Many of these practices are hundreds of years old, but as Claire Musters discovered, they've huge relevance for Christians today
I grew up in a variety of lively evangelical churches and so, over the years, rarely engaged in the traditional spiritual practices. And yet, as life has grown more hectic, I’ve felt God talking to me about learning how to rest and slow down. In doing this I’ve discovered new ways to connect with him, particularly over the last year.
Finding an antidote to busyness has been a popular subject for writers in recent years, which is no surprise given our ever-faster-paced culture. Everyone is different, but for the Christian who finds their walk with God has ground to a halt, or their prayer life has turned dry, these spiritual practices may prove helpful:
1. A word for the year
At the start of 2017 I felt God say he wanted me to focus on one word in the coming year. In my case, the word was ‘humility’. It’s a word which has stretched and challenged me, and there have certainly been times when I wished God hadn’t given it to me!
I have found myself in situations where I’ve felt the need to ‘fight my corner’, and God has simply whispered ‘humility’, stopping me in my tracks. Rather than going off all guns blazing, I’ve taken time to slow down and pray. Peace has come much more quickly as a result, and I’ve found the overwhelming desire to react has disappeared.
Choosing a word
While simply praying and asking God for a word is one approach, the book My One Word by Michael W Ashcraft and Rachel Olsen (Zondervan) provides a clear guide on how to choose a word for the year. It suggests that rather than having a huge list of New Year resolutions, it’s better to pick one word that “centres on your character and creates a vision for your future”. The book takes you through the process of how to narrow down everything you want to achieve into that one word. James Prescott, author and podcaster, has used the book in his small group and says: “My One Word has been revolutionary both for myself, my home group and church community. Choosing one word for the year, as an individual and community, helps bring focus to your spiritual journey as well as the areas you really need to grow. It’s been so effective that our church is going through it again in 2018.”
This one word has impacted my marriage in particular. Being humble means being more generous too, and there have been moments when the word has dropped into my head and changed my behaviour towards my husband and others around me. It has been hardest with the people in my life that I find quite difficult, and yet God has still told me to interact with them with humility. This one word has certainly caused me to grow in a different way this year, and I will be asking God for a new word for 2018.
2. One-phrase prayers
I have discovered a range of different approaches that utilise simple prayers made up of one short phrase. For example, the small group I belong to was encouraged to pray these two simple phrases at different points: “Order my day” and “What’s the one thing?” For someone prone to self- sufficiency, the simple act of praying “order my day” reminds me that God is in charge of my life. As I pray I sometimes visualise taking my hands off the steering wheel and allowing God to sit in the driver’s seat.
I’ve also found offering up my daily ‘to-do’ list to God, and asking, “What’s the one thing you want me to focus on today?” helps me to lay all those things I might think are important before him, actively seeking what his priority is for my day. I have seen him open up some unexpected opportunities to help others that I believe I would have missed otherwise.
Another way of using simple phrases is found within contemplative prayer, an ancient way of resting in God in order to experience him more fully. The Desert Fathers practised and taught it, and there have been forms of such prayers throughout history – many of which have their roots in monastic traditions.
Influential author and retreat leader Joyce Huggett passed away in 2017. I was sent the reissue of her classic Listening to God (Hodder & Stoughton) and was drawn to the contemplative prayers that she talked about. She recommended Jim Borst’s Coming to God in the Stillness (Eagle Publishing), and it was through reading this that I began using short phrases made up of just a couple of words in order to let go of tension, quieten my mind and become more aware of God’s presence. One suggestion was to say the word ‘Be’ on an in-breath and ‘Still’ on the out-breath. This phrase can then be replaced with ‘Come’, ‘Rest’.
There are twelve steps in this particular guide to contemplative prayer, but I often lingered on the first few at the start of the day. Having always been taught that we can speak to God whenever we want to, and however we want to (which is an amazing truth), slowing down and deliberately keeping my prayers to a couple of words was certainly a new experience, but helped me to relax and feel open to God.
3. The daily examen
It was reading the Sensible Shoes (IVP) fiction series that compelled me to try some other spiritual disciplines for the first time. Written by Sharon Garlough Brown, the series tells the story of four women who attend the same spiritual formation group at a retreat centre. Sharon is a spiritual director herself, and manages to weave into the women’s stories ways to connect with God deeply during everyday life. As the women are introduced to new spiritual practices by their course facilitator, so too is the reader, as Sharon provides instructions for each one. It was in her books that I first discovered the Daily Examen.
Utilising simple prayers
In Matthew 11:29–30 Jesus says: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” It is very easy to use one-phrase prayers as part of our daily routine, and they can help to shift our perspectives so we are expectant to learn from Jesus and see his hand at work in a practical way in our daily lives:
On waking, or just before starting work, simply pray: “God, please order my day.” Then take time to be aware of how God is shaping what happens during the day.
Whether offering up this prayer with a list of jobs to do in front of us, or simply upon waking up, asking, “What’s the one thing you want me to do today?” helps us listen to God and seek his will for our day.
For those interested in learning more about contemplative prayer, Jim Borst, author of Coming to God in the Stillness breaks it down into twelve steps, from silence through to forgiveness and intercession. The steps can be used in succession, or one or two focused on each day. I found the emphasis on relaxation and being more aware of God’s presence particularly helpful.
Ignatius of Loyola developed the Daily Examen in the 16th century. He firmly believed it was a gift from God to be utilised twice daily (at noon and at the end of the day). It focuses on prayerfully reflecting on the day’s events to discern God’s presence and his will for our daily lives.
