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)


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.