Category Archives: Practices with Christian elements

Exercise 56: An Advent Visualization

Background:  This advent, I have been filled with wonder at such a simple image: A pregnant woman, far from home.  She is traveling with her new husband because they have to.  There is no room in the human habitations.  She gives birth in the manger.  The child is something magnificent.

Because one of the sources of this image for me this year is an entire book, it is difficult to tie it into this practice.  Before we get into the nuts and bolts of this practice, I would like to quite heartily encourage you to check out the wonderful book of my good friend Jenn by clicking here.

This post contains the ingredients for many spiritual practices.  The description below is broken into three sections.  The first is an invitation to reading a number of different depictions of the entry into Bethlehem.  The second is a visualization walking the reader through the events.  The third is a series of reflections, meditations, and questions on these events.

I would recommend choosing only one element from each section for a session.  If this feels productive, you might return to this exercise and choose a second reading and series of meditations for your next session.  Less is more with spiritual practices.

There is a value in wondering about the historical details.  But not for this practice, today.  If it is easier, it would be just as helpful to imagine this scene occurring in a city today.  Perhaps, instead of a donkey, Mary rides in a sidecar of an old, broken down motorcycle.  Or her feet have swollen with the pregnancy and she is pushed by Joseph in a wheelchair.

The Practice.

Part A: Some Readings to Choose From

  1.  Release your expectations and stress with three deep inhales and exhales.
  2. Consider one (or perhaps two) of the following passages.  You may wish to read it more than once:   

Click here to read Luke 2: 1-20

Or, read this poem about the event:

If
you want
the Virgin will come walking down the road
pregnant with the holy,
and say,
“I need shelter for the night, please take me inside your heart,
my time is so close.”

Then, under the roof of your soul, you will witness the sublime
intimacy, the divine, the Christ
taking birth
forever,

as she grasps your hand for help, for each of us
is the midwife of God, each of us.

Yet there, under the dome of your being does creation
come into existence eternally, through your womb, dear pilgrim—
the sacred womb in your soul,

as God grasps our arms for help; for each of us is
His beloved servant
never far.

If you want, the Virgin will come walking
down the street pregnant
with Light and sing …

–St. John of the Cross, “If You Want” in Daniel Ladinsky Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West (New York: Penguin Group, 2002), 306-307.

Or read this poem

Sometimes I wonder
if Mary breastfed Jesus.
if she cried out when he bit her
or if she sobbed when he would not latch.

and sometimes I wonder
if this is all too vulgar
to ask in a church
full of men
without milk stains on their shirts
or coconut oil on their breasts
preaching from pulpits off limits to the Mother of God.

but then i think of feeding Jesus,
birthing Jesus,
the expulsion of blood
and smell of sweat,
the salt of a mother’s tears
onto the soft head of the Salt of the Earth,
feeling lonely
and tired
hungry
annoyed
overwhelmed
loving

and i think,
if the vulgarity of birth is not
honestly preached
by men who carry power but not burden,
who carry privilege but not labor,
who carry authority but not submission,
then it should not be preached at all.

because the real scandal of the Birth of God
lies in the cracked nipples of a
14 year old
and not in the sermons of ministers
who say women
are too delicate
to lead.

-Kaitlin Hardy Shetler

If you purchased the book suggested above, you might read the passage depicting Jesus’ birth in that book.  Jesus birth happens in chapter 11 of The Favored One.

Part B.  The Visualization

1.  Inhale and exhale 3 times.  

2.  Bring to mind the reading from above.  Sit with the images, thoughts, and feelings that might have come up from you.  When you are ready, imagine the following.  Try and do it from the perspective of one of the characters in the narrative: Pregnant Mary, Concerned Joseph, even The Donkey or a Jesus who has yet to be born.  Experience this scene with your senses.  

They have been traveling all day.  Are they tired and weary?  Is this faitgue tempered with fear or excitement?  What is the temparature, as they enter into a town that is bursting at the seams?  Imagine them coming into the town.  Are there numerous places that are full?  Are the Roman Solidiers standing by, ready to take a census?     Does the concern on Mary and Joseph’s face grow?  Hear the “clop” of the donkeys heels on the hard ground.  Feel the sweat on the scratchy fabric of the shirt.  

There comes a moment when it is clear that there will be no beds for this night, no roof that was made for people.  What are the feelings you experience at this moment?  Enter into the manger.  Imagine the smells that come to you.  What animals are present?  Are they eating or making their animal noises?  Are their flies?  Are their attendants of the animals?  How do they look at you, as you begin to move around the hay to make your shelter for the night?

