Encouragement for a lifelong journey of faith

Category: A Sunlit Absence (Page 1 of 2)

March 17 – Sharp Trials in the Intellect

Today’s Bible reading

Come and see what the Lord has done,
the desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease
to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth.”Psalm 46:8-10

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.”

“When we are drawn into the presence of God with our conceptual mind gunning its engines, we are in for a rather rude awakening. … Gregory of Nyssa likens it to stepping onto a ‘slippery, steep rock that affords no basis for our thoughts.’ With nothing to hold onto, the conceptual mind cannot stabilize itself. Saint Gregory likens this encounter with God to being on the edge of a mountain precipice. Finding no toehold or handhold, ‘the mind has nothing it can grasp, neither place nor time, neither space nor any other thing which offers our mind something to grasp hold of, but, slips from all sides from what it fails to grasp, in dizziness and confusion.’

We may have known this liberating purification previously, but it focused more on the surface faculties of the soul, such as greed, gluttony, or lust. Not that these struggles did not give us a run for our money, but in classical Christian theology they are considered less spiritually dangerous. While struggles with these may generate a greater media interest, they are, in the ancient view of things, nearer the surface of the soul and produce more garden-variety suffering than the much sharper pain of confronting more spiritual, and therefore more dangers, intellectual sins such as pride, envy, judgmentalism, and vainglory. When the loving flame of God sets about healing these sins of the intellect it is more painful because they are more spiritual, and we become painfully aware of just how beset by them we are. Indeed we are progressing along the path of holiness but as a result we become aware of just how filled we are with deeply rooted intellectual habits that blind us to the loving light. As St. John of the Cross sees it, this is perfectly consistent with how wood takes on the qualities of fire. Before the wood becomes wooden flame—completely one with fire—the wood spits and hisses and oozes in preparation for becoming all flame. As part of the process of healing we become acutely aware of just how filled we are with arrogance, envy, preoccupation with our reputation, judgmentalism. Indeed these characteristics were all there within us, but we were at most only vaguely aware of them; now the living flame of love is drawing them out and placing them in our site. The problem is that this stage of growth in humbling self-knowledge is singularly painful, with the result that we feel we are falling to pieces when in fact we are becoming one with the living flame of love. As when our prayer was beset by boredom, there is no time limit on these ‘sharp trials in the intellect.’ These trials are intertwined with the tangles of Providence and are trailer-made for each person, but the following are common enough places to undergo them: our relationship with beauty, knowledge, spiritual advancement, idealism—each presents a different opportunity to observe the grasping, clinging mind (this list is by no means exhaustive)…

Study and learning are spiritual disciples with much esteem in the Christian contemplative tradition (as they are in many religious traditions). When this discipline is being strengthened and purified to make the discursive mind a better servant of God, we become aware of not-so-subtle tendency to show off how much we have come to know in all our reading and study. This need not be a public display; we can look down on people less well-read than we are in such a way that they don’t even notice it. When this form of pride or arrogance is being healed we are not only painfully aware of just how much we do this, but it can be painful to study in the way we did before. We find we cannot even read it, for it hurts too much to see our intellectual arrogance so clearly” (Martin Laird, A Sunlit Absence, p. 140-142).

Suggestions for Action

In the final chapter of the book, Laird seems to conclude with how contemplation refines you. It’s a perfect image for Lent. It brings up that which we need to let go of, that which we need to empty ourselves up, and moves us closer to God. We confront our anxieties, our emotions, our thoughts and give them to God, trying to leave all of our worry at the foot of the cross, and leave filled with God’s peace; not just a new idea. What are the trials of the intellect you faced? What are the inner videos you faced? How did you overcome your boredom?

How did the week of prayer for you? What did you learn? How are you moving with God? Journal about your experience, or share them with a friend. All of our prompts this week in “suggestions for action,” could be used to guide your cell meeting or another time of dialogue and connection. Go back and reuse one if it suits you.

Today is Patrick Day! Honor the apostle to Ireland at Celebrating our Transhistorical Body. 

March 16 – Creative Disintegration

Today’s Bible reading

The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”—1 Kings 19:11-13

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 in depression or anxiety: “Josh’s depression set in over a period of several years. When he first returned to the practice of contemplation, he had no awareness of the role that thoughts and clusters of thoughts played in maintaining the depression. Growth in awareness of these thoughts was precisely one of the fruits of that single experience of the Jesus Prayer as a living presence streaming within him.

Saint Hesychios likens the practice of awareness and interior stillness to a spider on its web. ‘If you wish to engage in spiritual warfare, let that little animal, the spider, always be your example for stillness of heart; otherwise you will not be as still in your intellect as you should be. If during your struggle you are as still in your soul as is the spider, you will be blessed by the Holy Spirit.’ This spider is most aware when it is most still. As soon as anything lands in its web, the spider suddenly springs into action in order to wrap the insect in silk. And so with our thoughts, the more we are sill, the more we are alter and aware. This awareness is precisely what Josh is drawn into.

He could now see how certain thoughts would cluster together: the feeling that he did not matter to anyone caused him to withdraw, which caused him in turn to feel isolated. Feeling isolated, he lost interest in life. A depressed mood moved in on the heels of this train of thought and became a permanent resident. However, walking by torchlight, dwelling in this circle of light of awareness, Josh eventually became able to observe thoughts as they rise and fall. Instead of getting caught up in reactive commentary on the facts that depression is present, he can look right into the depression and say ‘Oh, look, I’m blaming again’; or ‘There’s the thought “nobody likes me”’; or ‘Look at how I run myself down before anyone else gets the opportunity.’ Like a spider on its web, Josh is aware of anything that lands in the silk-spun web of awareness. This gets Josh out of a reactive mode and into a receptive mode of meeting inner conflict. Once Josh allows depression to be present, instead of resenting or panicking in the presence of depression, he can live in peace with the fact that depression is present, without feeling a need to comment that it should be gone if it does not happen to be gone. Josh become aware that there was something within that is untouched by depression.

Josh has no further spiritual breakthroughs, but he still has many decades before him. While his depression has never cleared up entirely, his life definitely has more vitality and joy” (Martin Laird, A Sunlit Absence, p. 119-121).

Suggestions for Action

How is the week of contemplation going? How is Lent going for you? It is a hard discipline, with so many obstacles. Coming to oneness with God is moving against how we are indoctrinated from our birth. Individual autonomy and liberty is so important and forced down our throats, in the West particularly, that relying on God and finding oneness with God seems counterintuitive. So if you’re up against obstacles; take heart. Even if they are huge obstacles like depression or anxiety, Laird says that returning to practice is still our best way out.

In fact, struggle itself is part of our process. “For some reason we think that spiritual progress is marked by a lack of struggle in life… Spiritual progress is learning to confront struggle in a new way so that we don’t struggle with the fact that life is fraught with struggle. But the practice of contemplation will expose us to many things we would rather not see but need to see if we are going to grow. Even something as potentially debilitating as depression or obsessive-compulsive behavior finds healing salve in the practice of contemplation” (ibid., p. 133-134).

List your difficulties with this practice if you any. See if when you see them during your practice if you can refocus back on your breath and not extend the commentary. If you are doing this in your cell or household, see if talking about what you are facing will help you name it. Then return to your silence.

If you are struggling significantly, try talking to your pastor or a Circle Counselor.

March 15 – 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.

March 14 – 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.

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