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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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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.

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