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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.

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Trusting Divine Provision

 When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Matthew 10:19-20

In this passage from Matthew, Jesus talks to his disciples about how to handle persecution. He tells them they do not need to prepare what they will say – how they will defend themselves – ahead of time, for that guidance will be provided to them at the necessary time. The consequences of persecution in Jesus’ day were dire, compared to what most of us experience today, at least in the West. In Jesus’ day, persecution for unacceptable beliefs or behaviors could lead to a wretched death, as evidenced by Jesus’ crucifixion.

Jesus frequently warns against worrying about future events. For example, in Luke 12:22, he says, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear.” He emphasizes that life is much more than the things about which we worry. Worry is always future-oriented, but life only occurs in the present moment. It is not that food, clothing, shelter, and our responses to others are not important, but that it is God who assures the meeting of our needs as the needs arise. Jesus reminds us that God knows our needs. We become anxious when we suspect we might need something in the future and fret because we do not have it now. In the context of persecution, why waste time and energy formulating a response before we know a response will even be required? We only get caught up an a whirlpool of negative thoughts and emotions that have no substance.

Jesus seems to be saying that worrying about a possible future need is like praying with one eye open – it is evidence of our lack of faith and trust in God’s provision. What you are to say will be given to you at that time. Why? Because it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. God lives and works in and through us in all circumstances. We cannot keep one eye focused on God while the other gazes into the future. It is not that Jesus discourages us from planning for the future; rather, Jesus tells us not worry about the future. Worry helps nothing. We have everything we need in any given moment, which should reassure us that we will have whatever we need in our future moments. We absolutely should select a path to follow into the future, understanding that all paths are fraught with difficulty and uncertainty. The future, however, is never in doubt, even though it may not unfold as we envision.

It is a natural tendency for us to want to be in control and plan for future eventualities. Unfortunately (or fortunately), we are not in control. In fact, I think anytime we try to be overly controlling, the universe objects and arranges something to show us how little control we actually have over events. Obsessing over the future only removes us from the present moment, which is the only place we can actually find joy. There are few savings accounts large enough to pay for a serious health crisis; there are few homes strong enough to survive a direct hit from a tornado; no one is safe from a terrorist attack anywhere on earth. Far from a license to live recklessly or with no thought of the future, the reality is that life sometimes brings unexpected and unplanned-for disasters, and God can be trusted for the recovery from those disasters, large and small. In the Lord’s Prayer, we ask for our “daily bread.” We do not ask for tomorrow’s bread until tomorrow.

When we live our lives as if we are praying with one eye open, we live without faith in God’s provision for our needs at the time of the need. Jesus assures us that God can be trusted to provide – maybe not in the manner or time-frame we desire, but God will provide. We can close both eyes, relax, enter the moment, and trust the Divine provision. Admittedly, however, not to pray with one eye open – hedging our bets against God’s provision – is easier to say than to do.

This is the 2nd in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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Praying With One Eye Open

 You shall not make for yourself an idol,.. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God… Exodus 20:4a,5a,b

The book of Exodus records Moses’ visits with God on Mount Sinai. On one of those visits, God gives Moses the Ten Commandments. One of those commandments warns against making idols for ourselves because God is a jealous God. I always found this particular commandment troubling because of the description of God as jealous. Jealousy seems too petty for an all-powerful, all-loving God. I remember jealousy as the product of teenage hormones running wild, combined with insecurity and immaturity. Jealousy was ugly, hurtful, and certainly not befitting of God. Besides, what could possibly make God jealous of us?

Based on my nebulous experiences of God over the years, I think using the contemporary understanding of jealousy is misleading. God’s jealousy, in part, has to do with our free will. No one wants love forced upon them, nor does anyone want to be loved because another feels sorry for or obligated to love him or her. That is charity, not love. Deep love is always offered but never imposed. We can accept God’s love or not. God’s love for us does not diminish because we refuse to acknowledge or reciprocate it. Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-31) illustrates the point well. The younger son turns away from his father, but the father’s love for his wayward son never wanes. God does not turn from us like a jealous, spurned lover; rather, we miss God’s reaching out to us because we are focused elsewhere.

God is described as jealous because our experience of God is fickle. We are so wrapped up in our earthly existence that encounters with God are difficult to recognize. Such experiences are usually subtle and easily missed when we are not paying attention. God seldom comes to us as a thunderbolt, but as the wind whispering gently through the trees or a hummingbird visiting the honeysuckle. Paying attention to God and seeking God’s presence is difficult with our endless opportunities for distraction. Our modern-day idols are not carved images of animals or pagan gods, but are our addictions, smart phones, social media, and television – things that keep us out of a deep experience with the present moment. Our seductive idols draw our attention away from rich encounters with loved ones, including our experiences of God’s love. God is not jealous because we spend so much time with the objects of our obsessions. Rather, God hurts because our obsessions keep us from noticing God’s nearness, which hurts us. God hurts for us, not because of us. It is not so much God’s heart that breaks, but ours that would break if we knew what we were giving up for the temporary high of an idolatrous encounter. There is no permanence or security in our distractions, only a diversion from what matters most.

