On Friday I facilitated a session with the new cohort of students on the Young Adult Leadership Programme at the Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre. This course, now in its third year, aims to support 18-30 year old Quakers in developing the skills and knowledge necessary to take on leadership roles within the Society of Friends. I feel Woodbrooke to be central to the religious education and spiritual vitality of the Society, and this course is a very important step in the right direction.
Knowing how important opportunities for religious study and reflection have been for me, it was an almost overwhelming privilege to contribute to the ten-day program for this year’s cohort. My session was entitled ‘Spiritual grounding’, and aimed to provide an opportunity to consider personal prayer or spiritual practice, and how we ground our discernment, action and leadership in the life of the Spirit. What follows is based on the content of the session, in the hope it may be a useful starting point for anyone interested in starting, or restarting a spiritual practice.
Everything is spiritual
Ideas in this section come from Rob Bell’s DVD ‘Everything is Spiritual’ (2010).
What are we talking about when we say ‘spiritual’? Ghosts, séances and the supernatural? A separate, distinct component of ourselves (as in mind, body and spirit)? A private aspect of our daily lives?
Within the Judeo-Christian tradition that Quakerism resides, I would suggest it means none of these things. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the word translated as spirit is ר֫וּחַ (ruarc), meaning spirit, wind or breath:
And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. [Genesis 2:7]
In the New Testament, the Koine Greek word for the same concept is πνεῦμα (pneuma):
Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’ [John 20:21-2]
Just being alive makes you a spiritual being! You can’t have a distinct ‘spiritual life’, your whole life is spiritual, whether you like it or not. Everything we do impacts on our spirituality, for good or ill. Just as we all have ethnicity or mental health, we are all spiritual. Therefore, what are you going to do to maintain your spiritual health, to reach spiritual maturity? The answer in all the great religious traditions is spiritual practice.
What constitutes a spiritual practice?
‘How, then, shall we lay hold of that Life and Power, and live the life of prayer without ceasing? By quiet, persistent practice in turning of all our being, day and night, in prayer and inward worship and surrender, toward Him who calls in the deeps of our souls. Mental habits of inward orientation must be established’ Thomas Kelly, A Testament of Devotion (1941).
I think that something becomes a spiritual practice once it is done with a sense of deliberate intention, with a purposeful determination. It also requires discipline. A spiritual practice requires regular practise! Spiritual disciplines root you in the present moment, and open you to mystical experience. It must be remembered however, that the central aim of any spiritual practice is not pleasure or relaxation, or the heights of spiritual ecstasy, as delicious and wonderful though these are. Spiritual practice equips us more fully to pursue the Kingdom of God, which is justice, peace and joy.
An image of spiritual practice
This is an early sixth century mosaic from the Church of St. Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. I was introduced to this image by Rita Nakashima Brock & Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker’s book ‘Saving Paradise’ (2012). It depicts Moses’ encounter with God, speaking to him from a burning bush. A youthful, clean-shaven Moses is untying his sandals, for he is on holy ground. You’ll notice that the mountainside is covered in burning shrubbery. The whole earth is aflame with the Divine Presence and we just haven’t noticed. God declares the whole of creation as holy ground, not just the temples and sacred groves. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, fire is always associated with God’s love, in its life-giving, purifying and transforming light and heat. You can’t maintain a spiritual practice and remain lukewarm for long. Divine encounter reveals the extent of the world’s darkness, as well as its awe-inspiring magnificence. George Fox was opened to such a vision: ‘I saw also that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness. And in that also I saw the infinite love of God; and I had great openings.’ George Fox, Journal (1647) [QF&P 19.03]. This is what attention to our selves as spiritual people can reveal. We are all invited, like Moses, to take off our sandals where we are, and see the world aflame.
Spiritual practices in the Quaker tradition
‘It is part of our formation in a listening spirituality to find which practices, at this time in our lives, are most supportive of our inward listening for the word, the guidance, the challenge, the reproof, the love – or simply intimations – of God’s presence. These can take many outward forms. It is a matter of some listening and discernment to find those which are right for us at any given moment’ Patrician Loring, Listening Spirituality Vol. 1 (1997).
Patricia Loring has said, in her brilliant Listening Spirituality series, everything I would want to say on the subject of specific spiritual practices. So go read it! Here is a short summary of the practices she explains.
- Devotional reading: repeated reading of a short text in a contemplative manner, allowing the text to challenge and speak to you. Lectio Divina is the classic example of this.
- Discursive meditation: prayer where you express yourself to the Divine. Examples include intercession (praying for others), the Examen (self-reflection) and journaling
- Mantras and icons: making an image, word or phrase the focal point of your meditation, treating them as a window to the Divine.
- Meditation: this can take many forms. Examples include bodily awareness and imaginative projection (in the Ignatian tradition).
- Contemplative prayer: a total waiting on the Divine. This is what is most commonly sought in Meeting for Worship.
Western Christianity has for the most part lost the explicitly physical forms of spiritual practice. Kneeling in prayer, prostrations and yoga are all extremely valuable in getting out of your head and connecting with yourself as an embodied being.
Your experience of spiritual practice
- What spiritual practices mentioned do you practice, or have attempted? How do you feel about them?
- Have you experience of any spiritual practices not yet mentioned?
- Which practices do you feel open to? Which would you find challenging?
Steps towards supporting your spiritual practice
If you’re unsure as to where to start, remember it is OK to experiment. Be open to the right practice at this time. The most important step you can take is to set aside a space and a time, daily if possible. I can’t remember where I heard it, but ‘30 minutes a day, an hour a week, a day a month, a week a year’ seems like a challenging yet achievable goal. However, start where you are and say ‘no’ to guilt! Be aware of the resources, such as books and retreat centres, available to you.
By far the most important thing is to have people who will support you in your chosen discipline. This could take the form of a spiritual friend/director, regular communal prayer, a meditation class or a bible study group.We live in a culture that sees spiritual practice as an individual, private activity. There is much to be said for private prayer, but maintaining a discipline is almost impossible without the support of others. This is the case in my own experience of fasting. It’s much easier to do when everyone in your community is doing it.
I really struggle to maintain a regular spiritual practice. This is one of the reasons I’m seeking to live in an intentional religious community that has a regular prayer life. Even when you live with others, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re respond to the same spiritual practice. My husband and I have different temperaments. I’m drawn to the regularity of the Daily Offices (a ancient, monastic prayer rhythm), whereas he draws nourishment from being in green spaces and bird watching. We’ve worked out a compromise where we pray together once a week, but even this requires a lot of discipline to keep it going. Start where you are, attend to the uniqueness of your personal situation and find someone who can support you.
Bodily awareness mediation
To have a session about personal spiritual practice without actually experiencing a spiritual practice would make little sense. We followed the second exercise, taken from ‘Sadhana – A Way to God: Christian Exercises in Eastern Form’ by Anthony De Mello (1978). This is an exercise I frequently use in Meeting for Worship to connect with the present moment and open myself to the Divine.
In one of those weird Woodbrookey moments, there was a poem read in Epilogue that evening (completely unprompted by me) that summed up our session extremely well, and can therefore sum up this blog post!
‘The Bright Field’ by R. S. Thomas
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
- Everything is Spiritual (DVD) by Rob Bell
- A Testament of Devotion by Thomas Kelly
- Listening Spirituality Vol. 1 by Patricia Loring
- Sadhana – A Way to God by Anthony De Mello
- A Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster