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EXPLORING PRAYER IN THE CHRISTIAN TRADITION – WEDNESDAYS AT 7.00PM DURING DECEMBER

In the dark of winter, Christians traditionally use prayer and contemplation to open themselves up to the coming of God in Advent. Join us as we explore a range of Advent prayer practices that help us to become more aware of God with us. Practices that also connect us to a community of people, past and present, who have prayed in these ways. The informal sessions, led by our student minister, Reuben Addis, will start with lighting an advent candle, a stilling exercise, and then several different styles of contemplative prayer often drawing on different senses and on our imagination. It would be helpful if you could book in advance (numbers limited to fifteen), by mailing Reuben reuben.addis@churchofscotland.org.uk or 0786 791 5022.

Prayer Workshop Notes: Advent 2 

Welcome

Again, welcome people and explain the format of the course and the sessions.  The suggested format is

  • We’ll gather with introductions and some reflective discussion
  • We’ll light an advent candle and think about our place in the church year
  • We’ll start with a stilling exercise
  • Then we’ll try several reflective prayer exercises around a particular theme. This week it’s praying with texts and words. 
  • We’ll conclude with the opportunity to reflect on the experience - perhaps to discuss what has or has not worked for you. 

Reflective Discussion

Last week we listened to hear God’s voice in psalms and sacred texts. This week’s candle is for John the Baptist – and so we are finding in God through a more inward journey. The goal is not simply to understand our body and mind more clearly but to hear God. This may feel uncomfortable so feel free to use the books to write down what bubbles up (and help get some emotional distance from it), or simply to take a break if things get uncomfortable.

I wonder if we could introduce ourselves by choosing a card that in some way represents or resonates with us – perhaps simply speaking to how we are feeling tonight.  We’ll then go round and give our name and why we chose that particular card.

Lighting of the Advent Candle.

This is traditionally the candle for John the Baptist – and his call for repentance “metanoia” which includes sorrow for the missed moment as well as openness to change.  It is also the candle for Peace – of letting go and accepting what is

Silling exercise

Last week we did a body scan noticing the stresses and tensions in our body and getting ourselves in balance.  This week we’ll start with some breath work.  Remembering that God is as close to us as our breath. 

Get yourself into a comfortable position. Drop your shoulders get in balance.  We are going to focus our attention on our breath.  Noticing our own rhythm of breathing – as it slightly speeds up and slows down as you notice it.  Notice where you feel your breath in your body, perhaps in your chest as it rises and falls, the way your chest expands, which part moves first, changes in your diaphragm.  Notice it’s passage in your throat, or your nose or your mouth. Perhaps feel it on your top lip. Perhaps notice the rhythm flows, calming the body.  

We’ll just breath for a minute as we feel that peace.

Discuss exercise

Was there an anxiety about getting it right or wrong?  How did it feel?  What happened to our mind? How was this like other stilling practices or meditations you have tried before?

Holding crosses, walnuts, and journals

With self-examination there is a tension between openness to the darker parts of our minds and our lives and the knowledge that we are loved and accepted as we are. In contemplative prayer this is called desolation and consolation.  One practice is to hold something in your hand that reminds you of God’s presence and of his love. This turns the focus from a solitary mediation to a practice of prayerful listening.  It can also ground you in the real world. People often hold them when they sit by someone who is dying.  Even so, if you know that you have a lot of traumatic memories or dark thoughts – or even if you would prefer – then use the journal instead of stilling yourself. 

The Cross speaks of a God who is with us in our suffering.  The walnut is obviously a reference to Julian of Norwich (a woman who knew trauma and saw disturbing visions) and her certainty of the love of God

And in this he showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus, ‘It is all that is made.’ I marvelled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God.

In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it.

For those who want to Journal – use the time to reflect on yourself and God.  Try to use the creative part of the brain and not just analytic.  Draw something to represent how prayer feels – or write a poem. 

