Finding the inner cathedral of peace
Baptist minister Shaun Lambert offers some simple but profound spiritual exercises to help handle heightened anxiety and stress during this Coronavirus pandemic
One of the things I am helping folk with during this Coronavirus pandemic is how to handle heightened anxiety and stress. As a Baptist Minister, contemplative and psychotherapist I know this can be approached spiritually and therapeutically. There are some simple but profound spiritual exercises as well as some excellent therapeutic practices we can use.
The Ananias prayer
I have written a prayer called the Ananias prayer which enables us to be compassionate to our own self as well as to others. It is simple to learn and can be adapted for our own needs. In the Book of Acts in the New Testament in chapter nine Saul has his famous Damascus Road experience. He is on his way to Damascus to arrest followers of The Way (Christians) when he is arrested by the risen Lord Jesus Christ.
Temporarily blind Saul is led into Damascus. A man there called Ananias has a vision from God who asks him to go and pray a prayer of blessing on Saul which will restore his sight and fill him with the compassionate presence of God, the Holy Spirit.
Ananias questions the wisdom of praying for a stranger and an enemy, but God encourages him out of the way of fear into the way of love. It is clear that the prayer of Ananias has a significant impact on Saul. When Saul talks about his encounter with Jesus, which includes the prayer of Ananias when scales fell from his eyes, and he is filled with the Holy Spirit, he says he has had three important experiences.
‘Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.’ (Philippians 3:12)
The word here for ‘took hold’ is literally ‘arrested.’ On the road to Damascus the love of Christ took hold of him.
When the scales fell from his eyes he ‘saw the light’. In 2 Corinthians 4:6 he says, ‘For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.’ This reference to light shining out of darkness goes back to Genesis 1:3 where God said ‘Let there be light.’ So Saul was taken hold of by the love of Christ, and the light of the love of God shone in his heart.
He then says in 1 Timothy 1:13-14, ‘Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.’ The compassionate mercy, grace and love of God were poured into Paul like an overwhelming river.
I felt in part these experiences were because of Ananias’ prayer of befriending and compassion. So I have put them in prayer form that we can pray first for ourselves, family and friends, then a stranger, then an enemy, and finally back for ourselves. In the words of one of Jesus’ most important statements ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 22:39).
These are the prayers:
May the love of Christ take hold of me
May the light of Christ shine in my heart
May the love of Christ flow through me like a river
May the love of Christ take hold of him/her
May the light of Christ shine in his/her heart
May the love of Christ flow through him/her like a river
We pray it for our own self, family and friends, then a stranger, then an enemy and finally for our own self again. Or we can pray it corporately, ‘may the love of Christ take hold of us; may the light of Christ shine in our hearts; may the love of Christ flow through us like a river; and may the love of Christ flow out from us, one to another and to our neighbour.’
You can put your hand on your heart or your breath as you pray to make it an embodied prayer.
The Jesus Prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner’
Another prayer I have found very helpful personally and in helping others is the Jesus Prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.’
Most of our stress and anxiety comes from being stuck in our heads ruminating about the same things. The Jesus Prayer is an embodied prayer, you say the first part, ‘Lord Jesus Christ Son of God,’ on your in-breath, and ‘have mercy on me a sinner’ on your out-breath. The beauty of this is that your body and breath are always in the present moment and you are taken out of the ruminative space in your head.
You can also use a prayer rope as you say the prayer, or you can knit, or knead bread and so on. After 25 repetitions you can pause and intercede for others.
The wandering mind
With an extended prayer like this we often find our minds wandering back to our worries. This is where we can exercise the muscle of attention. In a little article on the Mindful magazine website, Daniel Goleman highlighted the dance steps of the mind in most meditations: focusing our attention, the mind wandering, noticing that the mind has wandered and what it has wandered to, and removing it from where it has become attached and returning to the focus of attention.
Goleman points out that there are four things going on in this dance: focused attention, mind wandering, meta-awareness (noticing your mind has wandered), and detaching from where the mind has wandered and bringing it back.
I noticed that the four steps of this dance begin with four letters that make a mnemonic of two parts, FM & MD.
Meta-Awareness, which notices the mind has wandered
Detaching from where the mind has wandered and directing it back
This popular explanation of the muscle of attention is based on serious research. Wendy Hasenkamp argues that focused attention meditation can help develop attentional control, as well as awareness of such states as mind wandering, enabling us to direct our attention back to what we are focusing on.
The 7/11 breath exercise
A well-known breath exercise called 7/11 is very helpful for calming anxiety. You can place your hand on your stomach and as you breathe in count to seven, and as you breathe out count to eleven. This helps you to trigger your internal relaxation response.
It is important to remember that there is no sacred/secular divide. As well as stressed states of mind we also have the capacity to find calm, still, mindful states of mind. What do you do normally to find such a calm state of mind? It might be singing, listening to music, singing, gardening, having a cup of tea, walking. Do these things every day! These are all spiritual activities where God can find you.
Meditating on a beautiful image
Finally, sometimes meditating on a beautiful image can help us. Here is a painting from Baptist Minister Chris Duffett called ‘Woodland Cathedral. Meeting God in Nature.’
Spend a few minutes contemplating it. If your mind wanders, notice what it has wandered too and direct it back to the painting. Do this for a few minutes. Write down what has spoken to you, or what has emerged for you.
Here are some words you can use to follow up as a meditative prayer whilst still contemplating the painting:
As I walk in this woodland cathedral, I feel hope (say your feelings)
I recollect times from my past I have felt God’s loving presence close to me
(picture that time and notice feelings of gratitude and thankfulness)
I practise gratitude now
(speak out some prayers of gratitude)
I practise thanksgiving now
(speak out some prayers of thanksgiving)
Because I remember your goodness to me in the past
I can trust you with my present
I can trust you with my future
May I walk with you again in a woodland cathedral
Shaun Lambert is a trained counsellor and psychotherapist as well as being Senior Minister of Stanmore Baptist Church. He is the author of A Book of Sparks – a Study in Christian MindFullness, and Putting on the Wakeful One.