My contemplative practice has long been influenced by the 15th Century mystic Madame Jeanne Guyon. She teaches a number of types of contemplative prayer in her books Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ and Union with God. Her starting point is that if, indeed, you have given over your life in some way to God, God dwells or abides in you. Therefore, prayer is a form of turning inward to connect with that divine presence. As you try to turn inward, you are often distracted by many thoughts, but one must gently and compassionately continue to return to the presence in our time of prayer — or indeed for Guyon, throughout the entire day. She often used a slow and savouring reading of scripture or the Lord’s prayer in conjunction with this.
One of the dangers of these forms of prayer and meditation is that we start to see all our thoughts and feelings as ‘distractions’ from the peace that comes when we are ‘truly’ in union. But what I have learned more recently is that these times of slowing down and connecting inward often bring out big and difficult feelings, feelings that should not, really, always be pushed aside in favour of ‘peace’. It may be that our spiritual work is in fact to pay attention to these difficult feelings in order to become more self-aware and thus, I think, less likely to externalise these difficult feelings through unhelpful behaviours.
In recent times, I have been using a number of different contemplative practices in combination to do some of this work. At the moment, I am often beginning with short periods of mindfulness — often timing up to 15 minutes on the insight timer app, which has a nice bell at beginning and end (I also set up ‘wood block’ sounds every 5 minutes to remind myself of what I am supposed to be doing as my mind goes off on tangents quite easily). During this time I pay attention to my breath, body, mood, obsessive thoughts and so on. Often difficult things come up here: my shoulders are tense and hurting, I’m thirsty, I am angry or resentful, I am feeling lonely. This helps me decide what to do next, if I am so lucky to have a quiet time longer than that (which I often can now my children are older, and I am getting up earlier on my own).
So next might be some reading (recently, Henri Nouwen) or some journalling. I’ve worked hard in the last six months or so to get really honest in my journalling. It’s difficult to see my difficult feelings written down in actual words, and I feel very self-conscious. For example, feeling jealousy or envy seems facile and immature to me and I have trouble admitting even to myself when this is bothering me. But journalling can often spiral into self-loathing, so I do try to then make time for prayer after this.
I have recently been more influenced by Cynthia Bourgeault’s teaching on centreing prayer, as well as using a centreing prayer guided session on insight timer as well, led by Maria Gullo. This form of prayer, for me, is more of a restful awareness — a deliberate sitting in openness to God and gently and compassionately returning to focus with a ‘sacred word’ when we notice ourselves getting distracted by the shopping list or the self-loathing or the stress. The idea is that the word acts as consent for God to work in you. This, for me, balances out the going deeper with journalling and mindfulness, allowing a period of letting go, of not being responsible, of allowing things to just be — and also to be different, potentially.
One of the things I have worried about alot in recent times is that this spiritual practice is not based on bible reading. But at this point in my life, I have read through the bible so many times that it was in danger of becoming a meaningless rule based task, with the same interpretations of the same passages, and no transformation or growth in my own Christian walk. Yet at the same time, I can see that allowing God to work more deeply in my emotions, thoughts and mess is absolutely the right place to be. I feel deep gratitude to have been lead into this place of acceptance, to the friends and church people who have led me here, and to the Daily Marinade community for supporting contemplative practice in Aotearoa New Zealand, the bloggersphere, twitterverse and beyond.
Kelly Dombroski writes at www.throwntogetherness.wordpress.com.