 

Stilling Prayer

This is work.  The prayer is in the effort of stilling your mind – of paying attention. The aim is a focused stillness and attention – like a cat watching a mousehole.  The practice is the repeated turning of your attention from the chatter of the monkey brain to stillness and waiting for God. Try be non-judgemental about the thoughts – notice them and let them go.  They are like sparrows that briefly land on a branch and fly off. They are like boats floating past.  Sometimes – after about five or more minutes – the brain starts to settle down and you can get a clarity and tranquillity. This perhaps not a thought – but an awareness of our connectedness – to each other or to the ground of our being or to the universe around us.  Notice it and return your attention to the stillness.  This openness isn’t an achievement, it is now better then working with the chatter of a busy brain. 

Lets me begin by reading a prayer

Give me a candle of the Spirit, O God, as I go down into the deeps of my being. Show me the hidden things, the creatures of my dreams, the storehouse of forgotten memories and hurts. Take me down to the spring of my life, and tell me my nature and my name. Give me freedom to grow, so that I may become that self, the seed of which You planted in me at my making.

Out of the depths I cry to You…   

George Appleton

To allow your thoughts to settle you need to place your attention somewhere else.  Perhaps the easiest is to notice your breath.  To feel it as we did before and perhaps to count it.  Just count to three (or you will be remembering numbers rather then being still).  Or silently mouth “maranatha”, which means “God with us” or even just “peace” on the exhale. If you are used to praying with candles, then you could focus on the flame instead.  I’ll ring the bell at the end of seven minutes and then take a minute to notice how you are feeling and what starts to come to mind.  Is it a person, or a longing, or an emotion? Perhaps think back to what thoughts kept bubbling up – was there a particularly intrusive one.

Discuss exercise

For those used to meditation did it feel the same to meditate as to pray?   How did other find it?  Were you surprised at what floated up when you quietened your mind?   What about that sense of connection or of feeling grounded? Did holding something make a difference?

In the Christian tradition God usually speaks to us through a longing or a desire.  Our desires are God’s invitation for us to respond in action.  Even superficial desires.  “I want that fast car” might lead us to ask Why?  Perhaps because I want to be comfortable, or for people to notice that I am successful. Perhaps then think about who we want to notice us – and realise that our desire is for more connection with these people, or why we feel that need for status, perhaps that it is because we want to feel useful or needed. 

 

Healing Prayer

Think about how you are in your soul.  What your desires Play “Drive out the Darkness” The Porter’s Gate.  

Pass round a candle (in a large glass bowl) and then on the second time around if you want prayer hold onto it – and those on either side will pray silently (or if you like can use words).  Once the have prayed the candle is passed on.

Discuss the exercise

 

Examen. 

In effect the structure of the hour led us through much of this exercise. Still yourself and become aware of God’s presence.  Review the day with gratitude. Notice moments of growth towards faith hope and love, or away from them.  Pay attention to your emotions. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it. Look forward to tomorrow.  

So, let’s do this deliberately.  Let’s review the day.  Notice moments of consolation – moments of clarity, or things resolved, of significance or love. Where things felt good for our souls. Also notice desolation, moments when we were wrapped up in ourselves, ungrateful, carless of others, perhaps also in pain, difficulty, anxiety.  Start when you first woke up.  That loo trip or bad dream, thinking about getting dressed and having breakfast. Follow the flow of the day.  How you spent the morning, how you spoke to people, or they spoke to you.  Your lunch. How you were feeling. What happened in the afternoon etc etc. 

 

 

Prayer Workshop Notes: Advent 1 

Over Advent we have the opportunity to experiment with a range of different ways of praying.  I hope that by doing this we will learn to be more aware of our inner selves - our emotions, or desires and fears, our bodies, and our spirits. I hope that we find a way to connect to each other - to be a circle and to feel each other around us more deeply. Perhaps to become aware of the divine in each other. I also hope that we will find ways to be more open and connected to God - that prayer won’t just feel nice but open us up to God’s pull on our lives.   In this first week we are going to use our imagination to explore texts and words. 

