Tag Archives: Prayer

“Dear God, I’m doing the best I can.” (Remembering Huston Smith)

To readers of The Inner Way: First, a sincere thank you for reading. Second, as some of you know I write a regular weekly column at Patheos called Wake Up Call. My duties there have kept me from updating this site as often as I would like. In the future, I’ll be posting a story-of-the-month here once monthly. For more regular updates, you can sign-up for the Wake Up Call newsletter in the right hand column of this page.

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Huston Smith, 2005, via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the great religious scholar of our time died recently in Berkeley, California. His name was Huston Smith and he lived until the age of 97.

I know Smith primarily through the book The World’s Religions. Originally titled The Religions of Man, it has sold over 3 million copies since it was first published in 1958. There is a well-worn copy sitting on my bookshelf and I refer to it when I need a quick lesson or refresher on the beliefs of other faiths, whether it be Taoism, Sufism or the primal religions of Australia.

Smith wrote over a dozen books and what made him such a good writer was his ability to take complex belief systems and explain them in simple terms. But he did more than just write about religion—Smith himself practiced within many faiths and religions, in what some call “interspirituality”, believing that all the world’s religions were compatible.

I’m sure he would have agreed with the contemporary scholar Mirabai Starr who believes in “the oneness at the heart of all religious traditions.” Starr does not differentiate between the faiths. She seeks “…the source of Love itself. I catch whiffs of this great beauty in every one of the world’s spiritual traditions.”

Huston Smith led an adventurous spiritual life, experiencing first-hand the many ways in which we connect with the Divine. While he was a church-going Methodist, he celebrated the Sabbath with a daughter who had converted to Judaism. He prayed in Arabic to Mecca five times a day. His spiritual resume, as reported in the NY Times, also included the following:

  • As a college student, he became a missionary and was later ordained a Methodist minister. He soon realized that he had no desire to “Christianize the world,” he would rather teach than preach.
  • As a philosophy teacher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he ate psilocybin mushrooms with Timothy Leary more than once, reporting that “he had a personal experience with God.”
  • He meditated with Tibetan Buddhist monks, practiced yoga with Hindu holy men and whirled with ecstatic Sufi Islamic dervishes. He helped introduce the Dalai Lama to Americans.

But maybe the most thought-provoking thing I read in the obituary of Huston Smith was this: His favorite prayer was written by a 9-year-old boy whose mother had found it scribbled on a piece of paper beside his bed. It read:

Dear God, I’m doing the best I can.

At first glance, I wondered how this child’s prayer could be the favorite of a man so versed in the world’s religious traditions. After all, Smith’s entire life was dedicated to connecting with God and helping others do the same. But it dawned on me that for all his accomplishments, Smith maintained a modest view of his relationship with the Creator.

This prayer was Smith’s humble way of telling God, and perhaps reminding himself, that he was not perfect or knew for certain if he had achieved his life-long quest to learn and teach us all he could about the many ways we access the Divine. The prayer also reminds me of the words of John Templeton, as I believe they apply to Smith:

As we become more willing to release the personal ego, we open the door to greater communication with God. One who is humble and grateful for all God-given blessings opens the door to heaven and earth now.

We too might take Huston Smith’s prayer to heart during our own moments of meditation and contemplation. Dear God, I’m doing the best I can. It is a reminder that while there is much that we do in our attempt to live a full and rich spiritual life, there is much that can still be done.

I recently published the spiritual fable Thaddeus Squirrel. You can learn about it here.

The guy who gives thanks for his Stage 4 cancer.

praying-hands-1411873-639x681

Courtesy James Chan, freeimages.com

His name is Mike and I’ve known him for over a decade. While we work for the same company, we’re now in different offices and I hadn’t seen him for a while. So it was through the grapevine that, about six months ago, I learned Mike has Stage 4 cancer.

I visited his office recently and had the chance to sit down and talk with him. Mike still goes to work every day. Some mornings he has chemo and is at his desk in the afternoon. He does this because he loves his job and his co-workers. (And, while not big in stature, he does it because Mike is one tough dude.)

He has now had a total of 26 sessions of chemo. At best, Mike is fighting this thing to a draw. But it’s not like a ref will step in and call the fight over. The cancer is still there, so the battle continues each day. Mike tells me it’s a grind, it’s not so much the cancer but the treatments that wear on him. He gets tired more easily. He has obviously lost some weight.

Mike believes in Jesus and prays to him each day. He gives thanks for all the good in his life, what’s known as a prayer of gratitude. And yes, he even gives thanks for the cancer. Mike mentioned something that a friend who had cancer told him once, and it’s a saying that he takes to heart:

Cancer brings hardships, but it also brings gifts.

