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Doorways to Christian Contemplation

Doorways to Christian Contemplation

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Week Twenty-Eight Summary and Practice

Sunday, July 11—Friday, July 16, 2021

Sunday
The diverse methods of contemplation are the many varied, fruitful, and life-giving practices and ways of praying that are nourished from the same root—the Sacred Presence.

Monday
Jesus said, “Judge not and you shall not be judged” (Matthew 7:1). Sitting in meditation, we put this teaching of Christ into practice in remaining present, open, and awake to ourselves just as we are, without judging, without evaluating, without clinging to or rejecting the way we simply are. —James Finley

Tuesday
Chanting is at the heart of all sacred traditions worldwide, and for very good reason: it is fundamentally a deep-immersion experience in the creative power of the universe itself. —Cynthia Bourgeault

Wednesday
The imagination must “be here now.” This is where you actually are, this is reality. Don’t create a fantasy. Know who you are and where you are and what you are doing and really be there. —Beatrice Bruteau

Thursday
I have abandoned all particular forms of devotion, all prayer techniques. My only prayer practice is attention. I carry on a habitual, silent, and secret conversation with God that fills me with overwhelming joy. —Brother Lawrence

Friday
Prayer is not a technique for getting things, a pious exercise that somehow makes God happy, or a requirement for entry into heaven. It is much more like practicing heaven now by leaping into communion with what is right in front of us.

 

Meeting the Lord in Imaginative Prayer

We at the Center often teach the transforming effects of silence and unknowing. It has been my personal practice for years. At the same time, one of the great gifts of Jesuit spirituality is to teach us how to draw closer to God through images, words, verbal prayer, our imaginations, and the Bible itself. Here is how writer and retreat leader Margaret Silf invites people into the riches of Ignatian contemplation:

The call to friendship with God invites us to allow our lives, with everything we most truly are, to become more closely linked to the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord and to everything he truly is. . . . One way to allow this closer linking to happen is to enter imaginatively into scenes from the earthly life of Jesus, in what is called imaginative meditation [or contemplation].

Choose a passage that seems to speak to you in some way—a favorite Gospel scene perhaps, or one of the healing miracles. If you don’t know which passage to choose, just rest, relax, and ask God to guide you; then wait to see whether any particular scene or event comes to mind. . . .

When you have chosen a passage, read it several times until it is familiar and you feel at home with it.

Now imagine that the event is happening here and now and that you are an active participant in it. Don’t worry if you don’t find it easy to imagine it vividly. . . . And don’t worry about getting the facts right. You may well find that your scene doesn’t take place in first century Palestine, but in Chicago rush-hour traffic, or that the desert tracts of the Good Samaritan story turn into the sidewalks in your neighborhood.

Ask God for what you desire—perhaps to meet God more closely or to feel God’s touch upon your life.

Fill out the scene as much as you can by, for example, becoming aware of who is there, the surroundings, the sights, the smells, the tastes, the weather, and the feel of the place (peaceful or threatening). What role do you find yourself taking in the scene—for example, are you one of the disciples, a bystander, or the person being healed? Listen inwardly to what God is showing you through your role in the scene. . . .

Talk with the characters in the scene, especially to Jesus. Speak from your heart simply and honestly. Tell him what you fear, what you hope for, what troubles you. . . . Don’t worry if your attention wanders. If you realize that this is happening, just bring yourself gently back to the scene for as long as you feel drawn to stay there.

There are two absolute rules:

  • Never moralize or judge yourself.
  • Always respond from your heart and not from your head. . . .

Our purpose in prayer is not to defend or condemn ourselves or to come up with any kind of analysis or sermon, but simply to respond, from our inmost depths, to what God is sharing with us of God’s own self.

Experience a version of this practice through video and sound.

Reference:
Margaret Silf, Inner Compass: An Invitation to Ignatian Spirituality (Loyola Press: 1999), 152–153. Note: Minor edits made to incorporate gender-inclusive language.

