Encouragement for a lifelong journey of faith

Category: A Sunlit Absence (Page 1 of 2)

January 9, 2022 – Sifted by Boredom

Today’s Bible reading

“Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap. For it will come on all those who live on the face of the whole earth. Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.”—Luke 21:34-36

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 practitioner of Christian contemplation.”

On being bored with prayer: “Why is boredom such a testing ground? What does it tread so predictably—at least in some degree—on the heels of the dedicated person of prayer? Boredom is really a sign that the mind is beginning to assume, as it were, a posture of release and receptivity. Our thinking mind has a strong tendency to grasp, whether it is the grasp of comprehension or the grasping frenzy of mind-tripping. The thinking dimension of the mind needs to keep a tight grip on things. But when we move into the depths of prayer this grip has a way of becoming a pounding first in its demand to control and to understand. This fist of comprehension is gradually being softened and opened up during deep prayer, exposing a new depth of the mind, an engaged and receptive depth, that is deeper than what thinks, reacts, plots, and schemes. This depth of the mind is more like an open palm than a clenched fist. It does not grasp so much as release, receive, and let be. But because the thinking mind so dominates, there can be a bit of stiffness as it opens. This stiffness registers in the mind as boredom. With nothing for the grasping mind to do, it feels bored or even anxious.

What do we do in the presence of this boredom? Scratch our wrists. Sigh. Fidget. A story (difficult to source) is told of St. Teresa of Avila picking up her hourglass and shaking it in order to hurry it along. The saints and sages seem to know that it is important simply to sit still in the presence of boredom even if they are no good at doing it. Saint John of the Cross likens this to someone sitting for a portrait. It is important not to move. ‘If the model for the painting or retouching of a portrait should move because of a desire to something else, since it cannot do anything or think of anything in prayer, the artist would be unable to finish and the work would be spoiled.’ During this period of boredom in prayer, it is natural to try to get some sort of juice out of it, in the way of consoling feelings or inspiring insight. But it is of no use. This boredom is actually an indication that our prayer is going deeper than where our thoughts and feelings reach. Saint John of the Cross says that the more we try to prop ourselves up by thoughts and feelings ‘the more we will feel the lack of these, for this support cannot be supported through these sensory means.’ There is plenty of support from God who is the loving ground of our being, from whom nothing can separate us (Rom 8:35-38). But it is not accessible to the senses just now in the way that birdsong is or the smell of our burning supper.” (Martin Laird, A Sunlit Absence, p. 102-104.).

Suggestions for Action

“Spiritual boredom is an initiation into the desert and the making of any contemplative. As we journey deeper into this desert, we grow accustomed to the barrenness, and actually come to prefer it, though we might not realize this until we return to the hum of urban neon in our heads. Boredom heals by diminishing our reliable on this spiritual glitz that keeps us preoccupied with how our prayer is progressing” (ibid., 108-109)

Laird tells us that when we are bored in prayer, we might be ready for something new and something deeper. In one case, a woman who had developed a more content-filled prayer discipline needed to move toward contemplation in order to overcome her boredom. In another, contemplation was the starting point for overcoming boredom. Maybe it is the same for you.

Journal about whether you are bored in prayer, or bored in general. Ask God to liberate you from your boredom, but in fact, stay with your practice of prayer, and return to it. See your boredom simply as a result of our over-stimulation and your need for more of it, intellectual, emotional, and otherwise.

Find comfort in these words from Laird, once more, “It is crucial not to get caught up in the story we tell ourselves about the boredom, about how inadequate our prayer feels… On a practical level, it is important that we simply return to our practice” (ibid., 108).

So do so again today, return to your practice. Contemplate using your word and your breath. Doing so in a group can be helpful, especially if you have a chance to speak to one another afterward about your experience, especially, perhaps, your experience of boredom.

January 8, 2022– A Sunlit Absence

Today’s Bible reading

For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.—Colossians 3:3-4

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 practitioner of Christian contemplation.”

Contemplation is like sculpting: “According to ancient theory of art, the practice of sculpting has less to do with fashioning a figure of one’s choosing than with being able to see in the stone the future waiting to be liberated. The sculptor imposes nothing but only frees what is held captive in stone. The practice of contemplation us something like this. It does not work by means of addition or acquisition, but by release, chiseling away thought-shackled illusions of separation from God…

If God is a sculptor, our practice is like a chisel that works effectively and patiently to remove stone. Just as the progress of chiseling, brushing, and blowing away debris and dust is not by way  of acquisition, the way an assembly of bricks and mortar acquires us a building, so the practice of contemplation does not require for us some thing. Contemplative practice proceeds by way of the engaged receptivity of release, of prying loose, of letting go of the need to have life circumstances be a certain way in order for us to live or pray or be deeply happy.” (Martin Laird, A Sunlit Absence, p.60-61).

