Take Up Your Cross, Daily: An Encouragement to Daily Spiritual Practice

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God calls us to worship Him in Spirit and in Truth (John 4:23). This means that words and acts of our own choosing do not constitute acceptable worship, and do not bring us closer to God, unless God Himself is guiding us. Our innate moral sense tells us that this is as it should be, or else the unrepentant might win divine favor, with hearts still in unhealed bondage to error, merely by mouthing the right formula. Frail and ignorant as we are, we’re prone to indulge ourselves in things not good for us, assign ourselves vain penances that hope but fail to erase shame and guilt, and pray to false gods with the wrong part of our soul. It’s wisest to put ourselves in the hands of the heavenly Physician who knows what prayer, practice or correction best suits the state of our heart. “Pray without ceasing,” Paul counseled us (1 Thessalonians 5:17), but also “we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26) This paradox, that we ought to be in worship constantly, but don’t know how to do it without God’s guidance (which may change course from moment to moment, and be different for different worshippers) is the very basis of Friends’ waiting worship and their historical rejection of other denominations’ customary “forms without life.”

On this same principle, only God can tell us how often we should set aside time to give ourselves over to a spiritual activity He’s chosen for us. It’s one thing to float through each day’s activities in a mild, pious haze, “praying without ceasing” in a general sort of way, smiling to ourselves over how nicely we’ve lived up to the Yearly Meeting’s Advices and Queries. It is another to bring our will and attention to a sharp point at regular intervals, and put all of ourselves at the disposal of the Divine as we understand It. This bringing to a point may be a small, split-second thing, as when recovering alcoholics wake in the morning and resolve to spend the next twenty-four hours sober. It may involve short verbal utterances like “increase our faith” or “heal me, Lord” or “there is no god but God.” It might be purely nonverbal, like a sending of blessings in the six directions, or prostration, or a few minutes’ exercise in bare mindfulness. It may be a fixing of intention to speak and think about God, and our covenant with Him, “as we walk by the way” (Deuteronomy 6:7), or to call repeatedly on His name (Psalm 91:15). But I could not guess what God would call you to do. My own daily practice, given to me at my request, is to say the Lord’s Prayer every morning, slowly and thoughtfully. For others, it may be something shorter – or longer. And, under God’s ongoing guidance, one’s daily assignment may change or expand over time.

Is God calling you to a daily spiritual practice? Ask Him – or “Her,” or “It,” if those pronouns strike you as more fitting for the One who created you; and God will answer you.

Did you formerly have a daily practice that you fell away from and never went back to? Is that because the Holy Spirit did not support your continuing with it, or because you let yourself be discouraged? Do you discern that God wishes you to resume it? Might you need the support of a group of friends?

Committees of Ministry and Worship, or Ministry and Counsel, may wish to consider whether they are called to encourage the adoption of daily spiritual practices, and the shared discussion of daily-practice experiences and problems, among members of their meetings.

I’m passionate about this. I long wished for a daily practice that I knew was right for me and that I could keep to. I’d tried other things, but they’d fallen away from me. Eventually I read an extraordinarily good book, Turning Suffering Inside Out: A Zen Approach to Living with Physical and Emotional Pain (Shambhala, 2002), by Darlene Cohen, a Zen priest, which she ends by suggesting to the reader that one be one’s own Zen master, so to speak, and pose a koan for oneself. The koan I posed was: why can’t I keep to one daily practice? And within days I knew that my daily practice was simply to say the Lord’s Prayer. I knew it was a calling, not a whim, the day I omitted it and soon felt the Lord’s gentle rebuke.
 
Daily practice makes me rich. I see spiritual poverty all around me, and I want my friends and neighbors to be rich, too. And this costs nothing.

