Increase Your Spiritual Strength - Devotional Exercises for Greater Faith

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Worldly Passions Vs. Divine Consciousness

So if a man live in any way of lasciviousness, the more his impure lust prevails, the more sweet and pleasant will it make the sin appear, and so the more will he be disposed and prejudiced to think there is no evil in it. [Jonathan Edwards}

When our passions are focused on physical accomplishments and satisfying material desires, spiritual growth is often ignored or forgotten. We become so involved in worldly activities that we don't have time for spiritual development. A higher consciousness appears to offer little value for advancing our career.

Spiritual exercises become vital when we are inundated by secular pastimes and besieged by worldly temptations. These negative conditions blind the mind, depriving it of divine awareness and contemplation. This is particularly true with children and young adults.

To strengthen our spirit for such struggles, we must engage in regular meditations, prayers, and other spiritual practices that help us elevate our consciousness. In addition, fasting and dedicating time to helping needy persons help to restrict excessive indulgence in worldly pastimes.

The following brief summary of spiritual practices in major religions may provide some guidance for increasing spiritual awareness.

Jewish Devotional Exercises

I have set God always before me. [Psalm 16:8].

Jewish spiritual exercises are based on Torah’s commandments (mitzvot), usually enumerated as 613. These commandments, along with later Talmudic and rabbinic writings, customs and traditions form the Halacha, the Jewish law. Jewish identity molded by the Halacha establishes direction for every devotional aspect of individual and communal life.

Being an observant Jew means that you perform daily prayers (amidah), follow dietary laws of kashrut (kosher), observe shabbat rituals (Sabbath day rites and blessings), and maintain your home according to set rules.

As a member of the community, you transact business, celebrate ceremonies, and observe social protocols, including charity (tzedakah), centered on thanking and pleasing God. In addition, the observance of holidays requires fasting during Yom Kippur and interrupting habitual practices during Sukkot, a seven-day holiday during which Jews live in the open under hastily constructed booths.

Every Shabbat, Jews chant from the Psalms, say prayers and recite the "Shema Yisrael," all designed to build kavannah, the directing of the heart to higher contemplative thoughts and inner strength.

Perhaps the most elevated spiritual exercise for a Jew is known as Torah Lishmah, the diligent study of the Torah.

Rabbi Meir said: anyone who engages in 'lishma' merits many things. . .He is called 'friend' and 'beloved,' he loves G- d, he loves man, he brings joy to G-d, he brings joy to man. It [the Torah] clothes him in humility and fear. It enables him to be righteous, pious, upright, and faithful. It distances him from sin and brings him to merit . . . It reveals to him the secrets of the Torah. . . He becomes modest, slow to anger, and forgiving of the wrongs done to him. It makes him great and exalted above all of creation. [Pirkei Avos Ch.6]

The mystical tradition in Judaism revolves around Kabbalah, wherein esoteric and ascetic practices abound. Kabbalists believe that immersion in its mystical doctrines and practices provides profound insights into Jewish sacred texts and brings one spiritually closer to God.

Christian Devotional Exercises

“…Spend your time and energy in training yourself for spiritual fitness. Physical exercise has some value, but spiritual exercise is much more important for it promises a reward in both this life and the next. This is true and everyone should accept it.” [1 Timothy 4:7-9 (NLV)].

In Christianity, many of the devotional exercises practiced by early desert fathers became part of the ascetic and monastic traditions of both the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Churches. These monks, hermits and nuns renounced the world for a life of solitude, labor, poverty, fasting, charity and prayer. Their practices often became the foundation for rules that governed later religious orders.

. . . I invite you to reserve a specific attention to the ministry of the Spiritual Exercises that has been characteristic of your Society from its origins. The Exercises are the fountain of your spirituality and the matrix of your Constitutions, but they are also a gift that the Spirit of the Lord has made to the entire Church: it is for you to continue to make it a precious and efficacious instrument for the spiritual growth of souls, for their initiation to prayer, to meditation, in this secularised world in which God seems to be absent. [ Pope Benedict XVI letter to Jesuit Congregation 35 ].

Perhaps the most renowned exponent of Christian spiritual exercises is St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), the founder of the Society of Jesus, commonly known as Jesuits. St. Ignatius wrote Spiritual Exercises, a book of meditations, prayers, and mental exercises designed to be carried out over various lengths of time.