Take the time you need to imagine the moments it becomes clear that the baby will be born here.  In this place, at this time.  Does the angelic visitation, and the promises made about this child feel close now?  The water breaks.  How do you feel?  How does your partner feel?  Does a midwife come into the picture?  Is their pain?  Medicine?  Joy?  Blood?

Imagine the first time Mary holds the baby.  How did Joseph look when he first held the baby?  When do they cut the cord?  What happens next?

3.  Continue this scene for as long as you would like.  Return to the readings listed in section A.   if you wish.  I would encourage you to return to a passage you read earlier and try out a new reading the next time you engage this spiritual practice.

4.  Sit with this scene and experience.  Let it penetrate you until it is time to release it.  When you have let it go, consider whether you will sit in a time of wordless union or if you will progress to section C.  Here there are some questions and meditations to consider.

Section C: Some Questions and Meditations

  1.  Inhale.  Exhale.  Bring to mind your experience of the readings in section A.
  2. Inhale.  Exhale.  Bring to mind your experience of the visualization in section B.  
  3. Inhale.  Exhale.
  4. Sit with any one of the following.  Your may wish to save a second or third question or meditation for the future.

I.  Return to that image of Jesus and Mary entering into the town.  Sit with it for a moment.  Now, make the town of Bethlehem your mind and heart.  See Joseph and Mary entering into this space.  What thoughts, feelings, or experiences are you having trouble welcoming?  What difficult realities are you struggling to accept?  See that their is a manger within you.  This is a small, forgotten aspect of your own inner self.  But it is all that you need.  Invite this formerly unwelcome aspect of your own self here.  Soon, Jesus will come into the world from this very space.

II.  See Mary’s belly swollen with life about to enter the world.  Christ is being born in you even now at this very moment.  Sit with this experience of Christ being born in you.   Feel it coming from elsewhere and entering into your world.  Don’t rush this birth.  Sit with what it could mean and how it might change you.

III.  Dwell in the stark, perhaps uncomfortable reality of Jesus birth.  It is no less paradoxical and extreme than any other birth.  Filled with pain and possibility, hope and agony.  It is bloody and scary, intimate and clinical.  Take your time to put together what you have known and experienced of human birth and realize that all this applied to Jesus, too.  After you have sat with this, consider what it might mean.  What does it mean about God?  What does it mean about Jesus?  What does it mean about you?  How does it alter your past?  Your present?  Your future?

 

 

 

  

Exercise 55: Meditations for Each Week of Advent

Background: Advent  is a time of quiet anticipation in the darkness.  Traditionally, the weeks leading up to Christmas have been assigned a theme, signified by the lighting of a candle.  As you try these practices you might join in this tradition by lighting a single candle the first week, a pair the next week, three candles the third week, and four candles on the fourth week.

One expression of these advent themes is hope, peace, joy, and love.

These are four powerful words.  They can be used in a few different ways contemplatively.  In the examples below, the word “peace” is used.  If you wish to follow the traditional themes, of course, you should substitute this word for whichever is appropriate to the week.

One way to use these words is as a method of dismissing disruptive thoughts. We set the intention to sit with calm, untroubled minds.   The word (hope, peace, etc.)  is brought to mind whenever disruptive thoughts or emotions arise.  This is a method used in some Buddhist practices and by the Centering Prayer movement.

One important difference between Centering Prayer and Buddhists who use a word to release our preoccupation with distractions is that Centering Prayer invites us to think of the use of this word as a symbol of our consent for the Holy Spirit’s intervention into our quiet time.  One important thing they have in common is that both groups emphasize the goal of being gentle with the use of the word, and avoiding the hamster wheel of becoming emotionally charged as intrusive thoughts threaten to distract us.  Wise teachers have advocated that we aim for a sense of gratitude each time we use our sacred word and avoid the idea that we are “doing it wrong” each time we return to our practice.

55A: The Practice

  1.  Place your feet flat on the floor.  Take 3 cleansing breaths.  
  2. Release your worries and concerns for this time.  Do your best to clear your mind.
  3. As intrusive thoughts arise, dismiss them by thinking the word “Peace.”  Sink into this word.
  4. Continue this practice for as long as you wish.

 

Background: These words can also be used as a mantra.  A mantra is a word that is used with out stopping.  It is repeated nonstop.  In some ways this is more preventative than the prior strategy.  The hope is that in occupying the mind, we prevent any intrusive thoughts from arising.  I find mantra meditation particular powerful when done out loud.  The word can be chanted or even sung.   I find that after a time, I occupy a strange space of knowing what the word means but somehow also feeling that the word is nonsensical.  This can be a bridge, a case study in the limits of all our concepts and words.

