Here is a quick introductory PODcast for those interested in Christian contemplation. Father Nicholas Amato, a Christian Wellness Guru, takes us through the exercise. Below are two options for 15 minutes or just 5 minutes of silence. Father Nicholas goes over breathing techniques and how to use a short prayer to help you “float like a feather on the breath of God.” We’ve added a little music to help you get use to the silence.
Father Nicholas Amato is a catholic priest, contemplative and author of several books including the 2021 book, Happiness and Joy: Can a Spiritual Life Have Both? He’s 80-years young, runs three miles a day and walks another 15,000 steps. After talking with Ftr. Amato for a short while, you get the impression that he is just about the wellest person you’ll ever meet.
Ftr. Amato is also the creator of the Mepkin Wellness Program, a diet, fitness, mindfulness and community support training for parish priests run from Mepkin Abbey Monastery in South Carolina. Mepkin was founded by the same Trappist Order that founded Gethsemane Abbey, in Kentucky. Ftr. Amato is a contemporary of Thomas Merton, Basil Pennington and the founders of the Centering Prayer movement. Ftr. Amato is a graduate of the Shalem Institute in Washington, DC.
If you like Richard Rohr and Cynthia Bourgeois, you will love Ftr. Amato. He is like a cross between Thomas Keating and a fitness coach. We talk about “the four legs” of the table of wellness practice, dreaming big and thinking small, tips on how to stay awake during contemplation and the differences between chasing happiness and waking up to joy.
The interview ends with a ten minute breathing exercise and 5 minutes of sitting silently in God’s presence.
For more on Ftr. Amato check out his highly instructional book, Living in God, Contemplative Prayer and Contemplative Action
This a lovely practical, concise and specific book, written in a gentle voice and filled with step-by-step advice for cultivating a closer relationship with the presence of God.
Happiness and Joy is an excellent book designed to function as a retreat guide or book club focus. It brings one through a spiritual journey to discover the wellspring of joy that pours out of our hearts when we “finally fill the God-shaped hole” inside ourselves.
Happy Easter to all of you. At a time we are celebrating the bodily resurrection of Christ, and remembering the promise of our own eternal bodily life in the age to come, it is important to remember the real goal of the Christian life here on Earth.
Easter is always a little bit of an awkward time for us here. It is the most important time of the year for Christians, but being on the Orthodox calendar (resurrection being on May 2nd this year) we are always a little out of sync with the rest of our community. In the Christian East we do not use the term Easter, we use the term Pascha. This is just the Greek word for Passover. For us, the resurrection is part of the ancient thread of remembrance of the passing over of death promise of eternal life promised to us found in the Way of Christ Jesus. Which is…the same things for all Christian. We just sort of use different words and say it with a Greek or Russian accent. Ha!
The assembly of Christians (the Church) is one that is lived in corporeal (bodily) spirituality. It is one that is found in corporate (groups of bodies) worship. Unlike other religions that focus on spiritual practices, such a Buddhism or the Vedic Yogas, Christian unity with God CANNOT be achieve from one’s own efforts alone, nor can Christians acquire the Holy Spirit alone. We rely on participation of God in our Soteria. By that I mean our spiritual salvation and our bodily and mental wellness. For spiritual salvation we need the will of God. For everything else, we need each other for support. By the same measure, Christians are somewhat unique in their call for group worship– where Christ dwells in our midst [Matt 18:20].
PraXis is about supporting your Christian life with spiritual practices that also improve health outcomes. That’s because Christianity is bodily religion. In many ways the Church has lost sight of that fact, and is trying to get back on track. Christian wellness is emerging in the US as a new category in the industry. We welcome that fact and hope to be a part of the resurrection of bodily focus in the Church.
Fitness wellness is not a goal in and of itself. Having a spiritual life is not a goal in and of itself. To be fit or to be religious can easily lead one to pride and vainglory (spiritual pride). As Jesus tells us, we are to live the Jewish law of Shema, to love the Lord your God. And as is said in John 13:34, we show this love by loving one another. Not an easy task. But, one that Paul puts into perspective for any who might rest on the laurels of their fitness, religious or spiritual accomplishments.
Here Paul is speaking to the church he has planted in Corinth. This is a particularly unruly group of Greek converts. They have acquired a lot of spiritual powers (gifts) but still, they behave badly, committing acts of pride, adultery, and selfishness and with divided loyalties. Paul puts it all in perspective:
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails.
But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.
For now, we see only see through a darkened window; [When God comes] then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known [by God].
And [for] now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
It’s a lesson I often need to remind myself of. I’m not doing it for myself. I’m doing it so that I can love and help others.
