Spiritual reflection – a personal spiritual practice


A short recap

  1. Eucharist is for most of us a weekly spiritual practice. In the Eucharist the community gathers for worship and it’s into this context that God speaks most directly to us as a community of the Body of Christ in the world through the lectionary readings. Eucharist also offers a vertical as in transcendent connection to the spiritual dimension.
  1. The Daily Office is a daily spiritual practice. This is what we call the Common Prayer of the Church and when we participate in saying any part of the Daily Office – morning, midday, evening or night prayer from the Book of Common Prayer or another format for the Daily Office we can be likened to a lamp plugging into the electric current of worldwide prayer, that continues 24/7. Even when we pray the DO alone, we do so with others in our community and those throughout the world who will always remain unknown to us, very much in mind.

You can find more about our recent exploration of these kinds of spiritual practice at Lent Program details http://www.stmartinsprov.org/adult-formation/

  1. Spiritual reflection is a broad term that covers any form of personal spiritual practice – mental reflection, inner stillness -silence, and deep listening practices.In Anglican Tradition, spiritual reflection is referred to as habitual recollection, the practice of the continual awareness of God all around us in the world. This can be a moment when we are overcome by beauty of nature, a moment in time and place, or a moment when we are deeply aware of pain – another’s or our own. Habitual recollection uses our senses to become aware of God being present in such moments.

The cultivation of personal prayer, rooted in silence and listening involves:

  • Exploring a relationship with self, using meditation and body based activity. Meditation is a practice of silence that focuses on fostering an awareness of how the elements of the mind and the heart support or hinder a sense of the coming together of our whole personality. Body based methods use the body as a focus for becoming aware of oneself in a similar way.

Prayer must involve the unifying of the personality, the integration of the mind, heart, into one center …. Without self-discovery there can be no further progress. In order to find of whom we can only find in and through the depths of our on soul, we must first find ourselves. Without self-knowledge our love remains superficial. Kenneth Leech, Soul Friend.

Exploring a relationship with God through scripture and spiritual guidance. Lectio Divina is the method Christians use to encounter a personal encounter with God communicated through meditating on a short passage of Scripture. In this way God seeks to draw our attention to something that needs recognizing in the immediate here and now.

  • Exploring spiritual guidance as a relationship with another person who acts as a spiritual friend, spiritual companion or soul friend, a guide accompanying us as we discover those elements of our relationship with God that remain hidden from us, because we are too close to ourselves. Like Lectio Divina, spiritual guidance, traditionally referred to as spiritual direction can happen in one-to-one or in a group.
  • Self-examination using the spirit of penitence, particularly through the sacrament of reconciliation (confession), which involves consulting with a priest as the sacramental sign of God’s presence for the purpose of working through emotional blockages and spiritual obstacles that hamper us on our path to a deeper awareness of God.
  • At points in our life our spiritual exploration is well supported by a period of psychological therapy, often needed to firm up our emotional foundations so that they are strong enough to support our spiritual growth.

All practices that cultivate stillness, increase our toleration of silence, offer us a deep opportunity to listen to God speaking through the world around us, through the Christian revelation, through others in our lives, and from within our own mind and heart.

A fact of our lives is that we live in the presence of God … This is true whether we have an awareness of it or not. Conscious awareness isn’t even the goal. The objective is a subconscious reliance upon God as members of the Body of Christ, in the workplace, family, friendship, civic life, and congregational life. … This state is built up by grounding ourselves in Eucharist, Office, the community of the church, and particular methods of reflection and personal devotion. Robert Gallagher, In Your Holy Spirit: the parish through spiritual practice.

In short, to live with awareness and reliance on God is to live from our Baptismal Covenant.

Gallagher cites a comment by David Brooks, the NY Times columnist. Brooks speaks of two approaches to life. The first is the Well Planned Lifethrough which you search for your overall purpose and then make decisions about allocation of time, energy and talent – i.e. we are always in control. The second is the Summoned Life. Here life isn’t a project to be completed, it is an unknown landscape to be explored … guided by sensitive observation and situational awareness, not calculation and long-range planning. Gallagher notes that both can play a part in unifying the personality integrating heart and mind into one center. Pg 58


We run from silence in the modern world, fearing it, and so avoiding it with distraction. The spiritual practices grouped loosely as habitual recollection can help us in this struggle to run from ourselves It’s often an uncomfortable encounter but one necessary for spiritual flourishing.

Each of us possesses a temperament, which orients us to prefer some approaches, finding them helpful while accepting that there are other practices that won’t work well for us. As the great Archbishop of Canterbury during WWII, William Temple said: We pray as we are, not as we are not.


Storied Beings

For me, the life of faith emerges from participation in narrative. I am attracted to the influences upon our daily lives of the metaphysical dimension – the ultimate inquiry into the hidden nature of reality. For example, someone sent me a quote from the New England Transcendentalist Walden:

Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.

I find such a perspective inspirational, a pointer to the ineffable. Yet, for me it’s the power of narrative or story and my participation in the zone where narrative shapes my experience more directly. In my own experience, and through my observation of others, humans are storied beings.

This is why the first two books of the Bible, Genesis, and Exodus comprise a series of grand narrative cycles, each centered on a central figure. These figures are known to the Tradition as the Patriarchs and their unfolding story cycles introduce us to their encounters and subsequent relationships with God.

These are story cycles of epic proportion worthy of the description saga. Abraham’s is the first and those of Jacob, Joseph, and finally, Moses follow. Isaac appears briefly but simply to bridge the Abraham and Jacob saga cycles.

Although we are introduced to Moses at his birth in Exodus 2, it is in Exodus 3: 1-15 that we take a grandstand seat to view the first encounter between Moses and God. This encounter is set against the grand vista of a place evocatively described as a place beyond the wilderness. Here, God self-reveals through the phenomenon of a burning bush. What a story!


moses-and-the-burning-bush-the-bible-27076046-400-300Moses, having taken flight after his killing of an Egyptian overseer is now living as a shepherd. While tending his father-in-law’s flock he wanders beyond the wilderness. This leads him to the foot of Horeb, the mountain of God. This seems a Lord of the Rings kind of place and so we are not surprised that Moses sees in the distance a bush that blazes and yet was not consumed.