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6 Responses to “Take Up Your Cross, Daily: An Encouragement to Daily Spiritual Practice”

  1. forrest curo Says:

    Why I find Erich Schiffmann’s yoga book more quakerish than most overtly “Quaker” books I’ve read… He talks about doing Hatha yoga as the sort of spiritual practice you’re talking about here, about using it as “a sacrament” (though he doesn’t use the word) in the sense of letting yoga practice be an occasion for God to guide a person in what to do and how to do it.

    What we naturally try to do, as “rational” creatures, is to establish rules and habits that keep us from needing to ask “What now, Boss?” But then these things, otherwise desirable in themselves, become idols to us. As you say here, we feel smug about following them and disheartened if we fall away (or are lifted free) from them. And we start expecting them to accomplish things that require our continuing intention and God’s help in maintaining it.

    The Lord’s prayer is a good one, because it implies some attention to “thy will”, some effort to inquire what that will might be for us, specifically, each specific time.

  2. John Edminster Says:

    Thank you for this, Friend Forrest. I’ve grown to like this daily exercise, this bath in a stream that I have to climb down a bank and bend down low to get into, because it so relaxes me when I can abandon my own will. If there’s ever a time of day when I can turn in my old selfish heart and get a new, innocent one, it comes when I say “thy kingdom come; thy will be done.”

    The autopsy on the old, selfish heart is sometimes interesting. It’s as though the Lord were beckoning me over to say “look at this trespass. Do you see why you did it?” not as a stern schoolmaster would, but like a friend sharing an exciting discovery.

  3. Carol Says:

    John, I’m struck by your phrase “the wrong part of our soul.” What does that mean? What parts do you understand our souls to have? (Drawings allowed.)

  4. John Edminster Says:

    Carol, this is such a good question (like so many of yours) that it has to come from the right part of your soul! But now I have to come up with an answer that doesn’t come from the wrong part of mine! But I feel helped along by your prayers, which are for wisdom, and not for my stumbling, and so I dare to crawl into this dark cave of my own ignorance to see what it was that I was trying to mean by writing, “Frail and ignorant as we are, we’re prone to indulge ourselves in things not good for us, assign ourselves vain penances that hope but fail to erase shame and guilt, and pray to false gods with the wrong part of our soul.” (“The wrong part of our soul” is a phrase I adopted from Elizabeth, who used it to refer to a person in her life who used to “repent with the wrong part of his soul,” unconvincingly, self-deceptively and without fruit.)

    In writing that sentence I was thinking, of course, of my own lifetime of experience: of all the times I’d wished, seemingly “with all my heart,” that So-and-so would sleep with me and fall in love with me, and so bring me undying happiness; or that I would get my sweet revenge upon So-and-so, and make him grovel before me in utter humiliation; or that I could magically erase the past, and never have done or said such-and-such. These are among the prayers *I’ve* made with the wrong part of my soul. But to frame a conceptual structure around such misdirected yearnings, I turn to Scripture. In case some of our readers are tired of hearing me cite from the Bible, today I’ll start with the Bhagavad-Gita. Christians, Jews and Muslims may be offended by my treating as Scripture a book in which God speaks through a human incarnation, or, for Christians, a human incarnation who is not identifiable as Jesus of Nazareth, but, as Jesus said, by their fruits ye shall know them, and I often recognize my Shepherd’s voice in the Bhagavad Gita:

    Chapter 17 of the Gita begins with Arjuna asking the Lord, “What is the status of those who sacrifice with faith while ignoring the scriptural commandments?” and the Lord answers by differentiating three kinds of faith, pure, “irritable” and “dull” (Bh.G. xvii.2, paralleled by three kinds of knowledge, work, and character, Bh.G. xviii.19 ff.). Faith, He says, defines the person: “What one’s faith is, that, verily, is he!” (Bh.G. xvii.3) Those of a pure nature will offer pure worship “to the gods,” (I, John, of course, am called to monotheistic worship and cannot take this literally), while those of an “irritable” nature tend to worship demons and those of a “dull” nature, ghosts (xvii.4). Those driven by lust and greed, under the bondage of hypocrisy and egoism, do terrible penances contrary to scripture, hurtful to the body and also tormenting to the Divine Witness within the person (xvii.5-6).