Lest this sound like a holier-than-thou, guilt-imposing diatribe, I confess my own on-going tendency toward diversion from the present moment. I know I cannot experience God anywhere or anytime other than right here and right now, but I struggle mightily with sincerely seeking God on a more than infrequent basis. That is part of our human nature and not cause for guilt or self-deprecation. Rather, it is an opportunity for spiritual growth. God waits patiently for us, as did the prodigal’s father, and in the context of eternity, there is no particular rush. Our very human obligations prevent us from focusing on God in every waking moment, anyway. It is comforting to know, however, that God is accessible should we need a divine encounter.

Praying with one eye open is a metaphor for not giving oneself fully to God. When we close both eyes to pray, even for a short time, we make ourselves uncomfortably vulnerable – danger could approach that we would not see. We could miss something we want to see – like praying in front of a televised sporting event. Someone might notice and think less of us. Our addiction to earthly affairs causes us to keep an eye open, even though we know we cannot fully give ourselves over to God without loosening the grip our material interests hold over us. God speaks most often in silence and darkness. God’s still small voice cannot be heard over the commotion of our lives, nor will God’s presence draw our attention away from Facebook. God knows we need to turn away from our idols on occasion, close both eyes, and rest in the loving presence of the Divine.

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A Rhythm of Life

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A Rhythm of Life

 Instruction in understanding and knowledge I have written in this book…Happy are those who concern themselves with these things, and those who lay them to heart will become wise. For if they put them into practice, they will be equal to anything, for the fear (light) of the Lord is their path. Sirach 50:27a, 28-29

Integrating contemplative practices into one’s daily routine is the foundation for establishing a contemplative rhythm of life. The purpose is not to avoid performing our daily tasks or to add to the stresses of our days. Such a rhythm will not rid us of the challenges of aging, abuse, sickness, or suffering. This rhythm of life will not necessarily make a person more popular or successful, at least not in the ways the world defines popularity and success. The purpose of establishing a contemplative rhythm of life is to surround the activities of the day with regular practices that remind us that God works in and through us in every minute detail of our days. The practices do not bring God nearer to us, as God is always near. Rather, contemplative practices help us remember, acknowledge, and draw upon God’s constant presence, allowing us to carry out our daily activities from a more centered, trusting, and grounded perspective.

One excellent example of a rhythm of life practice is that of devout Muslims, who pray five times every day: (1) before sunrise, (2) early afternoon, (3) late afternoon, (4) after sunset, and (5) before going to bed at night. The practice is a habitual reminder of God’s sovereign presence. When we forget that God is present, we fall into all sorts of unhelpful and unhealthy activities – worry, stress, gossip, fear, and complaining, to name a few. One of Jesus’ final instructions to us, given during the Last Supper (Luke 22:19), was to “do this in remembrance of me.” The this he refers to is our routine, daily activities – everything is this. We are to remember Christ’s presence with us in whatever we do. Establishing and maintaining a contemplative rhythm of life is an effective way to follow that instruction.

The philosopher, Socrates, said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” While I am not as fatalistic, I believe the underlying sentiment is valid – that we benefit from time spent examining our life on a regular basis. Journaling is a contemplative practice designed to accomplish that – to reflect on our days, thoughts, feelings, frustrations, and hopes. What did I notice today that caught my attention? What was annoying and why? Where did I find beauty? In what ways did I notice God active in my life? In what direction do I feel God nudging me? These types of self-reflective questions are beneficial to consider as a part of our rhythm of life. The answers guide us forward on our spiritual journey, even as the answers change. The answers to such questions are never adequately captured in words, but the effort inspires growth.

We establish a contemplative rhythm of life through habitual practice, keeping to as regular a routine as possible. Not unlike sunrise and sunset bookending the day and night, or the seasons marking the phases of a year, our rhythm of life clothes the activities of our daily routines with a contemplative circadian rhythm. As an example, here is my contemplative practice:

  1. Upon waking, I spend 60 to 90 minutes in prayer, study, and journaling. This always includes Centering Prayer, Lectio Divina, and meditative reading.
  2. In the evening, I spend 30 to 60 minutes in reflective study – reading or listening to the challenging thoughts of others.