Moses’ curiosity is aroused and he takes a detour from the track he is following so that he can get a better view of this amazing sight. God sees Moses detour and calls to him from the heart of the burning bush. Moses responds to the sound of his name, but is immediately stopped in his tracks as God calls to him to come no further for he is about to tread on holy ground. First, he must remove his sandals.

God now self-identifies to Moses. It’s important to note that God’s self-identification is in terms familiar to Moses who understands that he is in the presence of the God of his fathers – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Moses’ first response is one of terror and he hides his face, for he knows well enough that no one directly encounters God and lives to tell the tale.

To cut to the chase, God now gives Moses a job to do. Moses pleads inadequacy – God who am I to do this great thing -but God is having none of this. Moses knows who God is but tests God further asking but what will I say if they ask me who is it that has sent me?

God does something very interesting at this point. He does not repeat God’s familiar name but gives Moses a new name to use. He instructs Moses to tell the Israelites that I am who I am has sent me to you. God is now revealed under a new name, a name not familiar to Moses or the Israelites, yet, a name that is still linked to the familiar. Moses is instructed to say that I am who I am has sent me and to remind the Israelites that I am is none other than the God of their ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob. The God, henceforth to be known as YHWHYahweh is born into the collective consciousness of the Children of Israel.

Narrative power

I began by saying that despite being drawn to the metaphysical inquiry into the hidden nature of reality, it is the power of story that in my religious experience allows the divine presence to take shape for me. This is a truth not limited to the religious or spiritual domain but applies to all aspects of identity construction and sense making. The power of story lies in the invitation to participate in the story and thus let it shape our experience. Our experience is limited or expanded by the quality and nature of the stories we tell about ourselves, and to ourselves about the nature of God and the world.

This is a story of theophany – the revealing of God. We participate in this story when we allow it to shape or reshape our expectations. It does this when we notice and pay attention to it.

Beyond the wilderness

I’m profoundly struck by the phrase beyond the wilderness. If I don’t pay attention I conflate this place with the wilderness itself. The image of wilderness is so familiar to me, and no doubt to all of us. We picture Moses leading his flock through a barren landscape, a wilderness of Sinai. But the text tells us that Moses is now beyond the wilderness at the foot of Horeb, the mountain of God –  a place of mysterious encounterThis is a metaphor for a place that is no-longer-familiar to us in which experience is no, longer boundaried by familair expectation. As we listen carefully, this story shapes us by a powerful realization. Are we willing or not to enter a new landscape, one beyond the familiar, where like Moses, we encounter / are encountered by God?


Moses is wandering along the familiar track through the wilderness when in his peripheral vision he notices something that arouses his curiosity I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up. Curiosity is a crucial ingredient of the spiritual life. It’s the ability to notice and become curious about the unexpected flashing to us in our peripheral vision. The path that opens through curiosity is the route from the familiar wilderness to a new place; a place beyond the wilderness.

Necessary ambiguity

God comes to us as we risk making choices and taking decisions that take us beyond the confines of the safe and sure, the tried and tested. Here, we have the possibility of a new experience, one in which God identifies as both new and yet with enough familiarity for recognition. The tension of ambiguity lies at the heart of the name I am who I am, for it also means I will be who I will be. The name’s instability of meaning pivots us towards future possibility. In the place beyond the familiar who might God become for us? More importantly, who might we become if we allow ourselves to be shaped by God’s new name; a name beckoning us into possibility, yet to become known?

The paradox of the new

The significance of the place beyond the wilderness lies in the paradox that the new, the yet to become known, very often hides as possibility at the heart of everyday experience. It’s when we pay close attention, become mindfully aware in everyday experience that we discover the new possibility. We need enough familiarity, but not too much otherwise we will miss the necessary ambiguity that opens us to the new. I have discovered the new emerges from the encounter of Tradition with the reality of the life I am actually living.

Daniel Deffenbaugh puts it rather neatly when he says while

theophany surely issues from heaven, it’s holiness can be found only on the lowly ground where it becomes known, in the dust beneath our feet. 

I interpret this to mean that our longing to find meaning and purpose for our lives can only be satisfied when we accept God’s call for a partnership to journey to a place beyond the wilderness. This is found not on the mountain of God, but at the center of where our daily lives, live themselves out.

The Daily Office -a daily spiritual practice

The Daily Practice

Last week we studied the Eucharist as a form of predominantly weekly spiritual practice. Contact me for a copy of the handout if you don’t have it. Or you can buy Michelle Heyne’s little book In Your Holy Spirit: Traditional Spiritual Practices in Today’s Christian Life Ascension Press.

Today we take a look at spiritual practice from a day-to-day perspective. Daily spiritual practices can take many forms and are often dictated by individual tastes and patterns of life. Yet, for Episcopalians, the backbone of daily spiritual practice is something we call the Daily Office.

With the exception of A little History section and material relating useful materials and links for  the parishioners of  St Martin’s parish, this summary follows the material presented by Michelle Heyne in her book In Your Holy Spirit: Traditional Spiritual Practices in Today’s Christian Life  and Robert A. Gallagher in his companion volume- In your Holy Spirit: Shaping the Parish Through Spiritual Practice, both published by the Ascension Press

A little History

The monks in their monasteries kept seven hours of prayer throughout the 24hour period, referred to as the Liturgy of the Hours or the Divine Office. This pattern was simplified for the parish clergy into a general pattern of morning, midday, evening and night prayer with an addition of something called the Office of Readings. Both the monks and the clergy understood the Divine Office to be the official prayer of the whole church, the church’s Common Prayer, and they as the official prayers of the church were obligated to pray it, while the laity was not expected to.

