THE THREE ESSENTIAL SKILLS
of the Christian Spiritual Life
I have come so that they may have life
and have it to the full.
(Jn 10 : 10)
Christian faith makes a statement which contradicts the most basic claim of the world. In our society, we are taught that we have to earn our worth, that we have to achieve and acquire in order to be significant. The vision of the Gospels completely contradicts this. It says that our worth is a given and that we are irreplaceable in the eyes of God simply as we are. Our significance is a given before God because God is found within us. Ralph Waldo Emerson put it in this way : “What lies behind us, and what lies before us, are small matters compared to what lies within us.”
As we go through life, we have to choose which of these two claims or values that we will believe in. If we believe in the claim of the world that we have to earn our worth, life is an unceasing struggle to acquire, to attain, to be acclaimed. This is existence but it is not life. For in the struggle of this existence, Wordsworth counsels that in “getting and spending we lay waste our powers”. The claim of the world admits no rest and we become exhausted. The world’s demands can never be satisfied and we become disillusioned. Yet, even in following this path, we are constantly prompted from within that we are restless for something which we cannot find from the world. We long for something beyond time. St. Augustine described our longing in this way : “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts will be restless till they rest in thee.”
In our youth, we are trained to succeed, to be acquisitive, to be successful. We are not educated in how to see ourselves as loved simply as we are or in how to express this love to others. This is the essence of the Christian vision. It is what is meant by Jesus when He says that He has come that we may have life to the fullest extent. (Jn 10:10)
To realise this vision we need to be continually educated by the Holy Spirit through the practice of three skills :-
Be still and know that I am God.
(Psalm 46 : 10)
To allow the Christian vision to take root in our lives, we have to first stop the unceasing clamour and agitation of the world. This prevents us from resting and being rooted in the deeper place within ourselves. Like the surface of a pond of water, to see the life of God within us, we need to be calmed if we are to see into our depth. We need to develop a practice that enables us to see within ourselves.
- Select a place in your home where you can sit or lie down and be still. Let this be your place to be alone with God. You may find a prayer stool helpful or a mat. Similarly, choose a religious image that you find attractive for this place and place a candle before it if you wish. Alternatively, you may practice this exercise when you are not distracted by others and by one of the many forms of media and communication, such as when travelling, or when you are facing a stressful situation, like beginning an examination or awaiting an interview.
- Allow your body to be as comfortable as possible. If you are seated, let your back be as upright as it can be while honouring the natural curvature of it. Become aware of all of your body and change your position so that it is not causing any ache or strain for you. The body must first be allowed to become relaxed and calmed.
- Become aware of your breath – cool air breathing in, warm air breathing out. Simply stay with your breath. Do not try to change it but just simply notice it.
- As this continues, become increasingly aware that you are not breathing, you are being breathed. The breath, the Spirit of God, the life force, is moving through you. Allow a word to emerge from within you that is in rhythm with each inhalation and exhalation, like the two syllables of the name of Jesus in Irish ‘Iosa’ or in Latin ‘Jesu’.
We can make our minds so like still water that beings gather about us that they may see, it may be, their own images, and so live for a moment with a clearer, perhaps even with a fiercer life because of our quiet. (W.B. Yeats)
The unreflected life is not worth living. All of us need to draw
away from our busy lives from time to time. We seek a space
where we can think about the meaning of life
and what really matters to us. (Socrates)
When one takes the time to practice being still, desires, thoughts of past experiences, emotions and insights will rise to the surface of one’s mind. It is then important to reflect upon what is emerging from within oneself because it is through this inner experience that God speaks to you.
- Find a journal that you can keep solely for the purpose of recording what emerges from within you when you are still.
- During a period of stillness, various thoughts, recollections and emotions may surface. After a while, however, one particular recollection, emotion or insight will become predominant. Allow what one is experiencing to simply rise to the surface and try to name and describe the experience in writing exactly as it is, without making any judgment about it. This noticing and naming of what is arising from within oneself is the essence of reflection.
- Once the practice of reflection takes place regularly, one will begin to notice two movements within oneself. One movement is of consolation when one recollects a good experience or has a feeling of confidence about the future that gives an inner sense of joy or happiness. The other movement is of desolation when one recollects an experience with anger, guilt or sorrow or has a sense of anxiety about the future.
- Becoming aware of these inner experiences of consolation and desolation and noting them down in writing is very important because it is through them that God communicates with each one of us. God prompts us from within ourselves into living a truly authentic life and to be the person that one truly is, that is to realize one’s unique vocation or divine purpose in life. God leads us in this way by helping us identify our deepest desire and emboldens us, through consolation, to follow and realise it.
The greatest sin for the Greeks was to be unaware of the inner eventfulness of your own life. (Carl Jung)
One is not born into the world to do everything
but to do something. (Henry David Thoreau)
The deepest desire of the human person is to allow one’s life to be in service of the will of God, to realise one’s unique vocation. George Bernard Shaw said that true joy in life is being used for a purpose recognised by yourself as a mighty one. The difficulty, however, is that the power of the world attracts us with all sorts of lesser desires and ambitions based upon the false belief that we have to earn our worth or significance in life. The purpose of reflection is to discern the will of God for one’s life, to realise one’s unique vocation, through discerning between the experiences of consolation and desolation that arise within oneself. The following principles are at the heart of discernment :-
- When we truly want to follow God’s will, the desire from God emerges within us gently and consistently over time and leaves an aftertaste of peace and joy. The desire that is not from God arises within us suddenly, is very powerfully attractive and leaves an aftertaste of anxiety and disturbance.
- When we do not want to follow God’s will but choose instead to meet the demands of the world, the desires within us move in the opposite way. When we are orientated away from God, the desire that is not from God is gentle and seductive. The movement of God within oneself (often referred to as one’s conscience) is disruptive and challenging as it tries to awaken oneself to how one’s life is moving in the wrong direction.
- Stay focused upon the deepest desire within oneself and will for the one thing. Being caught up in too many good aims will prevent you from realising the one thing that you alone are called to be and to do. Constantly ask what it is that you are called to be and do which will never be realised without you.
- Make no decision when you are in a state of desolation and always keep the end in mind. The one who perseveres to the end will be saved. (Mt. 24: 13)
God has created me to do him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another. I have my mission – I may never know it in this life, but I shall know it in the next. (John Henry Newman)