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A Contemplative Life

 For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel: In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.  Isaiah 30:15

What exactly is a contemplative life? How is it different from a regular life? Most of our lives are too busy to add anything new, so where does a contemplative life fit? I intend to make a case for why contemplative practices are important additions, even to hectic lives.

First, a contemplative life is not typically a silent, inactive life of naval-gazing. Rather, many contemplative people are active and involved in effective and efficient ways that positively impact the life and lives around them. A contemplative life is not an escape from life’s activities, but a technique to become increasingly and effectively present to life’s moments. In spite of our best efforts, we can only truly live in the moment. Typically, we find ourselves stuck in our thoughts, mired in regretting the past or worrying about the future. A contemplative life is one that seeks to become increasingly present to the moment while giving less attention to the past and future.

In his first letter to the Thessalonians (5:17), Paul describes a contemplative life when he writes, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” This may sound like a way of life for someone who has no life. Rejoice always? Pray with out ceasing? Give thanks in all circumstances? Most days, that is simply laughable. Laughable, that is, when we stray outside of the moment. Contemplative practices focus us. Even our most hectic and stressful daily activities become works of prayer and acts we do with God. We cease feeling that life is being done to us or being forced upon us. We acknowledge the presence and action of the Spirit in all things and at all times. Knowing that God works in and through us gives meaning and purpose to everything we experience, both pleasant and unpleasant.

Most of us were taught that prayer is a special time we set aside to be with God. We learned techniques for praying “correctly.” Prayer before meals required a bowed head, closed eyes, and folded hands. Prayer before bed occurred at the bedside, on our knees, hands folded on the bed. Prayer at church meant being quiet, eyes (mostly) closed, hands folded in one’s lap. When these images comprise our total understanding of prayer, it is no wonder that to pray without ceasing seems like the impossible dream. Must we become something we normally are not in order to please and communicate with God? I believe God cares less about how we pray and more that we integrate prayer (intentionally being with God) into our daily lives.

One aspect of a contemplative life, then, is that it strives to be one, continuous, unbroken prayer. That requires our willingness to expose ourselves to God in naked surrender of all our imperfections, all our failings, and everything we do that may or may not meet expectations. We acknowledge that God walks with us on every step of every day, no matter where we are, what we do, or who we are with. And that God loves the pure and raw essence of who we are regardless. God rejoices when we rejoice, God weeps when we weep. There is no trick to get God to join us in our everyday moments. The trick is to acknowledge to ourselves that God is with us in our everyday moments whether we recognize it or not. When we know we can never stray from God’s love and that God will never reject us, we can embrace and fully experience the moment, regardless of the circumstances. We can even laugh at our absolute and flawed humanness, knowing God finds even our most annoying quirks endearing.

A contemplative life does not separate being with God from anything else. Rather, it allows us consciously to affirm God’s presence in all things. We cannot hold God at arm’s length, so why pretend as if we can? Three traits of a contemplative life named in Isaiah 30 are rest, quietness, and trust. Interestingly, those are exactly what I crave on my most difficult days. In the coming weeks I will explore ways to integrate contemplative practices into our daily lives.

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This is the 1st in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life. For a list of contemplative activities in Lawrence, Kansas, go to www.ContemplatingGrace.com/contemplativelife

[1] The Cloud of Unknowing and the Book of Privy Counsel, trans. Carmen Acevedo Butcher (Shambhala: 2009), 224-225.

Keeping Silence

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Keeping Silence

 Then Moses and the levitical priests spoke to all Israel, saying: Keep silence and hear, O Israel! This very day you have become the people of the Lord your God. Deuteronomy 27:9

The late Father Thomas Keating, a pillar in contemporary contemplative life, wrote, “God’s first language is silence.”1 In the creation story told in the first verses of Genesis, the author describes God as speaking creation into being: “And God said, ‘Let there be…’”. This is the Word of God, the originating impulse for everything that is, and this Word continues to be spoken in absolute silence. And so we must be silent to hear it. I daresay the most common experience we have of God is silence. We ask a question in prayer and receive silence. We cry out in desperation and hear silence. We climb a mountain in order to connect with the divine and hear only a deep, vast silence. While there are some who occasionally report receiving an auditory message from God, for the vast majority of us, God is silent.