God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.'” Gen. 1:29
Great Lent is a wonderful time to start integrating the practice of Christian fasting into your life. As you know, Lent (the lengthening of days) is a time of spiritual reflection in remembrance of Jesus’s 40 days fasting and praying in the desert. Here the Christian fasting tradition aligns nicely with the healthy benefits of plant-based dieting. This plant-based diet includes avoiding highly processed foods, heavy portions of carbs and lowing sugar (including alcohol).
Fasting is one of the oldest known Christian spiritual practices. The origins are, of course, Jewish. The extremity of these fasts vary greatly throughout Christian history. The “Angelic diet,” as it is sometimes referred to looks back to the what Adam and Eve ate in the Garden of Eden for its inspiration.
We only recommend a reasonable diet, which includes eating only plant-based foods on Wednesday and Friday. This is a typical practice in the Eastern Church for all lay Christians. This practice is so old it is mentioned in the Didache [did-ah-kay], a first-century manual for training Christians.
Here is a fun article on how the Greeks eat during the Lenten fast. It looks delicious. Remember that some fasts include seafood and fish on certain days. We recommend skipping all the complexity of Orthodox fasting and just go plant-based. It makes it easier on everyone.
Also, the Daniel Fast has become very poplar in some circles. That is more often a cleanse diet, or people take on a fasting challenge for a given period of time. Here is a link to a spreadsheet of recipes compiled for you by A Couple Cooks.
A healthy immune system is essential for reducing your risk for cancer because it can recognize and attack mutations in cells before they can progress to disease.
Plant foods reduce inflammation. Plants’ essential nutrients work to resolve inflammation in your body. The same tiny phytochemicals and antioxidants that boost your immune system also go around your body neutralizing toxins from pollution, processed food, bacteria, viruses and more.
Plant-based means a majority of your food is plant-based not all
Try to change your diet SLOWLY. People who are go big, or go home, ussually wind up going home in the long haul. We want you in this thing until Judgement Day. So, slow and stead wins the race on this tome.
The group started off with 20 minutes (recording below) of sanctified or Christian Yoga, and then went right into 20 minutes of Centering Prayer. For the last week, Jamie and I have been using the coupon code (PRAXIS)for Ruah Space classes and combining a morning workout with Centering Prayer. Here are the results we have been getting:
The morning routine, about 40 minutes, is grounding us in a daily practice that helps us reset each morning
Both of our fitness practice have gone to pot during COVID, so we are finding the Yoga is a great way to rebuild core strength before we relaunch into weight training or more rigorous exercise.
After the Yoga, our bodies are very relaxed. In Centering Prayer, all my bodily awareness sort of melts away. I’m much more centered and resting in my heart and mind on being still with God. The urge to scratch, wiggle in my chair, or move around disappears.
In this state of mental relaxation, I also am not as frustrated by thoughts arising in my mind. In Centering Prayer or Ceaseless Prayer, thoughts will come and go and when they do we observe them and then return back to our sacred work or short prayer. This can be frustrating when it happens over and over and over again for 20 minutes. But after Yoga, I find myself in a relaxed, excepting state of awareness. I am much more at peace with my body and thoughts.
You can try to practice along with on with this video, or join us at our new time, Thursday nights at 6 pm, PST, via MeetUp and Zoom.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the official beginning of Lent, the 40 days leading up to Easter (for the Western Church). Lent comes from a German word for “lengthening.” The spring is coming and the sunlight days are lengthening as life returns. This is a time for introspection and mediation on the Lord, in honor and communion with Christ. It is also an excellent opportunity to talk about Christian dieting and fasting. For the Great Church, Lent was the beginning of the Great Fast. This great feast is still observed in the Eastern Churches. Basically, that means that you follow a vegan diet. Orthodox Christians still observe vegan fasting or dieting on most Wednesdays and Fridays of the week. It’s more complicated than that, but over time the fasting tradition in Christianity slackened or disappeared entirely. Today, many Christians will observe Lent through some form of abstinence, AKA “Giving up something for Lent.” That is great, but here at PraXis, we emphasize that Christian Fasting is a spiritual practice that moves you towards God AND is healthy for you, if you do it right.
Now is the best time of the year for Christians to look at mindful eating and a plant-based diet as part of spiritual practice. In the coming weeks, we will post more about fasting. But for now, consider a Lent fasting challenge of your own. Considering following some of these guidelines for a fasting challenge of the length you chose:
A strict ancient fast (no dairy, meat, alcohol, seasonings, or oil)
Plant-based diet of whole foods, “angelic diet” or Genesis diet (Genesis 1:29, 3:18)
Eliminate meat, dairy, processed and high carb/sugar foods a day or two each week
Whatever diet you chose, combining it with not eat to “satiety.” This is a great way to exercise portion control and become mindful of your eating and your body. You simply stop eating before you feel full. Remember, most first Christians were poor, and most poor people did not eat meat or eat until they could not get one more bite in. Official feasts were usually the time when they got to overeat and had the luxury of eating meat. Today we feast every day and rarely fast. But the two were meant to go together.
