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.


becky n said...

I like this post very much - found it through twitter.

While my intention wasn't carefully formulated, the outcome is appropriate to this question.
In June I went to a local monastery for a 4 day retreat led by Carolyn Bluemle who is a yoga instructor. She offers retreats where people use their bodies in prayer. Except for the group instruction, and the various liturgies of the day, it was a silent retreat. One afternoon we spent a couple of hours in the chapel singing Taize chants and using choreographed (or spontaneous) movements as prayers.

The days spent there still seem to be digging within me.

George said...

Dear Raima: what a wonderful explanation of this component of our Rule of Life! Thank you for the clarity and the marvelous example from your own life. I realize now that I have been somewhat shoddy in my pursuit of the second part -- "pursue a specifically selected spiritual formation activity annually". You've given a great model for the rest of us to emulate.
Shalom and blessings, George

nancy (aka moneycoach) said...

After reflecting on this question since I first read it, tonight I 'landed' on -- going on an annual spiritual retreat. I'm not entirely sure where, but I have started investigating, and have found one definite possibility in the nearest city to Yellowknife. It's this November, at a catholic retreat centre, and will focus on breathing/prayer. I'm quite excited about this!

Raima said...

Nancy, I am so pleased that my posing of the question, "what will be your annual spiritual formation activity?" has encouraged you to go on retreat. How wonderful!

And, George, I am also glad that you have been similarly inspired to think more deeply about this component of our Rule of Life.

Becky, I have met and participated in Carolyn Bluemle's yoga practice and agree that her approach to prayer using the body is amazingly powerful. Not surprising that the experience is still "digging within you"!

Sue said...

Your activity using your voice and exploring different spiritual disciplines sounds wonderful.

I'm going up to Paso Robles, CA this coming weekend for a retreat conducted by Summer McStravick (the programming director for Hay House Radio), who has a trans-religious spiritual practice she formed a number of years ago because her "monkey mind" prevented traditional meditation.

It involves thinking of ourselves, our world, and God/the divine as energy--and using a combination of guided daydreaming and emotions to unblock one's limiting beliefs and hangups. After this, I can work with others with this as well...

I am looking forward to this. I always had problems with people talking about doing visualizations of EXACTLY what they want in life, as it implied the ego being in charge. Here, you think of God as a verb--God as Flow, a stream of beneficent energy that carries you naturally to what is best--but don't exactly direct the details (kind of like how prayer works best if you don't specify too much)...

I'm looking forward to this, both for some self-healing and being able to help others.

Raima said...

What a wonderful opportunity for you, Sue. Have a great time at this retreat, and let us know what you learned when you get back. Also, I love the idea of "God as a verb" -- what a concept!

Sue said...


We had a wonderful retreat in Paso Robles. What I learned was that God is so much more than a "being"--which we envision as a large human, God in our image as opposed to us being spirit in His/Her/Its image.

I had a lot of healing from our cat Solstice's passing as it moved a lot of energy through me as I accepted my grief, allowed it fully and then let it flow through me.

This is ultimately how God is. Whether it's painful or positive/ecstatic, when we hold onto things, we suffer because God, and we as energies in God's image, are designed to flow, to move, not to stay still or be grasping. While I appreciate being Christian personally, I also appreciate this aspect of Buddhist philosophy and see its wisdom.

I learned that the "no" answers to prayer might not be negative--that they signal that we are not ready for what we prayed for, or something better is coming our way. I have had lots of thoughts about prayer and God during and since and my blog will be busy for a while!