Mike has found these gifts. It has brought him closer to his three college-age children and to his friends. It has rekindled his relationship with his kids’ mother, his ex-wife. It has caused him to stop and think about how fortunate he is, because life has given him so much.

We discussed Mike’s prognosis, and he told me he had “a 3% chance of making it 5 years”. I don’t know what that means if broken down to a year or two. But his answer told me that Mike is taking the long view, looking at the best possible scenario. At the same time, he tells me he has led a good life, and if it happens sooner he will be ready.

In a week, Mike is going to Lourdes. While there, he will bathe in the holy waters and pray to the Virgin Mary. It was not his idea, a friend told him he was going, the trip had been bought and paid for without Mike’s consent. His reaction: “I’ll go, and that way I can help all the people sick with cancer.” You see, even with Stage 4, Mike considers himself “healthy with cancer.”

Not by his choice, Mike will be ushered to and from Lourdes by the Order of Malta, a religious order that serves the sick. He will be watched over at all times by eight uniformed members of the group who will accompany him, carry him actually, to each prayer session at the Sanctuary of our Lady Of Lourdes and each visit to the healing waters of the nearby spring.

Will this cure Mike? I don’t know. But even if the cancer does eventually take Mike from this earth, it has lost. The cancer may break down his body, but it has not defeated his spirit or damaged his soul.

To paraphrase the words of Rudyard Kipling, Mike is one of those rare individuals who can meet triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same. He has looked cancer squarely in the eye and seen it for what it is, one more phase in what amounts to a long and happy life.

I will write a follow-up to this story in a few weeks about Mike’s experiences at Lourdes.

The powerful prayer that was forgotten about for centuries—and its amazing comeback.

La_Saeta_by_Julio_Romero_de_Torres_part-150x150What do you do when it feels like your prayers are going into a deep, dark void and aren’t connecting you with the Divine?

Well, 700 years ago a Christian mystic had an answer, an alternative to traditional prayer that he believed offered a direct connection to God. The Roman Catholic church shunned the practice and for centuries it was largely forgotten—but in the past few decades, it has made an amazing comeback. (Though in some Catholic circles, it is considered dangerous.)

It’s now widely known as centering prayer, though it was originally referred to as contemplative prayer. While its origin may date back to early days of the church, religious scholars point to the 14th century as the seminal point of this spiritual invocation. It was then that an unknown Catholic mystic wrote a book called The Cloud of Unknowing that set the foundation for this practice. It included guidance like this:

This is what you are to do: lift up your heart to the Lord, with a gentle stirring of love desiring him for his own sake and not his gifts. Center all your attention and desire on him and let this be the sole concern of your mind and heart.

So why did contemplative prayer fall out of favor for so long? According to Father Thomas Keating, one of the great modern proponents of centering prayer, “a negative attitude prevailed with growing intensity from the 16th century onward” when the Inquisition began to expand and the practice was deemed heretical.

But when the church began to lose members to Eastern philosophies and the lure of meditation in the 1960s and ‘70s, a small band of renegades on the fringes of the church began reintroducing the idea of contemplative prayer. They were inspired by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton who wrote “the simplest way to come into contact with the living God is to go to one’s center and from there pass into God”. So the practice became known as centering prayer.

So what is centering prayer and how does it work? 

Essentially, it’s a prayer without words, or more accurately a prayer with a single word. Its aim is to help you establish a deeper relationship with God (or for some practitioners, Jesus) to the point that God becomes a living reality in your life, available to you at all times.

Thomas Keating explains the powerful effect of centering prayer this way:
It is the opening of the mind and heart—our whole being—to God, the ultimate mystery, beyond thoughts, words, and emotions. Through grace, we open our awareness to God whom we know by faith is within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking…closer than consciousness itself.

I have written previously about an excellent book on the subject titled The Path of Centering Prayer by David Frenette. The author describes the practice as “a state beyond walking, sleeping or dreaming.” With help from his writings, I’ve developed a six-point “how to” guide on centering prayer.

  1. Choose a one-or two-syllable sacred word such as God, Jesus, amen, love, peace, stillness, faith or trust.
  2. Sit comfortably and with your eyes closed. Silently introduce the word as the symbol of your consent to allow God’s presence within you.
  3. Repeat the word over and over, moving deeper and deeper within your self.
  4. As in meditation, if your mind wanders or becomes aware of anything else, gently return to the word.
  5. Rest in God “as if you put your head back down on the pillow after waking”. Sense the presence of God within you.
  6. As your prayer ends, let go of the sacred word and rest your mind for a minute or two before going about your business.