Image credit: Oliver, Magnolia (detail), 2014, photograph, Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0.
Image inspiration: The quick blooming colors of the saucer magnolia invite us to move beyond the pressures of time. Whether we are surrounded by the constant motion of the city, or in the midst of a bare branch season, we still have the choice to pause and be here, in this moment, with these blooms.
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Doorways to Christian Contemplation

A Superior Lens
Friday, July 16, 2021

Today the unnecessary suffering on this earth is great for people who could have “known better” and should have been taught better by their religions. In the West, religion became preoccupied with telling people what to know more than how to know, telling people what to see more than how to see. We ended up seeing Holy Things faintly, trying to understand Great Things with a whittled-down mind, and trying to love God with our own small and divided heart. It has been like trying to view the galaxies with a $5 pair of binoculars, when we have access to a far superior lens.

Contemplation is my word for this superior lens, this larger seeing that keeps the whole field open. It remains vulnerable before the moment, the event, or the person—before it divides and tries to conquer or control it. Contemplatives refuse to create false dichotomies, dividing the field for the sake of the quick comfort of their ego. They do not rush to polarity thinking to take away their mental anxiety. Importantly, this does not mean they cannot clearly distinguish good from evil! This is a common misunderstanding in early-stage practitioners. You must succeed at dualistic clarity about real and unreal before you advance to nondual responses.

I like to call contemplation “full-access knowing”—prerational, nonrational, rational, and transrational all at once. Contemplation refuses to be reductionistic. Contemplation is an exercise in keeping your heart and mind spaces open long enough for the mind to see other hidden material. It is content with the naked now and waits for futures given by God and grace. As such, a certain amount of love for an object or another subject and for myself must precede any full knowing of it. As the Dalai Lama says so insightfully, “A change of heart is always a change of mind.” We could say the reverse as well—a true change of mind is also, essentially, a change of heart. Eventually, they both must change for us to see properly and contemplatively.

This is where prayer comes in. Instead of narrowing our focus, contemplative prayer opens us up. “Everything exposed to light itself becomes light” (see Ephesians 5:14).  In contemplative prayer, we merely keep returning to the divine gaze and we become its reflection, almost in spite of ourselves. “All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image” (2 Corinthians 3:18). I use the word “prayer” as the umbrella word for any interior journeys or practices that allow us to experience faith, hope, and love within ourselves. It is always a form of simple communing! Despite what Christians have often been taught, prayer is not a technique for getting things, a pious exercise that somehow makes God happy, or a requirement for entry into heaven. It is much more like practicing heaven now by leaping into communion with what is right in front of us.

Reference:
Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See (Crossroad Publishing: 2009), 22–23, 33–34.

Story from Our Community:
I spend much time in contemplation and am intrigued by how God’s Spirit moves within our human experience. It is a mystery I do not fully understand, but I find when I dwell in the liminal space there is a connection with the divine. This past week my sister passed. Hers was a life dominated by addiction, but God’s grace was with her through her life and at the end, when her children were able to gather around her bed for reconciliation and closure. —Ed N.

Image credit: Oliver, Magnolia (detail), 2014, photograph, Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0.
Image inspiration: The quick blooming colors of the saucer magnolia invite us to move beyond the pressures of time. Whether we are surrounded by the constant motion of the city, or in the midst of a bare branch season, we still have the choice to pause and be here, in this moment, with these blooms.
Read Full Entry

Doorways to Christian Contemplation

Practicing the Presence of God
Thursday, July 15, 2021

Prayer is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God.  —Simone Weil, Waiting for God

One of the simplest methods of contemplation is “to practice the presence of God” as described by Brother Lawrence (1614–1691), a French Carmelite monk of the 17th century. Lawrence was a gentle and humble man who, despite his lack of education, just radiated holiness—not from the abbot’s chair but from the kitchen where he worked. I quite agree with writer Ellyn Sanna who observes, “At its heart, Brother Lawrence’s practice was simply Zen—a focus on the present moment in order to wake up, to be able to see the Light.” [1] Here are some modern paraphrases of Brother Lawrence’s “maxims,” which offer readers no real methodology, but simple encouragement to be ourselves and to be aware of God’s presence:

