Tag Archives: Martin Laird

For Lent: Be still. Become aware.

When things were not working out for you, did a well-meaning person ever counsel you to “Walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7)? That’s a popular snippet of the Bible which people use as an encouraging piece of self-talk: “Settle down. God is not done with you yet.” If you take their counsel, you might develop a new conviction: “I am moving ahead, hoping for the best. I am walking by faith, not by sight.” That is good.

Contemplation: faith, not sight.I think there is something even more immediate that scripture is teaching. I have learned it through the prayer of contemplation. “Walk by faith, not by sight” is also about becoming aware of the unseen things God is doing in the present moment. It is not just looking ahead, it should also be looking in. “I am walking by the Light of the World, not just by the light of day, by faith, not sight.”

Prayer amounts to faithing. Just call walking by faith “faithing.” Faith is an action not an idea; it is relating, not just thinking about principles. And prayer is the basic place we faith. Prayer is how we develop the sense of being guided by the Holy Spirit of God and learn to see and react with more than just our physical senses. God is with us, right now; prayer helps us be with God right now.

When I say “contemplative prayer” you might think of mindfulness techniques that people are teaching to jr. highers to help them settle down. That’s a beginning, but that’s not the prayer of contemplation. The prayer of contemplation includes the techniques for reducing anxiety, but it is more. Contemplative prayer, and any spiritual discipline, disposes us to allow something to take place. The main thing that happens is love. If you find something else in the silence, you might be in the wrong place. Contemplation makes us available for relating to God. We don’t always pray in order to get God to do something for us; contemplative prayer is not about making something happen, necessarily. We are making ourselves available for communion with God. We are becoming open to experience Love, heart to Heart.

It is like this: A gardener does not actually grow plants. She practices skills that facilitate growth that is beyond her control. Prayer is like that. A sailor does not produce the necessary wind to move the boat. He appropriates the gift of wind by exercising skills that can get him home. Prayer is like that.

The basic skill of contemplative prayer that facilitates growth and appropriates gifts is inner silence. There are two practices that are very important to exercising this skill: stillness and awareness.

Stillness

When we attempt to be silent, we need to consider how to face the inner noise with which we struggle. Sometimes we do noisy things when we pray, too, of course; we are embodied spirits, after all. But at the center of us is the silent place where God is simply giving himself to us and we are communing spirit to Spirit. We long to carry this silence with us in the midst of the noisy world and be content that we are in Christ and Christ is in us. We want to feel at home. One of the early teachers of the church said, that in this center, we are constantly being called home, away from the noise that is around us to the joys that are silent. He said, “Why do we rush about looking for God who is here at home with us, if all we want is to be with him?”

Martin Laird, a teacher from Villanova who wrote a book called Into the Silent Lands, tells a story about a prisoner who was accustomed to cutting himself or burning himself so that his inner pain would be in a different place: on the outside of him. This suffering man had come upon some people whose mission was to teach prisoners to pray and turn their prison cells into monastic cells. The prisoner learned from them, and after several weeks of meditating twice a day he said, “I just want you to know that after only four weeks of meditating half an hour in the morning and night, the pain is not so bad, and for the first time in my life, I can see a tiny spark of something within myself I can like.” That is the home we are talking about.

Stillness in Rittenhouse Square park

Awareness

Our sense of separation from God is often a matter of our broken perception. We can’t feel God. We have an idea of what we should feel and we don’t feel it. Contemplative prayer is the place we let go of our perceptions and become aware of God with us, as the scripture guides us:

  •  My soul, wait in silence for God only, for my hope is from Him (Psalm 62:5).
  • I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you (Jesus in John 14:20).
  • I have been crucified with Christ and yet I am alive; yet it is no longer I, but Christ living in me (Galatians 3:20).

From the perspective of our everyday life on planet earth, we are separate from God. But from the perspective of our inner awareness, we see Christ with us. When we pray, we are not merely becoming aware of our thoughts and feelings (although that is good!), we are learning to be aware of God and to be with God who is with us.