For some, the goal of mantra meditation is to hear the word already being said somewhere deep within.

55B: The Practice

  1.  Create a quite and safe space for yourself.  Light some candles if you wish.
  2. Begin saying (or thinking) your sacred word.  You might begin with a slow and steady rhythm.  Be open to the possibility of chanting or singing.
  3. If thoughts, feelings, or other mental intrustions arise, sink more deeply into the experience of this particular word.
  4. When your time nears an end, release the word.  Sit in a time of wordless union.

 

Background:  As the name implies, breath prayers are words to God that can be offered up within the span of a single breath.  Usually these are repeated several times.  Often times, the inhalation and exhalation are used differently.  For example, a certain phrase might be connected with the inhale and a different phrase connected to the exhale.

Please recall that you might coordinate this with each of the advent weeks.  Though the example below uses the word “peace” you could also use the word “hope” or “love.”

Practice 55C: A first breath prayer.

  1.  Take 3 deep, cleansing breaths.
  2. With the next inhale, think “Peace”
  3.  Exhale the feelings in your heart and body which stand in the way of peace.
  4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 for the time you have devoted to this practice.

 

 

Exercise 53: You, who are closer than our breath, speak to us from the silence

Background:  My wonderful spiritual community is praying through the psalms, one a day.  The Pastor recommended ‘Psalms for Praying’ by Nan C. Merrill.  I had planned on ignoring her.  I felt like I could navigate through the difficult language that pops up in many of the psalms as they are traditionally translated.  Then she gave me the book, and it felt ungrateful not to read them there.  And I was glad I did.

As we read psalm 45, I approached it in a lectio-kind of mind set, looking for some words that spoke to me.  A few stanzas in, I came to this: “You, who are closer than our breath/  speak to us from the silence.”  As you can see below, I took a few minor liberties with the phrasing.

It felt right to build in increasing empty spaces in this exercise.  A precise count is not particularly important.  Therefore, one approach to “five deep breaths” Is to simply accept that 4 or 6 will also do.  The alternative is to use the thumb and finger tips to help keep track: On the first breath, touch thumb of both hands to pointer finger of both hands.  On the second breath, thumb to middle finger.  On the third thumb to ring finger.  On the fourth thumb to pinky.

The Exercise

  1.  Release your worries and expectations with a deep exhale.
  2. Inhale.
  3. Take two more deep, cleansing breaths.
  4. With the next inhale, think or say “You are closer than our breath.”
  5. With the next exhale, think or say “Speak to us from your silence.”
  6. Inhale.  Exhale.
  7. With the next inhale, think or say “You are closer than our breath.”
  8. With the next exhale, think or say “Speak to us from your silence.”
  9. Take two deep breath.
  10. With the next inhale, think or say “You are closer than our breath.”
  11. With the next exhale, think or say “Speak to us from your silence.”
  12. Take three deep breaths.
  13. With the next inhale, think or say “You are closer than our breath.”
  14. With the next exhale, think or say “Speak to us from your silence.”
  15. Take four deep breaths.
  16. With the next inhale, think or say “You are closer than our breath.”
  17. With the next exhale, think or say “Speak to us from your silence.”
  18. Spend a time in wordless communion.  Try to release all of the words.
  19. When you feel that you have begun to drift off, or are ready to resume the practice,  With the next inhale, think or say “You are closer than our breath.”
  20. With the next exhale, think or say “Speak to us from your silence.”
  21. Take four deep breaths.
  22. With the next inhale, think or say “You are closer than our breath.”
  23. With the next exhale, think or say “Speak to us from your silence.”
  24. Take three deep breaths.
  25. With the next inhale, think or say “You are closer than our breath.”
  26. With the next exhale, think or say “Speak to us from your silence.”
  27. Take two deep breaths.
  28. With the next inhale, think or say “You are closer than our breath.”
  29. With the next exhale, think or say “Speak to us from your silence.”
  30. Take one deep breath.
  31. With the next inhale, think or say “You are closer than our breath.”
  32. With the next exhale, think or say “Speak to us from your silence.

Know that you can return to these phrases through out your day.

 

 

Exercise 45: The Eye through which I see God…

Background: Mystic Meister Eckhart said, “The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one love.”  This sentence is, to me, nearly as amazing as it is confusing.  This exercise is an attempt to grapple with this strange, wonderful idea.