I don’t practice any particular prayer discipline. I have no specific technique I use to meditate. I know these methods work for many people. But for me, when I tried them, I just spent all my time rejecting my wandering thoughts, over and over. I’ve tried to practice these disciplines, but now I don’t worry about them anymore. Their only purpose anyway is to bring a person to union with God. Why should I fast or set aside particular prayer times or deny myself in some way when I’ve found the shortcut? If every moment I’m consciously practicing love, doing all things for God’s sake, then I don’t need to worry about these spiritual methods.

My thoughts are the biggest obstacles to this way of living my life. The little useless thoughts that drift through my head, making mischief, distracting me. I’ve learned to reject them as soon as I notice them. They have nothing to do with the reality at hand—nor with my eternal salvation—and once I stop paying attention to them, I can get back to communing with God.

I have abandoned all particular forms of devotion, all prayer techniques. My only prayer practice is attention. I carry on a habitual, silent, and secret conversation with God that fills me with overwhelming joy.

When we walk in the presence of God, the busiest moment of the day is no different from the quiet of a prayer altar. Even in the midst of noise and clutter, while people’s voices are coming at you from all directions, asking for your help with many different things, you can possess God with the same serenity as if you were on your knees in church.

I can’t always maintain my focus on God, of course. I’ll suddenly discover that I’ve barely given God a thought in a good long while. Usually what gets my attention is that I’ll notice how wretched I’m feeling—and then I’ll realize I’ve forgotten God’s presence. But I don’t worry about it too much. I just turn back to God immediately. And having realized how miserable I am when I forget God, my trust in God is always that much greater.

The Divine Presence occupies the here and now. If you are not aware of this—become so!

References:
[1] Ellyn Sanna, introduction to Brother Lawrence: A Christian Zen Master, 10.

Brother Lawrence: A Christian Zen Master, ed. Ellyn Sanna (Anamchara Books: 2011), 44, 43, 52, 90, 16, 17.

Story from Our Community:
I spend much time in contemplation and am intrigued by how God’s Spirit moves within our human experience. It is a mystery I do not fully understand, but I find when I dwell in the liminal space there is a connection with the divine. This past week my sister passed. Hers was a life dominated by addiction, but God’s grace was with her through her life and at the end, when her children were able to gather around her bed for reconciliation and closure. —Ed N.

Image credit: Oliver, Magnolia (detail), 2014, photograph, Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0.
Image inspiration: The quick blooming colors of the saucer magnolia invite us to move beyond the pressures of time. Whether we are surrounded by the constant motion of the city, or in the midst of a bare branch season, we still have the choice to pause and be here, in this moment, with these blooms.
Read Full Entry

Doorways to Christian Contemplation

Offering Your Whole Self
Wednesday, July 14, 2021

“The Lord your God, the Lord is One. And you shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, your whole mind, your whole soul, and your whole strength.”
(Matthew 22:37; Mark 12:30, 33; Luke 10:27)

Beatrice Bruteau (1930–2014), one of the great contemplative teachers of the 20th and 21st centuries, offers an unusual metaphor to help us better understand what it means to be “pure of heart,” and maintain a single focus when we “practice the presence of God.” It sounds very much like what we might call “being in the flow”!

These four faculties [in Jesus’ commandment above] can be interpreted in various ways. I have, for instance, called them intellect (mind), will (strength), imagination (soul) and affectivity (heart). . . .

Keeping the mind . . . single means keeping our heart whole, keeping our mind whole, our soul and strength [whole], not letting any of them divide in two. So when we
pray . . . we try to find our truest self by unifying and keeping whole our heart, mind, soul, and strength. This unification of the consciousness is what is usually called “concentration”: centering together. It is basic to spiritual practice.

