Saturday, 8 March 2014

Belonging and Spiritual Practice

“Belonging” is a word that has been growing in my heart these last few weeks and months. There is good reason for this. I have been feeling a deepening sense of belonging to all that is life. No doubt this is due, in no small part, to the extent that my internal barriers have been removed. As a result I have found myself connecting more and more to my true self, to the people around me, the life in which we all share and that eternal spirit that runs through all life, that I name God. If I have learnt anything in life I have learnt that the more open I become the more this sense of belonging grows.

Sadly “Our Allen”, my step brother, recently died and I was ask to lead the family aspect of his funeral, to hold our nearest and dearest through this painful time. I travelled down to Northamptonshire the night before the funeral and spent the evening with his ex-wife Karen and their two sons Joe and Tom. We talked for hours; it was so beautiful to connect, even in the difficult circumstances we faced together. During the conversation I made reference to “Our Mand”(our sister). At which point “Our Joe” said how much he loved this expression and how it had a real sense of openness and belonging. He said that it was not just about individual relationships but how people belonged together in a more corporate sense. During the conversation Ester, “Our Joe’s” fiancée said how much she enjoyed becoming part of our large and complicated family. There was real genuine warmth in her words. A couple of weeks later I asked “Our Joe” if he would explain exactly what he meant that evening to which he replied:

“Our Danny, as an example, invites not only your family and friends but also the person you’re speaking with, to be involved in the relationship with that person. It’s a lovely way to bring people together. As a wise man once said, all the best things come from Yorkshire!”

The wise man “Our Joe” was referring to was “Our Al”, “Our Joe and Tom’s” dad and my brother.

“Our Joe” is a wise young man. The “our” relationship is not closed, it is open. There is very much a sense of belonging within it and one that is an invitation to all.

Openness breeds belonging and belonging breeds openness. The last few weeks have revealed more deeply this truth to me. It is not always easy to live this way, especially when the storms of life come. This is why spiritual practice is so important. It has been through prayer and other spiritual practices that I have been able to stay open and develop this sense of belonging. Prayer meditation and other forms of practice are vital aspects of my life; they breed concentration and compassion within me and allow me to experience all that is life.

Spiritual practice is something I am going to be focusing on this Lenten season. Most people focus on giving things up in Lent, on a kind of physical self sacrifice. Last year I focused on encouraging the congregations I serve to see what we could give to life, rather than what we could give up. Now whether our focus is on giving things up or on giving to, to maintain it for 40 days is difficult. This is where spiritual practice comes in. It will hold us in our commitment when temptation comes in. I am certain that it is this that sustained Jesus in those forty days he spent in the wilderness fasting as it did throughout his ministry. How many times do we hear of him wandering off alone, to pray in silence, in those Gospel accounts?

In the Gospel accounts there is only one prayer that Jesus taught. This is found in “The Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 6 vv 9-13) This prayer has become known as “The Lord’s Prayer” or “The Prayer of Jesus”. It is perhaps the most well known prayer in this country. I am asked to include it during most of the funerals I conduct, even for people who are not “very religious”. When I say to the family of the bereaved that it would be wise to include the words in the order of service they always look at me ever so slightly perplexed and say something along the lines of “surely everyone knows the Lord’s Prayer”. My mum said the same thing to me as we were making arrangements for my grandad’s funeral recently.

I have grown to love the Lord’s Prayer. Why? Some may well ask. Well because it is very much a “we” and not an “I” prayer. It begins with the word “Our” not “My”. Later on it asks “give us this day our daily bread” and “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” There is a real sense of belonging in this prayer, rather like the quaint Yorkshirism of referring to people belonging to one another as, “Our so and so”. The belonging found in this prayer is not in some exclusive sense or closed sense, I find invitation in these words. It is a prayer of openness and belonging.

That said some claim that they feel excluded by the language used. That it uses sexist language as the prayer is addressed to God as “Father”. This is why many have re-written the prayer using gender neutral language or by addressing God as “Mother”. There are a variety of beautiful versions of this prayer out there, I commend them to you. Others have also had trouble with the idea of a distant God “Our Father who art in heaven.” I understand completely both these problems and see clearly why some find the prayer excluding for these reasons. Yet for me in this simple “Our” there is something embracing and holding and inviting in this prayer. In recent weeks I have discovered something beautifully open in these words as my gaze has moved beyond the limits of ancient language.

click here to find alternative versions of "The Lord's Prayer"

Throughout the Gospels when Jesus prays he usually goes off alone to commune in silence. When he does pray out loud it is usually in anguish. Except for this one time when he is asked by the disciples how they should pray and he teaches them “The Lord’s Prayer”. The prayer is a communal prayer which begins with the word “Our”. A word that as “Our Joe” said invites all into relationship. I see it as an open prayer and one of belonging.

I was asked the other day by one of my congregants where I go to for support. My simple answer is that I have people who I can talk with, but the truth is it is prayer and other spiritual practices that hold me and sustain me in difficult times. Well actually prayer is at the core of all that I do, whatever the physical circumstances of my life, as vital as food and water. I pray a lot. Prayer for me is primarily about opening up and connecting to my true self, to life and to God, that loving essence that binds all life together. I don’t prayer to some kind of “Uber Person” in some distant realm, well not literally at least. My prayer is an extension beyond myself that invites myself into relationship with everything and everything into relationship with me. Prayer for me is both an opening and a connecting experience. Prayer somehow helps me to belong to everything; prayer enables me to become “Our Danny” in every single sense.

Prayer of course is not the only spiritual practice. There are many and varied ways to connect with ourselves, with others, with everything and with the Divine. Every religious tradition whether theistic or non-theistic has at its core a contemplative practice, whether that be prayer or a form of meditation or the development of wonder. Gazing at the stars and the sea is a prayer to me. Spiritual Practice need not be static or solemn either. They can be physical too, such as walking and or dancing mindfully. I myself love “Singing Meditation”, a practice that is all about joy and connection.

A spiritual practice is something that needs to be engage with regularly and whose purpose is to develop individual spiritually, beyond the merely material and to challenge us to open our minds, our hearts and our souls. One common metaphor used by the spiritual traditions is that they move us along a path towards a goal. The goal for me is to move us beyond the confines of ourselves so that we welcome all to us and us to all.

Spiritual practice is both personal and universal. Its purpose is personal spiritual development and yet it breeds so much more than that. It opens us up to true belonging. As we belong we invite others to come and join in relationship with themselves, all life and whatever it is that they understand is at the core of it all. Spiritual Practice is at the core of all that I am and all that I do these days. It is something I will be attempting to develop in the coming weeks so as to give up and let go of the things that keep me from all that is, all that has been and all that will be and all that stops me from giving all that I can to life.

This Lent I will continue to practice belonging and to become “Our Danny” in all aspects of life. I invite you join with me.


  1. Thank you. Not for the first time have your words been timely in bringing comfort and perspective. x