Thomas Cranmer in the first Book of Common Prayer of 1549 simplified the pattern to Morning and Evening Prayer – referred to as Matins and Evensong. In addition to simplifying the monastic pattern, he had the novel idea that as the Daily Office was the prayer of the whole church, i.e. the Common Prayer prayed by everyone, Matins and Evensong were to be public services in the church for which the doors had to be open and the bell rung; still the practice in most English churches. Thus, the ancient Benedictine practice of the Divine Office or the Liturgy of the Hours became embedded in Anglican spiritual practice as the backbone of our approach to prayer.

Common Prayer

My father was a parish priest. When I lost my faith he said, “if you find you can no longer believe just act as if you still do. If you feel you can no longer pray just go on saying the word’’ Inspector Adam Dalgliesh in P.D James’ A Taste for Death.

Today, most of us will use the Daily Office as an individual practice. When we do we unite our prayer with the perpetual prayer of the church. This can be likened to plugging into an electric current of prayer endlessly circulating the globe. Most of us now can be better supported in praying the office in front of PC, tablet or smart phone screens. See the resource list at the end of this summary.

Robert Benson author of In Constant Prayer described an agreement he and several friends made to pray the Office alone but keeping one another in mind. They prayed it for one another so that if one person was prevented from praying the Office one day then others were saying it for her. Also if one was tempted to neglect saying it because he didn’t feel like it one day, he had only to remember the others who were relying on him to pray with them in mind.

In the forward to this book, Phyllis Tickle wrote of people in today’s post-Christian world becoming evangelicals on the Canterbury trail in pursuit of intimate contact with the ancient future. 

The structure

of the Daily Office is always the same:




Common Prayers

The different offices differ because the mood and feel of the psalms and collects – the common prayers of the church reflect the time of day, synching with our biorhythm. This is a very important point because praying the Office is an aid to regulating the pace and stress of our day. Morning prayer sets us moving into the day. Midday prayer marks the shift of energy and activity as we pause for lunch and transition from morning to afternoon. Evening prayer marks the further transition from the activity of the day to the settling into evening, dinner, hopefully winding down and time for relaxation. Night prayer transitions us with a looking back over the day passed, preparation for sleep, and the anticipation of new day – so to as the great Persian poet Rumi puts it: awake with the dawn with the remembrance of thee in my heart. 


The benefit of the Daily Office is in its consistency without too much variety. Yet, the BCP (Book of Common Prayer) offers three formats for common prayer:

Rite 1 – traditional language

Rite 2 – contemporary language

An alternative Order for Evening

Simplified Daily Devotions for morning, midday and evening.

The BCP has it’s own 2-year lectionary table in the back and this is for the Daily Office readings, which are different from the 3-year Sunday Lectionary. The daily lectionary gives longer pieces of scripture and allows for a more sequential pattern with reading a book from the Bible over a period of days or weeks.

Book options

The normal BCP has the Daily Offices, psalms and lectionary table for which you need to also have a Bible, or a Lectionary volume – there are 3 of these covering the entire year.

The Daily Office Volumes 1 & 2 containing the Daily Offices and the lectionary readings in one book. 

Electronic options

  • The Online Book of Common Prayer – http://www.bcponline.org/ Allowing access to the whole BCP from a PC, tablet or smartphone.
  • I highly recommend the new Electronic Common Prayer App available from the online Apple or Google App Stores, which contains the lectionary and the Daily Office and more.
  • Online Daily Office:
  1. Mission St Clare http://www.missionstclare.com/english/
  2. The Brotherhood of St Gergory – an Episcopal Community http://gregorians.org/ online Daily Office http://gregorians.org/office/

At St Martin’s

Morning Prayer is offered from Tuesday to Friday at 9am daily. Each day there is usually at least one other parishioner, sometimes more joining Linda and I. Compline is often said following evening meetings. I know one parishioner who will say Compline with another person over the phone around 8.30pm.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to offer Evening Prayer, maybe a couple of times a week. But this would need greater participation from folk. Praying the Common Prayer of the Church is not something the clergy have to lead although wherever possible they should be present to participate. Lay folk can just as easily officiate.

A Bright idea -I wonder if we might follow Robert Benson’s experience and form small groups of people who although saying the office individually, would be doing so with a strong sense of connecting with others, praying on one another’s behalf, with the group sharing in this responsibility for keeping the common prayer of God’s people alive.

If you ask Muslim about the pattern of prayer he or she will reply pray 5x a day. What if someone were to ask one of us about our pattern of prayer and we replied with a description of the Daily Office.

The value of the Office is its objectivity. It is a means by which we pray with the whole church, uniting our prayer with that of millions of other Christians living and dead. This is true whether one is alone or in a group, for the Office is essentially a corporate act. It is objective too in that it does not depend on our feelings, but gives our prayer life regularity and a disciplined framework. Kenneth Leech, True Prayer.

Let the walls come a tumbling down

images-2An image

I was, as were many particularly moved by the image of the Pope atop a pyramid-like structure overlooking the border of the Rio Grande, the dividing line between the US and Mexico. The Pope was fully visible to people on both sides of this great dividing line. What struck me forcibly was that the people on either side of the border were exactly the same.

National borders, in so many parts of the world are arbitrary lines drawn in the earth. The peoples on either side are invariably the same. It is this truth that tragically results in our need for more and more fences, borders concretized in the form of  physical walls of concrete, wire, and steel. The border between the US and Mexico is but one more example of a wall, built upon the earth, but the product of fearful imagination.

I am not seeking to address the thorny political and economic issues of immigration. The politics are one thing, but invariably the economics are another and these factors are usually in tension. Politically, the US does not want the mass migration from Central America. Economically, it cannot continue to thrive without large injections of migrant labor. This is a story as old as time- remember the Israelites in Egypt?  We should not be surprised to find that we are no nearer finding an effective solution in the 21st century than ever before in humanity’s long and frequently sorry history of population migrations.

A segway

As a young undergrad at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand I embarked on a course entitled Asian Studies, a comparative study of Indian and Chinese literature and history with Japanese language. In the early decades of the 1970’s N.Z was trying to reposition itself following the recent entry of the UK to the then European Economic Community. Having developed as the farm for the UK, Britain’s entry in the Common Market closed off access to N.Z.’s historical markets for primary produce. I wanted at that point in my life to enter the Foreign Service, and hence knowledge of Asia, especially fluency in Japanese, for Japan was then at the apex of its economic influence, was a prerequisite for building a new economic direction for the country.