How do you do this concentration? You just do what you’re actually doing in the moment, without thinking/feeling about the fact that you’re doing it. When you set your hand to the plow, you just concentrate on plowing and go straight ahead without looking back to see what you plowed or how well you plowed (Luke 9:62).

You put your whole mind onto plowing, the activity, in the moment in which you are actually doing it. You don’t allow the mind to divide into two, half on plowing and half on plowed. . . . And in fact, if you can put your whole mind on the activity, not dividing some part to look back and see what you have plowed, you will cut a beautiful furrow.

You put your whole will into plowing. You do not divide your will in two by partly consenting to plow, and partly resenting and resisting it and wishing you were doing something else. You “give yourself to” this activity totally, as you do it. The act of plowing and the act of willing to plow become the same thing.

Similarly, you do not allow your imagination to conjure up some other scene for you to enjoy in daydreaming while you plod behind your plow. The imagination must . . . “be here now.” This is where you actually are, this is reality. Don’t create a fantasy. . . . Know who you are and where you are and what you are doing and really be there.

Finally, put all your feelings into this plowing because this is where your life is at this moment. You have no other life here and now except this plowing. Therefore feel this plowing thoroughly, feel it in every way you can. Feel it through your body with all your senses, with your emotions. . . . Become plowing. This is you at this moment. This is where you really are and what you are really doing.

That’s how you center yourself, how you concentrate.

Reference:
Beatrice Bruteau, What We Can Learn from the East (Crossroad: 1995), 90–92.

Story from Our Community:
Three years ago I finished 7 months of chemotherapy; the treatment was very powerful and I had to stay home from my job. Though I often felt physically miserable, the time alone was peaceful and rich. I watched the sun sweep across my room, listened to the Canada geese fly overhead, lost myself in a book, and listened to the breathing of my three dogs sleeping near me. I am not a formal churchgoer and don’t attach to one belief. But this experience and others I have had are not different from those of the religious I admire. The path is wide. —Laura C.

Image credit: Oliver, Magnolia (detail), 2014, photograph, Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0.
Image inspiration: The quick blooming colors of the saucer magnolia invite us to move beyond the pressures of time. Whether we are surrounded by the constant motion of the city, or in the midst of a bare branch season, we still have the choice to pause and be here, in this moment, with these blooms.
Read Full Entry

Doorways to Christian Contemplation

Finding Presence
Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Chanting is one of the most traditional methods of contemplation. While some traditions repeat a single word or sound, Benedictine and Gregorian chant within the Christian tradition draw their inspiration from the Psalms. Cynthia Bourgeault describes how chant works as a contemplative method. She is one of the best teachers in this regard:

Chanting is at the heart of all sacred traditions worldwide, and for very good reason: it is fundamentally a deep-immersion experience in the creative power of the universe itself. Because to make music, you must engage those three core elements out of which the earth was fashioned and through which all spiritual transformation happens.

The first element, of course, is breath. Many of the great world religions picture the earth as being created and sustained by the steady, rhythmic “breathing” of God. Virtually every tradition starts you off on a spiritual practice by bringing attention to your breath and teaching you to breathe fully and consciously. [Benedictine monk] Father Theophane . . . liked to remind his retreatants, “Every breath you take is the breath of God.”

The second element is tone, or vibration, the sound you make when you add voice to that breath. Again, many of the world’s sacred traditions tell us that creation came into existence through the power of vibration. . . . [including] the ancient Christian insight, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (John 1:1)—for what else is “word” but vibration combined with intentionality? Mythologically, the world was “spoken” into existence. And when we add our tone, we join this speaking.

The third element, which I just mentioned above, is intentionality. . . . When you chant, the quality of your intention and attention is what makes the difference between boredom and beauty. As you give yourself to the words you are chanting, their spiritual power comes alive in you. . . .