As with most things you want to be proficient at, the key to success in centering prayer is practice, practice, practice. Another modern day expert on the subject, M. Basil Pennington, recommends two 20-minutes sessions a day. “The first in the morning, introduces into our day a good rhythm…the second, after 8-10 hours of fruitful activity, is a period of renewal to carry us through.”

The next step: Praying without words.

Frenette writes that the next step is to engage in centering prayer without any words, to just rest and simply be in God. He says that the sacred word or symbol you use is really like a life preserver you might need when entering deep waters for the first time. He recommends that as you become better versed in centering prayer you “let go of the life preserver and just float”.

It’s easy to see the parallels between centering prayer and secular meditation, a subject I’ve written about before. But while the calming effect is much the same as meditation, there’s an added element in centering prayer. It’s the sense that in the vast nothingness within, there’s a presence, one that’s part of the soul but greater than the soul. And that presence is what many refer to as God.

This post previously appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, March 29, 2015.

A Look at Non-Stop Prayer—and a Very Doable Alternative.

prayer-150x150I’ve always been fascinated by the simple edict found at in the New Testament to “Pray without ceasing”. Perhaps because, I have several times come across people and religious groups that take this proclamation quite literally.

A few years ago, I read about a group of young Christian men, who began praying in their local church, morning, noon and night. They stopped only for food and bathroom breaks. As I recall, they had troubled pasts and were hoping their non-stop petitioning would make Jesus a constant presence in their lives, a companion in their every activity. I can find no trace of the story now but I imagine that after a few weeks, one-by-one, they grew weary of their endeavor and returned to the secular world with varying degrees of success.

Taking a slightly easier route to fulfilling Thessalonians 5:17 is the Salvation Army. At this moment, in locations around the globe, “Salvationists” are engaging in a year of “Boundless Prayer” that extends through July, 2015. The site informs us that it is a “24/7/365” effort that basically moves “from one territory to another” with the goal of getting “the whole world praying”1.

Looking at the Army’s calendar it appears each territory commits about a week to the cause. For instance, there is currently a non-stop prayer-athon happening in Iceland. It appears to be more of a tag-team approach, whereby prayer happens in small groups working in shifts, with replacements coming in as needed to keep the invocations going without pause.

So is it really possible to engage in non-stop prayer? I know from vast experience that it can be tough to focus on meditating, or engage in centering prayer, for a solid 20-minute stretch. But praying hour after hour, day after day?

Well, according to one Christian site, it’s not that difficult. There is an online group called “Got Questions Ministries” that talks to ceaseless praying and makes it sound relatively easy. It does this by linking prayer to each breath we take. According to their Web site:

For Christians, prayer should be like breathing. You do not have to think to breathe because the atmosphere exerts pressure on your lungs and essentially forces you to breathe. The fact is that every believer must be continually in the presence of God, constantly breathing in His truths.

For those of us who believe this is a little too much prayer, it may be easier to follow the lead of the yogini Sara Courter. On her blog Body Karma, Courter makes the notion of on-going prayer sound a lot more doable by advising us to find triggers throughout the day that remind us to give a quick blessing.

For instance, Courter mentions passing through a doorway or stopping at a traffic light as possible prayer cues. I would also suggest passing along a silent blessing with each new human encounter you have, or, if you’re a coffee or tea drinker, saying a prayer at the start of each new cup.

The cues make it easier to remember to quickly pray or give a blessing and can be worked into our everyday lives, as opposed to ceaseless praying where prayer is our life.

The good thing about this approach is there’s no planning needed, unlike a life where ceaseless prayer becomes your raison d’être. And it’s a task that, with a little practice, can easily be mastered. In Courter’s (lightly edited) words:

If you wake up one day and decide to start blessing every doorway you pass through, or deciding to say a prayer of gratitude at every red light you hit during your commute…it will take an adjustment period. But, in time, the act will become an art. The new habit awkwardness will steady into skillful execution. There will be a grace and fluidity about it, because you will have become it. No longer will you have to think before blessing each doorway, no longer will there be an “oh yeah,” before giving thanks at a stoplight.

And, best of all, you can start engaging in this practice today.

This post originally appeared on my Patheos Wake Up Call column, February 2, 2015.

You’re spiritual, your job is not. So how do you cope?

hide_face-150x150Are you a fellow participant in the rat race? If you’re like me, and regularly work 40-plus hour weeks in a high-stress environment, you know how hard it can be to keep your spiritual bearings intact. It can often seem like the working world and the spiritual world are at opposite ends of the life spectrum.