Self-love, the “Divine Network” and Hope with Pastor Andru Morgan
Our Special Guest, Pastor Andru Morgan, spoke to us on the eve of Christmas Eve last year. He had a message to share from God on how to get through such a challenging year. How do you center yourself and place boundaries so that you do not let negativity in?
Even though this recording is from last year, it seems like 2021 has not been all that different. We are not yet out of the darkness of this season. So, we thought we would share this discussion and Andru’s message of hope, self-love and how we plug into the divine network that lifts our spirits up through contemplation.
Pastor Morgan was raised in the Pentecostal community in Kansas City and Tulsa before moving to Portland. He is currently the head pastor at Parkrose United Methodist Church. Morgan is the theological mentor to Cornelius Swart for the PraXis project. We hope you find him as inspiring as we do.
Last week we had a great time with Phil Vestal of Ruah Space, an online space for spiritual practices, including Christian Mindfulness, embodied prayer and fitness. In the above video you want watch Phil with the group and exercise along with us. We end up with a 20 minutes silent prayer. It’s a pretty good session. Jamie and I have been doing the Ruah Space exercises in combination with Centering Prayer (Mindfulness) for the last few days and it’s been great.
I’m a Christian convert of about 7 years now. My parents were non-practicing Christians, one Episcopal and one Catholic. I came to Christianity after years of New Age meandering and a few years practicing Buddhism at a Chinese community in Portland, Oregon.
Yoga is a super broad area from an ancient civilization that predates Christianity. It can’t be painted in broad strokes. I think some concerns Christians have about Yoga are valid. But just to get triggered by anything associated with the word Yoga is alarmist. We should talk with some precision.
The current Christian civilizational encounter with Yoga reminds me of the early Church as it wrestled with what to make of Greek Philosophy. Was it all pagan? Was some of it valid? Ultimately, the Church in the West said that some philosophy was just as valid when applied to Christianity as it was when applied to the pagan world. I’m thinking mostly of Aristotle. It took them hundreds of years to get there. I think today Christianity is still in the sorting out process when it comes to Yoga. Yoga has a fitness element, mindfulness elements, a worship element and much more. The point is to parse out what is and is not compatible with Christian spirituality and not throw the baby out with the bath water.
Here is a response to the question “Can Christians do Yoga” that we got on our FB page:
I used to believe that, but with more spiritual direction and prayerful discernment I have come to see and believe that any form of Yoga is harmful to the Christian spirit. [Quoting a website] “One indication of yoga’s spiritual nature is the way it affects practitioners over time. The International Journal of Yoga published the results of a national survey in Australia. Physical postures (asana) comprised about 60 percent of the yoga they practiced; 40 percent was relaxation (savasana), breathing techniques (pranayama), meditation, and instruction. The survey showed very significant results: although most respondents commonly began yoga for reasons of physical health, they usually continued it for reasons of spirituality. In addition, the more people practiced yoga, the more likely they were to decrease their adherence to Christianity and the more likely they were to adhere to non-religious spirituality and Buddhism.”
Personally having spent a lot of time with “New Age” spirituality and having converted to Christianity from Buddhism, I think this is a great comment to work with. First off, the comments is quote a Christian fitness group called Pietra. This exercise regime is actually no different from what last week’s guests were calling Christian Yoga. The only difference is that the other group calls their modality Pietra. They admit most of the moves are from Asana Yoga.
From what I’ve gathered most people don’t have a problem with stretching. Asana Yoga is just that. I’d be hard pressed to see people converted to another religion because they are watching the yoga practices over at our favorite secular fitness websites FitnessBlender.
The trouble comes in when you are practicing Yoga, with a group that is also practicing Vedic, Buddhist or New Age spirituality. That’s not a problem in and of itself. The problem comes if you are a committed Christian, and now engaged in someone else’s spiritual practices. It’s like having the free lunch at the mosque each week, just to get something to eat— don’t be surprised if you convert to Islam after a while. Phil and his wife Erin [see video above] say instructors are pretty upfront with what they are teaching. So just ask.
As Phil says in his presentation last week, “every group has an intention, know what it is.” And that’s really it. There should be no danger working Yoga with a group like FitnessBlender or 24HourFitness whose’s intention is 100 percent fitness for its own sake. By the same turn, a Christian group that is incorporating asana into a prayerful embodied prayer and fitness practice are not sell outs or syncretists, or sheep in wolf’s clothing. These folks, whether they are Ruah Space, or Pietra or RevelationWellness, have set an intention to unite fitness and Christian spirituality.
Phil and Erin’s Three Things to Avoid in Yoga: 1) Avoid classes that have a spiritual context. Go with the fitness class. 2) Avoid Kundalini Yoga (energy and breath work) 3) Avoid the Sanskrit names for the postures, only because of them them imply veneration of Vedic spirits.
