Today’s Bible reading

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”—Luke 17:20-21

More thoughts for meditation

During Lent we will be learning from great practitioners and teachers of Christian contemplative practice. Their shared wisdom and encouragement will inspire our own practice. Our words for Lent are “We need to feel it.” — our hunger, our lack, our sin, yes, but also the love that casts out fear, the presence of eternity in our here and now and the forgiveness that transforms our lives and the whole world. Contemplative prayer is a powerful way to practice feeling it.

Martin Laird’s A Sunlit Absence is a companion book to Into The Silent Land (Pastors’ Goodreads review here and Daily Prayer entries on that text here). He is one of our aforementioned “great practitioners of Christian contemplation.”

Here, he masterfully and simply describes the technique.

“The practice of contemplation begins with our attention and our bodies.

The basics are simple. We sit down and assume a solid, erect posture. Saint Gregory of Sinai recommends sitting on ‘a seat about nine inches high.’ Nowadays, we call this a prayer bench, which we place over our calves and sit on with the back straight but not rigid. The bench is angled to facilitate the back’s natural s-curve and encourage a sturdy, alert posture. These prayer benches are fairly popular, quite googleable, and not especially expensive. Still others prefer a prayer cushion. But most prefer to sit in a chair. In any case the body’s solid, stable posture contributes to prayer by its stable, alert tripod solidity. The body’s physical stillness facilitates interior stillness, alertness, and calm.

Quietly repeat the prayer word united with the breath. If the prayer word is of more than one syllable or word (such as ‘Jesus,’ ‘Abba,’ or ‘Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me’), we might inhale on the first syllable (or group of words) and exhale on the second syllable (ideally for periods of about twenty minutes twice a day), we give our attention entirely to their quiet repetition. Whenever we become aware that we’ve become distracted, we bring our attention back to the prayer word united to the breath, ‘continually breathing Jesus Christ.’

The basic instruction in the practice of contemplation remains fundamentally the same throughout its seasons of practice: whenever we become aware that our attention has been stolen, we bring it back to the prayer word united with the breath” (Martin Laird, A Sunlit Absence, p. 15-16).

Suggestions for action

Try the practice that Laird lists. Find a chair that is sturdy. Light a candle if it helps. Close your eyes. Quiet your thoughts and concentrate on a prayer word. Keep your back upright, and maybe open your hands so as to receive what God has for you. Don’t preoccupy your mind with “not thinking” about things (that will distract you further). Instead, when your mind wanders, return to your word. We aren’t moving toward “dull blankness,” as Laird puts it, but warm connection. “The challenge lies in its simplicity.”

Attending like this for twenty minutes is what Laird suggests, but if you can only do five or ten, that’s OK. You will advance as you practice. Try it in your cell or with your family. Afterward, gently discuss what it was it was like, what came to mind, what was difficult about it. If you are doing it alone, consider journaling about your experience.