(Discussion of first spiritual experiences. Childhood sense of awe and wonder. Early awareness of God. Leading to a discussion of what you hope from the course.)

My suggestion is that we structure all of these sessions in a similar way:

  • We’ll gather with introductions and some reflective discussion
  • We’ll light an advent candle and think about our place in the church year
  • We’ll start with a stilling exercise
  • Then we’ll try several reflective prayer exercises around a particular theme. This week it’s praying with texts and words. 
  • We’ll conclude with the opportunity to reflect on the experience - perhaps to discuss what has or has not worked for you. 

Prayer is a discipline - it is likely that our mind will wander, or strange thoughts come in. We should just notice them and bring our attention back to our prayer. It’s not a failure to feel distracted and be pulling ourselves back to prayer - that is part of the process of praying.   I have given you journals so if it helps to write down a worry or a thought (to get it out of your mind) - then do use them for that. Sometimes it helps to hold on to a sensation or prompting if you write it down - so again just use them as they are there to use for whatever helps. 

Sometimes unsettling things bubble up when we try to pray. Or some of the practices may feel strange or uncomfortable for you. That’s fine. Notice yourself and if you need to get up and have a walk, or just to open your eyes and sit out of a particular activity that’s fine. If you start to feel distressed then it might help you take a mental step back if you try to analyse the feeling - what shape is it, where do you feel it in your body - or analyse the thought - perhaps write it down and write down the memories or associations with it.

Lighting of the Advent Candle.

This is traditionally the Candle of the Patriarchs - and we think also of the faith of their wives - Sarah, Rachel, and Rebecca. Of the stories and prayers that may have been passed down to us. Looking at our lives through the lens of Faith and Hope - that there are spiritual forces at play and that things are working together for an ultimate purpose.  As we light this candle may God give us faith to make sense of our lives. 

It is helpful to start contemplative prayer with a stilling exercise. To put down all the busyness of the day and to find stillness. 

Stilling exercise 

Get yourself symmetrical and in balance - so that you can sit without fidgeting.

We are going to do a Body Scan exercise based on the idea of oil.  In our tradition oil was used when people were commissioned to be prophets, priests, or kings.  It also was a symbol for love, healing, and bounty:

Close your eyes and imagine anointing oil being poured on your head. It feels warm and soothing and full of promise.  Get your head even and feel it running down both cheeks, dripping off your chin, pooling in the hollows of your shoulders. Straighten your spine and let it run down your front and your back, to puddle under your bottom and in your lap, to run down your arms and gather in your open hands or drip off your fingers, to soak your thighs and run behind your knees and down your calves, to fill your shoes and puddle round your feet

Psalm 133

How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!

It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down on the collar of his robe.

It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion.

For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.

Prayer Exercises

Introduce Lectio Divina (“Devine Reading”) a way of reading a sacred text so as to be open to hear God’s voice.   

Sit as if floating in the sea and looking up at the sky.  

Realizing that it is in the struggle and the thrashing that you drown

And in the stillness your body can ride the waves

I’m going to read Luke 1:39-45,46-55 through a few times.

Lectio Divina just means a Divine reading. The text is seen as a gift to be received.  Space is given to allow it to filter down into our own life and context. There is a process of repeated reading in which we experience God in a deeper way. There are various methods for doing this.

Method 1

Read it a first time just to get a sense of the story to get the framework and the main moves or thoughts.  So that within this context the text can speak.

Read it a second time and notice a word or phrase that seems to be calling out to me, disturbing or exciting me

Read it a third time and notice what is being said - how the text is pulling on me or connecting to something about me.  

We pray with Luke 1:39-56 (Mary meeting Elizabeth). 

Discuss how it felt / what you noticed.

Method 2

With this second passage I want you to become a character in the story. The first time we read, think about who you are drawn to. The second time imagine how it feels, think about all your senses - what it smells like, what you can hear, how your legs feel. The third time, think how it feels emotionally - what the spiritual undertow is - where you are being pulled.  We are reading Genesis 33:1-12 (Jacob greets Esau).

