From Prayer Practices for the Way of Peace: Choosing Peace Through Daily Practices
The Examen, Praying With Creation, and Attention To Thoughts)
As I have suggested, the Christian tradition has developed a richness of prayer. There may be a form of prayer for every sensibility. In this section, I present a number of ways of praying that may be practiced in order to help form an interior foundation for peace in oneself and in the world.
Self-Examination: Giving and Receiving Peace
Since the first few centuries of Christianity, Christians have practiced a form of prayer in which they examine their behaviors and their interior experiences in relation to the world around them. For instance, the early desert monastics regularly reported all their thoughts and actions to an abba or amma (a wise spiritual “father” or “mother”). In the sixteenth century, Ignatius of Loyola developed what is known as the “awareness examen,” a prayerful review of one’s daily actions, concerns, thoughts, and feelings. Similarly, the Puritans and Protestants engaged in “examination of the conscience” or “examination of “consciousness” through journaling, prayerful consideration, or conversing with a trusted spiritual guide. Those who practice these and other forms of self-examination trust that such focused attention helps them live ever more fully the way of God’s love in their lives. The prayer practice below offers a taste of this tradition with particular attention to the experience of peace.
Throughout the day:
Pay attention to the people, events, and circumstances around you.
Notice how you are responding to:
- The people you meet;
- Your physical surroundings (the natural world, the room you are in, etc.);
- The rhythms and structures and patterns of the day;
- The situations you find yourself in;
- The thoughts and feelings that arise in you.
Questions to keep gently before you:
- Where am I receiving a sense of peace? Where am I not receiving a sense of peace?
- Where am I offering the way of peace or helping build peace?
- Where am I not offering the way of peace or not helping build peace?
At the end of the day:
- Offer yourself to God’s caring presence — as you allow your mind and body to quiet.
- Ask to be shown what the Spirit wants you to receive — to see, feel, and understand.
- Look back slowly over the events, persons, circumstances of the day. Ask yourself, “when did I least experience peace being given, formed, or received?”
In response to this question, allow your awareness to settle on one piece of the day that particularly draws your attention. What feelings were connected with that person, event, circumstance (joy, pain, turmoil, increased sense of love, anger, harmony, anxiety, freedom, etc.)? Ask yourself why these feelings arose. What awareness does this bring to you about your life? About your life with God? How was God present to you in that time?
- Write in your journal.
- Repeat steps 1 through 4, above, but this time using the question, “When did I most fully experience peace being given or received?”
- In light of your experience in this prayer, do you have any sense of being called or invited to effect deeper transformation — in yourself and/or in the world? What might that be?
- Offer a prayer in response to what has come to you in this time.
Praying with Creation
In exploring the spiritual lives of many individuals and communities over the years, I have noticed how important the created world is for the spiritual life. More people describe to me encounters with God (as they define God) through experiences of and in nature — the forest, a garden, the ocean, the mountains, storms — than through experience of any other type. Activities such as reading scripture, worshiping, listening to sermons, being with friends and loved ones, studying, and music are not mentioned as often as being in nature. This is true across the theological spectrum. Further, descriptions of the spiritual power of communing with nature appear in Christian writings throughout the ages.
- Go to a place where God’s creation meets you. Ask for God’s presence with you.
- Attend to the works of creation around you. Does one thing seem to invite you, strike you, impress you, or somehow attract you?
- Come to a sense of focused attention in the presence of God and this piece of God’s handiwork.
- Simply gaze upon this part of creation for an extended time — a time of wonder, amazement, openness, receiving.
- Eventually, engage God in conversation about this thing you have noticed. You may want to ask God questions such as: Where has it been? Who has seen, touched, held, experienced it? Why does God value it? How is it related to what is around it? How is it related to me? To the rest of creation? What does it tell me of myself?
- Consider these questions: How do I experience God present to me through this piece of creation? What have I learned of God through it? What have I been offered? What have I received? In what way is peace a part of what I am being offered — or not?
- Remain for a time in the experience of whatever follows these questions.
- Offer God thanks for this time and for the wonders of creation.
Attending to “Thoughts”
The ancient desert tradition practiced attention to what the monastics referred to as “thoughts” (logismoi) — interior movements that arise unbidden within a person. These thoughts included what we might now call near-obsessive feelings, images, emotions, ideas, and imaginings. The desert sages believed that the thoughts functioned as inclinations that moved them toward particular behaviors. All too easily the thoughts can take over a life, moving through obsessions to addictions. If responded to with proper attention — prayer, spiritual disciplines, and the help of a spiritual guide — the impact of the thought in a life offers an opportunity for discerning and bettering the state of the soul’s communion with God. In short, how one responds to the thoughts helps determine the path ahead. Some responses lead to active distraction from God’s way. Others help the monastic live more fully into life with God.
The following prayer practice gives contemporary expression to the ancient notion of attending to one’s thoughts or inclinations. This version of the prayer focuses on behaviors and thoughts that may or may not build peace.
- Turn your attention to the different behaviors in your life during the past week. How do you spend your time? How do you treat the people you know? How do you respond to people you meet in passing? What are your routines of work and leisure?
- Are there particular behaviors that seem harmful to you or others, that create an environment that works against peace in yourself, in others, and/or the world?
- Consider the thoughts and inclinations that arise regularly within you. What connection do you notice between these and the harmful behaviors you have identified? Is there a particular thought or inclination that directs you off track?
- Experiment with praying in the following way (every day, if possible).
- Identify a short prayer (perhaps a phrase from a Psalm) that you sense somehow draws you more fully along God’s path of peace. (The desert sages first used Psalm 70:1 or Psalm 40:13 as their prayer — “O God make speed to save me: O Lord make haste to help me.”)
- When the unhelpful thought/inclination comes up (this could be many times a day!), notice it and name it to yourself. (“I’ve snapped at my daughter — again.”)
- After naming it, begin to pray the short prayer you have identified as somehow helpful for you on your path with God (item “a” above).
- Note what, if anything, is happening within you in response to your prayer.