Practice, Teaching, Community
Have you ever received excellent advice that rang true immediately and stayed with you for years? In this post I share two examples of good advice I received, once 20 years ago and once very recently. In both cases the advice was worthwhile and important for me to contemplate.
Twenty years ago, I was considering switching jobs. I had been in my current position about 8 years and grew weary of it. Switching jobs would mean months of not feeling on top of things, of being ‘new’ again. Despite my apprehension I knew I wanted and needed the change.
I talked it over with a friend who said very clearly, “If you are not thriving, you are dying.” It was plain, simple truth. I recognized immediately that I was not thriving in my current job. I made the change. There have been other times when I used this advice to make needed changes in my life. I asked to be released from callings because I knew I was no longer thriving in the role. I have had friendships end because the relationship didn’t thrive; there was toxicity. I’ve made lifestyle changes regarding food, exercise and sleep patterns when I recognize that I am not thriving. This advice has served me well.
Recently I took an on-line class, (teacher James Finley) studying the writings of Teresa of Avila. In the last lecture, Finley offered his parting advice on how to apply this course material (or anything of importance) in our lives. He said,
- Find your practice and practice it.
- Find your teaching and follow it.
- Find your community and enter it.
I knew immediately this was important. I replayed the lecture and took notes.
Two weeks after finishing this class, my book club came to Chapter 8 of Thich Nhat Hanh’s (TNH), Living Buddha, Living Christ (1995). In this chapter, TNH describes the Three Jewels of Buddhism, the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha. The Buddha represents the practice of mindfulness. The dharma is the body of teaching, past and present, available to study and practice. The sangha represents your community, where you support each other on your journeys.
Interestingly, these Three Jewels match up nicely with Finley’s advice. Buddha is the practice, darhma is the teaching and sangha is the community. I thought I was really onto something, hearing this same advice from two spiritual leaders, in different spheres. They had my attention.
Then a few days later I had an “Aha Moment” realizing that this advice is the same thing I have been hearing in church (LDS) and even in my Catholic school roots, “Pray, Read the Scriptures and Go to Church.” I was flummoxed. How had I not recognized this earlier?.
Yet the advice from Finley and TNH resonated so strongly with me, as the Primary answers lay lifeless at my feet. Why? Was it because Finley and TNH were outside my circle and I was looking for something “other than” what I already knew? Was it the way they worded it? Was it the deeper explanations they shared with their advice? It was all these reasons and probably more.
FIND YOUR PRACTICE and PRACTICE IT
Finley calls us to a prayer and meditation “practice” called lectio divina. Lectio divina translated from Latin means “divine reading” and dates back to the 4th century. These are the steps in this practice.
Prepare yourself: set aside time in a quiet environment, light a candle (if that helps), calm your mind, and offer an opening prayer inviting God to commune with you.
Lectio (read a spiritual text): read through the text, looking/listening for words or phrases that resonate with you, and catch your attention. Don’t force it. Allow God to draw you in.
Meditatio (reflect): Re-read the passage or the section of the passage that is speaking to you. You can ask God to help you see more clearly. Reflect on what God is saying to you. Listen. This is about you and God, in this moment, with inspiration kindled in the written word. Do not study or analyze the scriptures in context, just listen.
Oratio (respond): Read the passage a third time and speak to God in conversation. Respond to the impressions felt during the reflection. You can record your thoughts in addition to speaking with God during this practice.
Contemplatio (rest): Read the passage a fourth time, then sit in silence for several minutes. You do not need to pray or think about anything during this time. Just sit in silence and allow God to work with you.
The following is a personal example of lectio divino. I am reading Nan Merrill’s Psalms for Praying, An Invitation to Wholeness, as my daily scriptures this summer. I find her translation of the Psalms very accessible.
In the morning I prepare myself in a quiet place, before starting work. I offer a morning prayer and ask for God’s presence as I read Psalm 83. I am struck by these verses,
“Let the refining Fire of your Love reach into the hidden places within open hearts! Forgive us and let the deep regret of our souls rise up as contrite offerings.”