While I have since forgotten the bulk of what I learned having decided after my first year to switch to Law, the historical comparison between the empires of China and Rome remains clear in my mind. Both empires experienced multiple waves of inward bound migrations of foreign peoples. In the case of Rome, the invaders eventually destroyed Roman civil order and culture, ushering in for the West a social regression known as the Dark Ages. In China, each new wave of invaders came not to destroy Chinese civilization, but to join it and to become more Chinese than the Chinese. The successive waves of Mongol invasions from Genghis Kahn to the Manchus who formed the Qing Dynasty in the 17th century, the last of the great imperial dynasties ending in 1912, demonstrate the veracity of this thesis.

Despite the American Republic’s love affair with Imperial Rome, notably expressed in its civic architecture, American civilization is closer to that of Chinese than to Roman examples from history. Everyone who comes here wants to become American. The increasing atmosphere of paranoia believing that these people are out to destroy us is at variance with this nation’s historical experience. Borders become physical walls when in our imaginations the solidarity of similarity becomes the fear of difference. The movement from one to the other is but a twist in the imagination with dramatic consequences for the lives and livelihood of real men, women, and children.

The Gospel, the Pope, and the popular mood

In the gospel for this Second Sunday in Lent, Luke portrays Jesus setting out on his journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. One way of conceiving this is that Jesus now sets out in earnest on a journey that would increasingly involve speaking truth to power. As Luke presents it, Jesus already seems to know what the outcome of this will be. It will cost him his life.

Pope Francis seems to believe that it is his sacred duty to speak truth to power on behalf of the poor and oppressed. His record of doing this is well demonstrated. Whether he is speaking to the Vatican culture or to Mexican political society, at every turn of the way he excoriates the moral bankruptcy, corruption, and violence of governance as the abuse of power. I believe he must be fully aware of the personal risks that this involves. For him, it seems American exceptionalism is no protection for US politicians. For Francis the gospel of Jesus is clear. It calls for the building of bridges, not walls.

In a society where a sizeable percentage of the population feels abandoned by the political culture whether it is of the left or the right, building bridges is not a natural thing to do. There are too many to blame for our woe. There is too strong a need to find scapegoats and the proverbial differences of race, religion, gender, sexual identity, and the political stereotypes of right or left, of the alien – the stranger – the foreigner, abound. Everywhere we construct identities to be feared, protection against which walls must be erected. Sometimes the walls are physical – made from concrete and steel. Often they are political as in policies or the lack of policies on immigration. Mostly, the walls we erect are imaginative – created from primitive tribal attitudes fearful of difference and expressed in attitudes and practices of exclusion and contempt.

The sorry fact is that human beings share common aspirations and have common needs. Going back to my earlier comment that everyone who comes here wants to be American; all anyone wants is to participate in what we already enjoy. It’s our choice to extend that hospitality or refuse it, to build bridges or erect walls. The verdict of history is clear that bridges work better in the long run than walls.

In Luke 13 Jesus offers us two archetypal images, one of the fox the other of the mother hen. What I mean by archetypal images is that in the human imagination the fox and the mother hen are associated with certain characteristics that belong to us and which we project into them. This being the case, I don’t need to go into explaining them, but leave them to impact your imaginations.

The point for me is that Jesus associates the hen with himself and with God, a unique association in the history of religious thought – God as hen rather than lion or eagle. The paradox we see being played out all around us at the moment, especially in the presidential primaries is that those most in need of the hen’s protection seem in thrall to the fox. This might be ironic if it wasn’t yet again the endlessly repeating tragedy for human experience.

We are those who kill the prophets and stone those sent to us. How often do we desire to be gathered as children beneath the protective breast of God as a hen gathers her brood under her wings? The question always remains – but at what cost? The cost requires turning resolutely away from the imaginary of fear and with courage embracing the expectations, always profoundly counter-cultural, of the kingdom of God.

Spiritual Practice – Eucharist

Eucharist – a weekly spiritual practice

Here follows my summary of the first chapter in Michelle Heyne’s book In Your Holy Spirit: Traditional Spiritual Practices in Today’s Christian Life, our recommended text for the Adult forums in Lent.

One is unlikely to hear from the mouths of clergy in the Episcopal Church a direct statement that weekly attendance at the Eucharist, regardless of soccer, coffee, or brunch at Star Bucks, or staying in bed and reading the paper, is an expectation.

Hectoring people is rarely effective. But, the assumption that we all participate or not, as the case may be from a position of common knowledge and experience of the Christian faith, is not useful either.

We live in a diverse culture where the natural assumption is that individual preferences and desires trump communal ones.

Anglicanism has a broad tolerance for nominal Christmas and Easter attendance.

‘Yet it has always insisted that the life of the church and her sacraments must be thought of as a necessary means of grace. Church life is not an elective, which a Christian may take on out of a sense of duty and responsibility but may omit without serious damage to his or her faith. The fact is he or she cannot really be a Christian apart from involvement in the community of believers’. John M Krumm Why choose the Episcopal Church

When we arrive at the awareness that being present at the Eucharist is more than a matter of transitory feelings on any particular day, we have cross a significant threshold of awareness. Showing up – is neither an obligation nor a recipe for emotional self-medication, i.e. making ourselves feel happy. Showing up is a joyful response to the love of God, and an expression of gratitude for love received and desire to give love in return.

For most of us, Eucharist falls into the category of a weekly spiritual practice. Eucharist is the fully Christian life in action. It is an experience of being conformed by Jesus example of self-giving love. In Eucharist, we are transformed by the inpouring of divine life. We express this through more generous living. As the Nike add says: ‘Just do it!’

