 4:9. “There remains therefore a rest for the children of God.”  This is the Eden we must return to and learn to live in, every day of our life.


Spiritual Exercises

Living Sacrifice: The Third Spiritual Exercise

ImageThere is an old concept that has become popular again in our day, and that is the idea of being ‘centered’. This has caused a renewed interest in what contemplatives have long referred to as Centering Prayer. We normally describe a person who is ‘centered’ as someone who is not blown about by what is happening on the periphery of their life, but lives life from the ‘inside-out’ and is therefore in possession not only of their own responses to the situations and circumstances that confront them, but also manifest a deep peace, joy and presence that indicates that the source of their life is a deep well as opposed to the ephemeral vicissitudes of life.

The more you practice, the more you will find your mind becoming more obedient to the control of this spiritual core. You will find that the source of your life becomes tranquil, clear and full of wisdom as you learn to tap into what Charles Wesley referred to as that “hidden source of calm repose” within you. It is the journey from head to heart, that was best exemplified by the Tabernacle in the Old Testament and can be seen to this day in temple structures all over the world.

The apostle Paul reminds us of this when he tells the church in Corinth, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:19). Like most temples, the Bible describes human beings as being tripartite structures, comprised of Spirit, Soul and Body, with the body being the outer sheath where we come into contact with the world, the Spirit being the inner sanctum where God dwells, and the Soul being the mediating place between these two worlds where Spirit and Body communicate to each other. If our body gives us our World-Consciousness, and our Spirit provides us with our God-Consciousness, then it is our Soul that provides us with our Self-Consciousness.

All were welcome in the Outer Court of the Tabernacle. It was a large, open space, where the hustle and bustle of the day to day activity of the temple took place. It was noisy, messy, sometimes stressful and always busy. If you walked across this great courtyard, you would come to a smaller, Inner Courtyard; roofed against the elements; and as you pushed past the curtain and went inside you would discover a much quieter world, lit by candles, smoky with the heady incense of prayer and provided with a table stacked with bread that only the priests may eat. If the outer court represents the Body, then this Inner Court perfectly represents the Soul; somewhat shielded from the glare of the midday sun and protected from the clamour of all that is happening in the Outer Court, yet lit by the light of reason, nourished by the bread of the emotional realm and suffused with prayer. Beyond that lay a tiny room, no bigger than a small, perfectly square bedroom. Into this only the high priest may enter and then only once a year. Here, in this place of utter darkness, where the light of reason could not penetrate and the unpredictable nature of the emotions could not penetrate was the true dwelling place of God, where the infinite dwelt and burnt with moral and spiritual fire. As the High Priest entered this place, he would meet with that mystery of mysteries, and in the mute darkness where all separation between subject and object dissolved, could be renewed, transformed and energised. From this inner sanctum he would emerge as a new man, bringing deep wisdom to the tribe and yet utterly unable to truly express in words that which he experienced in this unutterable place of being.

The first four spiritual exercises take us on this same journey from the periphery of our lives to the deep centre of our being. There we discover things that cannot be spoken of in conceptual terms, and may only be hinted at in riddle, parable and simile, and yet without such a journey we find ourselves forever consigned to a life lived on the unsatisfying periphery of existence. The great pilgrimage awaits you, leading not outward to ever more frenetic activity but inward to the tranquil core. The first exercise prepares us for this journey. The second exercise helps us to orientate ourselves and become aware of the environment we find ourself in, lest we lose ourselves in flights of the imagination. In this third exercise, we take a survey of the temple itself, this incredible piece of workmanship we call the ‘body’, bringing appreciation, peace, healing and nourishment to it; learning to discover the presence of God that suffuses every atom, strengthens every sinew and brings life to every bone.

The Third Exercise

Sit in a comfortable position with an upright spine and eyes gently closed. Try to find a place where you won’t be disturbed. You may like to preface this exercise by spending five minutes on the First Exercise and five minutes on the Second Exercise as preparation for this.