The Slippery Slope
The Devil is in the details. Both the Pietra site and Phil’s discourse on the POD points to things in Yoga that might seem benign but that can take you off the Way of Christ. These are Kundalini Yoga, energy work, certain forms of breath work, any kind of meditation that involves reciting the names of, invoking the names of, praising the name of, or visualizing other spirits such as Vishnu, Ganesh, or Buddhist Saints like the Amitabh Buddha.
Kundalini and elaborate breath work can be particularly tricky. These forms of “energy work” do not necessarily involve the invocation of a named spirit. However, they can be very powerful forms of triggering altered states of consciousness, or at least, opening up transcendental experiences. What’s wrong with that?
Well, in my experiences, you just don’t want to blow open your psyche like that if you are not with a community you trust, and if you are not fully in the presence of God: The Creator of the Universe and your Savior Jesus Christ. It’s kind of like, it’s ok to go out and drink a little, but your don’t want to find yourself drunk beyond all self control, far from home and in a room full of people, that you suddenly realize, you really don’t know. Anything could happen.
For the most part, I think you are safe with those Christians who have done the work to parse out the safe space for you. Also, groups that are purely fitness oriented, like a gym, or FitnessBlender are also safe. Everything else, I would stay away from, at least for the next few hundred years while we figure things out.
These exercise tips are from my personal experience and have served me well throughout the years of my practice as a martial artist. I share because these lessons were learned the hard way and hopefully they can help you begin or continue your exercise habits.
Back in Madison, Wis. I was taught a form of Brazilian martial arts known as capoeira. I found that the exercise, community and discipline of the art form was both a fitness routine but also a spiritual journey. It kept me connected me with my body, and through my body I was able to experience of sense of awe in others and the world.
From my experience exercise is always more difficult when you do it alone. I’ve found that it’s always helpful to work out with someone else. That person should be someone you trust. Someone with whom you share your fitness goals and hopefully can join you on your exercise adventures. During the pandemic, it might not be possible to have someone else, so you may find that a virtual group such as the Praxis group, apps or social media may suffice to hold you to your next exercise challenge.
Work through the soreness
Have you heard of ‘no pain, no gain’? Well, there’s some truth to that…and take it with a grain of salt. When we work out, our muscle fibers tear and rebuild. That’s how we gain strength and appear more toned. If you pushed yourself yesterday and you find you have some muscle soreness (not pain, we will talk about that next), it can be most helpful for your body (and mind) to have an ‘active rest.’ This movement could be light cardio, stretching, light strength training or training a different muscle group. This helps circulate blood to muscle fibers and increase mobility so feel less stiffness.
The Rule of 3 Pains
This is not my tip, but is from a fellow martial artist. If I knew this when I was in the height of my training, I believe I could have avoided some injuries that still plague me. The Rule of 3 Pains is simple and goes like this. When you feel pain the first time, keep going. If we always stopped when something got difficult, we would get nowhere. When you feel pain the second time, notice it, be aware of your body mechanics and get curious. Why do you think you’re having this pain? Check your form. Is it compromised? When you feel pain the third time, take a break. It’s your body’s way of getting your attention to avoid a potential injury.
Create a Habit
Whether you’re new at exercise or you’ve fallen out of the routine, it’s important to move your body. In order to ensure that you have movement every day is to create a routine of it. One way to do that is to do it every day at the same time. This way your mind and body habituate to a time of the day and help you regulate your energy throughout the day. Another way to create a habit of exercise if to pair it with an existing habit. I used to pair brushing my teeth in the morning with exercise. It was a fail safe way to cue my mind and body for exercise. It’s just as important for our health as brushing our teeth.
Keep it Interesting
Whether you’ve been exercising all your life or you’re new at it, get curious about your body and your surroundings. Exercise doesn’t have to be a boring monotonous movement. It can be fun and can involve the whole family and pets. Create games, make yourself work harder to get places like walking, riding bicycles, or racing. If you’re a seasoned athlete, you could purchase some new equipment or search the internet for the latest and greatest exercise blend or craze. Changing it up a bit could be enough to get you through a plateau.
This Wed, at 6 pm PST our Zoom group will be led by Pastor Phil Vestal co-director of Ruah Space. He will take us through some moves and talk with us about what he refers to as “Christian Yoga.” Be prepared to move around a little. We might do a combination of both yoga before Centering Prayer and/or Yoga DURING Centering Prayer. It should make for a very engaging session of movement and mindfulness.
Jamie and I advocate for 20-30 minutes of exercise 5 days a week, as part of your prayer life. Ideally, you would exercise before your mindful prayer or contemplation. Yoga, specifically, the ancient Vedic practice of Asana, or stretching postures that we commonly call Yoga was initially designed to prepare the body for meditation (what Christians call contemplation).