So how do you maintain a spiritual focus, when the stresses of the secular world come knocking on your cubicle? Is there a way to stay centered and at peace, even when those around you are in states of work-induced irritability and angst?

Advice from the Front Lines.

Like anything else you want to be good at in life, the key is preparation and practice. That starts with having a daily spiritual routine as part of your regular schedule. It should be as integral to your mornings as taking a shower, brushing your teeth and having that first cup coffee (which itself can be part of your routine, more on that later).

Your prep-work should start upon awakening and can be tailored to what works best for you. For example, my personal workday routine involves the following steps:

  • Getting up early each morning and after some stretching, going for a 3-mile run (though any form of exercise will do)
  • Meditating for 10-15 minutes when I can, especially on days when I don’t have time to run
  • Engaging in some spiritual reading during my bus commute (when I drive to work, I use spiritual books on tape and podcasts)
  • Taking a few moments to engage in a prayer of gratitude, giving thanks for everyone and everything I am grateful for
  • Enjoying brief spiritual breaks throughout the day—slowing down and focusing on my breath and going on short walks as needed

When we think of our spiritual practice, we often see it as a passive activity, best done while sitting in a comfortable chair at home. But the fact is you can also engage in active contemplation. So for me, activities like morning runs and afternoon walks serve dual purposes, exercising the body while relaxing the mind.

More advice on maintaining an even keel throughout the day comes from Thomas Moore and his book A Religion of One’s Own. Moore recommends that we follow the lead of monks who “intensify the spiritual side of life by incorporating a number of relatively brief times for meditation and reflection during the day.” He advises us that:

Instead of just letting your days unfold spontaneously or being at the mercy of an inflexible, busy schedule, you might start up a few regular activities like mediation before breakfast, listening to music before lunch, being quiet after 10 p.m., eating simply in the morning and taking a quiet walk afterward, if only for five or ten minutes.

Moore even mentions one of my favorite soul-enriching activities: enjoying a cup of coffee in the early morning hours. Now to put this is context, it’s not about sipping a cup as you surf the Internet with the TV blaring in the background. It’s about getting up before the family, quieting the mind and becoming totally immersed in the moment as you sip your coffee.

But what if, for whatever reason, you’re not able to engage in daily exercise, and meditation just doesn’t cut it for you?

Try starting the day with centering prayer. It’s essentially a prayer without words, or more accurately a prayer with a single word. Its aim is to help you establish a deeper relationship with the Divine, to the point that God becomes a living reality in your life, available to you at all times. With an assist from David Frenette and his book The Path of Centering Prayer, here’s a six-point “how to” guide:

THE SIX STEPS OF CENTERING PRAYER

  1. Choose a one- or two-syllable word such as God, Jesus, peace, love, stillness or faith. (I cheat and use three syllables that direct me to my ultimate goal: Rest in God.)
  2. Sit comfortably with your eyes closed. Silently introduce the word as the symbol of your consent to allow God’s presence.
  3. Repeat the word over and over, moving deeper and deeper within yourself.
  4. If the mind wanders, gently return to the word.
  5. Rest and simply be with God “as if you put your head back down on the pillow after waking.” Sense the presence of God within you.
  6. As your prayer ends, let go of the sacred word and rest your mind for a minute or two before going about your business.

I’ve read that it can take six months or longer to master centering prayer, but if you’re versed in meditation I think you’ll see the results much faster, perhaps immediately. Also, it’s important to note that as time goes on, Frenette recommends engaging in centering prayer without any words, to “let go of the life preserver and just float.”

And that’s what I now do. As this wonderful analogy suggests, I release the life preserver and float. I do this in the early morning before exercising, sipping coffee in the quiet of my home, while the family is still sleeping and only the cats are awake. Sipping. Centering. Feeling the presence of God. And I am better prepared for the workday ahead because of it.

This post previously appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, September 24, 2014.

Three prayers that can help you daily, starting today.

folded-hands174x174-150x150How often do you pray? I’ve always been fascinated by the Muslim religion and the fact its adherents pray five times a day, an act that serves as a constant reminder of the role God plays in their lives. Equally compelling are the devout Christians who take a particular Bible passage (1 Thessalonians 5:17) at face value and “pray ceaselessly”, though I imagine this would interfere with everyday life.