Silence, however, is far from a non-answer, nor is it evidence of being ignored. If life grows out of silence, we know there is an awesome power residing within it. When a response to an inquiry of the divine is silence, it is an invitation to delve into a deep reflection on the question. Focused meditation is one way to receive insight. Sometimes, however, the formation of the response occurs subconsciously, as if in silence. I often find that insights come when I am not actively seeking them, as I go about my daily activities.

My third grade teacher, Mrs. Everett, told the class that we have two ears and one mouth so we should listen more and speak less. It is trivial and cliché, perhaps, but important. One of the hardest lessons in a committed relationship is the inestimable value of strategically keeping one’s mouth shut and listening. Obviously, to do so requires our willingness to be silent. The same is true in our relationship with God. Does our constant internal chatter combine with the drone of the world around us to separate us from a genuine experience of others, including God, in silence? I believe it does.

In general, we are uncomfortable with silence. Indeed, it is hard to find a quiet place in which to engage with silence because we live in a noisy world. Extended periods of silence may seem like missed opportunities to catch up on the latest gossip, activities of friends and family, or entertainment. Most of us fear silence because of the uncomfortable vacuum it creates. Awkward pauses in conversation send our minds into overdrive, searching for something to say. Receiving the silent treatment from a partner can be agonizing. Silence is uncomfortable because it puts us in a situation of not knowing – not knowing what the other is thinking, not knowing what to say, not knowing what we do not know. It creates internal tension with its unusual auditory void. The tension comes from our unfamiliarity with silence. We are forever describing our life experience in words, both to others and to ourselves, and those very descriptions separate us from the silence within which the experiences arise.

We often confuse the silence of inactivity with the deep silence from which God creates. In other words, we cannot simply turn off the television and our mobile devices and expect to find silence. Silencing the noise from our external world is one thing; silencing our internal world is the greater challenge. Striving only for external silence is like praying with one eye open – we are not fully committing ourselves to the depth of silence from which God works in and through us. It is through the latter type of silence that we find entry into the rich moments of our lives, being present to the creative potential and creating reality happening at all times and in all places. True silence provides a blank slate from which to co-create our lives with God, which is both frightening and exhilarating.

Entering a state of internal silence is a skill we can develop with practice. A foundational tool is Centering Prayer,2 which is a method of praying silently. By keeping silence, as the author of Deuteronomy writes, we have the opportunity to experience God. Jesus referred to this as entering the kingdom of God.

This is the 7th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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  • Thomas Keating, Intimacy With God. Crossroad Publishing, New York. 1994, p. 175.
  • See my Life Note from December 20, 2018 for an overview of the practice of Centering Prayer. Resources are also available at ContemplativeOutreach.org.

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The Redeeming Face of Love

 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 1 Corinthians 13:3

The thirteenth chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is the love chapter of the Bible. It describes love as patient and kind, slow to anger, and not resentful. Love bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things. Love never fails. It sets an impossibly high standard for those of us who are merely human. As we experience it in close relationships, love displays many faces, some of which do not live up to Paul’s description.

Indeed, love evolves through different phases. Perhaps the most elemental form of love is gravity – the mutual attraction between two bodies. Gravity holds us to the earth (even when we are upside down) and holds the earth and planets in their orbits around the sun. In the same way, loving relationships grounds us. There is an inherent need in all of creation to be in relationship with another. Of course, love manifests in romance, but there is also the love between a parent and child, brotherly/sisterly love, platonic love, love of country, love of food or drink, love of deep conversations, love of guitars – the list is endless for the subjects and objects of our love. Each relationship is unique, attractive, and endearing in its own way.

The love of God for us, however, is unconditional. The Greek word for God’s love is agape (ah-GAH-pay). While we talk a good game about loving someone unconditionally, human love is always conditional. The object of our love can only hurt or otherwise betray us so many times before the intensity of our love wanes. We may withdraw some of what we have given in love for our own protection, and sometimes for the good of the other. If the one to whom we offer love abuses us in dangerous ways, self-preservation requires our extraction. We often measure human love by time. A relationship that spans many years is a rare treasure, even though quantity does not always indicate quality. A special bond forms through the endurance of many trials, however.