Take three slow, centering ‘belly-breaths’. Be thankful as you feel the air passing through your nostrils, down your body and into your lungs, filling them with life-giving oxygen. Notice how your stomach rises to receive the air then notice how it contracts as the air is expelled. Follow the air as it leaves your body, realising that you are not separate from the air you breathe – the oxygen has just become part of your very being! As in all of the exercises, we will use the natural rhythm of breath as an anchor for the mind, and come back to it whenever we find our mind starting to daydream, loose itself in analysis, begin to worry or get dispersed in anything other than the matter in hand. When distractions come, just gently notice them, return to your breathing and they will naturally depart.

Now, focussing the light of awareness to your feet, take a long, slow in-breath, seeking to become aware of the whole of the foot, the toes and the ankles. Maybe you don’t like your feet, but the scripture says that those who bring joy into the lives of others have ‘beautiful feet’ (Is. 52:7), and Teresa of Avila also reminds us in her beautiful poem “Christ Has No Body” that we should no longer count our body as our own, but that our hands, our feet, our eyes, our hands and our entire body are now Christ’s. As you exhale, let your heart whisper the word, “Presence” to remind yourself of this fact, and imagine the presence of God filling this part of the temple. 

With the next exhalation, we silently speak the word, “Peace”. The Hebrew word for Peace is the word ‘shalom’, which literally means ‘nothing missing, nothing broken.’ To be in shalom is to be in health, peace and happiness. If our feet are tired or in pain, we can nourish them by blessing them with shalom peace.

With the third exhalation, we use the silent word, “Smile”.  We smile at our feet because they have been such faithful servants to us throughout our life and we smile with great thankfulness as we recognise this great gift we have been given. We often neglect our feet, and think them very stupid when we stub our toe, but today we are grateful for them and extend a smile towards them.

With the fourth exhalation we encourage our bodies with the word, “Release”, letting go of all tension and the stress we so often carry within our muscles and internal organs. when we speak to the body in this way, it is deeply therapeutic and wonderfully relaxing. A relaxed body, free from stress and tension is an incredibly helpful ally when it comes to spending long periods in prayer.

Here is the whole meditation:

(Breathe in…)
Presence…  (Breathing out)
(Breathe in…)
Peace…  (Breathing out)
(Breathe in…)
Smile…  (Breathing out)
(Breathe in…)
Release…  (Breathing out)

Note: If you are experiencing pain or sickness in an area of the body, you may like to substitute the words Wholeness and Ease instead of the words Smile and Release.

Once we have completed this, we move our awareness up our body, becoming conscious and giving thanks for the next part of the temple we come to. If you come to a part of your body that is giving you great physical difficulty, spend some time with it, speaking nourishing words to it and becoming deeply aware of the healing power of the presence of God in that area. If you have a lot of time available, you may break the body down into all of its composite parts and internal organs. If you have less time then you may just deal with the larger parts.  Finish by taking three deep, long breaths and imagine the life giving breath of God rising up from your belly, flooding the entire temple with health and wholeness. Let the wonder of being alive and the knowledge of the presence of God fill you with joy, just as it must have done for the early disciples when Jesus breathed into his disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20:22)

Here is a list of the parts of the temple you may wish to use in meditation:

Feet / Calves / Knees / Legs / Hips / Abdomen (and internal organs) / Back / Heart / Shoulders / Arms / Hands / Neck / Mouth / Ears / Eyes / Nose / Head

By the time you have finished, I think you will agree with the Psalmist who in joyful wonder exclaimed that he has been, “knit together in my mother’s womb” and that he had been “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:13-14). As you grow in your practice, your body will cease to be an unresponsive spectator in your devotional life and become a valuable, active participant, and in so doing you are truly able to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing unto God. This is your proper and true act of worship” (Romans 12:1)

Spiritual Exercises

Full Awareness: The Second Spiritual Exercise

C338BD03-C6C0-4A7A-8ADD-FB8E283F034CPerhaps the biggest hindrance to developing a deeply satisfying prayer life is the problem of the mind. The brain is a wonderful tool for solving problems, but can become a terrible difficulty when it comes to the exercise of the spirit. The reason for this is that the brain has for so long dominated man’s being that when it comes time to pray (which is predominantly a spiritual activity in which the mind plays only a supporting role), it rather resents giving up its position of dominance and tries every trick in the book to keep the centre of our attention on meeting its relentless needs, questions, worries and fears.

