Tag Archives: silence

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.

Subscribe to Development! Hit the “follow” button after you type in your email. Thanks for reading!

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

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]

Subscribe to DevelopmentHit the “follow” button after you type in your email. Thanks for reading!

Slow, reflective, imaginative: the spiritual discipline of Lent

These are a few basic thoughts distilled from our Ash Wednesday ritual. Lent begins on March 5 this year.

Slow down

We need silence to find the spiritual place where Jesus is with us in our suffering and we are with Jesus in his suffering. Lent is the season of silence and solitude — and suffering. Some people will even “give something up” to cause some small suffering to give space where they can experience something more than their usual anesthesia, avoidance or denial. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of our yearly, disciplined journey of repentance and renewal, the beginning of the concentrated season of self-denial and self-giving that feels like suffering but points us toward joy  Wednesday we enter the great forty-day fast with millions of other Jesus followers – those living and those who have gone before. God bless you as you take your steps along the way of Jesus this year!

The interior journey too
The interior journey too

Let’s go as slowly as possible. We need to be quiet, thoughtful, and restful. We must not be impatient. We must not worry if we don’t feel or understand things right away — there are no expectations of Lent except that we seek after Jesus, explore the meaning of his death, and die with him. Paul shares our goal: I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,  and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.  Lent in not the imposition of some demanding God, but in solitude God’s presence will be compelling. One of Job’s friends has it right when he says: God is wooing us from the jaws of distress into a spacious place free from restriction. Let’s see how much we can cooperate.

Continue reading Slow, reflective, imaginative: the spiritual discipline of Lent

Nature Deficit, Information Surfeit

As if I could really get more inefficient, I have a new commitment to walking. Last week when I was going to see Dave in the hospital, I rode the train to 5th and Market so I could go to my bank (which Wells Fargo closed), so I ended up traipsing all over the place figuring out how to make my deposit. It was good for me. There are many advantages to traipsing. For one thing, I discovered a bakery that had “communal table” in their title and bought my cell the largest loaf of bread I have ever seen in my life. But the best thing about traipsing was being out in the sun, being with people, getting exercise. It was good for my soul.

How the world is not good for us

In the latest Newsweek, Andrew Weil verifies scientifically what most of us know instinctively. The modern world is not really that good for us. We experience what Dr. Weil calls, “nature deficit” and  “information surfeit.” As a result, a lot of us are depressed. Depression is a “disease of affluence.” In general, people who live in places that are furthest removed from modern standards have the lowest rates of depression. Amish people are ten times less depressed than the “English” who live in Philly. The human body was never designed for the postindustrial environment. We were not designed to be indoors so much, to eat industrially-altered food, to be isolated with our machines swimming in a deluge of electronic info. We all know we should be running around in groups hunting mastodons or sitting around in groups sorting seeds. Instead, we are vainly trying to adapt our brains and bodies to do what they can’t really do and they are rebelling by making us depressed.

Playa Samara, CR

My favorite solution to this dilemma is moving to Samara beach in Costa Rica and increasing my vitamin D intake enormously via my new-found skill of wind-surfing. Given that I sense God’s call to maintain my part of his mission to the megalopolis, I need to exercise some other options and so do you, probably. Let’s maintain ourselves well so we have the brain-health to be creative lovers in the Philly region! The church, as it turns out, is right in line with the scientists in this pursuit. We Jesus-followers, knew a lot about positive psychology before UPenn’s Martin Seligman and others popularized it sans Jesus.

How to encourage our mental health

1)    Practice meditation. We do this in our meetings sometimes. We’ll have an Advent day retreat to teach it and do it. As an every day discipline, meditation is a strong antidote to the brain-poisoning modern world. Our brains overeat mental junk food. Meditative prayer helps us develop concentration and the ability to attend to ourselves and to God. Rather than multi-tasking our way through life, we learn to be aware in the present moment.

2)    Sleep in the dark and get out in the sun during the day. Walk somewhere! Our sleep rhythms are impacted when we spend all our waking hours in artificial light and extend that into the dark. If the city lights are getting through your blinds at night, get some blackout curtains. Better sleeping means less depression.

3)    Stay social. This is a gift the church gives big time, since we make community a priority. It is a powerful safeguard to emotional well-being. The way of post-industrial society is toward more atomization all the time. We are often locked up in machines or relating through them. It is isolating and dangerous.

4)    Cultivate silence. Listen to pleasant sounds. Again, the church is good for this. We often practice silence together. Sometimes our music is beautiful; at least it is human and allows us to experience some natural sounds that relate to who we are most deeply. Some noise-cancelling headphones might be nice to have if you live in a  noisy neighborhood. Making regular field trips to places where you can hear the wind blow or listen to running water is a good idea. Fortunately, we have Fairmount Park. Just sitting by one of our rivers can absorb a lot of sound and cultivate some inner silence.

5)    Discipline your devices. The mobile internet so many of us have now dilutes our attentiveness even more. Info overload cultivates ADD. There has to be some limits to the amount of time we spend on the internet, with email or on the phone. Some of us have more capacity to work the machines than others. All of us, however, need to be the masters of our machines and not vice versa.

On another walk the other day, I passed by St. George Cathedral and the doors were open. It was time for daily mass. I had never been in the building so I decided to check it out, even though I was a bit afraid that I was interloping. They did not kick me out and I had a few minutes of quiet, listening to the priest chant the mass. I felt invigorated, like I had been hunting mastodons and stumbled upon a beautiful waterfall. The city is full of healthy things to do. The church is a big help.

Subscribe to Development! Hit the “follow” button after you type in your email. Thanks for reading!

The Common Loneliness — Francis Day 2010

On Francis of Assisi Day, 2010

It could have been that Francis
Crawled out into the bushes of La Verna to die
Like an old alley cat —
Scrawny from fasting
And disappointed that his dream turned so human.

Or it could have been that Francis
Longed so much for home, he couldn’t resist.
Like the prodigal son,
He came to his senses
And gave in to seeking the meal his holy memory could taste.

Either way, he ended up in the wilderness
And the mountain was a lonely silence,
Like nothing but a frightened man
With nothing to offer but emptiness.
And yet he had to keep going, step by step, up the hill.

Either way, he ended up alone,
Experiencing the pain both of separation and union —
Like a young man leaving home
And like a father letting go,
And he aware of it all, yet powerless before it.

It could have been that Francis
Did very few of the things people recalled.
But what believer is not so lonely
With disillusion and desire
That they would dare to disabuse us of their own story?