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Spiritual Practice -1


Practice is doing something you can do in order to be able to do something that you can't do.

For example, I currently can't run a marathon, but I can probably run 1 km. So, if I did one day decide to run a marathon, I would do what I can do, that is, wheeze my way laboriously along for a kilometre; then, providing I did that often enough, my abilities would eventually increase to the point where I'd be able to run a marathon. The basic principle is the same for sport, or playing a musical instrument, or learning a language, or any skill you care to name. The principle is also true for our inner lives, hence the phenomenon of spiritual practice.

A spiritual life is simple but it's not easy. Read the Sermon on the Mount sometime, and you'll get some idea of what it might be like to be a truly spiritual person. Jesus' description of life in the Kingdom of God might make lovely poetic reading, but I can't do it, and neither, for that matter, can anybody else that I know. But that doesn't mean that the kind of life Jesus spoke of, and, presumably, which he himself exemplified isn't possible. It's all a matter of practice. So, just as a beginner sits down with her trombone and cacophonically ascends and descends the scales, I sit on my prayer stool and keep my eyes and mouth shut for a while. In every different sort of practice, the practicer is training body and mind - making new habits, sharpening reflexes, installing patterns, learning about himself and his subject matter, extending the range of what she can do. In spiritual practice all these things are going on, but there is also something else. The soul, or if you don't know what that means, the deepest levels of your self is being reshaped. In spiritual practice we aren't just acquiring new skills, we are being remade.

There are various spiritual practices: prayer, meditation, pilgrimage, acts of service, fasting, almsgiving and so forth, but they all have these three things in common: Intention, Consent and Repetition.

Intention. I intend, when sitting in the corner of my study, to grow into the person the Christ calls me to be. I recognise that after 40 years of trying I haven't got very far, and that in my chosen practice, meditation, my missteps are infinitely more numerous than my true ones. I recognise also that I am subject to a myriad of conflicting and selfish motivations: sitting piously in the corner is a great way to avoid doing the dishes, for example, and it might give me some sort of jazzy inner experience, the boasting of which will enable me to pretend to others that I'm more holy than I am. Sweet! But there is also a part of me that really wants to be what God knows I can be. So,  I sit and, at the start of every period on my stool, it's important to tell myself that I want to be whole, and intend to be whole, and know that I'm not entirely deceiving myself.

Consent: If any real changes are going to be made to the deepest parts of myself then someone or something else is going to have to do it because I'm not able to change myself. I know this because I've tried. God knows, I've tried. The patterns in me run too deep and my self awareness is too shallow to allow any real change to be made, and besides, many of the things about me which most need changing are things I'm really rather attached to. So, again, when I sit it's important to consciously give consent for changes to be made. Who or what am I giving consent to? Well, that's not a big problem for me. I say God. I realise that God may be a problematic concept for some and if that some includes you,then why not use God as a kind of shorthand? - a kind of working hypothesis that will do until you can figure out what lies at the heart of the Universe and why whatever it is that you gradually discover there seems kindly disposed to you and oddly determined on your wholeness. Works for me!

Repetition: Like any sort practice the spiritual kind only brings benefit when you do it again and again and again, and for as long as you can manage it. Doing it when the mood takes you (or to express that in a more pious way, when God tells you, or when you "feel" to do it) just doesn't cut the mustard. You need a time and a place and these need to be sorted before you sit down. So, when I take my seat, after reminding myself of my intention and giving consent, I remind myself also that I am here for ( state your pre-decided number here) minutes and there is nothing, but nothing more important to do in that time, earthquakes, fires and urgent calls of nature excepted. 

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