How can you draw close to God when you are far from your own self? Grant, Lord, that I may know myself, that I may know thee. Augustine
There is no deep knowing of God without a deep knowing of the self and no deep knowing of self without a deep knowing of God. Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion
What is the sensation of prayer, the sensation of God?
There is a mutual relationship between knowing yourself and knowing God. You can’t know God separately from knowing yourself. God and you are neither separate nor separable. To attend to yourself is to attend to God; to attend to God is to attend to yourself.
Attention that leads to knowledge does not mean questioning, inquiry, analysis, or thinking things through. Attention is awake presence, trusting that this will unveil a deeper knowing.
This self that you come to know is not the identity you get from inventing yourself, from your rôles, or possessions, or from the opinions of others. It is the being-creature you are as this body: solid, incarnate, inhabiting space and matter, alive.
If you say you do not have a sense of the presence of God, you are not present, you do not have a sense, a felt-sense, of yourself. This is an invitation from God-as-self to a deeper knowing.
Here are 10 steps towards this knowledge. These steps are not simply linear or a recipe for success. They flow back and forth, round and round. Each is a practice in itself. None is easy; none is without its pitfalls. Go slowly. There is no rush, no need to do it all at once.
- Stop. The first step on this journey is to sit down. Close your eyes. Breathe. Stop looking outside yourself. All the time you look outside yourself you are not present to yourself so you cannot be present to God. Withdraw all your feelers. Look within.
- Feel into this body. Relax and feel into your pelvic floor and lower belly. ‘Feeling into‘ is difficult to write about in a clear way, yet is the essence of what I want to say. Feel or imagine sinking down into yourself, like the soft rain of presence sinking into parched soil of this body; so ‘you’ are all of this body, not just in the head. It may not be comfortable. Stick with it. Your mind will wander. Indeed, as you start, your thoughts may well race. Stick with it. Come back to this body, relax your sphincter, settle back into your belly. Remember to breathe. Breathing all the way down through the solar plexus into your belly is an affirmation of incarnation, an assertion of your birthright to take up space, your place in the world, in the family of things. There may be voices which suggest that you ought to want more than this, you ought to be doing more than this, that this is not making the most of your life. “Perhaps this will seem like an irresponsible attitude, but I tell you, let them all be; pay no attention to them” (The Could of Unknowing, Ch.3)
- Come home to yourself. All of the above is to help you come home to yourself and to your deepest desires. This is a visceral experience. There’s a crucial shift of attention, of being, from your head, from thinking and observing, into your torso, into being. Do not come to God with things on your heart, petitions to ask, questions to work out. It may be hard to trust this at first, it is a different way of knowing and being, but you are not going to find yourself, know yourself, know God, unless you come home to yourself. This is a kind of asceticism. It is withdrawing the senses for a time, like a tortoise or a snail withdrawing inside its shell. Is is eschewing entertainments; you won’t find yourself on the TV. It is eschewing knowledge: you will not find yourself or God in books, however high-minded they are.
- Accept yourself. Be kind to yourself. You may discover aches and pains – physical, emotional and existential – you knew nothing about, or which you avoid with activity. Be gentle. Coming to know yourself is an opportunity for acceptance, not condemnation. Feel into your heart and let it open with kindness towards yourself.
- Attend and listen to yourself. “Prayer is properly not petition, but simply attention to God which is a form of love.” (Iris Murdoch, On ‘God’ and ‘Good’.) Pay attention to yourself. What is going on in your body? Where do you feel that? What does it feel like to be you? This is not an interrogation. It is an invitation. It is offering yourself the gift of being heard. Allow this body to tell ‘you’ what it needs you to hear. (Of course, you are this body.)
- Open & loosen your boundaries. Relax the boundaries between you and the surroundings. Open your ears. Open your chest and back. Be open to sounds and sensations. Say to yourself, “God”. There may be an uncovering and pulling away of layers of closedness and defence. With each layer is a further quantum of relaxation and trust, of opening to God and being present. It is entering another world, one in which God is no longer an object on your landscape, but is the centre of the Universe; God is the landscape, in which you live and move and have your being, in which your life is given its true context and meaning as a subject. You are taking your true, small place in God’s concern (pun intended); and then, because it is God’s concern, you can let go of your concern and trust that everything is in hand.
- Be grateful. Gratitude is the fundamental human response to God. Better, gratitude is the fundamental human experience of God. It is why Morning Prayer often begins with Psalm 95: “Let us come into His presence with thanksgiving and be glad in Him with psalms.” It is why St Paul exhorts us to, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” (1 Thess 5.16-18) Gratitude is a feeling in the heart. Let your heart open to God in gratitude. There need be no words. Feeling gratitude can change your whole attitude to life, and the whole sensation of yourself.
- Be present. The sensation of prayer – of God – is the sensation of being present; you are being present, body and soul, to God who is always present. You are invited to live now; to live with less; to let go of planning – not ‘hurrying onto a receding future’; to let go of the past – of regrets, of ‘hankering after an imagined past’. Letting go is the negative side of something immensely positive: to know yourself and God, now; to know that you have everything you need.
- Read the primary texts. Every spiritual practice of silence must be balanced with word or picture. This is the value of the daily offices of prayer. Prayer does not move on from reading scripture; and every practice has its sacred texts. Read… each… word… with… heart… as… if… you… are… speaking… it… to… God… with… feeling. Then the words become less a message you endeavour to understand and more the slow, deliberate and honest articulation of the desires of your heart. This process can be however you pray: sitting listening for God, writing a poem, throwing a pot. You return time and again to the primary texts.
- Practice. You won’t get it the first time. You continue to clear space in which to know yourself, and in which God, the creative spirit/Spirit, can come through, hampered by as little noise as possible. You practice this over and over, day in and day out, in order to get it, so it can become second nature.
We seek validation to be the people we most deeply are from external sources, especially from the people around us, when that validation is already deep within us, from God, and differently from how we usually think of it. Slowly, over time, we come to see that we are validated by our existence, by the Creator, by virtue of the mere fact of being God’s creature, and not by our accomplishments. To breathe, to walk, to see, to hear, to feel: these are accomplishments enough.
This is to ‘pray without ceasing‘.