The Exercise

  1.  Breathe deeply.
  2. Turn your inner eye to God.  See God watching you.
  3. Think about who God is, see God as best you can through your mind’s eye.
  4. When you are ready, consider the idea that God is watching all things.  God is watching you watch God.
  5. As best you can, consider the idea that God sees you fully.  God sees you with infared and ultraviolet vision; God sees all the things you have ever done.  God sees you down to the smallest subatomic particle.  God sees all the things you have ever been.  God sees your body, mind, and soul.  God sees the original divine spark which made human kind.
  6. Know that As God sees you, in every possible way, God sees your potential.  God knows the depths of your passion and love.  God sees and pronounces you as so good.
  7. Sit with God’s loving view on you for a bit.  
  8. Take three deep breaths.
  9. Combine the views, as best you can.  God looking down on you is you looking up at God.  Your eyes are God’s eyes.  God’s eyes are yours.  You are God.  God is you.

Exercise 44: An alternative Examen

Background: This approach to the examen was inspired by Phileena Heuertz’ close focus on Ignatius’ original words in her excellent ‘Mindful Silence.’  There is an interesting balance in this exercise of holding and releasing our emotions.

The Exercise:

  1. Inhale God’s presence deeply.  Exhale the stress of the day. Repeat this process 3 times if need be.
  2. Do your best to find some gratitude.  If it is not within you, it can be found in God’s presence which you are inhaling.
  3. Recall your day.  You might do this by thinking backwards, beginning with 24 hours ago and gradually moving forward.   See the whole of this time through that lens of thanksgiving. Become aware of those positives which were not expected.
  4. While still holding this gratitude, become aware of the emotions that you had through the day, and the emotions you hold now, as you review these memories.  Do your best to accept them for what they are. No judggement, submission, or resistance is necessary here.
  5. Choose one experience of the day.  Pray through this experience. Be aware of whatever your reactions to this experience are.  Ask God to lead you this experience and all of your reactions to it.
  6. Stay with this experience until you find peace about it.  If you have given the time you have for this and still feel unresolved, make a plan to return to this place soon.  
  7. Give thanks for God’s presence in your day.

 

Exercise 43

Background:  The truth?  I resisted this one for a while.  One minor problem was that it most naturally lead itself to just a few seconds, and I am more interested in practices which lend themselves to twenty minutes or half an hour.  But the bigger problem was that it seemed…  kind of cute and precious.  If spiritual practices had a personality, this one would have seemed very self-satisfied to me.

Then?  Then I tried it anyway.  And I quite like it.

I have provided several different forms of this exercise.  The first is the most common.  This takes a matter of seconds.  Perhaps you will find it useful to use it as a breath prayer as you go about your day.  The latter forms are ones which might be more reasonably used through an exercise.

Exercise 43A:

1.  Place your feet flat on the floor.

2.  Breathe.

3.  Think– or say– “Be still, and know that I am God.”

4.  Breathe.

5.  Think– or say– “Be still and know that I am.”

6.  Breathe.

7.  Think– or say– “Be still and know”

8.  Breathe.

9.  Think– of say– “Be still.”

10.  Breathe.

11.  Think– or say– “Be.”

12.  Breathe.

 

Exercise 43B

1.  Place your feet flat on the floor.

2.  Breathe.

3.  Think– or say– “Be still, and know that I am God.”

4.  Breathe.

(Repeat this process 3 times.)

5.  Think– or say– “Be still and know that I am.”

6.  Breathe.

(Repeat this process 3 times.)

7.  Think– or say– “Be still and know”

8.  Breathe.

(Repeat this process 3 times.)

9.  Think– of say– “Be still.”

10.  Breathe.

(Repeat this process 3 times.)

11.  Think– or say– “Be.”

(Repeat this process 3 times.)

12.  Take 3 cleansing Breaths.

 

 

 

Exercise 42: Another Approach to Lectio

Background:   Lectio Divina is clearly more than just a single practice.  In some ways, it is more like a philosophy, a general approach that seeks to invite God into our reading.

The Practice:  

  1.  Select a short passage to be read.
  2. As you read, be aware of the words and phrase that stand out.
  3. Read a second time.  When you are through, reflect on the things that impact you.  Consider expressing these reflections out loud or in writing.
  4.  Read it a third time.  This time say a prayer when your are through.  Focus this prayer on what this experience was like for you, and what it is challenging you to do in your life.
  5. Read it a fourth time.
  6. Sit in silence.

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