Reflection, Contemplation, and Prayer:
A Triad of Spiritual Awareness
Part 2: Interlude One
It is my intention in this series to offer a brief outline of the process of spiritual growth through active (physical) and mental (spiritual) participation. This is in no way an exhaustive instruction, but rather a starting point from which you may venture into spiritual deepening. As this is a brief and somewhat cursory study, I’m focused more on the practical than the theological understanding of the topic. Further study must be pursued once your practice has begun.
First, let’s look at the relationship between mental and spiritual being. As we seek to grow in our spiritual life and experience union/communion with God in a more profound way, we must embrace the plain and simple reality of our physical being. We are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14) in the likeness of God. As “creatures” of a Creator God, the complex and amazing interplay of our physical being is intended to be discovered. In the first paragraph, I said this is…a brief outline of the process of spiritual growth through active (physical) and mental (spiritual) participation.
The ability to access our spiritual self is often difficult and confusing. Further, as people not well-versed in spiritual development beyond a passive reception of the divine expression, it is hard to pinpoint exactly what “spiritual self” even means. When we hear the term “spirituality,” we may understand it by trying to reduce the memory of our spiritual experiences into “focused thoughts about God with good feelings while in a quiet place.” This is an understandable solution to the questions, “what is it really?” and “how do I do it?”
All things come to us through the mental process. God has designed our brains to function as organic computers. Our brain acts independently from our thoughts, or our will, by receiving information and adjusting accordingly. The brain also passes information to the mind, through which the practice of spiritual growth is undertaken.
A side note on the brain/mind: the brain is defined as that organ of a specific shape and process located in our head, whereas the mind is often considered a phenomena, the hypothetical center of thought, reasoning, perception, and memory. In the scientific process, the mind is defined by its function and it cannot be ‘located’ or quantified; in short, it is a mystery.
It is through the mind that God is made known to us and through the mind that we encounter and embrace the community of the Divine Trinity. We feel and reflect on information and sensations we receive from somewhere else. Outside of us–the door slamming, a bee flying by; or inside of us–a stomachache; these things are made known to us and we think about them.
Even spiritual events start as sensations we cannot explain, radiating from within, but originating from without. Once these sensations are perceived, we think about them: mental (spiritual) participation. This is not a betrayal of the desire for a pure spiritual encounter, rather it is the hallowed ground on which God calls us to walk as it is sanctified by the feet of the Son.
God created us to be a thinking, understanding likeness of God’s self. This is where spiritual growth begins. C. S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. . . . He likes matter. He invented it” (64). Here, Lewis is simply repeating the observable truth of human creation reflected in the Book of Genesis Chapter 1. In his book, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, Lewis continues with a deeper dive into the hallowed dignity of the human body and God’s plan:
But for our body one whole realm of God’s glory—all that we receive through the senses—would go upraised. For the beasts can’t appreciate it and the angels are, I suppose, pure intelligences. They understand colors and tastes better than our greatest scientists; but have they retinas or palates? I fancy the “beauties of nature” are a secret God has shared with us alone. That may be one of the reasons why we were made—and why the resurrection of the body is an important doctrine. (pg. 17)
As God intended, we must engage our minds to encounter our spiritual lives. Many people become aware of their spiritual life, or the existence of the spiritual realm, through dramatic divine encounters. We have all heard the stories of the atheist who died and saw God, or the agnostic, Muslim, or Jew who encountered Jesus unsought for and unexpected, but most of them are not so blessed.
The facility to encounter God in a miraculous way is certainly possible and solely of God’s initiation, but it is not to be expected and cannot be orchestrated. Rather, God has created us to seek after God and has told us that in seeking we will be found! Our participation in the “spiritual growth process” is the vital ingredient, the necessary additive, the essential addition to the plan that God has for our “finding.”
Now that you have a template for prayer (part 1 of this series), the addition of mental consistency will lead to spiritual awareness. From now until your prayer time, think about your prayers. Think about your prayer time. Think about what that means and what you hope God will do with you when you go to God. Use your brain to prime the pump for your spirit. God specifically made us this way and we were made this way for a reason.
In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis explains that where the body goes the mind will follow. This is, of course, paradoxical–for how could the body go anywhere the mind did not lead it; but Lewis is making a point. When we put effort into something and move ourselves to that something even in part, the other part will eventually join in (most often to our detriment). To expand on Lewis’ point, where the mind goes the spirit will follow. Take your mind to God, deliver your thoughts to the Lord, radiate your concerns heavenly, consciously, and with effort, and you will find your spirit will follow–and there you will be found.
Next week, back to the process:
Reflection: 1. Approaching a time, object, memory, or circumstance with the intention of seeing God at work. 2. Engaging a time, object, memory, or circumstance, such as recalling a memory or looking at a crucifix, focused on God to perceive God reflected in the moment/object.
Thinking about God,
Father Bill Burk†