Matters for consideration

  1. The issue of competence

 Liturgy is complex. Why? Because human beings thrive on complexity as a means of going deeper. We need a certain amount of anxiety in order to learn. (quote story Pg 27) It takes time to become familiar with the pattern of the Eucharist. What helps?

  • Being present is the most important step
  • Imagine yourself into being part of the action rather than a passive observer. Remind yourself that it could not happen without you being there.
  • Arrive early and take time to read through the service book, paying attention to the explanations or instructions that occur in italics.
  • Experiment with not holding the book but simply watching and listening – a kind of kinetic learning exercise through being carried by the motion and energy of the liturgy.
  • Note areas where you have questions
  • Come in good time to prepare yourself, collect yourself, anticipate the coming experience.
  1. Liturgy uses the physicality for worship

Bread, wine, water essential elements for life.Worship involves the body and movement, it’s not just about the head or the heart. We stand, we kneel, we speak and sing, we listen and we are silent, we eat, drink, touch smell. Bringing the body into worship reconnects us with the essential truth of our faith – The Incarnation.

  • Other practices that are common in Episcopal worship:
    • Bowing and or genuflecting (going down briefly on one knee) while facing the altar or entering or leaving a pew. We bow to the cross on the altar or as it passes in procession. We genuflect to the presence of the consecrated elements of bread and wine.
    • Making the sign of the cross, this is most generally speaking a reminder of our baptism and happens at parts of the service that connect us to our baptism, e.g.
      • the end of the Gloria,
      • the end of the Creed
      • during the absolution
      • during the Eucharistic Prayer after the gifts are sanctified by the Holy Spirit we ask that we too may be sanctified
      • before receiving Holy Communion during the final blessing we are able to be part of all of these things because of our baptism.

Not everyone has to do the same things at the same time. Actions articulate feelings. We all feel differently, and not always feel the same way at the same time.

At the very least, they can be persuaded that the bodily posture makes no difference to their prayers: for they constantly forget, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls.S. Lewis, The Screwtape letters.

  1. Silence, stillness, being unhurried

How can we release ourselves totally to God’s Spirit? How can we relinquish our desires to God’s better purposes? We need the channel of silence to transport us from the busy harbors of our tensions out into the ocean of God’s infinite being. Marva Dawn, Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down.

Liturgy is a kind of unplugging, a kind of mind, body, spirit rebooting. In liturgy we individually merge with the community of worshipers for the purpose of spiritual and emotional renewal so that on leaving church we can rededicate ourselves to being instruments of God’s greater purpose for us in the coming week.

Ironically, as Norvene West points out we are noise-addicted people. We may think silence is easy to do, accessible for anyone to claim until we try it. Being silent is an art to be learned, an experience we learn to tolerate.

Feeling hurried and distracted is often our defense against the demands we experience when we try to practice silence. Silence is uncomfortable because in silence the only thing we can do is wait. How much more preferable is the talking, singing, movement of real worship to which we hurry to return from the experience of being silent or making silence.

Ways to experiment with being silent or making silence

  • Feel the solidity of the pew or chair you are sitting on. Sink back and let the pew or chair support you
  • Put down books, bulletins, or papers
  • Become aware of the gentle rising and falling of your breathing
  • Notice how the mind wants to distract you, notice how the body wants to fidget. Just watch these thoughts or sensations and don’t respond to, nor engage with them
  • Notice if being silent in a congregation – in public makes you feel self-conscious. Use body movements like standing or kneeling as expressions of a silent orientation.
  1. Engaging and listening to the Word

We believe as Episcopalians that God addresses us through Scripture as a community. It’s as a community that we interpret the meaning of scripture. As an assembly in worship God invites us into a conversation which is always so much more than the conversation we would prefer to have with ourselves.

We don’t have to comprehend the meaning of the passage. All we need to do is to receive it and let it work in us. We often hear the words in the distance while our attention is distracted. None of this matters – very much. The important thing is we are there, and as a community we receive the invitation from God, and as members of a community, we act upon it.

The Creed is a response of faith to what we receive in Scripture. But it’s not our personal faith, although it may be. I find the words of the creed sometimes make sense and sometimes don’t. As individuals, we ebb and flow in and out. The Creed is the faith of the community. It’s what we as a people of God have always and everywhere believed. It’s a protection against the mystery of God being reduced to only what we in our generation are comfortable with accepting or understanding.

This takes us back to the corporate nature of worship, Eucharist is not an action for individuals, it’s a practice of community.

Ways to experiment with receiving the Word 

  • Be curious about what the word is that God might have for us as a community.
  • Alternate between reading along and raising your head and listening.
  • Read the lessons in advance of coming to Church.
  • Be open with yourself about the challenges of taking the text seriously or authoritatively. How to do hold a tension between your own sense of personal integrity and the being open to a broader tradition of understanding that is part of the community?
  • Let yourself be distracted and maybe at times just admire the sense of the space, being in this space with others who share the experience of being present together.

Wilderness: Where the Journey Begins

Taking a journey

The journey has begun. Have you been on a journey recently? You probably have. Yet, how did you conceive of this journey? Did you even consider it a journey in the proper sense at all? Today we are the most travelled people in the history of the world. We travel often, travelling all over the country and all over the world. But is travelling the same as making a journey?

From the physical angle, travelling and making a journey seem to be the same. From the psychospiritual angle, to travel and to make a journey are not the same at all. The key distinction between travelling and making a journey lies in the focus of the activity.

In travelling our focus is on arriving at our destination. Whereas, when we make a journey, it’s the experience along the way that matters. We travel to get to our destination. We journey to experience a process of becoming changed along the way. The spiritual term for the concept of making a journey is pilgrimage. We make a pilgrimage to a place, yes. But it’s the experience of making the journey that matters. If you have not seen it, I commend to you the film The Way starring Martin Sheen. The film traces the process of transformation as Sheen’s character makes the pilgrimage to the ancient shrine of St James – Santiago de Compostela, set in the Basque Region of Spain. The Camino de Santiago  is one of the oldest and most venerable of all Christian pilgrimages and as with all pilgrimage routes amazing miracles of personal transformation happen along the way.

