Tag Archives: Jesus prayer

Swimming in the Mercy: The experience of hope

Lynn Bauman’s paraphrase of Psalm 103:11 warms my heart:

As the heavens reach beyond earth and time,
we swim in mercy as in an endless sea.

I need to hang on to that deeply hopeful picture. May that deep, biblical truth ascend as old Christian memes lose their strength. I am longing for the descent of sayings like:

“Only God can turn a mess into a message, a test into a testimony, a trial into a triumph, a victim into a victory.”

And

“I know God has a plan. I pray for direction to follow it, patience to wait on it, and knowledge to know when it comes.”

I don’t think these proverbs are evil and I could say that they have generally proven true in my life, unlike for many other people I know. What I object to is that they reduce hope to something that must be proven. They beg skepticism: “What if the mess does not become a message?” and “We got divorced and it still hurts.” and “I lost my leg in Iraq and I am impoverished as a result.” What’s more, I personally object to the idea that God has a minute “plan” as if she were making sure we get to his preferred outcome: the right job, the safe neighborhood, the healthy family that all “prove” our blessed state. Even more, I dread the denial I am called to perfect in response to terrible outcomes that must be “part of  God’s plan” for me while Kim Kardashian gets rich.

My commitment to wait on the Lord is not the source of my hope. My passionate acts of goodness and faith do not necessarily result in hope. I can’t really manufacture hope. The Lord is my hope.

For God alone my soul waits in silence,
    for my hope is from him. —
Psalm 62:5

I am not the source of my hope, and that’s why I dare not apply my meager sense of what outcome I need in order to have it.  Yet, at the same time, the source of hope is deep within me and flows to me with unrestrained abundance; it is so abundant it would be more accurate to say I am deeply within it. I am like the proverbial little fish who just heard a rumor and swam up to his mother and asked, “Mama, what is water? I have to have it!” We are immersed in the water of hope. We don’t miss it because it is something to which we hope we will arrive someday, we miss it because it is so close, more intimate than our own being.

As the heavens reach beyond earth and time,
we swim in mercy as in an endless sea.

Cynthia Bourgeault in her book Mystical Hope, describes the “embodying fullness” as “the Mercy.” Mercy is the water in which we swim. Mercy is what we know of God and the light by which we know it.

I adopted “mercy” as my main prayer when I got used to the Jesus prayer: “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” As I was riding my bike through town, avoiding car doors, potholes and pedestrians, I realized one day that the curses rising up in me, adding to my frustration and sense of alienation, could be replaced with a one-word prayer that turned me toward my center, toward a realization that I was in the water, still swimming. Now I am likely to face a distressing or even hope-draining moment with “Mercy.”

Bourgeault explains “the Mercy” so beautifully. “When we think of mercy, we should be thinking first and foremost of a bond, an infallible link of love that holds the created and uncreated realms together. The mercy of God does not come and go, granted to some and refused to others. Why? Because it is unconditional – always there, underlying everything. It is literally the force that holds everything in existence, the gravitational field in which we live and move and have our being.” Just like that young fish looking for water, we “’swim in mercy as in an endless sea.’ Mercy is God’s innermost being turned outward to sustain the visible and created world in unbreakable love.” We see that so clearly as Jesus turns himself out on the cross and God turns creation inside out to return him to life.

The interpreters of the work of Christ keep looking for words to describe what they experience. Paul says:

Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. — Romans 5:5

The basic work of the Christian ends up being a quest for the “water.” Instead of living in a world run by scientific principles waiting to be proven again, or worse, a nobody-in-charge universe run by whoever manages to get into power, we become aware that we are “inside a warm-hearted and purposive intelligence, a coherence” of which we are part of the expression. It is the world of the Mercy. Instead of God as a distant “other” we are restored to God as our “source and substance, the ground of our own arising, the foundation of our hope.” I want to talk more about how we might experience this reality, since, for me, once experienced, it is undeniable. But for now, I will leave you in hope, realizing that the energy you exercise striving for some outcome you hope for could be well used for turning in to hope and swimming for joy in the Mercy.

Other posts on Mystical Hope:
Previous: Mystical hope in a deteriorating world
Next: Anxious and tired: Prayer that turns us toward hope
There is hope: But you’ll need to die to enjoy it
Hope: The quality of aliveness right under our noses

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Lent Did It’s Job

risen sunIt has been a wonderful Lent.

At times, I felt a little guilty, because my self-imposed suffering was bearing delectable fruit: some of it tasted new and some of it tasted of well-loved flavors I had been missing. Meanwhile, some people were blowing off the discipline…for what? At times I felt like I was having a feast while strangely invisible to starving people.

I hope you find it acceptable for me to tell you a little about my Lent. One thing I experienced during the season is this reality: any number of my comrades feel that saying anything about ourselves is proud or self-referencing or coercive, so they never give a testimony of God’s work and , as a result, no one gets to know Jesus. Waking up to that shocked me and reformed me, so I am giving my testimony. Lent helped me realize how they had somewhat squeezed me into their tiny, dishonorable mold. They made me afraid.

