A few years ago, I visited the Christian (underground) cave churches and monasteries in Cappadocia Turkey, where first-century Christians took refuge from Roman persecution. The landscape was relatively barren covered by wind and water eroded volcanic tuff based soil. There were many natural chimney-like volcanic rock formations created by erosion, which had been carved by early Christians into homes, chapels, and huts for solitudes. Most strikingly, early Christian would go to these cone-like rock structures for silent retreats. I could not imagine being alone on one of these stony spires with nothing for a few days.
St. Gregory Nazianzus, a distinguished fourth-century
theologian and orator from Cappadocia described his experience:
to me greater than this: to silence one’s senses, to emerge from the flesh of
the world, to withdraw into oneself, no longer to be concerned with human
things other than what is strictly necessary; to converse with oneself and with
God, to lead a life that transcends the visible; to bear in one’s soul divine
images, ever pure, not mingled with earthly or erroneous forms; truly to be a
perfect mirror of God and of divine things, and to become so more and more,
taking light from light…; to enjoy, in the present hope, the future good, and
to converse with angels; to have already left the earth even while continuing
to dwell on it, borne aloft by the spirit“ (Orationes 2:7; SC 247:96).
He was able to draw close to God through his time of solitude and silence. Indeed it’s hard to hear our own thoughts and be in touch with the longings of our souls when we are constantly bombarded by emails, social media, and other distractions. Stillness allows us to reflect and tune into our inner worlds.
There are five main spiritual practices that we could potentially explore and incorporate into our daily lives to get in touch with our spiritual beings. These practices could be adapted, depending on your cultural, spiritual, and religious backgrounds.
A centering prayer is a form of praying whereby we focus on our breathing and listen to God (or the divine, depending on your beliefs). We set aside all thoughts and intentions to become open to God. It helps us to empty the inner clutter and find the stillness to create a space to interact with God. Start with asking for help and guidance (e.g., “I’m here, God. Waiting, listening, open. Empty me of fear, worry, noise, and racing thoughts. Allow me to rest in you.”) Use your breath to create a sense of peace and let go. Continue to pay attention to your breathing, listen for a prayer word (or phrase) that expresses the desires and needs of your heart at this moment. When you become aware of the prayer word or phrase, repeat it silently to yourself in rhythm with your breathing.
“Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.” ― Mahatma Gandhi
Fasting is voluntarily going without an item, traditionally it’s food but it could be anything that you regularly enjoyed. It’s a practice that is remarkably counter-cultural in our consumeristic culture. But fasting allows us to become aware of external things that we use to soothe our souls but are ultimately ineffective in giving us satisfaction. Often our cravings and aches for comfort keep us from the discomfort of fasting. But fasting allows us to wean ourselves from dependencies (e.g., caffeine, sugar, alcohol, television, internet, social media, etc.). For example, have you considered going on a social media fast? Why is it so difficult to do that? What excuses do you come up with? Why have we become so dependent on social media?
We can try carving out time each day to meditate — just sit quietly where you can be free from distractions. Switch off your phones and devices. A park or secluded areas of nature are great places to meditate. You can also find a quiet area in your home where you would not be disturbed. Find words to focus on and anchor your attention. It could be mantra or sacred word or scriptural passages. Start by paying attention to your breathing and your mantra. Repeat your mantra in alignment with your breathing. If your mind wanders off, bring it back to the mantra and breathing again. As you practice stillness, you will be more in touch with your spiritual being. For Christians, there will be a deeper sensitivity to God’s presence and guidance.
Schedule time to be alone each. It could be 15 minutes in silence and solitude whereby you sit still and meditate. Alternatively, you can take a quiet walk in the park alone, without talking to anyone. It’s important to have time for reflection and contemplation. Use the time to pay attention to what’s stirring in your soul. How do you feel? What are the desires of your heart? Perhaps write them down and reflect upon them. What do these feelings tell you about yourself or life in general? What’s truly going on inside your soul?
Almsgiving is essentially charitable giving. It could be in the form of money or time that is motivated by love. Charity comes from the Latin word “caritas” which means “love”. In addition, giving comes from a sense of gratitude and generosity that we want to share with others. It helps us to turn our eyes from ourselves to see the need of others. Indeed, this spirit of giving and love is expressed in the often quoted prayer of St. Francis of Assisi:
“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Despite potential differences in your religious beliefs or spiritual viewpoints, these spiritual practices offer important lessons to all of us who live busy and hectic lives. The practices of prayer, fasting, meditation, solitude, and almsgiving invite us to put a pause to our constant activities, challenge our consumeristic culture/worldview, and take stock of our inner souls.