Readers of this blog will know that I often draw inspiration from the poet T.S. Eliot. C.P. Cavafy  is a less known poet, who is for me likewise, immensely emblematic. Cavafy lived in the early 20th Century, in the remnant echo of that 3000-year heritage of Greek –Hellenic culture in the Egyptian city of Alexandria amidst the embers of the Ottoman Empire.

In his poem Ithaka, he writes of a man who sets out for the Greek Island of Ithaka. The narrator advises the man to keep Ithaka always in his mind. Yet, although arriving is his destiny, arrival, i.e. Ithaka itself, is not the source of the richness he seeks. The wealth he seeks is gained through the time taken on the journey. Arrival is simply the end of this process of making the journey. It’s the process of the journey, the time taken, the experiences encountered, the transformation of perspective that is the source of the wealth being sought. In contrast, the destination, Ithaka itself is by the time of his arrival compared to all that has happened to him on the way: a poor place with nothing left to give him. 

Temptation – distraction from the journey

On the First Sunday in Lent, we are reminded that a journey has begun. The question for all of us is are we willing to undertake it? Luke tells us that Jesus after his baptism being full of the Holy Spirit was led out into the wilderness where for forty days he was tempted by Satan. Luke tells us that during this time Jesus fasted. Luke describes in detail a series of temptations that Satan presents to the increasingly starving Jesus.

It’s so like Luke to give us a ringside seat on a detailed interpersonal encounter. In Luke, people matter and he often articulates the feeling quality of an encounter or the inner thoughts of the actors in the story. For our modern ears, this gives Luke a very contemporary feel.

In his version of this story, Mark tells us only that Jesus is not led out, but thrown outexpelled by the Spirit into the wilderness where he is tempted. He does not go into the nature of the encounters nor details about the different temptations. Mark tends to set the stage with the overarching vista of the story. For him, the individual actors are not his focus neither is the content of the encounters. For Mark, it’s the grand vista of wilderness that opens before us and remains the focus of Jesus forty days.

The Tradition has placed enormous emphasis on the nature of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness. They have become allegories for the temptations that lure human beings off the path of the journey:

  • If we are hungry, why not eat, even if it is at the risk of exploiting our privilege?
  • As we navigate our way through a complex world of shades of grey, why not enjoy power and privilege when offered, even at the risk of misplacing the object of our true desire and colluding in the idolatry of the world?
  • Why not take crazy risks, believing in one’s own charmed invincibility?

What all the temptations Luke describes have in common is that they all center on an invitation to misuse power, privilege or position. What I discern in Luke’s story is that the greatest temptation is not to make a choice we know is wrong. We are all able to distinguish in broad outline the difference between right and wrong. We give in sometimes and knowingly make the wrong choice to suit ourselves. Guilt results. But guilt is healthy. It’s an indication that we have not lost our way because through repentance we can find our way back to our journey’s path, our camino or pilgrimage way. The last temptation is the greatest treason -as T.S. Eliot coins it in the voice of Thomas a Becket in Murder in the Cathedral –  to do the right thing for the wrong reason. Herein lies the concealed nature of temptation. 

Into the wilderness

We stray from our journey’s path without even realizing it at times because this is a path that takes us deep into the wilderness experiences of our lives. We avoid going there at all costs. The scenery along the way is often barren in it’s sheer ordinariness. We long for more dramatic and interesting vistas. Yet, spiritually, the wilderness is where the journey starts. This is the reason why before Jesus goes anywhere at the start of his ministry his journey begins in an encounter with the wilderness experience.

What do we encounter in the wilderness that is so off-putting? We could read Luke’s account of the temptations as an internal dialogue within Jesus. One that centers on the struggle against an experience of limitation. It has always been a hotly debated question – could Jesus’ divine nature have come to the rescue of his human nature thus liberating him from his wilderness experience? The fact that such a question is entertained is proof of the projection of our own illusions of omnipotence into Jesus. Because we flee from our own experience of limitation, we expect Jesus to have felt the same way. The experience of limitation is the true wilderness for us and we will chase after any temptation that offers release. In this way lies our propensity towards addiction.

This Lent if we are willing to undertake the journey, we will journey into the wilderness of our own lives. Of course, we are skilled at avoiding this place, and the function of the spiritual practices of fasting, meditation, repentance, prayer, and self-denial-control are the ways we can become mindful of our propensity for avoidance. in my comments on  Ash Wednesday I spoke about the function of all the spiritual disciplines enjoined on us in Lent as simply ways to cultivate a mindful awareness of ourselves.

In the wilderness part of our lives we come up against the fact that our lives are lived within the boundaries of limitation. Human life does not, in fact, thrive in the context of endless possibilities. As all good parents know it’s only when the limitation in the form of boundaries are held firmly that the space within becomes a rich place for our children’s experimentation and growth. Limitation forces us back into the space where our lives are actually lived and impels us toward the kind of creative adaptation imposed by limitation.

Food for the journey

This Lent, our program will focus on growing a rule of life using horticultural images of seeds growing into plants, supported and trained by the structure of a trellis. A rule of life is required to support us and hold us steady as we journey through our own experience of wilderness. A frequent assumption is that nothing grows in the wilderness. I lived for 5 years in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona. There is a profusion of life that thrives on the knife-edge of environmental limitation through a skillful adaptation that only creative life makes in the face of profound limitation.

Where do you experience wilderness in your life? How do you feel about limitation? Can you become more mindful of the ways you habitually avoid facing up to this? I invite you all to use this Lent as a time to explore the possibility of wilderness becoming a space for what St Benedict calls the Transformation of Life.

The truth is that life is enriched because we live within limitation. Wilderness becomes a place where limitation by imposing necessary boundaries catalyzes us to thrive as the desert plants and wildlife thrive – through skillful and imaginative adaptation.

The journey has begun, let us continue on together!

Nearer to death, no nearer to God

imagesAnother Ash Wednesday is upon us.  I have been telling myself that the reason I don’t feel ready this year is because Ash Wednesday is obscenely early. Yet, if I am honest I can’t recall a year when I have been ready. Why is this?