I’ll be brief, though. I’ll organize my thoughts around the PM Plan, where it quotes Jesus calling us, in Mark 12, to “surrender to loving God with our entire beings.”  Jesus speaks of a whole being as four parts: heart, soul, mind and strength. A whole being can never actually be separated into parts, of course. But these are good categories to help us mentalize: think and feel about what we  think and feel — a basic Christian skill for which Lent was priceless.

We say in the PM Plan that the “heart” is: Our ordinary awareness, primarily. The center of our ego, our sense of being a person. Feelings, desires, passions, reflection, moral conviction.

During the Patrick Day Retreat I encouraged us to note our three levels of awareness: ordinary, spiritual and Holy Spirit. It helped me take note.

That retreat was symbolic of my reorientation. I’ve been discouraged, on and off, for a while. The congregation and the whole network have been missionally stalled, in some ways, and I am a missionary. Lent rekindled my fire, got me excited, helped me let go and change. Our focus on the Jesus Prayer spurred my contemplation, so I was hearing the inner voice. And, as you can probably tell, I felt convictions that I, and we, have an important outer voice.

We say that the “mind” is: Our ordinary awareness, primarily. Where we are conscious. Our understanding, ethical awareness, inclinations, attitudes.

During the Justice Conference I was stricken by what caring people can do. And I was also stricken by what Circle of Hope, as caring people, has done. We are the lost poster child church of the Justice Conference. I felt the same way when we were speaking to the Atlantic Conference of the BIC about our Compassion Teams. We demonstrate remarkable, authentic passion. I love who God has made us!

But sometimes I have felt concerned because it seems like our radicality, our incarnational mentality, and our covenant intensity, just wear people out. I get afraid that people might lazily let it all go. But when I saw “pop” church popping up in our region I got competitive for reality. What’s more, my trauma study helped me see that learned helplessness is a constant threat when people are oppressed; you might have heard about that in this blog post. The church is floundering and pandering; the world is demanding and deceiving. I feel called to be an antidote, if I can.

We say what Jesus means by “strength” is: Not only bodily strength, but primarily. Our ability, capacity, potency. The power we are given to exercise.

I feel better when my Lenten fast has the corollary benefit of reducing my weight and making me aware of my body. When I am feeding myself in a healthy way and requiring my body to match my morals, I feel better and act with more freedom, I am more open.

I forced a personal retreat into my busy schedule at one point during Lent just because it needed to be done. I damned the consequences. The fact that I did that made me stronger. And the consequences weren’t that big a deal anyway. I also regularly force spiritual direction into my schedule and it makes me a stronger counselor and director myself. My doctoral studies are also way too much to do, but have also proven to be too strengthening not to do.

We say that the “soul” is: Our spiritual awareness. Where we most deeply connect with God. The life in us that transcends time. The place of accountability. The seat of sorrow, joy, suffering.

This is where Lent was most valuable, as you might expect. I am desperate for hours in “Holy Spirit awareness.” And although my heart, mind and strength propel me there, it is in my soul that I am most allured. During Lent, I felt remarkably, consciously relieved of lazy habits of self-protection and self-soothing. I think a lot of that was due to my study in trauma and revisiting my psychological character style. For instance, at one of the Holy Week observances I described my childhood home as “unsafe” — an admission I don’t usually allow. My friend’s response was so kind that a flood of emotions surged up. I was getting healed some more. During the Way of the Cross walk and during the vigil I realized the erosive benefits of Lent. I might long for something to knock me “off my horse” all the time, but the regular disciplines of exercising my spiritual awareness form me as they save me. The fact that I went on the walk helped me become aware of Jesus and walk with Him.

As I decided what to put into this testimony it was such a joy to realize that there is so much more to tell! It was a rich season in a rich life. God was with me and I was with God. I was in a body that is a real church and God was with us. I had put my hand to the plow and the way forward was challenging, but exciting — and I did not want to look back or elsewhere. One the main convictions I received was that I needed to talk about all that. So I have begun. Thanks for walking with me.

I’m sure you have a lot to tell, yourself. Right now at Circle of Hope Daily Prayer we are having the first of our quarterly times to talk back, reveal ourselves, and tell each other what God has been doing from January through March. That is hardly the only place you could give witness to God’s work in your life through Jesus, but it is a good one.

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Yoga, Christian Meditation and the Debate about Our Souls

Intellectuals in the United States have been having a major religious, philosophical and political debate for the last fifty years about which model of human consciousness should be the dominant model. The results are trickling down to the general population in an interesting way, as any cell leader will tell you — they have variations on the debate almost every week.

Is it the soul of Christianity — created, fallen, in need of salvation?
Is it the psyche of modern psychology — conflicted though creative, controlled by hidden, unconscious forces beyond the surface ego?
Is it the Indian atman or Self — already immortal, divine and somehow seriously blissful?