It is like this: A man was taking his dog to a field where the animal could run and he ran into another man walking four dogs. They got to the open field and let their dogs go so they could enjoy running around in a big free space. But one the dogs was off to the side running is relatively tight circles and did not join in with the other dogs. The man asked his new friend, “What’s with your dog?” The man answered. “Before I got this dog, he had spent years living in a cage. He was used to getting all his exercise, just as you see. He has the field, but he is trained for the cage.” I did not see this dog do this personally, so I can’t prove to you that dogs do this, but I do know myself and many of you. We have the wide open field of grace and freedom to romp in but we run in the contours of our former cage. The prayer of contemplation is retraining our hearts to roam the wide open spaces of eternity freely.

  • My heart is like a bird that has escaped from the snare of the fowler (Psalm 123:7).

Our minds tend to run in the obsessive tight circles of our mental cage. We believe we are separate from God, and we were. So now we need to become aware of something else. I heard something shocking from a friend not long ago. When he was a child his father sang a little ditty that he thought was funny: “Charlie Wilkins is no good. Let’s chop him up like so much wood.” I know this little boy as an old man and you can still see that putrid song playing in his head. Just like that, we may believe we are condemned by God. So now we need to learn freedom. Prayer is the training ground.

When we think about things, we have a cage of thoughts that guide us. Contemplative prayer helps us go beyond that cage and enter into the wide-open fields of silence where we don’t merely think about things, we commune with God. We concentrate attention in our heart to the place of knowing, the place of awareness that is not full of the cacophony of our mind and surroundings but is full of the Spirit of God. It seems like we are just sitting there doing nothing when we pray this way, and that is exactly right and exactly good. In that nothing of ourselves and our surroundings we enter the silent land of our true being with God.

This post tells you more about how to practice contemplative prayer. But we don’t need perfect techniques to pray as much as we need to access the skills that are built into our beings by our loving Father. Be silent and turn your heart to God whether you think you know what you are doing or not. Take a step of walking by faith, not by sight. You’ll have a good time with God.

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2014 #7.5 — Prayer: Walk by faith, not by sight

At the beginning of the year I am reposting “top ten” posts. Here is #7.5 of the top ten most-read posts of 2014.

In April I tried to help people figure out contemplative prayer. It was proving to be a faith-saver for several people in dire circumstances. I wanted everyone to know about it.

“Walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7). We often think of this as waiting for God to do something in the future that we would not normally expect — “I am moving ahead, hoping for the best. I am walking by faith, not by sight.” That is good.

SONY DSCBut when we practice the prayer of contemplation, “Walk by faith, not by sight” is something more immediate. It is about becoming aware of the unknown things God is doing in the present moment. It is not looking ahead but looking in.

Prayer amounts to faithing. Having faith as a verb not an idea, as an experience of relationship not just a thought about principles. Prayer is where we develop the sense of being guided by the Holy Spirit of God and learn to see and react with more than just our physical senses. God is with us, right now; prayer helps us be with God right now.

Continue reading 2014 #7.5 — Prayer: Walk by faith, not by sight

2014 #7 — Three doorways of contemplative prayer

For the next few weeks, Thursday is TOP TEN of 2014 day. This is the #7 most read post of 2014. In April I tried to offer a little bit about the layers of contemplative prayer. 

We often talk about “contemplative prayer.” How is that done? Let me try to teach in five minutes what you can learn in five years.

To begin, we often start by becoming still and aware with what we call “breath prayer.” Seekers practice breath prayer as a basic skill for being quiet enough to pray. If you consciously keep filling your lungs with air and deliberately release it slowly, you will become calm. If you imagine that you are breathing in something worth receiving and breathing out something that needs releasing, that adds to the prayer. Breath prayer is a basis for what Martin Laird calls the three doorways of contemplative prayer in his book Into the Silent Lands.