When I think about prayer in my own life, I quickly realize that I engage with it on a fairly regular basis. For me, praying has become an instinctual reflex—something I do throughout the day. I give thanks for the good in my life and the small blessings that pop up daily. I sometimes ask for guidance or patience or, on an especially tough day at work, pray for inner calm.

If prayer is something you only engage in at bedtime or when you’re in dire need, here are three times when you might consider prayer*.

#1. Praying when things are going well: the prayer of gratitude.

I’ve written about this before, but it’s so important I’ll gladly mention it again. The prayer of gratitude may be the single most powerful prayer there is and it’s one I use every day. It’s a simple prayer of thanks for all the abundance and good in your life, a thank you to God for all the things that makes life worth living, from your family members to a beautiful morning sunrise.

I was reminded of this prayer the other day while reading the Reshad Field autobiography The Last Barrier. In it, Field writes about his spiritual guide who stresses to him the importance of gratitude, telling him he should get up in the morning and go to bed at night giving thanks to God. He asks:

How many times a day to you remember to say thank you? You are completely dependent on God and it is to Him that all thanks are due. Until you can be truly grateful you will always be in separation from God.

And in a nutshell, that’s the reason for this prayer. It somehow seems to bring you closer to God, because by recognizing God in this way it makes the Divine a real presence in your life and can lead to even greater abundance.

PRAYER: Start with the words “God, I’m thankful for all the good in my life…” and from there you complete the thought, naming all the things you appreciate most on this day and in this life.

#2. Praying when you have to make a tough decision: requesting guidance.

Can God really help us make a difficult decision? I can tell you from experience, that seeking this guidance can’t hurt. It takes some of the weight off your shoulders when you remember there’s a greater source in the universe that can help guide you—and, in time, lead you to a decision with the best possible outcome.

My spiritual mentor John Templeton has written about prayer at length and says that “when we become very still and ask for guidance, we may be directed clearly and unmistakably, with a “yes” or “no”. But sometimes the best approach is to “release the answer to God and trust the flow of the divine to enter our lives”.

The key here is to give it time if we don’t find the answer you’re looking for right away. Patience is sometimes needed, so delay making a final decision until the answer has been revealed. Templeton reminds us that we are never alone in this process:

Sometimes, when our prayers seem to be unanswered in the manner we think they should, we may feel that we are not in tune with the timeless, unlimited universal creator called God. But nothing can be separate from God. Everything that touches you, everything that touches each individual in the universe, is a part of God.

PRAYER: “Dear God, I ask for your guidance in making this decision. Please lead me to the choice that is best for me, my family, and my mission in this life.”

#3. Praying when you’ve hit one of life’s potholes: asking for help.

I think that Emmet Fox got it right, when he suggested that whenever we find ourselves in a tough situation that we “stop thinking about the difficulty, and think about God instead.” By putting the focus on God, we take some of the pressure off ourselves.

Ask the question: What is the lesson I am to learn from this experience? And do your best to turn

Many times our thoughts are counterproductive when we’re in trouble—we just dont, so it makes sense to take a break from our struggles and ask for guidance. Again, John Templeton provides some sage advice:

Trials can help us grow and may come into our life to offer a greater realization of God’s presence and power. As we maintain trust and peace, our problems are more likely to be solved, and sometimes in a mysterious hour and sometimes even at the eleventh hour.

PRAYER: Dear Lord, I trust in your wisdom and know that there is something . I ask you to lead me through this difficult time to a better day.

A NOTE ON PRAYER: Explaining “how to pray” could be a column unto itself, but let me give you my definition. By prayer, I simply mean going into the silent place within ourselves and engaging with what John Templeton calls “something wise within us” or what Charles Fillmore referred to as the “the great stillness that pervades our whole being”.

This post previously appeared on my “Wake Up Call” column at Patheos, September 11, 2014.

You already know how to talk to God. Here’s how to listen.

listeningLet us be silent, and we may hear the whispers of the Gods. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

What do devotees of the Bhagavad Gita, Evangelical Christians and this humble blogger have in common? We all believe in the power of a direct and personal relationship with God.

For me, this personal relationship means that I start most mornings with a specific ritual. After rolling (or some days, hobbling) out of bed, I flick on the coffeemaker and begin stretching, followed by a cup of coffee, a 5-minute meditation session, more coffee and a three or four-mile run.

It’s at different points during this morning routine that I find and connect with the essence of God within. It literally gives me a feeling of warmth and love inside and gets me ready for the day ahead, hopefully to spread the compassion and good vibes I feel to everyone I encounter. Oh—and to borrow a phrase from a colleague, I have a conversation with God.