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding and my entire will, all I have and possess; you have given me, I now give it back to you, O Lord; all is yours, dispose of it according to your will; give me only your love and your grace; that is enough for me . . .[Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, #234].

An example of an Ignatian exercise is the Prayer of Examen. It requires concentrating on experiences from the past 24 hours to review four aspects of your existence:

  1. the presence of God and focusing on His nearness
  2. reasons for you to be thankful for the goodness and generosity of God
  3. your habits and life patterns, including interactions, feelings and intentions
  4. your response, seeking forgiveness, asking for direction, or resolving to make changes

In the Protestant tradition, spiritual exercises evolved from Calvin, Luther, and other early reformers. Luther wrote vividly on his manner of praying and recommended practices such as the Four-Stranded Garland. This prayer is similar to the Prayer of Examen in that it asks that you review your weekly actions, be thankful, confess your shortfalls and recognize God's guidance in your life.

Also, daily devotionals books and calendars, offering one spiritual reading passage for each day, have a long tradition in Christianity. Today, blogs, websites and emails have been added to the classic devotional publications.

Islamic Devotional Exercises

Recite what is sent of the Book by inspiration to thee and establish Regular Prayer: for Prayer restrains from shameful and unjust deeds; and remembrance of Allah (God) is the greatest (thing in life) without doubt. And Allah (God) knows the (deeds) that ye do. [Quran 29:45 ]

In Islam, the primary source that defines and describes spiritual exercises is the Quran itself. It establishes the required daily prayers (salat), gives priority to frequent remembrance of God (dhikr), prescribes fasting during Ramadan, recommends rising for prayer during the night (qiyam-al-lail), and exhorts believers to be in constant awareness of God (taqwa).

Communally, Islamic practices that strengthen faith include charitable giving (zakat), acts of generosity (sadaqah) and retiring to a mosque for remembrance of God (ittikaf). These exercises shape the pattern of individual devotion and also the practices of organizations such as Sufi orders and Islamic centers.

Narrated 'Aisha (Prophet Muhammad's wife): The Prophet (PBUH) used to practice Itikaf (retiring to a mosque for remembrance of Allah (God)) in the last ten days of Ramadan [every year] until his death . . . [Bukhari, Book 33:243]

In addition to orthodox practices, Islam's mystical tradition, Sufism, added spiritual exercises that include singing, playing instruments, dancing, recitation of poetry and chanting. The whirling of dervishes, followers of the Sufi order founded by Rumi in the thirteenth century, is the best-known of the Sufi practices.

. . . O my Servants who have transgressed against their souls! Despair not of the Mercy of God: for God forgives all sins: for He is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.

Turn unto your Lord repentant, and surrender unto Him, before there come unto you the punishment, when ye cannot be helped.

And follow the best of (the guidance) revealed to you from your Lord, before the punishment comes on you suddenly, while you do not even perceive;

Lest the soul should (then) say: 'Ah! Woe is me! In that I neglected (my duty) towards God, and was indeed of those who laughed in scorn;

Or (lest) it should say: 'If only God had guided me, I should certainly have been among the righteous!

Or (lest) it should say when it (actually) sees the penalty: 'If only I had another chance, I should certainly be among those who do good! [Quran 39.53-58].

Hindu Devotional Exercises

Among people who are wealthy, those who are compassionate have acquired the richest wealth, for even contemptible men gain material wealth. Find and follow the good path and be ruled by compassion. For if the various ways are examined, compassion will prove the means to liberation. [Tirukkural 25: 241-242]

In Hinduism, the practice of cultivating spirituality is known as sadhana, keeping the mind fully occupied with devotional pursuits. Asceticism is undertaken to train the person for infinitely greater goals in the spiritual path The essential exercises focus on limiting socializing, talking, traveling, eating and sleeping. In other words, establishing self-discipline to tame and train our animal nature and cultivate higher consciousness.

Japa , the silent or audible repetition of a mantra , is a common Hindu spiritual practice.

Fire is not seen until one fire-stick rubs against another, though fire is still there, hidden in the fire-stick. So does the Lord remain hidden in the body until he is revealed through the mystic mantram. [Shvetashvatara Upanishad].

Yoga is a system of education of the body, the intellect and the inner spirit with the goal of gaining awareness of God. It seeks to elevate a person to greater goodness and holiness and, ultimately, to divine consciousness.