A common trait to every type of love is the affirming nature of the love experience. It may only be a pet who greets us as if there were no one in the world they would rather see, but there is nothing like being loved in tangible ways to give us a sense of worth and purpose. The absence of love leads people to all sorts of self-destructive behaviors – addictions, associations with abusers, and other unhealthy lifestyles. When we do not feel loved, we question our value, our worthiness, and our reason for being. The absence of love leads to anger directed inward. I am told that infants who are not held and loved in their early days may die in spite of receiving adequate nourishment. Children and adolescents without stable, supportive, loving families often seek affirmation from gangs, drugs, or other less-than-desirable sources. Severe loneliness, particularly among the elderly, is an epidemic today.

When we have no loving relationships – when we feel unloved and uncared for or about – we find ourselves in a hell on earth. Without debating the notion of hell as an after-death destination of eternal punishment for unredeemed sinners (a topic for a future Life Note), we can be certain that hell is a present reality of the here and now for many unloved people. Hell, in any of its theorized states, is a separation from the loving attention of others.

There is no substitute for a one-on-one, face-to-face, respectful and affirming relationship with another. For love to manifest in a reassuring, lasting manner, it must be embodied. Without love, nothing else matters, as Paul makes clear in his letter to the Corinthians. Withholding our loving attention from others hurts both them and us. They will seek love elsewhere, but what will we do – reserve our store of loving attention for someone more worthy? We seriously miss the point in doing so. Others become worthy by receiving our loving attention. That is the nature of God’s agape love, which is the originating source of all manifestations of love. We become loved and loving by allowing God’s love to permeate in and through us, even as it overflows onto others. It is through the giving and receiving of love that redemption spreads to all. It requires little – a card, a phone call, or a smile. Valentine’s Day is a good time to begin…

This is the 6th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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Lukewarm Living

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Lukewarm Living

 I know your words; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.  Revelation 3:15-16

The author of the Revelation to John received messages for each of the seven churches in Asia at the time (present day Turkey). Some of the messages contain praise for their good works. All the messages contain criticism, some particularly harsh. The message to the church in Laodicea falls into the latter category. If one assumes, as I do, that scripture contains lessons for us as individuals, the criticism of the church at Laodicea hits me hard. This particular church is accused of being “lukewarm,” which I interpret to mean disengaged. There was no passion or life in their worship or practice. The message says, “I wish that you were either cold or hot…” This church would be better off doing wrong things with zeal than doing right things without spirit. Because of this, Christ is about to spit them out of his mouth – to cast them away.

This message is vexing to me because I tend not to be emotionally expressive. The term lukewarm goes beyond emotional expression, however. The church is arrogant in an isolationist way, believing they need nothing from others. They cannot see how wretched and pitiable they are. As with many that Jesus counseled during his time on earth, they are blind to the reality of their situation. The message closes by saying, “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (3:22).

The challenge in reading the Bible, particularly with coded books like the Revelation, is in finding meaningful applications for our lives today. The message to the church at Laodicea is a warning against living half-heartedly or distractedly. Similar to praying with one eye open, when we do not give ourselves fully to the present moment we squander the gift of being human. We not only rob ourselves of the full-embodied experience, we rob those around us, too. Everything we do, down to the smallest detail, affects others. When we live half-heartedly, the experience others receive from us is equally half-hearted.

The message I receive from this passage in the Revelation is that passion is a gift intended for use, and we should apply it, appropriately, at every opportunity. Far from a mandate to fly off the handle half-cocked, it suggests we enter every moment with our entire being engaged – head, heart, body, and soul. One of the commandments Moses received from God on Mount Sinai (Deuteronomy 6:5) is this: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.” Should we not also live our moments with all our heart, soul, and strength? If anything is worth doing, it is worth doing with everything we have at our disposal, whether we are praying, working, resting, or playing.