The first five exercises are intended to help us bring discipline to our unruly mind; quietening it’s insane chatter so that we may clearly hear the voice of the Spirit. This is harder than it appears, as anyone who has made prayer a serious practice can testify! To maintain a calm, serene and peaceful mind, one that is at full attention and deeply aware yet acting only as a servant to the spirit and not the master, is the mark of every true man and woman of prayer. Paul describes this as, “taking every thought captive and bringing it into conformity to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5), while he tells us in Romans 12:2 that we will only be transformed when our mind is renewed from being something that dominates the spirit to being that which serves the spirit. 

The second exercise is called Full Awareness, and trains the mind to focus on what is actually happening right now rather than obsessing about past events, future fears, fantasy flights of the imagination or simply getting lost in analysis. It helps us to calm the mind in order to become gently aware and deeply thankful for the moment we find ourselves in right now, for the environment around us and for life as it presents itself to us. It is an exercise in what Paul would describe as, “giving thanks for all things” (1 Thess. 5:18).  As it becomes increasingly aware of the physical environment in which it is currently immersed, it recalls the mind from its normal state of dispersal to a single-pointed state of deep awareness and heartfelt gratitude.

The Second Exercise: Full Awareness

Sit in a comfortable position, back straight and body relaxed. Close your eyes and rest your hands in your lap. Take a few deep breaths and remind yourself that the spirit within you is none other than the very life of God, breathed into you when you were created. Like the first exercise, we are going to use breath as a way to slow the exercise down, avoiding the common human habit of rushing through things in order to achieve a goal. There is no ‘goal’ as such, just an ongoing commitment that in the space of this breath, I will devote myself to becoming aware of all that is around me and being deeply thankful for it.

Establish yourself in the gentle rhythm of breath, becoming deeply thankful for each ‘in’ breath and each ‘out’ breath. Then, when you are ready, with your next ‘in’ breath begin to become aware of your surroundings. Maybe you can hear the birds singing, the sunlight on your eyelids, the murmur of the wind in the trees. Maybe you can sense the energy of the person sitting beside you (if you are performing this exercise as part of a group). Maybe a car drives past, a fly lands on your nose or you can smell the flowers. Don’t get caught up in analysing these phenomena (the mind is very subtle and can easily divert you into analysis here). As these sensations arise, just let them come, be aware of them and then let them fade naturally, as though if your body is a house and the various phenomena are temporary visitors. Simply allow them to be, letting them pass through the front door of your ‘house’ and leave through the back door – just don’t make them tea! Remember that you are simply noticing the sensations presented to you by the ears, eyes, nose, mouth and touch without getting involved in them. If you find yourself getting lost in thinking, just return your attention to the natural rhythm of the breath – and then thank God for that!

As each phenomena arises, recognise it and gently offer thanks. It is easy to give thanks for birdsong, but you can also give thanks for a dog barking or a car revving it’s engine. Be equanimous with whatever is happening, and, as it passes out the ‘back door’ of your perceptions, bestow on it your blessing and a gentle smile.

You might like to spend five or ten minutes or even longer on this, and you may like to preface it by using the First Exercise – ‘Coming Home’  as an introductory practice, and then just move right on in to this second exercise after five minutes of preparatory work.

This exercise is a lovely antidote for an overtired, stressed mind that has worked for far too long at far too fast a pace. Often when we are in this state of haste, we can miss the many splendored things around us that God has placed in our path to nourish and strengthen our souls. As we practice this way, we will find that we become naturally much more attuned to these little blessings that cross our path, and our capacity for thankfulness increases dramatically. Of course, the result of this is that we become much happier and peaceful, and far more able to hear the gentle voice of the Spirit as he ministers to us throughout the day. Enjoy your practices!

Spiritual Exercises

Coming Home: The First Spiritual Exercise

01D52949-E625-491A-AECD-25164BA7387EGod is talking. All of the time. Very Slowly. Very quietly.  And that’s why we almost always miss what He’s saying. In the midst of our fast moving, fast talking world of noise and busyness God simply can’t get a word in edgeways! 

