The health and viability of the external church is dependent on the health and well-being of the internal church.
Being close to June 19th (New Church Day) it seems fitting to offer some thoughts around how to more meaningfully engage with the Word, for this day, if it reminds us of nothing else, should remind us that the Lord’s Second Advent is all about the opening of the Word as to its spiritual meaning. That event means that spiritual truths are now accessible to all those on earth who approach the Lord directly as the Word with a view to living from its truths. The means by which these spiritual teachings were given permanence on the natural plane of existence involved the preparation of a human vessel, a mind, through which the Lord’s love and wisdom could be expressed and made available in the form of written texts. Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) was that vessel and the spiritual works that came from His pen revealed that the Lord God Jesus Christ is to be found within the letter of the Word as its inner or spiritual sense.
This is an incredibly profound thing for it means that the Word as Sacred Text is the ground for the Lord’s presence in people’s lives, not just because it speaks of Him, which it certainly does, but because it IS HIM, He is one with it. So, if we can receive something of this idea, the question opens before us as to how we as a Church, can actually embody this reality, this truth, as something living and active in our own lives.
As an organisation, as a branch of the organised New Church, we all have a sense of now standing on the cusp of having to find a new way forward if we are to become a viable and relevant vehicle for the promotion of the Lord’s Second Advent. What has served us historically is now fading fast and it is clear that it can no longer serve as an effective means of exposing 21st Century hearts and minds to the power of the Word to transform lives. Whereas in times past people looked to formal membership of organisations as a means of consolidating their sense of identity and belonging this is no longer the case. We are now in a different age, and have been for quite a while, and, like it or not, what counts now more than anything, so far as a spiritual teaching being attractive and worthy of committing time and energy to, is whether it can make a real practical difference in a person’s life.
How can this be demonstrated for people? Well, it can only really ever be demonstrated through the lives of those for whom such an experience is a living reality. If the Church is to find a way forward we all need to be moving toward experiencing the power of the Word in our lives on a daily basis. If we believe that the Sacred Scripture understood in the light of the Heavenly Doctrine are the means by which the Lord is able to bring us into direct contact with Himself so that we experience His presence, then surely, we will be engaging with the Texts of Divine Revelation personally and frequently. These Sacred Texts are provided by the Lord for the building up of the Church within each one of us. The Word is food and drink to our spirit and if we are not partaking of them then our spirit is suffering. To strengthen the Church without we need to first strengthen it within, and we can only do that by making time to develop a regular practise that is looking to work consciously with truths from the Word in an effort to apply them to the life of our mind.
So what might we do to create conditions whereby the Sacred Scripture and Heavenly Doctrine might become more integrated into our daily life? Well, if we don’t already read devotionally each day we can certainly begin by creating space in our life for doing that. This will lead to our receiving personal spiritual insights that are living and relevant in the current context of our life. Over time the regular practice of reading devotionally will furnish us with illustrations of the Word working in our life that we can then share with others both within and outside of our spiritual communities.
As subscribers to the Lord’s Second Advent we are all called to bear witness to the Word’s power in our life and our viability as a spiritually relevant organisation is tied to each individual’s willingness to embrace the Word as the basis for their personal spiritual practise. It is each individual’s level of personal engagement with the Word that feeds into the health of the Church as a whole. If we leave off this responsibility at a personal level then we can fairly safely predict that all our efforts as an organisation will eventually come to nothing.
June 19th testifies to the reality that the external Church exists to support what’s needed to develop the internal Church in us all, and this begins with you personally participating in the Word as the basis for your spiritual life.
AN APPROACH TO DEVELOPING A DEVOTIONAL PRACTICE OF READING THE WORD
To participate in the Word we can’t approach the reading of Sacred Text in the same as the way we might approach reading a secular work. The Word is the Lord, so the Text in this regard should be viewed as the means by which we can become aware of the living presence of the Lord within us. The attitude we bring to our reading of Sacred Texts is everything. The idea that the Word as Sacred Text is the Lord, while meant quite literally, isn’t meant to imply that the text is the Lord apart from the influx of His life directly into your mind. Both are the Word and both are the Lord, and so form a One, so much so that the one doesn’t exist without the other.