Since Yoga is a universal exercise that helps one attain basic spiritual truths common to all religions, it is not considered a religious creed. The practice of Yoga does not contradict any faith. Both Hiduism and Buddhism cultivate Yoga practices.


Buddhist Devotional Practices

Master your senses, what you taste and smell, what you see, what you hear. In all things be a master of what you do and say and think. Be free. Are you quiet? Make quiet your body. Make quiet your mind. By your own efforts awake yourself, watch yourself, and live joyfully. Follow the truth of the way. Reflect upon it. Make it your own. Live it. It will always sustain you. [Dhammapada].

Basic Buddhist teaching is summarized by the Four Noble Truths, all of which center on cessation of suffering and attaining Nirvana. The Sanskrit word for the cycle of death and rebirth, samsara, describes a reality formed by delusions and ignorant cravings. The Buddhist adherent seeks to escape sansara by eliminating desires and attaining a state of perfect peace, Nirvana.

The Fourth Noble Truth, the true path, can be divided into three categories: moral conduct (sila); mental concentration (samadhi); and wisdom (Prajña). These three categories are the basis for Buddhist practices.

Moral conduct (sila): No: stealing; lying; sexual abuse; intoxicants. Monks cannot eat after noon, sleep on soft beds, handle gold or silver

Mental concentration, (Samadhi), is the result of mind-development: "Concentration gives the message of alertness. Meditation gives the message of vastness. Contemplation gives the message of inseparable oneness."

Wisdom (Prajña): Understanding of the non-self

In Zen Buddhism, meditation (called zazen), the writing of poetry (especially haiku), painting, calligraphy, flower arranging, and the maintenance of Zen gardens are considered to be devotional practices.

The Pali word "yoga," central to many early Buddhist texts, is often translated as Spiritual Practice. Yoga is a system of education of the body, the intellect and the inner spirit with the goal of gaining awareness of God. It seeks to elevate a person to greater goodness and holiness and, ultimately, to divine consciousness.

Not to do any evil, To cultivate good, To purify one's mind-- This is the advice of the Buddhas.. [Dhammapada].

Summary of Devotional Exercises

To summarize, devotional exercises are activities that give preference to worshiping, obeying, remembering, praising and thanking God. The primary objective is to set aside time exclusively dedicated to God. We can divide the training times for exercises into three levels:

  • Activities that interrupt our daily schedule, periodically removing us from routines of work, school or socializing, for a few minutes of prayer and meditation.
  • Daylong or weekend practices in our home that isolate us from normal secular interaction. This can be done alone or in the company of others who share the same intent;
  • Retreats and other activities that extend from several days to a month or more, particularly those that take us away from home.

We must engage in such training to maintain our focus on God. Whatever our endeavor or goal, we cannot attain our ultimate potential without highly developed spiritual strength.

Elusive and unreliable as it is, the wise man straightens out his restless, agitated mind, like a fletcher crafting an arrow. Trying to break out of the Tempter's control, one's mind writhes to and fro, like a fish pulled from its watery home onto dry ground. It is good to restrain one's mind, uncontrollable, fast moving, and following its own desires as it is. A disciplined mind leads to happiness [Dhammapada 3:33-35].

The Lord's Prayer

AUM - Hindu/Buddhist Mantra

Amazing Grace - Christian Hymn

To Do List (Pin to Your Heart)

Thoughts :

  1. remember God often
  2. engage in silent prayers throughout the day
  3. meditate; quiet the mind
  4. acknowledge sins; feel penance/repentance
  5. visualize images that remind you of God

Words/Speech/Listening:

  1. pray regularly
  2. mention God often in conversation
  3. sing hymns, sacred music, chant
  4. console/comfort and empathize with those grieving,
  5. motivate others, specially young people
  6. attend lectures, speeches
  7. invite others to faith
  8. establish silent times, quiet times

Actions/Deeds:

  1. partake of communal prayers, rituals
  2. nightly vigils, prayers, readings of sacred texts
  3. give in charity, money and time
  4. regularly engage in fasting
  5. visit the sick
  6. learn and study sacred texts; memorize verses
  7. enjoy positive media, videos, films, audio
  8. teach what you know of God

Place/Environment:

  1. create your own sacred space, even if just a drawer where you keep your sacred texts
  2. place positive images in your home or office;
  3. visit a church, mosque, synagogue, ashram, temple
  4. go on retreat, pilgrimage
  5. spend time in natural spaces: sea; forest, mountains, streams, desert


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