“The spiritual life starts with awareness”
Dr. David Benner
As we post this article, the Church calendar has turned through Advent, Christmas and Epiphany to what we call Ordinary Time. During special times of the year, with their particular services or practices, we might find it easier to be aware of the activity and presence of God in our lives. Even the sights and smells of our cultural celebrations can invite us to pay attention to that which is beyond our physical experience. But perhaps during ‘ordinary times’ our awareness of God – and of ourselves on our journey with Him – can wane.
There is a lot of talk these days of ‘mindfulness’ and, for some, this terminology makes us feel a little uncomfortable. Is mindfulness a good thing for Christians? What does mindfulness have to do with the Christian life?
1. conscious or aware of something
2. synonyms: aware of, conscious of, alive to, sensible of, alert to, awake to, acquainted with, heedful of, watchful of, careful of, cognizant of.
To be mindful is really to be awake, or alert. It’s what you might call being aware, or paying attention. If you imagine your life with God as a journey – a journey towards becoming more fully yourself in the context of your relationship with God and with others – then to be fully engaged with Him requires you to be alert. Have you ever been hiking with a friend, chatting and laughing along the way, when suddenly you realise that you’ve wandered off the trail? Or perhaps you regularly drive a particular route to work or school, and some days you arrive at your destination without really knowing how you got there?
Your life is a journey towards becoming more fully yourself
in the context of your relationship with God and others
Awareness in Scripture
In Luke chapter 24 the Bible tells us about a couple of disciples who, in a similar way to us perhaps, had a struggle with staying alert. These were people who had been living with Jesus and following Him, who were on their way from Jerusalem – where Jesus had just been crucified – to a village called Emmaus that was about 7 miles (or 11 kilometres) away. The men were talking about everything that had been going on, no doubt going back and forth about how it was possible for things to have ended in the way they did, with the death of the one they believed to be Messiah. Along the way, another man joined them and got involved in their conversation. He must have walked some distance with them, because he had time to explain to them what the Scriptures foretold about Jesus. All this time, they did not recognise the man as Jesus Himself! It wasn’t until they got to the house where they were headed, and Jesus broke bread at the table, that they became aware of who He was!
If those men, who had lived with Jesus and were physically with Him in that moment, could still be oblivious to His presence, then how much more are we likely to be unaware of Him? Spiritual wakefulness is a state we have to cultivate; it doesn’t come naturally. As human beings, we are often dull to our own inner realities and insensitive to the invitation of God to us at any particular time. In fact, we even train ourselves not to pay attention to things within us that are painful, or shameful, or we just don’t know how to fix. For all of us, it is easy to become dull, so that even mature believers or those in full-time ministry are often in need of an awakening (hard to believe, I know.)
The author David Benner writes that, ‘The spiritual life starts with awareness.’ I think what he means by this is that a person encounters God most deeply when she can be honest about her true self – her questions, doubts and shortcomings as well as her longings and desire for change. This truth-telling brings about a deepening forward movement that can continue throughout our lives, one that takes us from self-deception to self-awareness. We don’t get well spiritually if we aren’t honest, so being disabused of our illusions about ourselves, while painful, is crucial to our growth.
We don’t get well spiritually if we are not honest.
Perhaps the Apostle Paul was thinking about awareness when he prayed this prayer for the Ephesian church: “I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know Him better. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which He has called you, the riches of His glorious inheritance in His holy people, and His incomparably great power for us who believe” (Ephesians 1,17-19).
What Paul refers to as having the ‘eyes of your heart’ enlightened’ in modern-day parlance might be called mindfulness or awareness. While in pop culture, mindfulness is thought of as an individual practice and a way of finding peace, Christians are invited to pay attention both to their own inner landscape and to the presence and activity of God.
Paul conveys this beautifully in his prayer. He is praying that through the ministry of Holy Spirit, his friends will wake up to the reality of God, to who they are in Him and to what He has called them to become. He doesn’t only want them to believe truth, but to experience it. David Benner reminds us, “Christ is present if only we would see him”. As we become aware of Him, we see the God who loves us and this motivates us to change. It is this movement to consciousness that enables us to seek God wholeheartedly and for this reason Benner claims that “being aware and awake is at the core of the spiritual life.” (Benner, 2011)
Expert in Christian formation, Dallas Willard, wrote: “It is only by seeking that we are pulled out of who we are and into who we can be in Christ” (2013). His emphasis on seeking shows how central awareness is to our Christian journey – how can we seek unless we are aware of our need for something we do not yet have? And of course, during our lifetimes we pass through not one, but successive awakenings. Each time becoming more clear about who we are and who God is, each time being gifted with an opportunity to say ‘yes’ to God’s invitations. As we do, we move along this transformational journey in which we are becoming who we most deeply and truly are in God. (Benner, 2012)
Certain factors create favourable conditions for this transformational journey.
4 Ways to come to Awareness
1. Through the practice of spiritual disciplines (see our 4 part series on transformational practices).
Spiritual disciplines help us to become more conscious of the realities of our inner life and the ways these realities affect our relationship with God and others.
2. Through the disruption of trials or crises.
Challenging life circumstances often cause us to face the parts of ourselves that we successfully cover over (consciously or subconsciously) when things are easier.
3. Through engaging the 5 senses (see part 3 of this series).
Paying deliberate attention to what we see, hear, taste, touch or smell can help us to be more present to the current moment and creates space for us to connect with thoughts and feelings we would otherwise find hard to articulate.
4. Through learning to be reflective.
Developing a practice of journaling, or responding to reflective questions about the ways we are experiencing life in this season, helps us to observe our own healthy and unhealthy patterns and make intentional choices towards godly growth.
A Practice to Cultivate Awareness: The Prayer of Examen
One such reflective practice is the Prayer of Examen. This prayer is evidence that through the centuries Christians have understood the value of living reflectively. Rather than being a new fad, it is in fact a way of life we would do well to reclaim! Ignatius of Loyola, who is well-known for his central message that we can find God in all things, was the first to introduce what has become known as the Prayer of Examen.
- Relish: begin simply by becoming aware of God’s presence with you.
- Request the Spirit: take a few minutes to look back over your day with gratitude.
- Review the day: pay attention to those times today when you did not act lovingly.
- Repent: ask God to set you straight again, receive forgiveness and ask for wisdom.
- Resolve: consider tomorrow and choose some concrete ways to live well with God’s help.
By praying in this way at the close of each day, we can learn to live more reflectively and more aware of the ways God is present to us. We can take this daily opportunity to notice our own tendencies towards fear, or self-reliance, or withdrawal, as well as to appreciate the ways we are free to express love and connection to others. We become more aware of the ways God is inviting us to live more fully in His love.
As with all spiritual practices, this is not a ‘quick fix to awareness!’ Try making the Examen reflection part of your day for a week, then a month. Journal some of the ways this new habit is helping you to be aware of the presence of God throughout your day. Notice perhaps the ways you are acting differently because of this new awareness.
In the meantime
There are many Apps to help you practice Examen reflections. Check your App Store for Pray as You Go or Reimagining the Examen to get your started.
Read Reimagining the Ignatian Examen: Fresh Ways to Pray from Your Day by Mark Thibodeaux.
Read more on this topic
David Benner (2012) Spirituality and the Awakening Self: The Sacred Journey of Transformation.
Tish Harrison Warren (2016) Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life.
Ken Gire (1996) Windows of the Soul: Hearing God in the Everyday Moments of Your Life.