Prayer, at it’s root, is the act of quietening the incessant noise of the mind and opening up the ears of our heart in order that we might tune in to the voice of Eternity. The modern contemplative tradition within the Christian church draws on sources of faith that are truly global and seeks to present practical tools that enable this to take place. These are often referred to as Spiritual Exercises, and comprise an adventure in prayer that is deeply nourishing to the spiritual life; providing a simple set of marker points that help spiritual seekers avoid stagnation and disillusionment as they start to learn the ‘inner way’ and discover the Kingdom of God that dwells within.

At the church I lead, we refer to the first exercise that we commonly use as ‘Coming Home’. To come home is to return to the centre-point of our being, the Holy of Holies where the Creator dwells in the heart of every child of God. It is a simple practice that helps to quieten the mind; opening our awareness so that we may begin to encounter the presence of God. It is also simple enough to teach a child, and powerful enough to calm the strongest emotional storm. 

A Word About Breath: In order to listen clearly to anyone, we must give them our full and undivided attention, in just the same way that in order to truly ‘see’ a sunset we must become fully present in the moment and give ourselves entirely to the event unfolding before our eyes. Because our minds often resemble a bag of monkeys, the process of attaining single-pointed concentration is tremendously helped by having a stable object to focus the mind on. This gives us a bit of ‘space’ in which we can gently reach out with our hearts to apprehend the spiritual reality without our efforts being constantly sabotaged by ‘monkey-brain’.  Within the Christian contemplative tradition, the act of praying in rhythm to the breath is often called Breath Prayer. When we use breath in prayer, we simply take a word or phrase and marry it to what is naturally happening with the breath. An example would be:

“The Lord is my shepherd…”  (Breathing in)
“I shall not want…”  (Breathing out)

We will be going into this practice in more detail as we journey through the exercises, but for now it is enough to seek to gently join the phrases used in the ‘Coming Home’ practice to the natural rhythm of breath, understanding that it is “the breath of God that gives me life.” (Job 33:4)

Word about Posture: The spiritual exercises can be used at any time and in any place and need no equipment to perform. This is one of the wonderful things about them – they may be used on the train during a commute, whilst standing in a supermarket queue or even waiting for the traffic lights to change. While this is true, it has also been found that to adopt a slightly different posture for intense periods of prayer can be very beneficial. With practice, the mind starts to associate a particular position with the act of prayer and naturally begins to quieten down whenever that position is adopted. Choose a position where you can sit straight, with unobstructed breathing and a straight spine. Some people may choose to kneel, sit cross-legged on the floor or use a prayer-bench or cushion. Adopting a different position may involve a little discomfort at first as our bodies are used to spending most of the day in a sitting position, but if you persevere your posture can become part of the act of prayer, just as the lifting up of hands can become a helpful part of the act of worship.

The First Exercise: Coming Home

Find a comfortable position for prayer where you are unlikely to be disturbed and which is as quiet as possible. Take a few deep, nourishing breaths and allow your body to relax as you turn your attention from the busy external life to the perpetual calm of the internal source.

Take each word or phrase. As you focus on each, let the word and the breath become one single act, rising and falling together. At the end of the exercise, simply return back to the beginning until your meditation time is finished. Try to bring your body into line with the word being meditated on. For instance, when we say “I smile”, let a gentle smile be upon your lips. When we come to the word, “Presence”, tenderly reach out with your heart and become aware of the presence of God that fills and enfolds you.

“In…”  (Breathing in)
“Out…”  (Breathing out)
“Deep…”  (Breathing in)
“Slow…”  (Breathing out)
“In His Presence…”  (Breathing in)
“Is peace…”  (Breathing out)
“I smile…”  (Breathing in)
“I am home…”  (Breathing out)

You may like to begin by setting yourself five minutes in the morning and five minutes in the evening for this, as soon as you wake up and just before you go to bed. If this works for you, extend it to however long you find helpful.  Shalom

Spiritual Disciplines

The Practice of Returning

eb50172d-0964-442b-97f3-09dbdcc03b5dFor most of us, life is spent in places and attending to tasks that may seem anything other than spiritual. Great frustration is often felt among those who are keen to follow the Lord but are not able to become monastics or work ‘full time’ in ministry. It is easy to fall for the idea that God is ‘somewhere else’ and in some other time; and if only we can change our circumstances or arrive at a future date then everything will be wonderful and we will finally be able to experience God’s presence in fullness.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Growth in the spiritual path is not about arrival at some other destination or the manipulation of circumstances to become more favourable; but a radical change of perspective so that instead of constantly seeking the Presence of the Lord in some other place or time we learn to discover the deep wonder of His presence in the here and now, amidst the pots and pans and in the tyranny of the mundane.

