Christian Essentials 101: Spiritual Practice

Spiritual Practice

Introduction

Spiritual Practice lies at the very heart of what it means to be an Episcopalian. Our Anglican Tradition of spirituality has deep roots in the ancient Benedictine spirituality that came to be one of the chief characteristics of English Christianity. This ancient spirituality was given a reemphasis at the English Reformation, particularly in Thomas Cranmer’s reforms of the liturgy that led to the creation of The Book of Common Prayer. Benedictine, and what later came to be identified as Anglican spirituality, emphasizes the importance of the ordinary rather than the extraordinary. It teaches that God is to most often found in the midst of the ordinary events of the daily round of our individual lives, and our life lived in community.

The great figures of Anglican Tradition are not referred to primarily as theologians, or prelates. Historically we have used the word divine to refer to our great thinkers and spiritual practitioners. This communicates another of the Benedictine influences which has resulted in the formative figures of our tradition being valued because of their teaching and practice of the spiritual life of prayer, study, and reflection. The period of the 16th– 17th centuries saw the flowering of classical Anglican Spirituality as exemplified in the lives and writing of a group known as the Caroline Divines http://anglicanhistory.org/caroline/ We continue to look back to this period as the one in which the quintessential expression of Anglican spirituality comes into modern flower.

St Benedict referred to his small community as a little school of prayer. The Greek’s used the word askesis to describe a kind of gymnasium for spiritual practice. This gives us our English words ascetical or ascetic to describe the disciplines of the spiritual life. Anglican theology is really ascetic theology as described by Benedict as a little school of prayer.

Worship

Worship, for Episcopalians is the primary spiritual expression of the Christian life. All other aspects of Christian ministry and service flow from the central root of worship. Worship is where the community of faith and God primarily encounter each other. It is in worship that we transcend personal differences. In each generation it is in worship that we hear God’s invitation to conversation addressing the challenges of Christian living. It is in worship that the human heart soars to meet God in praise and thanksgiving.

We use the term liturgy to refer to the practice of worship. It is another Greek word, which in origin means the work or the service performed by the community of the baptized in the world. Liturgy is also the word we use to describe the way the community of the baptized structure the patterns for their service of worship. The Episcopal Church is therefore, a liturgical Church.

Liturgy and Music

Liturgy and music emerge out of an inheritance from the past, reformulated for the yet-to-come through the prism of present. The Anglican musical tradition gives expression to a remarkable synthesis of transcendence and intimacy able to address the hunger at the heart of modern imagination. We need more, rather than less, of this food. Present day challenges catalyze musical and liturgical innovation enabling our tradition to speak in an age characterized by plurality of spiritual need, rich individual and communal diversity, and rapid, destabilizing change.

Liturgy and Psychospiritual Need

Psychospiritually, liturgical worship is best likened to a process of oscillation between our here-and-now awareness and the deep unconscious currents of God’s communication with us as the faithful community. Through worship we approach a thin place where the dimension of time and space intersects with the dimension of divine energy. We enter worship as individuals. In worship we become formed into a corporate body – the Body of Christ. Here, we are nourished and refreshed by the energies of encounter with the divine.

This is a journey that we undertake every time we celebrate worship, esp. Eucharistic worship. The formality of Anglican liturgy invites transcendent connection, which paradoxically floods individual experience with a longed-for warmth of intimacy with God and with one another. Liturgy addresses the human psychological need for spiritual transformation. Movement and music are liturgy’s tools. The Episcopal Church is the location where liturgy and music become effective instruments for transformation in the lives of individuals identifying with multiple and overlapping communities of interest.

In the 21st Century, church has little concrete meaning for many people who nevertheless are discovering the Anglican Tradition of the Episcopal Church as a location for encounter with a sense of the numinous. Each week, I meet at least four or five such persons who pass through the Great Doors of Trinity Cathedral. They seem propelled by an inarticulate sense of spiritual loneliness and longing. At Trinity, they encounter the power of our liturgy, which beckons them to return. Eventually, many report three identifiable components in this encounter: traditional Anglican liturgy, preaching that seeks to address the bewildering confusions at the heart of their spiritual loneliness within complex contemporary life, and the experience of seeing themselves reflected in the diversity of the faces of other people around them. Through liturgy, music, and welcome of diversity, our churches become the location for a unique quality of spiritual encounter for people with little connection to religion but for whom spirituality is a search for meaning.

Our Anglican Tradition of worship, structured by The Book of Common Prayer, places the Episcopal Church at the intersection of contemporary social, civic, and spiritual life, as never before. Here, the spiritually seeking, the spiritually illiterate, and the conventionally religious find a location for spiritual and social encounter capable of addressing the plurality of today’s needs and the opportunities, and hopes, of tomorrow’s world.

Common Prayer

This is both a form of worship as well as comprising the second element of Anglican spiritual practice. The reference to common simply means prayer of the people of God in distinction to individual prayer. The ancient patterns of the Daily or Divine Office comprised of seven services of prayer throughout the day and night. The rhythm of this cycle of prayer not only expressed a need to praise God, but also regulated the daily round of life. This seven-fold pattern is condensed in the Book of Common Prayer of 1979 into four orders for Morning, Midday, Evening and Night Prayer. It was Cranmer’s original intention – see back to the session on The Book of Common Prayer https://relationalrealities.com/2014/03/26/christian-essentials-101-true-worship/  that these become services of public worship, in addition to forming a daily pattern for personal devotional practice.