You can focus your practice of contemplative prayer on an old idea for centering it: a prayer word or phrase. Many people use what is called the “Jesus prayer” as their phrase. One variation of this prayer is: Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me. I use this prayer almost every day in my practice. It doesn’t matter what word you choose. You could use, “I wait on you in silence,” or, “I no longer live but Christ lives in me.” The content of the prayer is nice, but the goal is to use the good phrase you choose as a touchstone for becoming still and aware in the silence. The goal is to let go of all other concerns and recollect yourself. When you become aware that your attention has been stolen, gently return your attention to the prayer word or phrase so you can stay in the moment with God.

Practice that for a moment using a phrase that is great for Holy Week: “I no longer live but Christ lives in me.”

lone tree

 

Continue reading 2014 #7 — Three doorways of contemplative prayer

The three doorways of contemplative prayer

We often talk about “contemplative prayer.” How is that done? Let me try to teach in five minutes what you can learn in five years.

To begin, we often start by becoming still and aware with what we call “breath prayer.” Seekers practice breath prayer as a basic skill for being quiet enough to pray. If you consciously keep filling your lungs with air and deliberately release it slowly, you will become calm. If you imagine that you are breathing in something worth receiving and breathing out something that needs releasing, that adds to the prayer. Breath prayer is a basis for what Martin Laird calls the three doorways of contemplative prayer in his book Into the Silent Lands.

You can focus your practice of contemplative prayer on an old idea for centering it: a prayer word or phrase. Many people use what is called the “Jesus prayer” as their phrase. One variation of this prayer is: Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me. I use this prayer almost every day in my practice. It doesn’t matter what word you choose. You could use, “I wait on you in silence,” or, “I no longer live but Christ lives in me.” The content of the prayer is nice, but the goal is to use the good phrase you choose as a touch stone for becoming still and aware in the silence. The goal is to let go of all other concerns and recollect yourself. When you become aware that your attention has been stolen, gently return your attention to the prayer word or phrase so you can stay in the moment with God.

Practice that for a moment using a phrase that is great for Holy Week: “I no longer live but Christ lives in me.”

the stillness of contemplative prayer

As you practiced, you may or may not have felt something. Sometimes awareness can feel like a bodily sensation — a tingle or a warmth, or a soul sensation of peace. Hopefully you felt rest and a sense that there was something beyond your normal awareness. Prayer is not always sensate, but it makes an impact in places we experience later. We can see the results of contemplative prayer in ongoing awareness of God’s presence throughout our day, in a lessening of anxiety over time and in a peace that pervades territories where it was not evident before. When we open our hearts and minds to God’s presence we gain insight and feel favor by forming a personal relationship with God. In the process of deepening our relationship with God, coming with a lack of expectation usually leads to better feelings than searching for what we want or for what we think we ought to be experiencing.

Continue reading The three doorways of contemplative prayer

Prayer: walk by faith, not by sight.

“Walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7). We often think of this as waiting for God to do something in the future that we would not normally expect — “I am moving ahead, hoping for the best. I am walking by faith, not by sight.” That is good.

Faithing

SONY DSC

When we practice the prayer of contemplation, “Walk by faith, not by sight” is something more immediate. It is about becoming aware of the unknown things God is doing in the present moment. Prayer amounts to faithing, walking into what’s happening with faith as a sense guiding us,not just seeing and reacting with our physical senses. God is with us, right now; prayer helps us be with God right now.

When I say “contemplative prayer” you might think of mindfulness techniques that people are teaching to jr. highers to help them settle down. That’s a beginning, but that is not the prayer of contemplation. The prayer of contemplation includes the techniques for reducing anxiety, but it is more. Contemplative prayer, and any spiritual discipline, disposes us to allow something to take place. We are not doing something to get a result; we are not making something happen, necessarily. We are doing something to allow communion with God to be our condition.

It is like this: A gardener does not actually grow plants. She practices skills that facilitate growth that is beyond her control. Prayer is like that. A sailor does not produce the necessary wind to move the boat. He harnesses the gift of wind by exercising skills that can get him home. Prayer is like that.