You see, God is always totally present in the here and now – in the world around you – just as it is. The problem is that although God is here, we are not. We are time travelling in our minds, constantly rehearsing the shame and regret of the past, or reaching forwards to a future that has not yet manifested but already terrifies us with fears and worry.  With one eye looking backwards and the other eye looking forwards, we miss what is right in front of us: the full presence of Divinity, available to us yet disguised in what is right in front of our nose. God is not to be found in our imaginations, no matter how ‘religious’. You cannot find God in yesterday or even in tomorrow, but only in the place He has promised to always be fully present, right now. And if you can learn to be fully present, right now, you will have gone a long way to learning to live in the bliss that comes when we live moment by moment in the tangible presence of God.

The Practice of Returning is the spiritual art of escaping the traps that so often snare the heart in order that we should come home to the Father who waits by the heart-hearth in the present moment. It is the deliberate refusal to entertain the compulsive habit of mind to obsess about the past, its neurotic predisposition to worry about the future and its propensity for losing itself in conceptual analysis of the present. The Practice of Returning is the knack of constantly and habitually bringing mind and heart to bear on the most ‘real’ thing in the universe, that is, the presence of God that permeates this very moment and is found embedded in the world around you, just as it is.

Try this: Stop reading, close you eyes and take three slow, deep breaths. Feel the breath as it enters your lungs. Notice the sensation as it leaves your body. Be fully aware of the one thing that is happening in your world right now, your breathing. 

As you do this, two things will happen. The first is that your body will start to relax and you will begin to experience an awareness of peace and a glimmer of happiness. If you continue with this practice, you will start to find an awareness of what can only be described as ‘Presence’.  What has happened? Well quite simply, you have calmed your body and brought it to a place of rest which makes it much easier to see what is actually present in your here and now. But you have also calmed your mind, and started to silence the insane ‘chatter’ that drowns out both the soft voice and the gentle presence of the Holy Spirit. 

On my phone, I have a bell that sounds every 30 minutes which reminds me to Return Home to this Presence. Many times I set out with the intention of being fully aware of God’s presence in every moment of my day but before long many practical things and an abundance of cares and worries have caught my attention and I have gotten lost somewhere in my brain. The bell reminds me to stop, disengage from past regrets, future worries or mere analysis and become deeply aware. And so I stop and allow my senses to reintroduce me to the wonderful creation all around me. I close my eyes and become deeply conscious of my body, the temple in which Divinity dwells. I take three deep breaths and reach out to touch the presence of the Lord; the Kingdom of God that enfolds me every moment and every hour. And I am home. As surely as Adam and Eve, when they walked with God in the garden of Eden in the cool of the day. To quote Thich Nhat Hahn, “I have arrived… I am home… In the here… In the now…” 

The Practice of Returning is so simple that even a child may learn how to re-centre themselves in a few brief moments. You can teach your children to do this as they get dressed in the morning. You can practice this whenever you get into a car. Pause and return home to the Kingdom of God before you start the engine. If you have friends with you, invite them to join you so that before you go anywhere, you go home! When you pick up your cup of tea, pause, return home and then drink prayerfully and with gratitude. When you wake in the morning, your mind all abuzz with the things you must do or struggling with the dreams of the night, return home before you get out of bed. As you sit on the train during your commute, let each station you arrive at be a reminder to return home to the Kingdom of God within you. When the traffic lights turn red, don’t get stressed, but say to yourself, “This is a wonderful moment – I shall return home while I wait!” When you have had a stressful meeting at work, you may go to the restroom, shut the cubicle door and return home also.