We need to remind ourselves constantly because we easily forget,
• that the spiritual sense is the Word understood in terms of its application to the life of the mind (AC 7498)
• the proprium is constantly at work to derail any genuine attempts to engage with the Word as the basis for our regeneration (see De Verbo 13)
If we can make an effort to remind ourselves of these things while reading the Word it will help us to maintain a heightened sense of attention and awareness so important to a devotional approach in our reading.
If possible spend a little time (5 or 10 minutes) centring yourself before you approach the Word to read it. There is no set way of doing this, but whatever you do it should be something that steadies the inner activity of your mind, lifts your awareness out of external life concerns and brings you into a state of openness before the Lord. Your reading should be regarded as an act of worship. Reading spiritual material requires conscious attention, so it is extremely helpful to have external conditions organised in a way that minimises the potential for distractions. Next we need to deal with the potential for distractions in the inner environment.
Here is an exercise that I find helpful; I offer it merely as a suggestion for those of you who may find it useful.
We begin with counting breaths. It is a simple exercise that reigns in the tendency of the mind to follow random thought associations. Sit comfortably in an upright posture and bring you attention to your breath. Breathing normally, count silently, 1 on the first inhalation, 2 on the first exhalation, then 3 on the second inhalation and 4 on the second exhalation and so on up to 10, returning to 1 again and repeating the count up to 10 before returning to 1 once more. This exercise very quickly facilitates a settled state of mind as the attention is drawn out of the external world and becomes focused on the Lord. Once this is achieved begin reading. Read slowly with attention, prayerfully draw each idea/verse in and sit with it for a time. There’s no rush in this – the object is to spend quality time with the Text and allow it to work in you.
In approaching the Text, try to maintain an awareness that you are bringing yourself before the Lord. This will help to open up an attitude of worship within which holiness resides (De Verbo 2). This attitude has a profound effect on how we relate to the Word and how it relates to us. As you read, the sense impressions left by the written words of the Text upon your memory form a correspondential plane into which the Lord’s inflowing life can be received and reflected back into your awareness (AC 9419.2; 10137.2; TCR 234). The Lord is only capable of being present to us in what is His own with us (DP 53; AC 9338.6). This is why He has provided His Word in the form of a written text. (AE 112.3) This is a profound idea, that the very text itself, being written in pure correspondences (HH 305), provides us with a memory that is His own in us; yet He offers it in such a way that it always appears to be ours. The letter of the Word is the point of connection in which the presence of the Lord can be known.
When we approach the Word with openness to receiving what the spirit has to say to His Church within us, then what is reflected back, what catches our attention as we read, what we are drawn to, is where we need to bring a more focused level of attention. As we outwardly engage with the Text, inwardly we become aware of the Lord’s inflowing life. The Text is the ‘Tent of Meeting’ for us. It is where we come into contact with the Lord. It is the means by which the higher can be reflected back into our awareness to make its presence known.
We read with attention to cultivate a greater degree of spiritual sensitivity in order to recognise those parts of the reading that speak to us in some way. These are often nothing more than gentle indicators of where the Lord wishes to work with us in our life to reveal any patterns of thought or ways of being that need to be affirmed or addressed in some way. It is through the Word that we are given the ability to see those things in our life that block the flow of the Lord’s life through us and out to others. As we work with what the Lord highlights for us we begin on a path toward spiritual health, this carries benefits for us on a personal level but more importantly is a way of increasing the health of the collective body of the Church as well. In this sense our willingness to participate in the Word in this way is a work of charity to our neighbour.
The solution we have been provided with to bring healing and wholeness to the Church on all levels is revealed in the Lord’s Second Advent through the Word and it lies within the Word itself. A healthy spiritual environment is one in which the Word is acknowledged as the Lord in His Divine Human. This acknowledgment is made when the Word is received individually and collectively as the basis for ongoing spiritual practice of self-examination and repentance. The degree to which each individual within the collective is in a real relationship with the Word, that is, is in the practise of self-examination and repentance as the foundation for their spiritual life, to that degree will the Church thrive. If we are not actively engaged in examining the quality of our mental life (i.e. our spirit) in the light of what truths teach then we have yet to experience firsthand the power of the Lord in His Second Coming and what that really means. The future of the Church rests with the Lord, so is in good hands, our future in it rests in our responses to what the Word requires of us.
David Millar, Director of Spiritual Training