As someone who usually sets aside time with God in the morning, it was interesting to switch to the end of the day, looking back over its events. I was particularly intrigued by a quote from the character (and course leader), Katharine: “Pay attention to your strong reactions and feelings, both positive and negative. The Spirit speaks through both.”
4. Using the daily examen
The Examen can be viewed as a way of sitting with Jesus to talk through what happened during the day. It is about slowing down to pay attention to the details of our lives, which we might otherwise overlook, so it can be helpful to visualise snapshots of our past day in our minds. 1. Be still and become aware of God’s presence Ask the Holy Spirit for guidance and begin looking back over the day. It can be useful to clarify times of being particularly aware of his presence. Were there any times when he seemed absent? 2. Review the day with gratitude Thank God for any of the special gifts he provided, looking out for the smallest details such as interactions with friends, food and nature. 3. Pay attention to emotions We can detect the presence of God in our emotions, so it can be helpful to think about when we felt most alive and energised, and when we felt drained or anxious. Were there times when we resisted God? Why? God may bring to mind things that need confession and, once we have done that, we can receive his grace and forgiveness. 5. Concentrate on one feature of the day There may be something that seems to be particularly highlighted – perhaps because God wants to teach us something. It could be positive or negative; the important thing is to stay with it, and pray as God leads. 6. Look forward to tomorrow We can take the lessons from one day into the next, bearing in mind how we have responded and worked with the Holy Spirit today. If there are any challenges we know we will face tomorrow, we can prayerfully bring them before God before asking for hope and a sense of his love.
4. Cultivating thankfulness
I was first challenged in this area by a friend leading a session in a parent/ toddler group I attended when my son was younger. I found it useful then, particularly when I was struggling with postnatal depression, as I often awoke with a feeling of hopelessness. Having the goal of thanking God for the day as soon as I woke up helped to shift my perspective, even though it was difficult at times. The challenge also included thinking of five different things to be thankful to God for daily. I couldn’t always think of five, but didn’t get hung up on that – the point is, it helped me to remember to thank God and gave me much more of an awareness of his hand of grace.
Incorporating thankfulness into each day
On waking, we can thank God for our breath, for those close to us and for the chance to serve him for another day.
At the end of each day, thank God for the way he has revealed his love and care.
Before going to bed each night, write in a journal five reasons to thank God.
Ann Voskamp’s book One Thousand Gifts (Zondervan) focuses on slowing down and embracing a life of grace, thanksgiving and joy, whatever our circumstances. She shares how her own journey through a daily practice of intentionally giving thanks transformed even the most broken parts of her life. She has also written a companion guide, One Thousand Gifts Devotional (Zondervan), which provides 60 devotionals and leaves space for the reader to journal.
As the years have passed, this is something I haven’t kept up religiously, but I do go back to it every so often. Earlier in 2017 I realised that my attitude wasn’t as positive as it had been. I was busy writing a book, and was grateful for the time I had to do so, but I was beginning to get anxious about the fact that I hadn’t had much paid work, as the lack of income weighed heavily on my mind. I found that taking the time to intentionally thank God for what he was doing in my everyday life shifted my focus off the ‘what ifs’, and made me more grateful, and generally more at peace as a result. (Now that work is busy again I look back at that period with great thankfulness – that I had the time and space to write without distraction, and God supplied all our family’s needs even when I wasn’t earning much.)
5. Lectio Divina
Lectio Divina is a Latin term meaning ‘divine reading’. It is a traditional way of reading scripture, giving time and space to really connect with it. In the twelfth century, the Carthusian monk Guigo II formalised the approach into four steps: read, meditate, pray and contemplate. The emphasis is on lingering over a passage and allowing it to affect us. It isn’t about theological study; rather it is about encountering Jesus and allowing him to speak directly to us. Sharon Brown explains why Lectio Divina is still useful for us in modern-day society:
“Many people study the Bible without ever being shaped by the text. When we come to the Word with our own agenda, we put ourselves in the position of control. We may look for what we get out of it rather than ever allowing the Word to get into us. We so easily forget that reading the Word of God is meant to be a supernatural act of cooperating with the Holy Spirit. We’re meant to be listening to the Word with the ears of the heart.”
I run a women’s book study group in our church, and we are currently working through the first book in the Sensible Shoes series. Each week, there is a passage given for Lectio Divina, and so we now start each of our meetings in this way. None of us had done it before – we found it a little strange and uncomfortable to begin with, as it was suggested that we simply sit in silence as one person read the passage out.
Then another person would read it again, and finally a third. During this time we were encouraged to focus on the one word or phrase that spoke to us as individuals – and then take some time to journal about that before coming back together to share our experiences.
Utilising Lectio Divina
Pick a portion of scripture then use the following steps:
1. Read: Take time to slowly read the verses more than once, paying attention as to whether a particular verse or phrase jumps out.
2. Meditate: Keep reading the passage, focusing particularly on the phrase. Rather than analysing its meaning, ask Jesus what he wants to say through it.
3. Pray: Offer up all feelings and responses to God in prayer. Ask Jesus for guidance on how to pray as necessary. Journalling can be helpful too. Be open to any changes God may be instigating.
4. Contemplation: After a final read-through, sit before God in silence. The emphasis is on ‘being’ rather than doing.
It was when we fed back to one another that we discovered that whether our group was as small as three or as large as ten, very rarely did any of us have the same phrase – even if it was a fairly short passage. It was wonderful to be reminded of the richness found within scripture and how God has a personal message for each one of us.