    Pure is the offering made in holy obedience, without thought of reward, simply because it’s right to do so (xvii.11, 14-17, 20, xviii.5-6, 9-11). “Irritable” is the offering, gift, or religious observance made with the expectation of praise, honor, or some such payoff (xvii.12, 18, 21) or abandoned because it’s found troublesome (xviii.8). “Dull” is the mere empty shell of an offering, gift, or religious observance, or one undertaken with intent to hurt, or some obligatory work abandoned, out of delusion, ignorance or obstinacy (xvii.13, 19, 22, xviii.7). All this pathology reminds me of Jesus’ prophecy that those who killed his followers would think that they did God service (John 16:2). It reminds me, too, of Mohammed Atta driving his hijacked plane into the World Trade Center, surely crying out “in the name of God!” with his last breath.

    What if I’m one of the “irritable” ones and don’t realize it? Or one of the “dull?” Or what if you, my reader, are? Is there any hope for us? Jesus noted that only a good tree might bear good fruit, and a corrupt tree could only produce corrupt fruit (Luke 6:43-45). Am I doomed to remain a corrupt tree? A tree certainly has no power to change the sort of tree it is.

    It is one of the greatest blessings I’ve ever experienced, that God, through Jesus Christ, has changed what sort of tree I am, and has shown me that He/She will continue to change me, for the asking, into something ever more beneficial to the creation around me. And even the asking to be changed is not from me. All I do is say “yes.” That, I think, is what prayer from the right part of our soul is like.

  5. Diane Says:

    Thank you for the exploration using the Gita … it often helps me understand scripture found in the Bible, and the gunas (worldly qualities) are a great way of reflecting on our personal behavior with some understanding of the underlying motivations. Funny how just looking at a sentence from your original blog has allowed me to explore it further. I love teasing out deeper meanings, such as the meaning of faith and knowledge. The line on praying to false gods with the wrong parts of the soul is quite a wonderful phrase. And as Forrest added, “But then these things, otherwise desirable in themselves, become idols to us” is a point well taken another. I think scripture can be focus akin to idolatry. There seems to me to be higher values, higher virtues, higher ideals to dwell in, and not to be distracted by ritual and even scripture, though they need to be nutured. But then Quakers like George Fox seem to cut right into the measure of the inner voice, and he yanked it from the Bible he knew so well.

    And what strikes me from the Gita, in addition to the verses you have brought forward is verse 6.32 on the value of meditation and its measure: “When a person responds to the joys and sorrows of others as if they were his own, he has attained the highest state of spiritual union.” This is part of seeing the unity of all the “Self in every creature and all creation in the Self.” To me, that selflessness is a true measure of discerning what is being said by the voice within. And anything that separates a person from that inner self is not a good thing, to me, and I cringe at the out-there focus in many messages I hear. So maybe understanding some levels of soul is instructive.

    Using universal concepts, no matter their source also helps point out the subtle distinctions in how we define things like soul and faith and knowledge. One strength of the Gita is the idea that faith is but part of the path, with sacrifice, self-discipline, knowledge and action. (Gita 6:39 re faith and discipline, Gita 17:27-28 re knowledge). Eknath Easwaran had talked about the meaning of faith, as that which is held in the heart (which reminds me of Biblical verse John 12.36), and how we come to know our condition.

    And I love the Gita verse 17.5-6 that you cited, about the focus of our lives (and our idolatries). I think going to the gods, not as an affront to monotheism, however. If not defining gods in Christian terms, but rather as the highest of ideals, or divine virtues, then I think the many versions of the divine as presented in the Gita becomes easier for the Western mind to cope with, since the whole range from manifested to the ultimate divine ground is found there. Wherever you meet it, it will kinda tell you where you are on the path. I don’t see the conflict in Hinduism as presented in the Gita with monotheism (and I rarely see the value in taking any scripture literally as you can probably tell).