In art, the color red brings a painted picture to life, just like the blood coursing through our veins, just like splashes of red transform a sunrise or sunset from mundane to spectacular. Our human passions inject zeal into our life on earth. We were not created to be lukewarm. It does no good to die with a reserve of passion any more than it does to limit how often we tell those closest to us how much we love them. The stores of loving energy are infinite, so we need not worry about depleting the supply.

Passion is a precious gift. Yes, it hurts when the object of our passion dies or fails or otherwise falls short of our hopes and dreams. Vulnerability necessarily accompanies giving our all to a person or goal. But what do we have to lose, really? The biggest loss is in not focusing ourselves fully on the situation before us because we cannot retrieve or relive our moments once they pass. The more we give, the more joy, beauty, and pleasure we stand to gain in return. It is not our place to judge whether what we can give is good enough, is better or worse than what others have to give, or that it makes the impact we feel it should. Our gifts are our gifts, and God intends us to heat them up or cool them down, but not allow them to become lukewarm.

This is the 5th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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Staying Awake

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Staying Awake

 Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak. Mark 14:38

Mindfulness is a popular buzzword these days. Be present to the moment. Be here now. Seize the day. We have many contemporary ways of saying what Jesus told his disciples 2000 years ago – keep awake! In the scripture from Mark, quoted above, Jesus is in the garden of Gethsemane with a few of his disciples after the Last Supper. He goes off by himself to pray and tells his friends to stay awake. He returns a short while later to find them asleep. He wakes them and again requests that they remain awake. Once again he goes off to pray, coming back a third time to find them asleep. At this point, the temple police have arrived to arrest him and begin the events that led to his crucifixion the next morning. In the context of this story, we are the sleepy disciples.

I do not believe Jesus asked his disciples to stay awake because he was lonely. He did not make the request so they would protect or hide him from his imminent fate. Rather, he wanted them to witness what was happening in the moment, to be present to it and see it, to keep awake to the details of what was happening around them. It was a seminal moment for each of them, personally and collectively, and he wanted them to experience it in the fullness of their being. One of the lessons we learn from difficult times is that we must go through our challenges in order to grow beyond them. To go through something requires that we be unwaveringly present to it, whatever it is. When we seek to avoid an experience, we automatically set the wheels in motion for a repeat occurrence. Only when we have acknowledged and accepted what is before us can we move on to something new. In order to acknowledge and accept what is, we must be awake.

Obviously, Jesus is not suggesting we stop sleeping. Rather, Jesus reminds us to pay attention during our waking hours – to the beauty around us, yes, but also to those people and events we find unpleasant, undesirable, or painful. Jesus understands how difficult it is for us; after all, he was human, too. While the text suggests his frustration with the disciples’ inability to stay physically awake for his last moments of freedom on earth, he knows and verbalizes that the “flesh is weak.” In spite of its inherent willingness, the spirit cannot override the tired flesh, at least not for long. The needs of the flesh are too powerful.

We stay awake, we become present to the moment by paying close attention to the information coming through our senses – what our eyes see and our ears hear. Jesus often pointed something out for his followers to examine, saying “Let those with eyes see.” Many of his healing episodes involve blindness – physical blindness, yes, but these stories are also metaphorical pointers a more widespread type of blindness to whatever is before us. Opening ourselves to the full experience of what we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell unlocks the doorway into the present moment. Daydreaming about the future and regretting the past are fast-pass tickets out of the present, as is avoiding what we know requires our attention.

Taking ourselves out of the moment by any of the myriad of enticing ways to do so is like praying with one eye open. We tend not to trust the goodness or completeness of the moment any more than we trust God to protect and provide for us. As a result, we keep one eye open when we pray, and we avert our gaze from the present with an endless stream of diversions. Human nature, being what it is, makes it difficult not to do that! Jesus, however, calls us to transcend our ordinary human nature, not because there is anything wrong with being human, but because our human moments are beautiful, intense, intimate, and rich. Not only do we miss those powerful experiences when we stray from the moment, but God, experiencing through us, does as well. These experiences are only available in human bodies, so it is doubly important to embrace them as the opportunities arise. Jesus’ admonition to keep awake is an invitation to fully experience our humanity, savoring and living every beautiful and painful moment while we are able to do so.

This is the 4th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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