Now, this is not a traditional conversation, as it’s usually wordless and involves a lot more listening than talking. I simply ask for guidance in whatever single area of my life most needs it most. And while this may sound kooky to those less spiritually-inclined, I’m practicing a tradition that has been around for some time (see John 10:27) and recommended by some of the leading spiritual lights of our age.

One regular conversationalist with God was Ralph Trine, an early New Thought Movement leader. Trine believed there was a “divine inflow” that we all could tap into for guidance and advice on any life matter. In his great, forgotten classic In Tune with the Infinite, which early last century sold over two million copies, Trine wrote:

It is through your own soul that the voice of God speaks to you. This is the interior guide.

More recently, the modern-day poet and wise man Ivon Prefontaine explained it this way:

Regardless of faith and even when we do not have it, there still exists a source deep within each of us that when we touch it and let it speak to us is able to guide us in wonderful and amazing ways.

Perhaps our greatest American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, also believed there was a source of guidance available to us all called the “divine soul.” Emerson had his own way of communicating with this source, which he referred to as “lowly listening” (more on that later):

There is a soul at the center of nature and over the will of every man…we prosper when we accept its advice…we need only obey. There is guidance for each of us, and by lowly listening we shall hear the right word.

When it comes to talking and listening to God, I’ve distilled my personal process down to three steps—but by no means do I want to make this sound easy. It probably took me a decade or so to perfect the first step. Step two came much faster, as did step three though I know this can be a tricky one for a lot of people. Here goes:

1. Go to a place where you can quiet the mind and be still.

Unless you walk around in a perpetual state of Zen, this is a necessary first step. And as a Patheos reader, you probably already have a good idea what technique for quieting the mind works best for you. (If not, try this one.)

For me, I’m best able to quiet my mind by focusing on my breathing via meditation or by taking a brisk run along the river that lines my neighborhood. But there are many other ways to get there, as well. As Douglas Block points out in his book Listening to Your Inner Voice:

You can achieve this stillness through any process that relaxes you and slows down your thoughts—meditation, visualization, long walks, exercise, driving on a country road.

2. Engage in what Ralph Waldo Emerson refers to as “lowly listening.”

It’s pretty much what it sounds like. Once in a relaxed state, put your concern out to God. Then, while not trying too hard, “listen” within. Scholar and author Richard Geldard, who has written two books on Emerson’s philosophy, explains what happens during this lowly listening phase:

Solitude, stillness, reflection, judgement and understanding all come together to guide us.

Emerson discussed the process of lowly listening is in one of a series of essays titled Spiritual Laws. He wrote:

Place yourself in the middle of the stream of power and wisdom which flows into you as life, place yourself in the full center of that flood, then you are without effort impelled to truth, to right, and a perfect contentment.

The key is listening. As author Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee points out in his thought-provoking book Prayer of the Heart in Christian and Sufi Mysticism
:

Learning to pray is learning to listen. Within the heart we learn to wait with patience for God’s words, which may come even when we have not asked.

3. Separate the word of God from the voice of the ego.

A friend once told me that she hears lots of words in her head, the problem is figuring which are the right ones. And maybe that’s the hard part. But once you’re able to tune in to the “soul at the center of nature” as Emerson calls it, you’ll find there’s a single, authentic voice there.

When I say voice, it doesn’t always come through in words (though it can), but usually in the form of a deep-seeded intuition. One moment you’re questioning the correct next step at work, at home, in love or in your life. The next moment (or day) you know the answer with some certainty.

The one important part is learning to separate the false voice of the ego with the true voice of the soul and God. Vaughan-Lee advises that
:

Such listening requires both attentiveness and discrimination, as it is not always easy to discriminate between the voice of the ego and the voice of our Beloved. But there is a distinct difference: the words of the ego and mind belong to duality; the words of the heart carry the imprint of oneness. In the heart there is no argument, no you and me, just an unfolding oneness.

What’s the importance of this morning conversation with God? I believe it’s invaluable and can help ready you for the day ahead or even help you find solace in the middle or end of the day. Again, in the words of Ralph Trine:

The little time spent in the quiet each day, alone with one’s God,that we may make and keep our connection with the Infinite source—our source and our life—will be a boon to any life. It will prove, if we are faithful, to be the most priceless possession that we have.

This story appeared May 1, 2014, on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos.

How to be more spiritual in 2013 in 60 seconds a day.

prayer-300x225-150x150We all start the new year with grand plans. We’re going to get in shape. We’re going to spend more time with the family. We’re going to finally quit <insert your personal vice here>. Some of us will even succeed!