    I think in terms not of souls, but of progressive states of self, Self, SELF. Faith defined as what your lifetime focus is, therefore, is what follows an eternal Self from life to life in terms of character, becoming part of that eternal Self, in contrast to the personality which fades life after life. Therein I see states of “soul,” as it relates to atma-buddhi-higher manas in Hinduism and Father-Spirit(Mother)-Son in Christianity. These are our eternal aspects, in contrast to lower (material) mind and manifestation, that personality that fades after a lifetime.

    As you brought forward, “by their fruits…,” it differs not a whit, to me, from the atma-buddhic principle or Christ-self, that which aligns the individual will to that of divine will, which is our core. The sattvic/pure tendency is selfless and wise, and it can be tested as you would any intuitive sense of what the Spirit is directing you toward. Discernment is what most of us are working on, I think, to allow reason to catch up to spiritual intuition.

    Wisdom of Solomon 7.13-16: “I learned diligently, and do communicate her [spirit of wisdom] liberally: I do not hide her riches. For she is a treasure unto men that never faileth: which they that use become the friends of God, being commended for the gifts that come from learning. …”

    And in the Gita 12.8, 12 are ways of feeding the better part of our selves: “Still your mind in me, still your intellect in me, and without doubt you will be united with me forever.” … “Better indeed is knowledge than mechanical practice. Better than knowledge is meditation. But better still is surrender to attachment of the results, because there follows immediate peace.”

    Since we are spirit born, we only need to drop our illusions and get out of the way, clear the fog or debris from the mirror that reflects the true universal divinity. That greatest of all things doesn’t change, but we change our perception or, really, apperception (which is more like fullness, comprehension or living the theory).

    How nicely described is the process of personal change in your message (>All I do is say “yes”<). Learning the subtleties of asking is a great Quaker gift, to my short experience among Friends. And yet I think there is much misunderstanding of grace and prayer, depending upon how we view humility (and even fear) and what we think has shaped our personal conditions. If a person has never wanted to fall down in prostration to something, how can that possibly be understood by another or measured, except by taking the storyline back a few steps to a more common ground of understanding. Bubbling over in enthusiasm is what I hear moreoften, not the effort at a more universal approach that I would prefer. So this is my lot, to figure out how to contribute without bubbling over myself (like I’m doing here!). I have not yet learned simplicity in writing.

    Quaker reliance on direct experience is well attuned to this universal approach that is open to where we are now and where we are headed , or so I think, especially because it counters an American religious culture that suffers greatly from guilt and abuse that seeks external assurances. From my reading of John 1.9, we were changed 2000+ years ago. And continual revelation, as expressed in Quakerism, helps us assimilate that change (and we, as humanity, are moving so so slow). We need to awaken and remember, which is a little different, don’t you think? The knower and the field (Gita Ch 13) is a useful tool to sort out the asking and the acceptance of grace. And maybe I have taken too strong a stand on freedom and confidence in oneself, when I clearly love the practice of asking on a daily basis.

    Seeing the fearlessness embodied in well-informed faith, seems to me as important a message as humility: “…he may strengthen you with power though his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts though faith.” (Eph 3.16-17) If faith is defined as knowledge, an intuitive knowledge, then it involves many levels of soul-development. Somewhere I recall Carl Jung said that spiritual intuition reaches out to us first, then follows reason. If so, our tools are imagination and strong search, as well as service and humility.

  6. Only God can tell us how often we should set aside time to give ourselves over to a spiritual activity He’s chosen for us. It’s one thing to float through each day’s activities in a mild, pious haze,… - The Quaker Ranter – The Quaker Ran Says:

    […] pious haze,… Jul 21st, 2009 by Martin Kelley. // nRelate.domain = "www.quakerranter.org"; //Among Friends John on daily spiritual practice /**/ Share this:EmailFacebookPosted in: misc. ← Theo warns off the cookie monster: A […]

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