With practice, the Habit of Returning will become an automatic action throughout the day. You will find that the amount of time you spend ‘away from home’ gets less and less and soon you will discover that although your body may change location, you never actually leave home. Your prayer life is now without ceasing, your awareness is transformed, your mind becomes stable and calm and your emotions rest in the habit energies of love, joy, peace and compassion. It’s then you begin to discover that you don’t have to wait until you die to go to heaven, but that you can experience it in the here and now; for the only thing that makes heaven, heaven, is the beautiful, glorious presence of God.

Holidays, Living, Politics, Spiritual Disciplines

Shalom Days

IMG_1018You don’t have to be a psychologist to realise that life in the 21st Century is increasingly like riding an out of control roller-coaster that continues on, ad-infinititum, with never an opportunity to get off. The result of this is a life full of underlying anxiety, overflowing with stress and beset with lifestyle illnesses and psychological suffering that would have been unimaginable just a few generations ago.  

Today I want to suggest to you an idea that may seem radical to many of you, yet would have been blindingly obvious to our forebears. It is a practice that every culture and every religion has encouraged, and which is found in every tribe and nation of the world. Only the most technologically ‘advanced’ nations, equipped with the most labour saving devices per household have found they no longer have time for such a practice, and suffer the physical, psychological and spiritual trauma that results from seeking to perpetually run the engine of their life at maximum revs.

The practice I am speaking of is that of the Sabbath, a day of rest, a lazy day, or as the title of this blog says, a Shalom day. The word Shalom is the Hebrew word for peace, and a Shalom day is a 24 hour period where the entire day spent awake is focussed on regaining our inner equilibrium, finding our centre and getting ourselves anchored in a peaceful state. The benefits are obvious. Our health improves as the stress levels of life are reduced. Our relationships benefit as we learn to release anger and breathe again. Our happiness levels soar as we give ourselves permission to rediscover the wonder of the world around us, and our sleep is invigorated as the neurotic jabbering of an overworked mind is gently hushed and brought to rest.

Taking such a day is like allowing yourself a retreat from the chaotic and hectic world you inhabit the rest of the week to rediscover the joy of simply being. Here are some ideas to get you going:

  • Make your Shalom day a tech free day. Switch off your phone, computer, TV and radio the evening before and leave it off until the next morning.
  • Wake up slowly and sit in bed with a cup of tea. Take time to look from your window, to feel your body coming alive, to take some deep, thankful breaths.
  • Whatever you do today, do it s-l-o-w-l-y.  This is not a day for rush. Tear up your schedules and to-do lists. 
  • Spend some some meditating, praying, slowly reading an inspirational book and allowing time to really ponder its message.
  • Take a slow walk in the country. Try to encounter all you see as though it were the first time you are seeing it.
  • Eat your food slowly and mindfully, tasting deeply the flavours and textures.
  • Do a little craft work. Hand write a letter to someone you love. Gaze at a flower. Wonder at the stars.
  • One Thing Only! Today is not a day for multi-tasking. Whatever you are doing, just do that one thing. If you are washing up, wash up like you are bathing the baby Jesus. If you are writing, just write. Be present, body, mind and soul in every activity of the day.
  • Sit beside some water; a lake or a river for example. Allow your soul to be restored. Listen to the lap of each wave. Lose yourself in the moment.
  • Go to bed early. Give thanks for all the blessings in your life. Read some of your favourite childhood novel before you fall asleep.

You cannot give to anyone that which you do not possess yourself. Taking a day like this may seem self-indulgent, but to nurture peace within yourself is the best gift you can give everyone around you. And out of the blessings of your Shalom day, you will be able to minister Shalom to all those you come in contact with. 


Be Happy Now

F4EA0EC1-4F08-41DF-92D8-FA55DF9E9B4CSomeone wise once said that the source of all our unhappiness is the tension between the way the world IS and the way we want it to BE. As human beings, we seem to be forever caught in this feedback loop that generates untold pain and suffering; yet instead of seeing the problem for what it is, we are forever increasing the stakes in the same vain hope shared by every drug addict that the next, bigger hit will bring me the lasting peace and happiness I crave.