Basic contemplative prayer

The basic skill of contemplative prayer that facilitates and harnesses is inner silence. There are two practices within this skill set that are very important: stillness and awareness. When we attempt to be silent, we need to consider how to face the inner noise with which we struggle. We do many noisy things when we pray, too; we are embodied spirits, after all. But at the center of us is the silent place where God is simply giving himself to us and we are communing spirit to Spirit. We long to carry this silence with us in the midst of the noisy world and be content that we are in Christ and Christ is in us. We want to be at home. One of the early teachers of the church said in this center we are constantly being called home, away from the noise that is around us to the joys that are silent. He said, “Why do we rush about looking for God who is here at home with us, if all we want is to be with him?”

Martin Laird, a teacher from Villanova who wrote a book called Into the Silent Lands, tells a story about a prisoner who was accustomed to cutting himself or burning himself so that his inner pain would be in a different place — on the outside of him. This suffering man came upon some people whose mission was to teach prisoners to pray and turn their prison cells into monastic cells. The prisoner learned from them and after several weeks of meditating twice a day he said, “I just want you to know that after only four weeks of meditating half an hour in the morning and night, the pain is not so bad, and for the first time in my life, I can see a tiny spark of something within myself I can like.” That is the home we are talking about.

rittenhouse square parkOur sense of separation from God is often a matter of our broken perception. We can’t feel God. We have an idea of what we should feel and we don’t feel that. Contemplative prayer is the place we let go our perceptions and become aware of God with us, as the scripture guides us:

  •  My soul, wait in silence for God only, for my hope is from Him (Psalm 62:5).
  • I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you (Jesus in John 14:20).
  • I have been crucified with Christ and yet I am alive; yet it is no longer I, but Christ living in me (Galatians 3:20).

From the perspective of the created order we are separate from God. But from the perspective of being aware, we see Christ when we look inside. When we pray, we are not merely becoming aware of our thoughts and feelings (although that is good!), we are learning to be aware of God and to be with God who is with us.

Retraining the heart

It is like this: A man was taking his dog to a field where the animal could run and he ran into another man walking four dogs. They got to the open field and let their dogs go so they could enjoy running around in a big free space. But one of the new friend’s dogs was off to the side running is relatively tight circles and did not join in with the other dogs. The man asked his new friend, “What’s with your dog?” He gave him an explanation. “Before I got this dog, he had spent years living in a cage. He was used to getting all his exercise, just as you see. He has the field, but he is trained for the cage.” I did not see this dog do this personally, so I can’t prove to you that dogs do this, but I do know myself and I have seen many of you who are reading this. We have the wide open field of grace and freedom to romp in but we run in the contours of our former cage. The prayer of contemplation is retraining our hearts to roam the wide open spaces of eternity freely.

  • My heart is like a bird that has escaped from the snare of the fowler (Psalm 123:7).

Our minds tend to run in the obsessive tight circles of our mental cage. We believe we are separate from God, and we were. So now we need to learn something else. I heard something shocking from a friend not long ago. When he was a child his father sang a little ditty that he thought was funny: “Charlie Wilkins is no good. Let’s chop him up like so much wood.” I know this little boy as an old man and you can still see that putrid song playing in his head. Just like that, we may believe we are condemned by God. So now we need to learn freedom. Prayer is the training ground.

When we think about things, we have a cage of thoughts that guide us. Contemplative prayer helps us go beyond them and enter into the silence where we don’t merely think about things, we commune with God. We concentrate attention in our heart to the place of knowing, the place of awareness that is not full of the cacophony of our mind and surroundings but is full of God. It seems like we are just sitting there doing nothing, when we pray and that is exactly right and exactly good. In that nothing of ourselves and our surroundings we enter the silent land of our true being with God.

Next time I will tell you more about how this is done. But, like I said, we don’t need to perfect techniques to pray as much as we need to access the skills that are built in to our beings by our loving Father. Be silent and turn your heart to God whether you think you know what you are doing or not. Take a step of walking by faith, not by sight. You’ll have a good time with God.

