Peace is hard to come by. The reality is that if we wait for the world to be peaceful in order for us to feel peace, we’ll be waiting for a long, long time.
The real, lasting peace comes from dwelling in, abiding in, God. This isn’t just a feeling, but rather a way of life and an orientation. The world offers illusions of peace through consumption and appeals to our needs for self-aggrandizement, but these tend to simply lead us into a spiral of consumption and emptiness. Peace and fulfillment are different things, and the world offers us neither.
Throughout its 2000 year history the church has offered various ways to find peace. I’d like to share three of them – each with very ancient roots. Each is a well-trodden path, and when combined with one another, and with a fundamental orientation towards God, lead to a life of peace through abiding in God.
Wise teachers in the way of spiritual formation remind us that simply wandering along to worship once a week won’t result in a deep and long-lasting growth in relationship with God. Each of these practices means a commitment to a daily practice. In the lives of many they form the ‘hinges’ of the day – a way to begin and end the day which results in real life, rooted in God.
To be sure, pursuing a way of life that includes these practices means making a choice to commit yourself to God, and to pursuing a relationship with God. That choice and commitment is an important and powerful thing. By choosing, day after day, to spend time with God and devoted to God results in a real change of orientation in life. It isn’t a romantic choice, by any stretch of the imagination, and it runs completely counter to what the world says is important. But in the end, it is an absolutely vital choice – to take seriously the call to be a follower of Jesus, or to merely make a sort of notional and lukewarm assent to following a social religion. Spirituality, and a spiritual life, is not a road merely for ‘the super-Christian’ – it is a way that we’re all called to, in fulfillment of God’s promise to us to give us true and enduring life and peace.
The first practice I want to suggest to you, and the one I’d say is the most important if you have to choose to do one and not the others, is lectio divina. ‘Lectio divina’ is often translated spiritual reading, but it has a much deeper and wider sense than that. Lectio is essentially sitting with a text from the Bible, and waiting on God. It is a quiet, reflective practice which involves time and patience. Much has been written about lectio, but it can be distilled into a few steps. Once you’ve mastered these steps, dig deeper, read more about it, and use it to modify your practice.
First, set aside some time and space. Preferably around the same time each day, in the same space. Resolve not to allow yourself to be distracted or drawn away. If you live with others, let them know that you’re praying at this time, and you’d prefer not to be disturbed. Give this time the importance it deserved. Then pray – ask God to be with you, and give you all that God wants to give you through this time. Offer the time to God, and God alone. Take a short piece of Scripture – possibly just a verse, or a couple of verses. Just read the verse and remain with it. Don’t ponder on it, or study it. You’re not aiming to do Bible study, but to wait on God. Read it out loud, repeat it, reflect on it. Let it sink deeply into your heart and mind. Slow down – remain with the verses. In the silence, continue to turn over the verses in your mind. Ask God to speak to you through the verses, to show you what he’s offering through them. Sometimes you’ll find that God speaks clearly, at other times you may receive nothing. Either way, be grateful for the time you’ve spent. Pray as you end. Thank God for the Scriptures. Practice lectio each day.
The second practice is fixed-hour prayer. The Church, from ancient times, has observed the discipline of praying at particular times, in a liturgical framework. In monasticism this is often called opus dei – the work of God. Monks and nuns often pray up to seven times a day, using the Divine Office – a liturgical guide to reading the psalms and scriptures. Christians living in the world rarely have the opportunity to pray seven times a day, but we all have the possibility of setting aside regular fixed times to pray to God. There are a number of tools to help this – the ones I’d suggest are all liturgical in nature. I come from a liturgical tradition, and find this helpful. Liturgy is a tried and tested way of building prayer. Without the right intention, though, it is empty.
Fixed hour prayer often consists of prayer in the morning, prayer around the middle of the day, prayer in the evening and prayer before bed. If you can keep this schedule, all well and good. If it doesn’t work in your life, then try to observe a couple of the offices – morning and before bed, perhaps, or in the middle of the day and before bed. I find the discipline of praying at particular times very helpful, and a great privilege. I remind myself that I’m offering my prayer not only for me, but also for those who can’t, don’t or won’t pray. My prayer joins with the prayer of others, and ultimately the prayer of Jesus. You can find simple liturgies in books or online. There are several excellent contemporary liturgies that you can source if the language of breviary or prayer book doesn’t speak to you. The important thing is to be faithful to the practice, and stick to it. Offer the time to God. Read aloud – even if you’re alone and it feels silly. If you’re on the train, form the words in your mind.
The third practice, and perhaps the one that binds them together, is Christian meditation. Much is written about meditation. Some suggest it is an esoteric practice that doesn’t have anything to do with Christianity, but rather draws people away from God. In the end, I think Christian meditation (or another very similar practice, known as centering prayer) are ways of sitting in the silence waiting for God. Whatever method you choose, stick to it. Use it morning and evening. Don’t expect ‘results’, ‘changes’ or some sort of esoteric experience. Perhaps they’ll come, perhaps not. In any case, their presence or absence says nothing about you or your faithfulness to the practice.
Meditating is simple, and easily learned. Try this method:
Find a quiet place. Sit down with your back upright. Sit still.
Gently close your eyes and begin to recite your prayer-word, or mantra, silently, interiorly and lovingly throughout the time of your meditation: “Ma-ra-na-tha.” Say it as four equally-stressed syllables. It is an Aramaic word (which is the language that Jesus spoke) and it means “Come, Lord.” It is found in the Scriptures and is one of the earliest prayers in the Christian tradition.
Do not think about the meaning of the word. Just give your attention to the sound of it throughout the time of your meditation, from the beginning to the end. Whenever distractions arise, simply return to your mantra. Meditate for 30 minutes each morning and each evening, every day of your life. Father John Main always said: “Just say your word.” Meditation is a way of pure prayer marked by silence, stillness, and simplicity. (From the WCCM website)
Centering prayer is a little different
Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.
Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly and silently introduce the sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within.
When engaged with your thoughts, return ever-so gently to the sacred word.
At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes. (From the Contemplative Outreach website)
I can’t promise that, if you follow these guidelines, you’ll feel peace. But in my experience using them, and helping others to use them, I do see peace growing in my life and theirs. The way is hard and challenging, as Jesus said it would be, but it is also very rewarding. The ultimate reward, of course, is not a warm glow as a result of being good, but growing in the love and knowledge of God – and it is from God that love and peace will spill out of us. These disciplines allow us to be in a ‘space’ which will allow God to use us.
So – what will you choose?