Let me explain: A child is walking quite happily along the seafront on a warm summers day, holding her mother’s hand. Then she spies the ice-cream stall and she imagines how wonderful the feeling would be of cool, sweet ice-cream would be in her mouth. So she asks the inevitable question, “May I have an ice cream please, mommy?” Lunch is only thirty minutes away, and so her request is met with a postponement until after she has eaten her lunch; but now all she can now think of is the ice-cream and the happiness she perceives she will experience when it is in her hand. In actual fact, she is now quite miserable. As soon as she linked her happiness with a desire yet unfulfilled she lost all enjoyment of the present moment and stamps her feet, with tears in her eyes, her soul in abject misery. The present moment is utterly reined because the happiness she craved in the future has birthed suffering in the present.

As we grow older, the cycle is repeated ad-infinitum, each time reinforcing this same conditioning with the only change being the cost of the item that will bring supposed happiness. Again and again, desire is born within us, not now for an ice cream, but perhaps for an iPhone, a car, a wife, a better job, or a holiday. Again and again, like a drug addict, we suffer ever more convoluted and extended agonies in order to attain the object of our desires, only to discover that the happiness they provide is fleeting, never meets our expectations and is NEVER equal to the trauma we put ourselves through in order to acquire the thing. You see, the equations are not balanced. Ever. The deposit that must be paid to the bank of gratification ALWAYS outweighs the ultimate value of any withdrawal that may be made – it seems like the system demands a high level of interest. Worse still, any gratification experienced inevitably evaporates like the morning dew as soon as the object is within our grasp, and thus the game is on again.

If we are to find a true and lasting happiness, if we are to finally escape this dualistic game of suffering followed by momentary pleasure followed by renewed suffering, we must find a source of happiness that lies outside the ‘system’ altogether. Whenever we push our happiness into the future and make it contingent on certain conditions being met, like the little girl with the ice cream, we give birth to suffering in the present until such time as the object of our desire is acquired. How many times must we go through this insanity before we recognise that lasting happiness and contentment simply cannot be found this way. In actual fact, were you to be rich or clever enough to be able to acquire anything you wished for in the world without paying the commensurate deposit of suffering necessary to get there, the amount of pleasure gained in acquisition would shrink in precise proportion with the decreased suffering involved to acquire it!

To escape the trap, we must do two things. Firstly, we must discover a source of happiness that is unconditioned; one that is not contingent on any conditions for it to be experienced. It must be a happiness that can be experienced regardless of how the world IS. If the source of our suffering is the tension between the way the world IS and the way we want it to BE, then the first step must be to alter our expectations so we desire the world to be exactly as it is and for life to be no more and no less than what it is as it comes to us moment by moment. The second factor in lasting happiness is that we must relentlessly acquire our happiness from the ‘now’, from the precise moment that we are inhabiting; for as soon as we move it one moment into the future, we give birth to suffering in the gap between conception of the desire and its fulfilment. In other words, I must desire what I have right now and find contentment in what the present moment presents to me. As someone once said, the past cannot be changed, the future may not happen, but the ‘now’ is a gift – which is why it is called the present. Like the little girl, I take pleasure in the sunny day, in the closeness of mother, in the blue of the sky and the breath in my lungs. And it is enough. And because whatever I have been freely given by grace for this present moment is enough, I am happy. As I will be in the next moment. As I will be tomorrow, ice cream or no ice cream!

Close your eyes. Breathe a few deep, cleansing breaths. Give thanks for all the conditions of happiness you have right now. You may be able to breathe without pain. You may have eaten today. You may be able to hear a bird singing. You may feel the gentle breeze. And you are happy – and nothing can take it away from you because you did nothing to earn it in the first place.

Spiritual Disciplines

Of That Which We Cannot Speak…

HandChristianity is not the first religion to grapple with the problem of describing God. Moses, when confronted with the burning bush immediately demanded of God His name. The Almighty was having none of it, and the most Moses got was the elusive, “I Am that I Am”. Oh, and by the way, take your shoes off for you’re standing on Holy Ground.

Fast forward a millennia and travel East and the great Chinese sage Lao Tse was battling with the same problem: how to conceptualise that which, by definition is beyond conception. When he wrote, “The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao” he posited the same epistemological problem: as soon as we conceptualise or even attempt to name (label) the infinite, the truth slips between the syntaxical gaps and we are left bereft of anything satisfying to the heart, no matter how elegant the mental gymnastics of our mind may appear.