[Another version of this post]

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Intimacity, Again: The capacity for being intimate

Two and a half years ago I wrote a blog piece that came to my mind again this week.  It centered around the word intimacity.  At first, I thought I had coined a word; then I Googled it. Google says it means “the condition of being near.” It is basically a synonym for “intimacy.” So forgive me for improving the definition. We already have the word intimacy. I need this word: “intimacity” – that is, is our capacity for being intimate.

We long for intimacy, but most of us don’t have enough capacity to enter into it, even if we are offered it. The small group I was in one time during an Advent retreat experienced this lack. When I was sent off on a prayer walk as part of the same retreat, I had a moment of clarity. I realized that I and the others in my small group were all struggling with getting to the place where we could connect. Most of us told stories that demonstrated that we were relatively obsessed with connecting – clinging to life rafts of intimacy (even if they gave us splinters), chafing under the bits of our loneliness, restlessly scanning our horizons looking for moments when we might feel together, touched, or at least relevant. But one of the missing factors in our equations of connection was our own intimacity.

We need the intimacy, but it is exactly what is broken between us — and we never seem to know why. At least I am often a bit foggy on just how I operate. I think we all have a tendency to think all our relationships just mysteriously happened. We might be a bit in denial about what we bring to the situation – namely our capacity for intimacy, or intimacity. Our ability (or usually lack of same) needs to be named. We need to develop. So let’s do that a bit, right now.

If we ever try to figure out what’s wrong or undeveloped with our intimacity, we often spend a lot of time and energy starting at the wrong place: with other people. We lay awake at night wondering why someone broke up with us. We minutely (and often wrongly) list what someone thinks is wrong with us, based on their off-hand comment or body language. We dissect the lacks of our parents and how we adapted to them detrimentally. We flood our therapists with stories (thank God for Circle Counseling!) about how we are stuck and stumbling, or how someone has stuck us or made us stumble.

Holy Family in Carpenter’s House — Rembrandt

But our broken relationships with other people are often symptoms of a core issue: our intimacity in relation to God. That’s where we need to start. During Advent every year (and any time we open the Bible, or seek God at all), we get another chance to see God’s great intimacity. It is a good example for us. God, who is so totally other than us, becomes so totally one with us – choosing to be like us in body, sharing our sorrow and sickness, identifying with our unforgiveness and death! All the tender feelings we feel when we see Mary holding the baby should seem as amazing as they are – God just came out of her womb, vulnerable, open to the mother/father love he IS.

The beginning of my own intimacity starts with reconnecting with the Source of it. Trying to get there through endless attempts at human relationship repair is kind of backwards. But I, and probably you, do quite a few things backwards. Just in our small group during the Advent retreat (which was actually rather intimate, even though we’d mostly just met), we all demonstrated our fear of being vulnerable. I know that the whole experience made me ponder how easy it is for me to resist the impending experience of lack of connection rather than resist what I do to help create that experience. I am working on seeing my withdrawals and avoidances as sins against the call of the baby Jesus to be trustingly vulnerable with him.

Blessedly, we can share the Lord’s ability. Once he was born of the flesh. But what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Post-resurrection, our intimacity with God is as amazing as His is with us. The more we open ourselves to that Spirit-to-spirit relationship, discipline ourselves to receive the love, repent of the sin that has tangled up our relationship with God, so far (mainly the sin of not being open and receiving), the more we have a chance to relax enough to explore how we can connect with all the people we would love to love, and would love to love us.

So what can one do to develop intimacity?

1) Have at least one daily appointment with God. Try reading a book about developing intimacity like Martin Laird’s Into the Silent Land. It is one of my favorites from 2011.

2) Get a therapist. You probably need one. Psychotherapy is great for people who are having true difficulty living day-by-day. But it is also great for anyone who is exploring the unconscious ways we all relate that need to be more conscious. We don’t need to spend our whole lives protecting ourselves from disappointing or destructive intimacy.

3) Worship when it is organized for you. If we don’t merely sit through public worship and watch it, sometimes singing songs, our hearts can be softened and love unleashed. It is an easy connecting point that repeatedly gives us a chance to loosen up.