Yoga Philadelphia

You can see how much the last explanation in the list above, the Hindu/Buddhist one, has been influencing us just by noticing the proliferation of yoga centers. Google “yoga Philadelphia” and the first page will display a host of options for someone to practice yoga within a ten block radius of the Comcast Center. Plus you will see a blurb on people practicing “urban yoga” in the plaza of the obelisk itself!

I want to talk about yoga for a minute as an example of “Hinduism’s” strong entry into the debate about our spiritual core. But I don’t intend to bash yoga. As a meditation technique, yoga practices are not that much different than any other techniques. But the techniques come from a philosophical base and most practitioners like the philosophy. We should be aware of that and have a conversation with it.

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Yoga purists regret how yoga has been marketed and practiced as a stress-reducing exercise routine. An ad for “pure” yoga tries to correct that: Yoga is for mastery of the body so that “the whole of Meditation can be learned and practiced, gradually leading one to know himself or herself at all levels, up to and including the eternal center of consciousness, which is one with the absolute reality, by whatever name you choose to call that.” That sounds a bit like AA doesn’t it? a bit like your therapist, maybe; a bit like people being politically correct, even. The Eastern consciousness has been translated into an American mindset.

I think all sorts of meditative practices can have positive impact on us. Physical meditation practices are commonly helpful regardless of philosophy or religion. The body is the body; learning how to move with our breathing, coming to focus, feeling release, resting in silence, developing mind-body-soul awareness is crucial to spiritual development. I made sure to practice my daily discipline of that before I began to write.

The danger comes when one enters this territory thinking it is neutral, or merely about one’s body. We need to be able to answer an important question. What am I going for? Am I looking for out-of-body mindfulness? Do I intend  my awareness of sexual energy to turn to bliss? Am I looking for myself to join in union with the divine Self? Do I expect my centeredness to ripple into the world and bring peace?

It is the end of meditation that counts

The Catholics see yoga meditation as kind of the “entry-level drug” of godlessness, an antichrist marijuana. In a paper on the subject the bishops say: “Christian prayer is at the same time always authentically personal and communitarian. It flees from impersonal techniques or from concentrating on oneself, which can create a kind of rut.” I think they are right this time. It is the end of meditation that brings the depth and brings the dangers. What moves our meditation and where is it taking us? Christian meditation is personal and focused on God who is revealed in Jesus Christ, not on oneself or on the great Self being represented in us.

There are many Bible verses that reinforce how Christians meditate. This one will do:

Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusteth in thee.
Thou wilt keep her in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because she trusteth in thee.
Isaiah 26:3 (KJV)

The goal for Christian meditation is having our created “mind” fully “stayed” on our creator; subjecting our energies to the power who directs them. The feeling of the word “stayed” has many layers, of course. Think about it as gazing, being attentive, becoming aware, seeing and being seen, knowing and being known. The process results in peace. “Mutual gazing” might be good definition of contemplative prayer. John of the Cross summed it up this way: “Preserve a loving attentiveness to God with no desire to feel or understand any particular thing concerning God.” By means of this loving attentiveness one begins to moves into the place that Paul calls “in Christ.” From that place transformation comes and holiness grows.

Meditation is the technique we use to train ourselves to hold the gaze of God, to be attentive. We usually need to start with God so we can look at others like Jesus does and warm our hearts that way, too. To have this spirit-to-Spirit gaze takes stillness, or our natural defenses rise, our insecurities take over and our longing for attachment over runs us.

As I was saying on Saturday, we often benefit from having a word to help center our meditation and help us let the distractions go. The ring of a bell or the rhythm of chanting “om” might work, too — for some, the less content, the better. But for many, content is a good thing. We are becoming aware of someone, not merely emptying ourselves for the sake of being empty or for the purpose of uncovering some lost self in us. The other day, my spiritual director needed to go to the bathroom so he could continue listening to me. While he was gone, I had some well-informed silence to consider what we had been talking about and a word came to me that has been a centerpoint for my meditation ever since. For centuries, people have practiced using a core phrase of faith as the centerpoint of the meditation: Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner (the “Jesus Prayer”). I hope that as you read this paragraph a word came to you. If you center in silence right now, the Lord might raise one up in you.

Since there is debate about these things, many people shy away from prayer, and certainly the prayer of meditation, as simply too dangerous. One person told me that they don’t meditate because they are afraid to do it wrong and open themselves to all sorts of dangerous spirituality! If your mind is stayed on Jesus in some little way, you are quite safe, I think. If you talk about what you do with a person you can see is on the journey with Jesus, that will make you even safer. The wonder of the practice is worth facing the dangers. The Bible calls us into the silent lands where we are known by and know God. Our hearts yearn so much for the peace of that land, some of us would even try letting a yoga instructor guide us there.

[It so happens that here in Philly a road show about the Jesus prayer is coming to Frankford and Norris on Tuesday, October 11 at 7pm. You might want to check it out — link to a site for the organization coming to town]