If you want to continue with the passage, perhaps try readings in which the action is relational - about connection, challenge or sending.  Perhaps Try Luke 24:13-35 (Road to Emmaus), Jesus asleep in the storm (Matt 8 or Mark 4). Zacchaeus (Luke 19) Women at the well (John 4), Jesus writing in the sand (John 8), Disciples being sent (Luke 10). Ones from the Hebrew Bible might include Jacobs Ladder (Gen 28), The Burning Bush (Ex 3), Elijah in the cave (1 Kings 19), Samuel hearing the voice of God (1 Sam 3), Samson’s Parents (Judges 13). God can also speak through “sacred” texts that aren’t in the Bible. Perhaps also try traditional prayers, poems, or even vibrant pros passages.

Jesus Prayer

In the eastern church the Jesus prayer is often repeated “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”. In the west the Kyrie eleison is more often said (or sang) “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy”. If you struggle with the idea of mercy you could use “maranatha” which means “come, O Lord” and is a prayer from 1 Cor 16:22.  

As you repeat the prayer, become aware of your breath as anchoring you to a sense of love and of calm. Also be aware how small you are in front of God - like a small boat amongst crashing waves. Feel one with the week and the sick and the poor - all of those feeling shame or needing mercy.

 Antiphonal psalm.

The psalms contain a wide range of emotions including ones we often don’t express in church including anger at God.  It was the Hebrew prayer book, and these would have been prayed by Jesus.  It may help to think of him praying them through you. It may also help to think that you are praying them along with the poor and the oppressed.  When praying in a group they are traditionally prayed “antiphonally” (taking turns) with a breath (marked with a ⬧).   We will pray Psalm 131. 

 

Psalm 133

How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!

It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down on the collar of his robe.

It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion.

For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.

Mary Visits Elizabeth (Luke 1) 

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be[a] a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’ 46 And Mary said, 

‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,

48 for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.

    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed,

49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,

    and holy is his name.

50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;

53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,

55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,

    to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

56 And Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home.

Genesis 33

Jacob looked up and there was Esau, coming with his four hundred men; so he divided the children among Leah, Rachel and the two female servants. 2 He put the female servants and their children in front, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph in the rear. 3 He himself went on ahead and bowed down to the ground seven times as he approached his brother.

4 But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept. 5 Then Esau looked up and saw the women and children. “Who are these with you?” he asked.

Jacob answered, “They are the children God has graciously given your servant.”

6 Then the female servants and their children approached and bowed down. 7 Next, Leah and her children came and bowed down. Last of all came Joseph and Rachel, and they too bowed down.

8 Esau asked, “What’s the meaning of all these flocks and herds I met?”

“To find favour in your eyes, my lord,” he said.

9 But Esau said, “I already have plenty, my brother. Keep what you have for yourself.”

10 “No, please!” said Jacob. “If I have found favour in your eyes, accept this gift from me. For to see your face is like seeing the face of God, now that you have received me favourably. 11 Please accept the present that was brought to you, for God has been gracious to me and I have all I need.” And because Jacob insisted, Esau accepted it.

12 Then Esau said, “Let us be on our way; I’ll accompany you.”

Psalm 131

1    O Lord, my heart is not proud;  ♦

my eyes are not raised in haughty looks.

2    I do not occupy myself with great matters,  ♦

with things that are too high for me.

3    But I have quieted and stilled my soul,

like a weaned child on its mother’s breast;  ♦

so my soul is quieted within me.

4    O Israel, trust in the Lord,  ♦

from this time forth for evermore.

(Read antiphonally (alternate verses) - with a breath at each diamond)

 

The “Jesus Prayer”

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”

Or as the “Kyrie eleison”  

“Lord have Mercy, Christ have Mercy, Lord have Mercy”

As you repeat the prayer become aware of your breath as anchoring you to a sense of love and of calm. Also be aware how small you are in front of God - like a small boat amongst crashing waves.  Feel one with the weak and the sick and the poor - all of those feeling shame or needing mercy.