4) Make a plan for how to relate in your cell; don’t just attend it, waiting for something to happen. The cell is a weekly discipline that includes developing our intimacity. I hope it is a safe place for you to move beyond what is typical for you, to be born again in further ways, to have Spirit capacitized in your flesh.

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The ABCs of the E Word — Devote

The D in the ABCs of evangelism is for devote. We can never face the task at hand and access the inner resources we need to do it unless we come to it from a place of deep devotion to prayer. Evangelism is first about prayer because it begins in God’s own heart.

There are two kinds of prayer that we can apply to our family business of redeeming the world and spreading the blessings of the kingdom of God.

The metaphor for the deepest kind is “as old as the hills:”

Those who trust in the LORD are like Mount Zion,
   which cannot be shaken but endures forever. Psalm 125:1

Martin Laird teaches about this deep devotion in his book Into the Silent Land. It is “mountain prayer”:

“Allow to arise whatever arises, without determining what is allowed to arise in awareness and what is not. Meet everything with a steady, silent gaze. What notices the mind game is free of the mind game.

            A mountain does not determine what sort of weather is happening but witnesses all the weather that comes and goes. The weather is our thoughts, changing moods, feelings, impressions, reactions, our character plotted out for us by the Enneagram or Myers-Briggs. All of these have their place. But they are only patterns of weather. There is a deeper core that is utterly free and vast and silent, that no thought or feeling has ever entered, yet every thought and feeling appears and disappears in it.”

Evangelism brings up our deepest spiritual distress, probably because it is the most profound spiritual act in which we engage. I’ve been calling it the “E word” because many of us can’t even say it because it brings up so many distressing thoughts and feelings. These are the weather, but we are the mountain. For some of us, the thought of evangelism is spiritual stormy weather, but we are the mountain in Jesus, nonetheless.

Paul speaks very eloquently, I think, about “being the mountain” when he speaks about bringing the message of Jesus to people:

“My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” 1 Corinthians 2:4-8 

I think, for many followers of Jesus, they mostly pray out of their weather and not as the mountain. We might still be practicing the prayer we learned as a child. Personally, I think God is fine with that. I think he loves children – I’m one of His.  Laird might call that level of devotion “surface,” in that it is more about our thoughts and feelings rather than about our deep spiritual awareness. He’s right, of course. But the more “surface” work of intercession, of pleading for people who need God is important work that everyone can do, even beginners in faith. I wouldn’t dismiss it as mere “weather.’ 

So to devote oneself to evangelism, try both weather prayer and mountain prayer. 

Try to get through your own stormy weather. 

Dare to talk to God about what troubles you about being part of his stubborn attempt to redeem creation. Let’s face it, a lot of us don’t like the assignment and don’t participate in it, even though we are very glad, ourselves, to have been welcomed into eternity. Some of us might not even like to pray because we might get a marching order and we don’t want to feel guilty for not obeying it. 

If we can get through that cloudburst of resistance, we might want to concentrate on who it is we would like to see come to know Jesus. Make a list. Listing is a risky business, of course, because it implies that we will someday see someone crossed off the list — better to have not made a list at all than to bear the shame of not completing the task, right? But intercession is about what God is going to do, not us. The benefit to us is that interceding softens our heart and directs our attention to where we need to be devoted. Praying for others often opens up our heart and broadens our horizons so we become more loving and imaginative partners for God. Besides, God loves to give gifts to his children, why wouldn’t he answer us if he has decided to partner with us? 

Better, I think to get to mountain prayer as soon as possible. 

As the mountain we receive our rest and confidence in the silence. When our ambitions and fears do not control us with their incessant dialogue, we demonstrate the mystery Paul was talking about and our inner prayer becomes impact. 

While contemplation is not, itself, purposeful, I think we carry people with us into our unshakeable Zion of the heart. The deepest intercession might be to let go of the many people we love and work for as we are being in Christ and see them held in the light of God’s love and truth.