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)

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