“The wherewithal of human interiority to negotiate the spiritual journey runs deep. Awareness itself runs deep and communes with the Sacred are like the Hudson River meeting the Atlantic. The Hudson flows a hundred miles into the Atlantic, while the Atlantic reaches into the freshwaters of the Hudson up as far as Newburgh, New York. This type of union between waters is something St. Teresa of Avila herself finds useful in explaining the union between the soul and God. She says union with God ‘is like rain falling from the sky into a river or a pool There is nothing but water. It’s impossible to divide the sky-water from the land-water. When a little stream enters the sea, who could separate its waters back out again? Think of a bright life pouring into a room from two large windows: it enters from different places but becomes one light. Maybe this is what St. Paul meant when he said, “Whoever is joined to God becomes one spirit with him”’” (Martin Laird, A Sunlit Absence, p. 64-65.).

Suggestions for Action

Laird is talking about how we remove our “thought-shackled illusions of separation from God” when we contemplate. In other words, we both become more like God and more like ourselves. Our soul meets God like the Hudson meets the Atlantic, like the rain meets the river. There is a unity happening between us and God as we find God in us through contemplation. Return to the practice we’ve established this week and seek that unity.

But also, with your cell, family, or alone, consider what your though-shackled illusions are? What separates you from God? What commentaries run through your mind that block you from unity with God? The purpose here for thinking of these things is not so that you can rid yourself of them simply by acknowledging them. But rather, when you run into them in your own attendance of contemplation you are reminded that they are indeed separating you from God and return to your breath and your word, without extending the commentary. Have the commentary elsewhere so that you do not allow it to disrupt your prayer. Dialoguing with your cell or family or journaling privately is a good way to start.

January 8, 2022– The Open Porches of the Mind

Today’s Bible reading

Then justice will dwell in the wilderness,
and righteousness abide in the fruitful field.
The effect of righteousness will be peace,
and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.
My people will abide in a peaceful habitation,
in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places.
The forest will disappear completely,
and the city will be utterly laid low.
Happy will you be who sow beside every stream,
who let the ox and the donkey range freely.Isaiah 32:16-20

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 practitioner of Christian contemplation.”

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendos
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
—Wallace Stevens, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”

Laird writes about silence, and coping with noisy disruptions during sustained periods of intentional silence, in this case using someone whose retreat was interrupted an electric buzz saw:

“Coping with disruptive noise that we simply cannot do anything about does not so much call for praying to the patron saint of noise reduction as for being resolved that it’s okay for the noise to be there if it happens to be there and nothing can be done about it. To get caught up in a buzzing commentary on how irritating the nose is makes for a relationship with noise. The irritation is something the mind adds. We need a simpler relationship with noise. Instead of meeting an irritating buzz saw, we just want to let the buzz saw be there if nothing can be done about it. For this to happen, two things are required.

First, if our practice has been deeply established, we are in a position to learn something from silence and its generous way of allowing noise to be present when it happens to be present. To get caught up in a commentary on the noise will not make it go away but will only tighten the clenching of our jaws around our preference that the noise be gone. Our own generous release into our practice mirrors what silence does all the time; silence is wide and gracious enough to allow sound, even irritating sound, to be present. Second, instead of trying to push disruption away, we shift our attention away from the disrupting noise to our prayer word or to whatever our contemplative practice is. The return is not a pushing away or a reactive clinging, but a generous release into our practice. We will soon begin to see that the noisy disruptions that we cannot control becomes an exercise, a training, that strengthens us in our practice, the way a challenging terrain strengths the distance runner. But again this return to our practice will not be a pushing away or a flight from disruption. Deepening immersion in contemplative practice is simultaneous with allowing the disruption to be present; we just become better at not letting it steal our attention. And when it inevitably does, we simply bring attention home without comment” (Martin Laird, A Sunlit Absence, p. 51-52).

Suggestions for Action

“Physical silence is good for us and needs to be pursued, cultivated, understood, and revered. Physical silence increases our awareness of all that is going on around us, especially the needs and sensitivities of others” (ibid., p. 56).

The best way to apply what Laird is writing up is to practice it. He gently is guiding us to create silent spaces in our lives in order to encounter God within us. They do not come without intention. Sure, we are often awkwardly silent, or found in stunned silence, or giving a loved one the silent treatment in our resentment, but that’s not what Laird means. It’s more like the “reverential silence of dogwoods in winter, or “the vast silence of a cathedral.”

So create another intentional space today for as long as you can, and try to return to your contemplative practice. If you are just joining us this week, go back to the first day to get a primer on contemplative prayer. Practice it again, and when you are distracted, invariably, by a noise (like a buzz saw in our example above), bring your attention back to your breath and the word.

January 7, 2022 – Our Collection of Videos

Today’s Bible reading

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.—Matthew 13:45-46

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 practitioner of Christian contemplation.”

One of the reasons Laird is so palatable among ordinary people is because he teaches undergraduates at Villanova. His students provide a lot of applicable content to his books.