Not even melodies and choir books are required. In traditional Sufi prayer, for example, a single word is chanted over and over—one of ninety-nine names (spiritual attributes) of God: “mercy,” “truth,” “life,” “peace,” and so forth. With nothing but a single word, sometimes an accompanying drumbeat, and the conscious attention of the participants, a chant of enormous power and beauty rises in remembrance of God.

Perhaps no community has done more to reclaim the sacred Christian practice of chanting than Taizé, the small ecumenical community in France founded in the late 1940s. They remind us that “through [the songs], little by little, our being finds an inner unity in God. They can continue in the silence of our hearts when we are at work, speaking with others or resting. In this way prayer and daily life are united. They allow us to keep on praying even when we are unaware of it, in the silence of our hearts.” [1]

References:
[1] “Meditative Singing,” article from Taizé website.

Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind—A New Perspective on Christ and His Message (Shambhala: 2008), 161–162, 169.

Story from Our Community:
Three years ago I finished 7 months of chemotherapy; the treatment was very powerful and I had to stay home from my job. Though I often felt physically miserable, the time alone was peaceful and rich. I watched the sun sweep across my room, listened to the Canada geese fly overhead, lost myself in a book, and listened to the breathing of my three dogs sleeping near me. I am not a formal churchgoer and don’t attach to one belief. But this experience and others I have had are not different from those of the religious I admire. The path is wide. —Laura C.

Image credit: Oliver, Magnolia (detail), 2014, photograph, Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0.
Image inspiration: The quick blooming colors of the saucer magnolia invite us to move beyond the pressures of time. Whether we are surrounded by the constant motion of the city, or in the midst of a bare branch season, we still have the choice to pause and be here, in this moment, with these blooms.
Read Full Entry

Doorways to Christian Contemplation

Present, Open, Awake
Monday, July 12, 2021

My friend and CAC teacher James Finley is a true contemplative! I watch the crowds—from conferences to Living School students—settle in his presence almost immediately. He is so centered in himself and in God that he is at peace and “transmits” the message with peace everywhere he goes. Here he offers gentle, loving instructions for what many consider traditional meditation:

There is no single way to meditate. There are, however, certain acts and attitudes inherently endowed with the capacity to awaken sustained states of meditative awareness. . . .

With respect to the body: Sit still. Sit straight. Place your hands in a comfortable or meaningful position in your lap. Close your eyes or lower them toward the ground. Breathe slowly and naturally. With respect to your mind, be present, open, and awake, neither clinging to nor rejecting anything. And with respect to attitude, maintain nonjudgmental compassion toward yourself as you discover yourself clinging to and rejecting everything, and nonjudgmental compassion toward others. . . .

Keep in mind that these guidelines are but suggestions for you to explore as part of your ongoing process of finding the ways to meditate that are most natural and effective for you. What matters is not which method of meditation you use, but the self-transforming process by which meditation leads you into more . . . openness to God. . . .

Go to your place of meditation. . . . You might say a brief and simple prayer expressing your gratitude to God for having been led to the path of meditation and asking for the wisdom, courage, and strength to be faithful to it. . . .

[Then] let go of all that is preoccupying you at the moment. Choose to be present in the immediacy of the present moment by simply relaxing into being right where you are, just as you are. Settle into the intimate, felt sense of your bodily stillness. Settle into being aware of your breathing and whatever degree of fatigue or wakefulness you may be feeling in your body at the moment. Be aware of whatever sadness, inner peace, or other emotion may be present. Be aware of the light and the temperature in the room where you are sitting. In short, simply be present, just as you are, in the moment, just as it is. Cling to nothing. Reject nothing. Rest in this moment. . . . Relax. Give yourself a break. Simply sit in a “Here I am, Lord” stance. . . . Know and trust that God is already perfectly present in your simply being alive and real in the present moment just as it is. . . .

Be humbled and grateful in knowing that you are learning to awaken to your true nature in learning to be like God. . . . Jesus said, “Judge not and you shall not be judged” (Matthew 7:1). Sitting in meditation, we put this teaching of Christ into practice in remaining present, open, and awake to ourselves just as we are, without judging, without evaluating, without clinging to or rejecting the way we simply are.

