Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Selecting a Spiritual Formation Activity

The second component of our Rule of Life actually has two parts. The first part is simply to "study scripture." We do this in various ways, either by reading selections from scripture according to an assigned lectionary or through the group study technique known as lectio divina. No specified frequency for this study is given, and Abbey members choose to follow this part of the Rule in whatever way works best for them: daily, weekly, etc.

The second part of this portion of the Rule is, in contrast, very specific about timing: "pursue a specifically selected spiritual formation activity annually." Although the frequency is specified (annually) the range of spiritual formation activities which have been chosen is as varied as the members of the Abbey.

I often start thinking in January about what my chosen spiritual formation activity will be for the year, but it is not usually until the late summer that I begin to pursue the activity. I think this is because, having been a student, then a teacher, for most of my life, I still think in terms of academic years. The year begins when school starts!

This year, I have chosen to pursue a deeper exploration of chant. I have always been a singer, and for most of my life in the Church have been a member of the choir, so musical expression is an important part of my spiritual experience. Chant is, in one way of thinking about it, music -- so it is not surprising I would love it. However, in another way of thinking about it, chant is more than music. Chant is prayer -- meditative prayer, in fact.

In our Abbey meetings and retreats, we have often used Taize, a type of Christian chant, to enhance our prayer experience. Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in a weekend-long workshop exploring chants from many different religious traditions. Christian, Jewish, Muslim (especially the Sufi version of Islam), Native American, Buddhist and Hindu chants were all introduced. I enjoyed singing all of these and learning about their uses in religious rituals from around the world.

The chants were in many different languages: English, Hebrew, Arabic, Sanskrit and others, but the meaning of almost all chants, as the instructor, Robert Gass, explained, is basically, "Yay, God!" Most chants are devotional and the point of the chant is to express love and praise for God.

Chants are sung, of course, but they are different from most songs in that they are usually very simple and often repetitive. One Taize chant the Abbey often uses is "Ubi caritas, et amor; ubi caritas, deus ibi est," which means: "God is love and where true love is, God himself is there." This can be sung dozens of times and the idea is to sing it enough times that the singing becomes automatic, the words and tune require no thought, and a state of deep prayer can be entered.

In Robert Gass' workshop I learned how effective it is to sing a chant for a very long time -- 20 minutes or more -- then stop and sit in silence as a group. We did this repeatedly throughout the weekend, and no matter which chant we had just sung, I found myself in a state I would describe as simultaneously ecstatic and deeply peaceful. I can now see why the ancient practice of chant has become a central feature of every religious tradition: quite simply, chant brings us into deep, personal contact with God. And the experience can be profoundly moving.

What spiritual formation activity do you plan to pursue this year? Will it be chant, or might you want to follow the lead of a former Abbey member who decided to visit and walk every labyrinth she could find? Or, perhaps, you will choose some readings or go on a retreat -- or come up with your own unique spiritual formation activity.

How will you live out this component of our Rule of Life in the coming year? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Sunday, July 12, 2009


Dear Abbey Members and Friends:

Below is yesterday's meditation by Fr. Don Talafous of St. John's Abbey. Fr. Don's meditation brought a number of thoughts to me regarding the first tenet of our Abbey's Rule of Life: "Pray daily guided by the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) or another Christian format and worship regularly in community." My first thought is that one could interpret this tenet to limit us in our praying to existing words or prayers that others have devised to express the many reasons or things for which we go to God in prayer -- adoration, petition for someone or something, sorrow, confession, forgiveness...and the list goes on. To me it is true that others more skilled with words than I have come up with wonderful prayers that express very well the feelings in my heart...and it is good to use those. Our own BCP has a marvelous collection of collects and prayers for our use. But this gives rise to the second thought...and that is recognizing that we do "have a friend in Jesus." We typically do not talk with our friends in prescribed phrases or sentences, rather words, our own words, come tumbling out that express the thoughts and feelings of the moment. It seems to me that in living into this part of our Rule of praying daily, there is also space for opening our minds and hearts to God (Jesus) and talking as we do with our earthly friends. This may be a more genuine form of praying. I believe our Rule is broad enough to encompass both types of prayer.

Shalom and many blessings, George

"What a friend we have in Jesus." (My unchurched father in his old age and nearly deaf could be surprised at times alone in his house singing "what a pal we have in Jesus," a variation probably more due to failing memory than any desire to be hip.) Just hearing that line from an old-time Protestant hymn might strike some Christians as too chummy or simply undignified. Churchgoing people get so used to the formal language of the service that "what a friend we have in Jesus" seems a bit like bringing the sweet-nothings of people in love into a public auditorium. Yet Scripture itself warrants the language of friendship. In John 15 Jesus talks about laying down His life for His friends. "You are my friends if you do what I command you. I no longer speak of you as slaves. Instead, I call you friends, since I have made known to you all that I heard from my Father." Revealing ourselves to another, opening our hearts to another, is the sure sign of friendship, a necessary step in fostering it. In turn Christians have every right to turn to Jesus in times of great need or turmoil. Moments of exhilarating joy or crushing sadness drive us to open up to a friend for comfort and understanding. Similarly, why shouldn't we open ourselves to the Lord in such times? In any budding relationship we encourage intimacy by a willingness to open up, to risk self-revelation. Jesus says He has made known to us all that the Father has told him. We have every reason to think: "What a friend we have in Jesus." Fr. Don Talafous, 7/11/09

Friday, July 3, 2009

Call and Response on Twitter

As many of you know, the Urban Abbey has a presence on Twitter. I have been using this micro-blogging tool since early in Lent to provide excerpts from morning and evening prayer. The Twitter feed for the Abbey has become quite popular and is now followed by over 750 people, many of whom have become regular attendees at our "Twitter Prayer Services."

Last week, one of our followers suggested we experiment with a more interactive form of prayer, specifically Call and Response. We chose the Celtic Daily Office as the text to use for our experiment since it has explicit Call and Response sections. A date and time was announced and we held our first real-time, online Call and Response prayer service last Saturday, June 27.

The experiment was a great success. I posted the "Call" phrase, e.g. "Out of the depths I have cried to You," and approximately ten or so followers on Twitter posted, in response, "O Lord, hear my voice."

The experiment seemed to be working so well, I decided to continue the Call and Response format into the next section of the prayers that are entitled "Expressions of Faith." I posted the first part of each sentence and the followers responded with the second section. The result looked something like this:

Abbey: "Lord, You have always given bread for the coming day;"
Followers: "And though I am poor, today I believe."
Abbey: "Lord, You have always given strength for the coming day;"
Followers: "And though I am weak, today I believe."

This pattern continued through the rest of the faith expressions section, and by the time I called for prayer requests, my sense was that the Twitter followers had become a true community. I noted expressions of thanks and blessings passing between the followers as the prayer time ended.

Because our Call and Response experiment was such a success, we've decided to repeat it tonight. Reminders are being tweeted throughout the day along with a link to the text. If you wish to join us, we will start around 9:00 pm EDT. Go to to sign in and follow along. We look forward to seeing you at tonight's service!

Raima Larter, Abbess, The Urban Abbey