“Undergraduates today often have a remarkable psychological sensitivity and fragility. It doesn’t take them long to see the relevance of distance figures like Evagrius, and they are genuinely intrigued by how, before he became a monk, the life and lifestyle of this immensely talented church careerist suddenly came crashing down as a result of an affair with a governmental official. Cryptic as some of his sayings may seem, students perceive in Evagrius a person of deep compassion and insight, a person who understands the struggles they themselves go through because Evagrius, too, has lived them…

Students will often take writing assignments on Evagrius in a personal direction, as the follow examples reveal. Their own words in the following sections serve better than any summary to reveal how much they learn about their own mind-tripping, as their relationships with God develops…” (Martin Laird, A Sunlit Absence, p. 26-27).

What follows is one of the examples:

Blind With Anger

“Evagrius seems to know that as much as our mind-tripping on inner videos causes suffering, we somehow find them fascinating and so we have to be careful. He says the demons use vivid images for this combat, ‘and we run to see them.’ Intellectually I understood that my friends were trying to help me. But the thought that they betrayed me gets me mind-tripping on self-pity, and I almost always just go with it. If I can see myself as being a victim, I can more easily stay in denial of the issues that concerned my friends. In a weird sort of way being this victim was more comforting than the fact that my behavior was making me ill and that my friends thought they needed to let someone know. I can see that I do this. This mind-tripping, what Evagrius calls ‘passions’ stirred up by a thought or image, can actually make us sick. Not just spiritually, but mentally and physically as well. If we’re not careful, he says, ‘under the influence of this part of our soul, we then grow unhealthy while our passions undergo a full-bodied development.’

Anger, resentment, self-pity can even make you completely crazy: ‘Those who long for true prayer but are given over to anger or resentment will be beside themselves with madness. They are like someone who wants to see clearly but keeps scratching her eyes.’ I don’t know if Evagrius came up with the phrase ‘blind with anger,’ but he basically says it: ‘Resentment blinds the reason of one who prays and casts a cloud over prayer.’  Blinded as I may be by my anger, all this mind-tripping seems very real at the time. Evagrius says, ‘These things are depicted vividly before our eyes.’ ‘The most fierce passion is anger… It constantly irritates the soul and above all at the time of prayer it seizes the mind and flashes the picture of the offensive person before one’s eyes.’ The purpose of all this mind-tripping is to keep us from going deeper within where God dwells, ‘to cease to pray so that we might not stand in the presence of the Lord our God, not dare to raise our hands in supplication to one against whom we have had such frightful thoughts.’

Another thing that Evagrius has taught me is how closely related are anger, fear, and pain. The more fear, the more anger. Evagrius seems to say this. He defines anger as ‘a boiling up and stirring up of wrath against one who has given injury.’ I found this statement very helpful. ‘I always thought of my anger as a response to something or someone who had offended me. But Evagrius suggests that anger is a response to pain, to being hurt. If I learn how to handle pain better, I might learn how to handle anger better. But what I find most helpful is the link he establishes between anger and fear. I have recently realized that anger and fear are very closely related. In psychology class we learned about the fight/flight response. But Evagrius sees that anger can sow the seeds of fear or can somehow turn into fear: ‘Images of a frightful kind usually arise from anger’s disturbing influence.’ I’ve always known that I struggle a lot with fear but have only recently come to see that when I’m very angry, I will wake up afraid” (Martin Laird, A Sunlit Absence, p. 32-34).

Suggestions for Action

Laird says we run to our “inner videos” and that they can dominate our “inner life.” We run to them when they show up, when we are reminded of them, “like a dog to fire hydrant” (ibid., p. 36). We aren’t enslaved to them though, Evagrius says, “it is up to us to decide if they are to linger within us or not and whether or not they are to stir up our obsessions,” (ibid., p. 41) Try using these flow questions to consider your own collection of videos. You may do this alone or in a group, like your cell or your household.

Where do you find your mind preoccupied? It might be anger, fear, or shame, for example.

What is a recent even that stirred up those feelings in you?

Do you feel “bound” by that experience? Are you blind with rage (or shame, fear, or whatever other feeling you have)?

What is a decision you can make to not accommodate this “video,” to not just subject yourself to this sort of “cinema,” if you like?

Another excerpt from a student who found his own contemplative practice to help him work resisting acting on his own inner video:

“Sometimes I think acting out strengthens it. Evagrius says, ‘Anger and hatred increase anger.’ This is something the Jesus Prayer can be very helpful for. Just say the Jesus Prayer in the middle of the anger. Evagrius says, ‘At times just as soon as you rise you pray well. At other times, work as you may, you achieve nothing. But this happens so that by seeking still more intently, and then finally reaching the mark, you may possess you prize without fear of loss.’ I think Evagrius is saying that it’s just as important to pray in the midst of difficulty as it is to pray when things are OK. With the Jesus Prayer you can do this” (ibid., 31).

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