But occasionally our best laid plans can bump into a harsh reality. We just don’t have the time, the ability or the will to meet our resolutions in spite of our very best intentions.

So I’m going to recommend you add a new resolution to the mix, one that’s easy to keep. It’s something you can do every single day and it can do you a world of good. Best of all, it only takes 60 or so seconds. It’s a simple prayer of thanks to the Divine and it starts like this:

“I give thanks for the abundance of good in my life.

I am thankful for….”

You take it from there. You can show gratitude for the beautiful sunlit morning. Or your beautiful family. You can be thankful for your wonderful friends. Your health. The roof over your head. Your dog or cat. Anyone and everyone you now love—or have ever loved.

You can partake in this satisfying pursuit just about anywhere. Do it while you’re still in bed as soon as the alarm clock goes off. Over your first cup of hot coffee or tea. Or during your morning commute or first minutes at work.

The benefits of giving daily thanks and praise are great.

It’s amazing how much good can come from such a small amount of effort. When you begin giving thanks each morning, you’ll see the benefits almost immediately. Not only do you feel better about yourself, you’re helping to enhance your personal spiritual growth. You find yourself becoming an active participant with a powerful force that is already active in your life.

You’ll also open up your world to additional blessings. As the great sage John Templeton once said “the more we are grateful for what we have, the more will be given to us.” Because, as with love, the best way to receive a blessing is to give it. And with this simple prayer, we invite all types of good things to happen to us. Again from the writings of Templeton:

Gratitude can be a powerful magnet that attracts increasing blessings to us—love, joy, opportunity, health, friends, material good…as we appreciate every blessing, life will open up to us in new and wondrous ways.

I wish you the best, and most wondrous, of new years.

This post previously appeared on Patheos, January 4, 2012.

How a 700-Year Old Prayer Can Help You Find God.

256px-Bernardino_Butinone_-_Madonna_in_Prayer_-_Walters_37539-250x346Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? ~1 Corinthians 3:16

What do you do when your ordinary prayers stop working? When your praying stops bringing you comfort? When it feels like you’re talking into a void and you’re not getting any closer to God?

Well, a very long time ago a group of Catholic mystics had an answer, one that the Catholic church purged from its faith for centuries—but that in the past few decades has made a comeback. It’s known as centering prayer though it was originally referred to as contemplative prayer.

While its origin may date back to early days of the church, some religious scholars point to the 14th century as the seminal point of contemplative prayer. It was then that an unknown Christian mystic wrote a book called The Cloud of Unknowing that set the foundation for centering prayer. It included advice like this:

This is what you are to do: lift up your heart to the Lord, with a gentle stirring of love desiring him for his own sake and not his gifts. Center all your attention and desire on him and let this be the sole concern of your mind and heart.

Contemplative prayer would fall out of favor and remain that way for about 700 years. What happened? Well, according to Father Thomas Keating, one of the great modern proponents of centering prayer, “a negative attitude prevailed with growing intensity from the 16th century onward” due to the Reformation and the long and brutal period known as The Inquisition.

But when the church began to lose members to Eastern philosophies and the lure of meditation in the 1960s and ‘70s, a small band of renegades on the fringes of the church began reintroducing the idea of contemplative prayer. They were inspired by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton who wrote “the simplest way to come into contact with the living God is to go to one’s center and from there pass into God”. So they began calling it centering prayer.

So what is centering prayer and how does it work?

Essentially, it’s a prayer without words, or more accurately a prayer with a single word. Its aim is to help you establish a deeper relationship with God (or for some practitioners, Jesus) to the point that God becomes a living reality in your life, available to you at all times.

Thomas Keating explains the powerful effect of centering prayer this way:

It is the opening of the mind and heart—our whole being—to God, the ultimate mystery, beyond thoughts, words, and emotions. Through grace, we open our awareness to God whom we know by faith is within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking…closer than consciousness itself.

I’ve been reading an excellent new book on the subject titled The Path of Centering Prayer by David Frenette who describes it as “a state beyond walking, sleeping or dreaming.” With help from his writings, I’ve developed a six-point “how to” guide on centering prayer:

  1. Choose a one-or two-syllable sacred word such as God, Jesus, amen, love, peace, stillness, faith or trust*.
  2. Sit comfortably and with your eyes closed. Silently introduce the word as the symbol of your consent to allow God’s presence within you.
  3. Repeat the word over and over, moving deeper and deeper within your self.
  4. As in meditation, if your mind wanders or becomes aware of anything else, gently return to the word.
  5. Rest in God “as if you put your head back down on the pillow after waking”. Sense the presence of God within you.
  6. As your prayer ends, let go of the sacred word and rest your mind for a minute or two before going about your business.