These two activities bookend my days. Throughout the day, I intersperse other contemplative activities as I remember and am able, such as Welcoming Prayer, Meditative Walking, writing, and studying. My current practice pushes me, and although I am inconsistently faithful to it, persistence is important. It is necessary to find a practice that assists us spiritually, but that also allows for the completion of our daily tasks.

It can be frustrating to establish a rhythm of life that we practice for many years and notice only the subtlest of overt changes. Contemplation, however, is a way of life and not a stop along the way, like a blanket that covers us through the night. It does not assure more restful sleep or calmer dreams, but it is a constant, comforting, and dependable presence. A contemplative life is not a life without problems, but it is truer to the life from which we were created – the life that was never born and will never die, which is our eternal life as children of God.

This is the 13th in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life.

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Contemplative Practices, Part 2

Put these things into practice, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress. 1 Timothy 4:15

Contemplative practices do not have the same purpose as other things we practice. When we practice a musical instrument, we have a tangible goal to be able to play a song. We are certain that with enough practice we will have something to show for our efforts, something we can even show off to others. Contemplative practices are different because the work is internal. The only outward show of progress might occur when someone notices we have something in our manner that is spiritual, soothing, or healing, but he or she will probably not be able to verbalize what it is. Spiritual development is subtle and mostly invisible to the outside world. In his book The Inner Experience1, Thomas Merton wrote, “More often than not, the way of contemplation is not even a way, and if one follows it, what (s)he finds is nothing.” He continues, “One of the strange laws of the contemplative life is that in it you do not sit down and solve problems: you bear with them until they somehow solve themselves. Or until life itself solves them for you.”

In last week’s Life Note, I described the contemplative practices of Centering Prayer and Lectio Divina. I will give an overview for two additional practices here: Welcoming Prayer and Walking Meditation. Before I do, as I did last week, I wish to first issue two cautions:

  1. While most contemplative practices are relatively simple and can be self-taught, I recommend learning them from a teacher or experienced practitioner. There are nuances to the practices that are easily overlooked or missed in self-teaching, resulting in an ineffective practice.
  2. One of the ways contemplative practices aid in spiritual growth is by opening a channel from our subconscious levels of being to our conscious awareness. While this is subtle and slow enough for most of us to process without difficulty, for some people a flood of difficult memories and unresolved experiences may ensue. If this happens, discontinue the practice and seek professional assistance.

Welcoming Prayer. This is a prayer practice intended to be used whenever one feels stressed or in pain. Once one is familiar with the process, the prayer can be done quickly and just about anywhere. The purpose is to remind us of God’s active presence and work with and within us, including in our pain. Here is a condensed version of the process as presented in Welcoming Prayer: Consent on the Go2:

  1. Feel and sink into what you are experiencing this moment in your body.
  2. Welcome what you are experiencing in the moment in your body as an opportunity to consent to the Divine Indwelling.
  3. Let go by saying the following sentence: “I let go of my desire for security, affection, control and embrace this moment as it is.”

One can use the Welcoming Prayer throughout the day as needed or desired. More detailed information is available at www.ContemplativeOutreach.org.

Walking Meditation.  This practice involves walking, but not as exercise or as a means to efficiently travel from place to place. Here is the practice:

  1. After taking a few deep, meditative breaths, move slowly and deliberately, savoring each step.
  2. Quiet your mind, focusing on the contact between the bottoms of your feet and the earth.
  3. Feel the energy of the earth rising up through your feet, loving you, embracing you.
  4. Each step IS the destination. Be present.
  5. Engage your senses: What do you see, hear, smell, or feel?

Walking meditation should be done in a quiet, safe place. Walking barefoot through the grass is a sensual experience for those comfortable in doing so. Practicing meditative walking for an hour or more is sometimes required to effectively quiet the mind and feel God’s presence entering one’s body through the earth, but shorter time periods can be helpful, too. A good resource for this practice is www.walk2connect.com.

The justification for committing to regular contemplative practice is well-summarized by author Barbara Holmes:“(Contemplative) practices beckon earthbound bodies toward an expanded receptivity to holiness…Receptivity is not a cognitive exercise but rather the involvement of intellect and senses in a spiritual reunion and oneness with God.”3 These are not superficial self-improvement methods to help us avoid the unpleasant parts of our days. Contemplative practices help us get into our days and experience deeply whatever the day brings, pleasant and unpleasant, knowing and acknowledging it all as a gift from God.

This is the 12th in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life.

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  • Thomas Merton, The Inner Experience. HarperCollins, New York. 2003, p. 2.
  • Welcoming Prayer: Consent on the Go. Contemplative Outreach, Wilkes-Barre, PA. 2016.
  • Barbara A. Holmes, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, 2nd edition. Fortress Press. 2017, p. 3.