Reference:
James Finley, Christian Meditation: Experiencing the Presence of God (HarperSanFrancisco: 2004), 203, 204–205, 207–208.

Story from Our Community:
Father Richard brings the true meaning of scripture with such clarity to my life! These teachings of contemplation have changed my whole perspective on God’s place in my life. I now know with certainty the depth of God’s love and guidance for me and all who seek. These words are in my life every day calling me to live a “kingdom” life through prayer, meditation, and service to the world. —Margaret W.

Image credit: Oliver, Magnolia (detail), 2014, photograph, Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0.
Image inspiration: The quick blooming colors of the saucer magnolia invite us to move beyond the pressures of time. Whether we are surrounded by the constant motion of the city, or in the midst of a bare branch season, we still have the choice to pause and be here, in this moment, with these blooms.
Read Full Entry

Doorways to Christian Contemplation

A Tree of Life
Sunday, July 11, 2021

Anyone familiar with my writing knows that I believe that immediate, unmediated contact with the moment is the clearest path to divine union. Naked, undefended, and nondual presence has the best chance of encountering the Real Presence. I approach the theme of contemplation in a hundred ways, because I know most of us have one hundred levels of resistance, denial, or avoidance. For some reason, in our complicated world, it is very hard to teach simple things. Any “mystery,” by definition, is pregnant with many levels of unfolding and realization. That is especially true of the “tree of life” that is contemplative awareness.

I call contemplation the tree of life that promises access to eternal things (see Genesis 3:22), grows “crops twelve times a year,” and sprouts “leaves that are for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2). It accesses the deep ground of God and the True Self. The contemplative, nondual mind is a tree of continual and constant fruitfulness for the soul and for the world.

We might also think of the diverse methods of contemplation as a tree of life as well. They are the many varied, fruitful, and life-giving practices and ways of praying that are nourished from the same root—the Sacred Presence. In my novitiate I was exposed to an early method of silent Franciscan contemplation called pensar sin pensar or no pensar nada as described by the Spanish Friar Francisco de Osuna (1492–1542). [1] (He was a primary teacher to Teresa of Ávila, as she says in her Vida.) I didn’t totally understand what I was supposed to be doing in that silence of “thinking without thinking” and probably fell asleep on more than one occasion. Yet it had the effect of moving me away from the verbal, social, and petitionary prayers I had been taught almost exclusively up to that time.

Prayer is indeed the way to make contact with God/Ultimate Reality, but it is not an attempt to change God’s mind about us or about events. It is primarily about changing our mind so that things like infinity, mystery, and forgiveness can resound within us. A small mind cannot see Great Things because the two are on two different frequencies or channels, as it were. The Big Mind can know big things, but we must change channels. Like will know like.

There are as many ways of accessing the naked now as there are individuals, so no exploration could possibly be comprehensive, even within our own Christian tradition. However, this week’s meditations on Doorways to Christian Contemplation will offer some modern descriptions of traditional contemplative practices. I hope something engages your heart and imagination enough to try it out for yourself.

References:
[1] Francisco de Osuna, Tercer Abecedario Espiritual (The Third Spiritual Alphabet), treatise 21, chap. 5.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See (Crossroad Publishing: 2009), 102, 105–106, 113.

Story from Our Community:
Father Richard brings the true meaning of scripture with such clarity to my life! These teachings of contemplation have changed my whole perspective on God’s place in my life. I now know with certainty the depth of God’s love and guidance for me and all who seek. These words are in my life every day calling me to live a “kingdom” life through prayer, meditation, and service to the world. —Margaret W.

Image credit: Oliver, Magnolia (detail), 2014, photograph, Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0.
Image inspiration: The quick blooming colors of the saucer magnolia invite us to move beyond the pressures of time. Whether we are surrounded by the constant motion of the city, or in the midst of a bare branch season, we still have the choice to pause and be here, in this moment, with these blooms.
Read Full Entry
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