*Note: I cheat and use three syllables that help direct me to the ultimate goal: Rest in God.

As with most things you want to get good at, the key to success in centering prayer is practice, practice, practice. Another modern day expert on the subject, M. Basil Pennington, recommends two 20-minutes sessions a day. “The first in the morning, introduces into our day a good rhythm…the second, after 8-10 hours of fruitful activity, is a period of renewal to carry us through.”

As far as results go, Pennington points out that St. Teresa of Avila taught that those who were faithful to contemplative prayer could expect in a relatively short time—six months to a year—to achieve a state where the divine presence could be sensed within.

The next step: Praying without words.

Frenette writes that the next step is to engage in centering prayer without any words, to just rest and simply be in God. He says that the sacred word or symbol you use is really like a life preserver you might need when entering deep waters for the first time. He recommends that as you become better versed in centering prayer you “let go of the life preserver and just float”.

It’s easy to see the parallels between centering prayer and secular meditation, a subject I’ve written about before. For one thing, simply observing your breathing can also serve as a symbol of your consent to God’s presence. But while the calming effect is much the same as meditation, there’s an added element in centering prayer. It’s the sense that in the vast nothingness within, there’s a presence, one that’s part of the soul but greater than the soul.

You can label this presence what you wish, for me it’s God. Which brings me to a closing thought from Benedictine abbot Dom John Chapman:

When we realize that God is not only in every external event, but in every internal event…we realize that, at every moment of our life, we are in touch with God.

Surviving Sandy: Prayer, an angel and my black Buddha.

The roller coaster that was once on Funtown Pier.

You’ll be reading this post several days after I wrote it, when I again have an Internet connection. I live in an area of the Jersey Shore that was hard hit by the so-called Super Storm Sandy. We have spotty cell service and no power and none is expected for many more days.

I live a few miles from the ocean-front town of Seaside Heights, a place I spent every summer during my youth and young adult life. The town I knew is now only a memory, its boardwalk and many of its homes now rubble, its Funtown Pier roller coaster sits in the ocean.

I am fortunate enough to live a few miles inland, though it was a close call. The placid river that lines my neighborhood came to life the night the storm hit. It roared into several of my neighbors’ homes and crept up my driveway, stopping just short of the house. For two days we lived on a small island, the two roads leading out of town chest-deep with water.

The scariest part of the storm was the wind. We stayed in the basement as it roared with 80-mph gusts for 24-hours straight, afraid it would take down one of the big trees around my home—especially an ancient 60-ft scrub pine that sits right in front of it, leaning ever so slightly toward the front door.

Yet, through it all, I was only mildly worried. I prayed long and hard before the storm came and, maybe it’s my own optimistic nature, but I had faith we would be alright. We also took some extra precautionary steps that you might call spiritual or superstitious or worshipping false idols, depending on your perspective.

The day before the storm hit, I had a short talk with the big pine. I admit I was little self-conscious as I put my hand on its trunk and prayed for its survival. I also made it a promise. If it pulled through the onslaught of Sandy, I would not cut it down (even though our “tree guy” had suggested it several months earlier).

On that same day we also cleaned our lawn and deck of its outdoor furniture and the many ornaments that adorn it, that is, all except two. My wife wanted to keep a small ornamental angel under a bush near the house to watch over us.

My black Buddha.

My choice for a good luck charm was the foot-high black Buddha that sits near my lower level door. I’ve written about this Buddha previously and how it mysteriously turned from a dull gray to black one day. He has had his share of mishaps over the years and I’ve had to glue his broken body back together a few times. As I mentioned in that post:

Once, during a vicious wind and rain storm, a massive branch from a tall oak snapped and landed on the stone bench where he sits. It toppled and cracked the bench top, propelling my Buddha five feet from his perch. He emerged mostly unscathed, except for a few cracks by his feet.

During Sandy, he sat right in the line of fire facing the strongest winds of the storm. And though she was able to toss a small boat into the middle of my street, my Buddha did not budge. He came through just fine, covered by a bit of debris, but looking as calm and serene as ever.

A little over a week later, we have a Nor’easter coming our way. I again will pray for my family and home, for my friends and neighbors and their homes. I’ll have another talk with the tall pine. And you can bet the small white angel and black Buddha will not be going anywhere. They helped guide us through Sandy and I plan on leaning on them, and God, again.

This post originally appeared on my Patheos blog column Wake Up Call, November 6, 2012.