Not feeling ready has a lot to do with the way I live my life. I live as if I have all the time in the world and so I don’t need to be ready, and that’s the truth I hide from. In Choruses from The Rock T.S. Eliot mines this theme with chilling accuracy. He points out that: All our knowledge brings us nearer to death, but nearness to death no nearer to God. 

The prophets of Israel railed against pious displays. They identified the spiritual practice that God desires as the practice of justice and repentance: rend your hearts and not your garments, by returning with all our heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning. This traditional language, these familiar images for Ash Wednesday and Lent strike discordantly upon the ears of many in the contemporary Church. Fasting, weeping, and mourning with ashes upon our heads, all conjure up a heavy emphasis on making ourselves miserable, as if this is what is really pleasing to God – suffering. Yet, God’s point here is not an invitation to suffering, but the invitation to return. Matthew reminds us that the spiritual practices of penitence, prayer and generosity focus us upon the difficult task of turning away from empty displays and chasings after external things – images, accolades, solutions, and panaceas – all outside of ourselves, and turning instead to the intimacy of our connection with God in secret, i.e. personal and private. Instead of rending our garments, an action upon an external appearance, rend our hearts, i.e. pay attention to what’s happening inside.

Matthew reminds us that the spiritual practices of penitence, prayer, self-control, and generosity focus us upon the difficult task of turning away from empty displays and chasings after external things – images, accolades, solutions, and panaceas – all outside of ourselves, and turning instead to the intimacy of our connection with God in secret, i.e. personal and private. We have no time to waste with such illusions. Instead of rending our garments, an action upon an external appearance, rend our hearts, i.e. pay attention to what’s happening inside.

Coming from another angle

Putting aside the traditional imagery for a moment I want to approach this from another angle. My recollection that I seem never to be ready for Ash Wednesday and Lent is a recognition that like many others today, I live in denial of the inevitability of death, which is what creates the illusion that I have all the time in the world. Linking a lack of preparedness for Lent with a denial of death, at first sight, seems somewhat overly dramatic. Yet, denying death does not postpone our deaths. It simply pushes it’s inevitability out of mind – psychologically as well as spiritually, a self-defeating thing to do because we distance ourselves from the possibility of spiritual transformation.

Eliot questions: Where is the Life we have lost in living? …. The cycles of heaven in twenty centuries bring us farther from God and nearer to the Dust. In losing our hope for a God who transforms us, we settle for the dust of that which is closest to hand.

The spiritual practices enjoined upon us in the Book of Common Prayer as the way to keep a Holy Lent strike our modern imaginations with images that evoke either pious pretence or emotional masochism. Do you think it might be possible to put aside the defence of cynicism and embrace these traditional recipes for spiritual practice? Might not fasting, penitence, prayer, self-control, and generosity be practices not just for Lent, but for life – so that we do not lose our lives in the living? To lose our lives in their living is Eliot’s image for living unconsciously, life without awareness.

One of the great gifts of Buddhism’s arrival in the West has been its emphasis on living mindfully. Mindfulness is to bring an awareness of life lived in the moment by moment flow of time. Buddhism encourages the cultivation of awareness as a quality of consciousness accompanying the actions of our day. Active awareness dissolves the false distinctions between pain and pleasure, between the exciting and the mundane. To clean our teeth while being consciously aware of the experience of cleaning our teeth is a more satisfactory experience than doing so with our attention lost somewhere other than in the moment we actually inhabit. Mindfulness is the antidote to Eliot’s image of our lives lost in their living.

A Holy Lent

This Lent at St. Martin’s our focus will be upon the creating of a rule of life. This is an ancient piece of Benedictine wisdom, all the more important for us because the best definition I know of what it means to be an Episcopalian is to be a Benedictine shaped Christian. Drawing from horticultural analogy our rule of life is akin to the construction of a trellis. The function of the trellis is to train the plants that grow upon it in order to maximise the ingredients for successful growth – namely support, space, air, and light. As plants need these ingredients to grow, so do we to spiritually flourish. Spiritual flourishing requires the trellis of a rule of life and the ingredient of practices that cultivate awareness of the presence of God, usually made known to us through our experience of the longing (absence) for God.

Therefore, I invite us to the keeping of a Holy Lent through:

  • Fasting – as a form of spiritual dieting, and like dieting, we practice fasting in order not to starve ourselves and feel miserable, but to bring a new quality of intentionality to what and how we eat so that eating or not eating may make us more mindful of the presence of God.
  • Repentance – as the awareness that our profound disappointment can become a spur in us to desire to be better than we are – through repentance – the practice of being sorry, we open not to the possibilities of self-improvement but to the power of Grace – God’s gift, freely given and the engine of our transformation.
  • Prayer – as in reaching out in our loneliness for a greater experience of intimacy with God and those we live among.
  • Self-control – as in seeing another before we act, hearing another before we speak, considering another as we practice self-awareness.
  • Alms giving – as in daily practices of generosity that flow from a profound encounter with the forgotten or overlooked gratitude at the core of our lives. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also Matt 6:21.



It’s The Downward Journey That Matters

A sermon for the Last Sunday of Epiphany: The Rev’d Linda Mackie Griggs; Luke 9:28-43a

“On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him.”

There are a number of Feast Days in the church calendar that celebrate milestone events in the life of Jesus. Today…is not one of them. While the Transfiguration, as this story relates, is indeed one of the pivotal episodes in Jesus’ life, today is not the Feast of the Transfiguration, which is celebrated on August 6. Today is simply the day on which the Lectionary instructs us to read this lesson—always on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany. This is somewhat unusual; to see a story emphasized twice during the year like this. While the teacher in me appreciates the importance of repetition to effective learning, this isn’t just about reading the same story twice so that we can be more familiar with the definitive Mountaintop Moment when Jesus shone brilliant white, manifesting God’s glory, bridging the gap between temporal and eternal, earthly and heavenly, the Old and the New Covenants. This isn’t just about repeating the cautionary tale of Peter’s over-impetuous zeal being firmly tempered by God’s command to pipe down and Listen to Jesus. No; it’s not as simple as repetition for reinforcement.