I reread these specific verses and picture my heart, deep within my body. I see the chambers of my heart opening like a cabinet revealing my soul hidden and timid. I invite the flame of God’s love into my soul, illuminating the shadows, allowing the space to be opened, exposed, cleansed, revived, and renewed. I see the regrets in my life, the actions taken and not taken, the words said and unsaid and gently offer them to the flame, to be exhumed from my soul.
I read the verses again. I ask God to help me, to enlarge my soul with goodness and love for myself and others. I ask to know the path to follow. I ask for the desire to do God’s will. I listen. I remember things and commit to do better. I sit with it.
Later in the day, I reread this passage and visualize my soul as a clearing in the woods with a fire pit. My soul is there with the flame. We are talking. I am safe with the flame.
Before bed I read the passage again and sit quietly for 10 minutes, thankful for the imagery and the sense of relief I feel from letting go of my regrets and opening my heart.
There are many resources available regarding lectio divina, Here’s one: click here.
Finley says if you are faithful to this practice it will be faithful to you. God will meet you where you are, communing with you in an ongoing relationship.
FIND YOUR TEACHING and FOLLOW IT
Paraphrasing Finley, the “teaching” bears witness to oneness and wholeness that transcends as it permeates endlessly. It teaches you to let go of that which hinders your heart from living in oneness. It is discernment.
The teaching is certainly scriptures, and more than scriptures. It is all that brings you to oneness and wholeness. For me it is the writing of Nan Merrill, Teresa of Avila, or a novel. It is nature, a river, a mountain, a rabbit on my lawn, the ocean, the moon, a child, an aging friend or a good teacher. It is the truth that you know in your heart. It is music. It is dance. It is the sunset.
Finley suggests you keep a journal as you are reading scripture or spiritual works. After each section or chapter ask yourself, “How am I experiencing this? How would I say this in my own words? What is this passage asking of me?” He suggests that a particular book or writing might be “your teaching” for a period of time. It will speak to you, resonate with you, and draws you in. He suggests you read it repeatedly, taking notes. Over the years you will see the transformation of your heart because the subject of the book has been you. Certain books will become old friends to be treasured over and over, like music or art. Continue to follow the teaching until all your life becomes teaching.
FIND YOUR COMMUNITY and ENTER IT
Your deepest community is God. You are being drawn into God as you follow your practice and teaching. The next level of community is with one other person with whom you share your spiritual journey. Larger circles of community form in families, friendships, congregations, and organizations. Eventually you will find kinship in both the living and the dead as you realize the whole world is your community.
You might ask, how do I find someone to share this path with? You may need to be alone (with God) for a while. Eventually you will sense something in another person that draws you in. You may be led to a new group. Explore until you find your community. You will know it when you have peace, acceptance, support, and opportunities. It’s like all truth … you will know it when you find it.
Getting back to the earlier advice, if your group is not thriving, it is dying. You can revitalize it. You can bring “the flame” to it and expose the hidden corners, as the psalmist says. Or it might be time to leave.
What Finley offers is a vast expansion on “pray, read your scriptures and go to church”. This enlargement brought energy to me. Others might already be there, but I needed this tutorial to jump-start my thready spiritual heartbeat.
I particularly like the lectio divina “practice”. When I make time, the practice is fruitful. I like the expansive view of “teaching”; beyond canonized scripture to include good books, nature, music and art. If we believe God’s body is the universe, then we can believe God will use the universe to teach us. I particularly like Finley’s recommendation to “find your community and enter it”. It is a journey of exploration; seek and find! I have found community with friends, with family members and with small groups.
How’s it going for you?
Where do you find community?
Is there at least one person with whom you can share your deepest spiritual thoughts?
Have you ever practiced lectio divina? What were the results?
Have you found your teaching to include material beyond the canonized works?