When we participate in these patterns of common prayer, either by reading them from the prayer book, or prayer book app https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/book-common-prayer-daily-office/id574757244?mt=8 or listening to them http://www.missionstclare.com/english/ , or attending them in a church, we are plugging-into the perpetual cycle of the Church’s common prayer, rather like a plug is inserted into the electrical current. While the current flows all the time, we only light-up when plugged-in.

Anglican Tradition, because of its Benedictine nature, places great emphasis on the importance of participating in common prayer or the Daily Office. This practice remains a formal obligation of the clergy of the Church of England and a strong spiritual practice for the clergy of the Episcopal Church. As you can see from the links above, we now have wonderful electronic access points so that all of us can participate in the patterns of common prayer in ways the fit well with our busy modern lives.

Study

Study is the third element of Anglican spiritual practice. This can include many different kinds of reading for the purpose of deepening our understanding and experience of God. Historically, study also had a very specific meaning within the Benedictine Tradition. It referred to a method of reading the Holy Scriptures known as Lectio Divina – literally, divine reading. There are many forms for Lectio Divina, all variations on a common pattern. The form I like is as follows:

Open the Bible randomly and let your eyes full on a section of verses, maybe no more than 3 or 4 in number e.g. Mark 4:26-28. For those of us new to this practice I suggest use the psalms or the Gospels for this. 

Then read the passage slowly three times. What is the word or phrase that stands out for you? Repeat it softly to your self over the period of a minute or so. 

Then read it twice more and ask yourself how does this word or phrase connect with my experience at the moment, what are my associations to it, what does it remind me of or make me think about? 

Read it again letting it sound in your mind or out loud and ask yourself – is there an invitation from God in this passage that applies to my life over the next 5 – 7 days? 

Finish with prayerful reflection on gratitude and thankfulness for what God is revealing to you through this passage. 

This is a method for praying the Scriptures rather than just studying them.

Reflection

Reflection is the forth element of Anglican spiritual practice. The Caroline Divines used the lovely phrase, habitual recollection to refer to the spiritual practice of reflection. This is the cultivation of an awareness of the presence of God in the world around us. This can be a sudden experience of beauty in a sunrise or sunset, a moment of encounter with another person, or an experience that fills us with gratitude. God is present to our rational faculties of perception in the natural world and in human society. The practice of contemplation is mindfully reflecting on the presence of God. Habitual recollection may also open us to experience the seeming absence of God, during times of disappointment.

Today we might use another word – meditation – in place of habitual recollection. Meditation can follow many patterns. Today our Christian experience of meditation has been deeply enriched by the presence of Buddhism in our society. A simple form of Christian meditation is:

find somewhere to sit quietly at home or elsewhere so to bring your attention to the rising and falling of our breath. We imagine the breath deep within our belly, rather than in our chest while we simply observe ourselves breathing. Through observing our breath we come easily into the presence of God, who is the breath that is the source of all life. There is never a moment when we are not breathing. Yet, because we do it all the time we hardly ever notice the experience. 

Once we have stabilized and relaxed into our observation of breathing we can allow a word or mantra to rise and full on the breath. This can be anything, but the one I recommend is the Aramaic word Maranatha. Aramaic was the language commonly used by Jesus. Maranatha simply means: Come, Lord. 

It is important that the word we use does not stimulate intellectual thought. It is also important that we use a word or a phrase that can be easily divided into syllables that attach to the rising and falling of the breath. In this way the first two syllables ma-ra attach to the in-breath, with na-tha sounding on the out- breath.

Habitual recollection or meditation or contemplation, are all methods for developing a mindful awareness of God in each present moment of the day.

Conclusion

Spiritual practice is best thought of as a daily routine to orient us to the presence and experience of God in our lives. I have listed the formal components of a balanced approach to spiritual practice. However, there are lots of permutations and combinations and the most important thing is to begin something, and to begin with a structure and pattern that fits the demands of your life. There is nothing to be gained by being overly ambitious. So start small, start slow, but the important thing is to make a start. For busy, people make use of the apps that are now available to smart phone and tablet devices. These afford flexibility and convenience.

Spiritual practice is also a way to manage the stresses of our day. Benedict advised his monks to start and then to consciously stop activity and allowing a pause before starting a new activity. Our problem today is that we start, but never really stop anything, reaching the end of the day with an accumulation of unfinished business weighing us down. Stopping does not mean completing, it simply means recognizing a natural boundary when one activity or task, of necessity makes room for what needs to follow in the day. There is always next time!

The patterns of common prayer: morning, midday, evening, and night reflect the human body’s biorhythm as well as the changing mood and texture of the day. Each prayer evokes the tone of the time of day. Paying attention to this helps us regulate ourselves emotionally and energetically, as we move through the course of each day.

Other helpful links: Lectionary http://www.iphonelectionary.com/ or

https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.jimscomputerprogramming.dailyofficelectionary

Daily Office http://www.missionstclare.com/english/

https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/book-common-prayer-daily-office/id574757244?mt=8

http://www.amazon.com/Seven-Sacred-Pauses-Mindfully-Through/dp/1933495243/ref=sr_1_1/176-7795031-9892123?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1396645565&sr=1-1&keywords=the+seven+sacred+pauses

if the hyperlinks don’t connect cut and past to your browser.

 

 

 


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