I am delighted to share another beautiful submission for the Monk in the World guest post series from the community. Read on for Kieran Hayes's reflection titled My Spiritual Life in Six Pieces.
I sit on a cushion on the floor, legs folded, and bring awareness to the gentle tide of the breath rising and falling on the shore of my body. I am aware of sounds, of thoughts, of feelings. I get distracted, lost in thought, and then I return again to the breath which anchors me in the present moment. I come home to myself and the now, again and again.
This practice has been a still point in my life and spiritual practice for some twenty years. I hope that it bleeds into my ordinary days and makes a positive difference to the people I meet in some way.
I find a refuge in mindfulness practice and in the awareness that perceives change but is itself changeless. But I need more and that more is Christ. As the psalmist sings, God’s love is faithful from age to age. I can learn to have faith in God’s faithfulness to me, his loving presence as I walk the twisting, muddy path of my life. In my relationship with Jesus of Nazareth and his Abba I find another still point in a fleeting world.
The world around me moves with relentless speed and is riven with conflict. I am restless and hungry and have changed so much over the years. Here I give an archaeology of my spiritual search in six pieces. These pieces are important because they help me to be still, to connect with and offer myself to God. Each is a marker on my way and symbol of a spiritual practice. If I am to live with a mind of peace, a heart of compassion, I need time to breathe, to be and to pray. I need stillness. I am on the way, I will always be on the way, but I am learning to be still on the way.
Zafu is the Japanese word for a meditation cushion and is associated particularly with Zen Buddhism. The essential practice of Zen is Zazen or sitting meditation, simply sitting with the breath and observing thoughts arise and pass away. Posture is important too. I find sitting on a cushion on the floor very grounding; the feet, knees and pelvis form a triangle that gives a solid base for the trunk and head. The American Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield writes that we must learn to ‘take the one seat’, to choose a practice and commit to it through thick and thin. Mindfulness meditation is a way for me to cultivate stillness, physically, emotionally and mentally.
The Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has a wonderful saying: ‘Listen, listen, the wonderful sound of the bell brings me home to my true self.’ I savour this phrase when I hear the bells of the local church ringing at noon every day. I try to remember to pause, take a breath and be still for a moment. It is a call to mindfulness and also to prayer, to the presence of Christ with me. In the psalms a bell signifies celebration: ‘Come, ring out our joy to God, the living God.’ The bell is a call to awakening and to the realisation of the kingdom of God within.
Japanese incense has a light fragrance and I like to see those fine threads of smoke rising before the Icon on my coffee-table altar, or to see them illumined in sunlight. Incense creates a calm atmosphere for meditation and invites me to return to my senses, to the now. I begin morning prayer by circling a stick of incense before the Icon of Jesus and one of the Mother and child; it is a gesture of love, gratitude and reverence. Incense teaches me that life is fleeting as smoke, as cherry blossoms. In stillness I am alive to its beauty, accept its transience, cultivate gratitude, and kiss the joy as it flies.
On one of my earliest visits to the Benedictine monastery of Glenstal Abbey I spoke to one of the monks about The Cloud of Unknowing, the mystical text by an anonymous 13th century monk who urges us to send up a ‘sharp dart of longing love’ towards God. Beneath the monastery church in Glenstal there is an icon chapel, a hushed and holy place. Here hangs the icon of the ‘healing Christ’, the compassionate Christ who suffers because I suffer, God’s self-portrait. In his left arm he cradles the gospels, open at Matthew 11:28-30: ‘Come to me, you who are burdened, and I will give you rest.’ His eyes are dark, starless ovals.
For centuries morning and evening have been times of prayer and special closeness to God. In the monastic tradition, Lauds (meaning ‘praises’) celebrates the gift of life and the new day; Compline (meaning ‘complete’) is an entrusting of ourselves to God’s loving embrace, to night and to death. The psalms are the songs of God’s people; they are great religious poetry which gives voice to deep human emotions of joy, gratitude, fear, despair and anger. They give me permission to be fully human. A beautiful prayer at Compline from Glenstal:
As shadows overwhelm the skies
Shine in our hearts eternal light;
Stay with us, Lord, as daylight dies,
Let angels guard us through the night.
This shawl was a gift from two close friends who are a couple, Tina and Danny. I associate it with their loving friendship and use it to keep warm when I am meditating, covering my knees and legs or wrapping it over my shoulders. The fringes make me think of the tasselled Jewish Tallit or prayer shawl which is worn at morning prayer as the Shema Israel, ‘Hear, O Israel’, is recited. The holiest prayer of Judaism is a reminder that God is One and a call to love the Lord with all my heart, with all my mind, with all my strength.
Kieran Hayes (b.1973) is a writer and Spiritual Director (Milltown Institute). His areas of study include desert and Benedictine spirituality, Ignatian spirituality, and contemplative prayer. He works with individuals and groups in the areas of spirituality and personal growth. In 2013 he became an Oblate of Glenstal Benedictine Abbey in County Limerick, Ireland. He lives in Furbo, County Galway, in the West of Ireland.