We see this in the fact that the Lectionary has us reading a few extra verses (as you can see in the bracketed bits in your bulletin.) There is more here than just the Transfiguration event alone. Since this is last Sunday in Epiphany, we get to hear the last of this season’s stories of the many manifestations of Jesus’ divinity. But we also see something else. We see today what happens next: Jesus and his friends come down the mountain. And as we look toward our own journey into Lent—a season of fasting, introspection, prayer, and repentance that begins this week (in three days), it is appropriate that the gospel puts us on a path, not only walking down the scriptural mountain, but also, like Jesus, setting our faces toward Jerusalem.

The Transfiguration has come to epitomize the proverbial “Mountaintop Experience”; that vivid transcendent moment when the aesthetic, intellectual, or relational becomes interwoven with the realm of the spiritual—a moment that is so achingly perfect that you somehow feel that it has happened just for you. It’s a moment of connection to the Divine—a place where the veil between earthly and heavenly is gossamer-thin. If you’ve known a moment like that, you can imagine how Peter felt; he didn’t want it to end. Who would? Who would want such feelings of awe, exhilaration, joy and Connection to end? Who would ever want to walk away from being so special; so singled out as a witness to glory?

And yet.

And yet, Jesus and the three disciples, the adrenalin gradually dissipating from their bloodstreams, make their way silently down the rocky path. And it is there, at the bottom, where they are greeted by the first-century equivalent of a neglected inbox full to overflowing. The crowd presses in; a man shouts that the disciples couldn’t heal his son. “Jesus!… Jesus!… Jesus!…” “Where have you been, Jesus? …Help my child, Jesus! …We need you, Jesus!” Frustrated, he lashes out: “How much longer must I be with you and bear with you?” It’s like he’s dealing with the worst possible case of post-vacation letdown.

And yet.

It was necessary to come down the mountain. Because, while Jesus’ identity was affirmed on the mountaintop, he couldn’t do the work from there. Because, while Peter, James and John had the singular opportunity to experience their own witness of and connection to the Divine, they weren’t going to form as disciples while still on the mountain.

The mountaintop is only the beginning of formation, not its apex.

The work takes place down the rocky rutted path, where the crowds are. Where the demons are.

When I first began to respond to my call to Priesthood one of my mentors invited me to the idyllic Kanuga Conference Center in the North Carolina Mountains to spend a week soaking up the wisdom of two well-known theologians whose work I admired. It was a week of beautiful music, worship, fellowship, spiritual conversation, and learning. It was sublime. I felt so loved, so called, so focused. I could have stayed forever at the feet of those people, in the company of new and old friends. I glowed all the way home—feeling certain that my work of discernment was done—I was ready to do God’s work.

The day I came home from Kanuga was also the day of my final meeting with the parish discernment committee—the first step of what is known in the Church as The Process. I took my glowy self off to that meeting, sure that this would be a piece of cake. And it went well. Until near the end, when a member asked me what I perceived my faults to be.

Bear in mind that I was still glowing. I. Was. SO. Beloved. Of. God. I knew the answer to all of Life’s questions. All I needed to do was accept God’s Call to bring everybody else on board. So (you can see this coming, can’t you?) in answer to the question about my faults I said…

…That I had none. Not that mattered. Because God loves me as I am. My goodness, I wish I had a ruler to measure how far six pairs of eyebrows shot skyward.

I swear it is by the grace of God that they passed me on to the next step in spite of that. And it was by the grace of God that I learned, through a long and winding journey, that my mistake had been in thinking that I could stay on the mountain with my ministry as if I could do God’s work by teleconference from the mountaintop. No. I had to get rocks in my shoes, get jostled by competing demands. Skin my knees. Face my demons. The mountaintop is only the beginning of formation, not its apex.

Luke has set today’s Gospel in a context that communicates this same kind of challenge to all of us. If you look more broadly at the chapter in which this appears you see that Jesus tells his disciples twice, once each on either side of our passage, that it will be his fate to suffer and die. And there is more foreshadowing even in the glory on the mountain. Luke alone of all of the three gospel versions of this story tells us what it is that Jesus, Moses and Elijah are talking about: “…his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” So you see this entire story, even in its glory, is woven on a loom of sacrifice and shot through with a thread of suffering.

That’s not to say that mountaintop experiences, for the disciples or for us, are without value—they emphatically are. There is tremendous value in encounters with ‘Thin Places’ wherever we find them. What I learned at that Kanuga conference profoundly influenced my theological outlook. It nourished me for the hard downward journey. But it was in that very journey that the most crucial formation took place. And now I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

And that’s the Good News. The Good News of the downward journey is that, in the words of Richard Rohr, “The path of descent is the path of transformation. Darkness, failure, relapse, death and woundedness are our primary teachers.”

That’s the GOOD News? Yes.

The realities of our lives, especially the painful and aggravating and scary parts that just happen and send us reeling, these realities can be our teachers. The demons we face—spiritual, emotional, medical, vocational, relational—are challenges that give us a choice; to be formed, or deformed by them. Mountaintop experiences are the grace-filled nourishment that feeds us for the work of formation; to become “fit for God’s purpose,” as Father Mark said last week.

The Good News of the downward journey is that it is God’s invitation into closer relationship through the deepening of our spiritual lives, something this parish has said that it longs for; and it shows. But it is not a linear downward struggle any more than spiritual deepening is a direct ladder to the heavens. The entire journey is more of a spiral—maybe even a rollercoaster.

It’s this rollercoaster image that has me looking toward this Lenten season with a feeling of excitement, believe it or not. People often think of Lent as a depressing time, but the opportunity to engage with scripture more deeply, to explore new spiritual practices in order to deepen our relationship with God, Creation and one another is admittedly exciting, all the more so because we are embarking on this season as a community. As we deepen our spiritual lives we are being formed, individually and communally, for the work that calls us, whatever it will be.

The mountaintop is only the beginning.


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