All spiritual seekers grapple with this fundamental problem; which is why no two people can entirely agree on how to conceptualise that which they mean when they come to describing God. The old story of the three blind men, each grasping at an elephant and seeking to describe what they experience comes to mind here. One declares confidently that an elephant is like a tree, as he holds on to a leg of the creature. Another declares an elephant to be like a large hose pipe, as he considers the trunk. The third remonstrated that the elephant is in actual fact like a riding whip, as the tail smacks him across the face.

For sure, we must use the mind if we are to communicate anything of our discoveries at all, but to recognise the limitations of the mind opens the possibility of direct experience. The Psalmist says, “Taste and see that the Lord is good”, pointing to an experience that, while it may be spoken about after the event, is immediate, personal and ultimately unreproducible in the limited language we have available. Which is why the more we know of the infinite, the less attached we become to our particular linguistic constructions of that reality and agree with Wittgenstein that, “of that which we cannot speak, we must keep silent.” When we insist on approaching the infinite with the apparatus of the conceptual mind, we become trapped in our concepts and fail to touch ultimate reality. When we let our precious concepts go, we will find that which lies beyond, in the mystery, the darkness of the mind and the bafflement of the sense. We remove our shoes. We approach with awe. We apprehend with humility. We stop talking.

And it is in that stupendous absence that we discover that which we have been trying in vain to describe all along. In the Holy of Holies, with the senses clothed in silence, eyes unable to see, ears unable to hear and mouth unable to speak that we discover that which can never be spoken of, that which can never be described and that which can never be reproduced in a text book. When the proud human mind is silenced and all the artifice of man is declared insufficient for the task, the heart wraps itself around the source and is transformed.

Perhaps we would learn so much more if we put down the textbooks; surrendering the mind’s insatiable desire to know and learn to enter the deafening silence of eternity and discover what has been there, staring us in the face all along. To quieten the turbulent mind, still the torrential waters of our hearts and see, perhaps for the first time, reflected in the waters of our own hearts reality as it truly is, and having found, be satisfied?

Breathe through the heats of our desire,
Thy coolness and Thy balm,
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire,
Speak through the earthquake, wind and fire,
O still, small voice of calm.”


Allotment, Simplicity, Sustainability

Eden, Allotments and Thoreau.

GetFileAttachment-1Right now I’m sitting on a collapsible chair looking over one tenth of an acre of well tilled soil hiding the precious seeds that will provide my family with sustenance for the year. It’s a long way from the wilderness we inherited from the last residents and represents some pretty back-breaking work through what has been an incredibly tough year; but somehow the satisfaction is greater than words can describe.

I do believe that our first year working the land has taught us more about life, the universe and everything than an entire university degree could have afforded us, and for little more than the £15 annual fee we pay for the privilege. We have begun to learn the lore of the land, the wisdom of the honest earth and the rhythms of nature in a way we could never have known locked in an office cubicle peering at a virtual world displayed upon the screen of a computer. We have watched the swallows soaring in their magnificently choreographed flights and known the joy of foraging blackberries, plums and chestnuts in the wilderness that lies adjacent to our little plot. We have breathed lungfulls of soft summer air and shivered in biting wind and dug the earth as it miraculously transformed from stone to crumbly soil and back to stone again. We have observed the dance of pollinating bees and started to catch a glimpse of the magic of this incredible system that turns inorganic into organic and then into the stuff of life itself, only to recycle itself back into the ground from whence it came. When in 1845, Thoreau, “went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived” he was simply looking for a kind of life that fitted more closely the geography of his heart. I think the search is universal and timeless.

If life is about happiness and peace, then God chose a wise habitat for our forefathers when he placed them in a garden and told them to till the soil. Modern man’s self imposed exile from the simple act of digging the earth and growing crops sends him searching for an automated, flat packed, zip-locked Eden that lies just around the next technological corner or consumer purchase. But the exile is self imposed. Perhaps it’s time for the children of the generation that, “paved paradise and put up a parking lot” to reclaim the inheritance given freely to all peoples of the earth by their creator, tear up the parking lot and plant a tree..