Contemplative Practices, Part 2

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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.

 Prefer to listen? Subscribe to Life Notes Podcasts at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/life-notes-podcast/id1403068000

  • 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.

The Morning of Christmas

sunrise

‘Twas the morning of Christmas, when Love came to earth,

By way of a tiny and humble child’s birth;

His parents had traveled so far from their home,

For the census decreed by Augustus, in Rome.

Arriving in Bethlehem, with no place to stay,

The new baby slept in a manger of hay;

With cattle and donkeys and sheep at his side,

This animal stable was home, for a time.

Angels announced the birth on that night,

To seekers and shepherds and sinners alike;

“All glory to God!” the heavenly host chimed,

“And peace on the earth to all of mankind.”

Beneath a bright star, the news was proclaimed,

Of God come to earth in the form of this babe;

A child who would grow and remake us anew,

And cover the sins of me and of you.

On the morning of Christmas, the Prince of Peace came,

To reconcile souls with their Maker, again;

God with us, Emmanuel, forever to dwell,

On the morning of Christmas, and all year as well!

May the true light of Christmas be born in you this day!

Merry Christmas

Contemplative Practices, Part 1

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Contemplative Practices, Part 1

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

I frequently make references to contemplative practices without describing what they are. I will describe a few of the practices that are a part of my daily routine. Before I do so, however, I need to 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 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 consciousness 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.

Several years ago I felt a deep need to experience the presence of God in my life instead of just reading another book about it. Contemplative practices are a way to integrate our bodies, our physical being, into our spiritual work. These practices are not about adding more stuff to our days or reading more books faster. They are about slowing down and going deep, entering a moment or a narrative and experiencing what it has to offer. One of my teachers suggests that if we spend 10 hours a week reading, we should spend one of those hours on a single page, paragraph, line, or thought.

I utilize the two practices I describe below every day. One is a form of prayer — Centering Prayer, and one is a method of study – Lectio Divina (pronounced Lex’-ee-oh Dah-vee’-na). Many other practices are available and useful, and I will describe a couple more next week. These include (but are not limited to) walking meditation, yoga, certain forms of exercise, meditation, sacred dance, chanting, and many variations of prayer.

Centering Prayer. This is a form of silent prayer, where we seek to quiet the internal dialogue that runs non-stop in our minds. The sole purpose is to sit in the presence of God. We are not seeking answers, enlightenment, or comfort. We do not submit our petitions to God. We simply consent to be in God’s presence. Here is the process:
1. Select a “sacred word” of one or two syllables that will symbolize your consent to God’s presence and action within you. I often use “Be still.” Use whatever word seems appropriate to you to symbolize your willingness to consent to God’s presence.
2. Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, take a few deep breaths and silently introduce your sacred word.
3. When thoughts arise, as they will, repeat your sacred word to renew your intent to consent quietly to God’s presence. Allow the thoughts to pass away as you say your sacred word.
Two, twenty-minute sessions of centering prayer each day are recommended, although shorter periods can be helpful, too.

Lectio Divina. This is a four-step method for studying sacred texts, like the Bible. The intent is not to see how much of the text one can get through and how quickly, but to see how deeply one can enter and experience one section of the text. I often select a book of the Bible, reading it from beginning to end, one paragraph at a time, one day at a time. Here is the process:
1. Read the selected passage slowly and aloud. This allows one’s body to hear the words instead of just thinking the words. Listen for a word or phrase that speaks to you.
2. Read the passage a second time and reflect on what touches you about it. Enter one or more of the characters – what are they thinking, feeling, or experiencing? Consider journaling your thoughts.
3. Read the passage a third time and respond with a prayer or expression of what you have experienced and/or what it calls you to do. This step is a call to action – what action in my life is this passage calling me to?
4. Read the passage a fourth time and rest in silence.
Additional information and resources for these and other practices is at http://www.contemplativeoutreach.com.

Contemplative practices are not about getting from here to there but are about delving more deeply into the here and now – wherever we are, whatever our situation, at this very moment. Next week I will provide an overview for a couple of additional practices.

This is the 11th in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life.

Prefer to listen? Subscribe to Life Notes Podcasts at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/life-notes-podcast/id1403068000

 

The Certainty of Uncertainty

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The Certainty of Uncertainty

 O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! Romans 11:33

What does it take to feel confident in or comfortable with our life in this world? If God loves us; indeed, if God is love, why is life so unpredictable? Why all the violence, sickness, injustice, insecurity, and misery? Why does the earth seem to be falling apart from earthquakes, fires, climate change, glacier melt, species extinction, and other incomprehensible disasters? Everyone I know suffers in some way, consistent with their cultural, ethnic, and socio-economic status. No one gets out of here alive. Can we ever be certain about anything in life? The answer is an emphatic YES! We can always be certain that life will remain uncertain.

A portion of our uncertainty centers around the concept of fairness. One absolute truth about life is that life is not fair. Another truth is that life is absolutely fair. How can both be true? Can life be fairer to some than others? There seems to be ample evidence of that possibility. Unfortunately, we are poorly equipped to determine what is and is not fair. Our human perspective is too limited. Being human is about experiencing life’s nuances in excruciating detail. We lose ourselves so deeply into the forest that all we see are trees. We cannot conceive of a larger picture or a unifying purpose.

When we lack the ability to judge what should or should not happen in the grand scheme of events, then our perception of fairness is always out of kilter, making life appear uncertain. In the scope of the eternal life of the soul, our life on earth is but a grain of sand on a vast beach; but we cannot view the beach. What can we possibly know about fairness, about justice, about love in the eternal scheme of God’s creation? What if a particular soul – a specific manifestation of God – chooses to embody in a third world country in order to experience starvation or apartheid or a brutal civil war? That possibility puts fairness in a completely different context. If God experiences in and through all of creation, why would God not want to experience the good, bad, and ugly of creation? Certainly, every stage of human creation has painful parts of the process required for completion – childbirth, for instance. Our problem is that we judge the pain of the contractions as separate from the life of the person.

Even if a soul does choose to manifest in a certain time and space in order to experience a particular stage of creation, that does not relieve the rest of us from the obligation to do what we can about the injustice, the oppression, or the unfortunate circumstance. Part of the grace, perhaps the only grace in being a victim of unspeakable tragedy is to have another child of God notice and do whatever he or she can to ease that suffering. We need to realize that the disadvantaged provide opportunities to allow God’s grace to flow through us. One soul suffers, another soul relieves suffering – all is part of the experience of God through us.

One additional certainty, aside from the certainty of uncertainty, is that we cannot fall out of God’s love and care. God did not spare Jesus from his ghastly earthly suffering, so why would we expect God to spare ours? God did not leave Jesus alone on the cross, nor will God leave us alone on ours. God did not allow the pain of the cross to last forever, nor will God allow our pain to last forever. God took the pain of the crucifixion and birthed something good for humankind, just as God will transform our suffering into good. Of course, none of this happens according to our desires or our timeline. We are not in a position to make those judgments.

Our world is full of uncertainty because we are incapable of perceiving or fully trusting the fairness of God’s unfolding plan. Yes, we should absolutely make every effort to do all the good we can in every situation we can, but we cannot tie our willingness to work to the results we believe should immediately follow. That is God’s business, not ours. The ultimate success of God’s ceaseless workings will seem uncertain to us. Contemplative practices help us accept the certainty of uncertainty, release our attachment to results, and free us to live, move, and have our being in and as the part of God’s greater life we were created to manifest.

This is the 10th in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life.

 Prefer to listen? Subscribe to Life Notes Podcasts at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/life-notes-podcast/id1403068000