God 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