Refreshment, renewal and resistance: the blessings of contemplative prayer...

The invitation, call or even command to "love God" involves a commitment to contemplation, don't you think? Over the years I have discovered that when I am well-rested, prepared and at my peak performance, loving God is simple. It is something I do joyfully - and loving God's people is equally easy. It is when I am tired, parched, ambushed or betrayed that my love of the Lord starts to wobble. Frederick Buechner put it like this:

To be commanded to love God at all, let alone in the wilderness, is like being commanded to be well when we are sick, to sing for joy when we are dying of thirst, to run when our legs are broken. But this is the first and great commandment nonetheless. Even in the wilderness - especially in the wilderness - you shall love the Lord.

Contemplation has become for me both a time of respite as well as resistance. As a resting or hiding place, quiet prayer and reflection is like an oasis in the wilderness. And while I may think I do not need refreshment and renewal, if I pass the oasis by in my hurry to do something else, I always regret it. Always. There is a place for fasting - abstaining from food or engagement with others or whatever form of emptying you choose - but never from resting in the grace of God's love. Since I was a child I have cherished the Advent hymn, "Comfort, Comfort Ye My People" taken from the Hebrew prophet Isaiah's poetry.

Comfort, comfort ye my people, speak ye peace, thus saith our God;
Comfort those who sit in darkness,mourning 'neath their sorrow's load;
Speak ye to Jerusalem of the peace that waits for them;
Tell her that her sins I cover and her warfare now is over.

Some contemporary people don't "get" traditional hymnody - it is true these songs rarely sound like anything else we listen to - but their melodies are stunning and they are an excellent way to make the Scriptures part of the soul. Singing this hymn grounds me in God's promises - especially when I am weary and in need of rest - and that is most of the time.

Make ye straight what long was crooked make the rougher places plain:
Let your hearts be true and humble as befits his holy reign,
For the glory of the Lord now o'er the earth is shed abroad,
And all flesh shall see the token that his word is never broken.

So first there is refreshment emotionally, physically and spiritually: then there is challenge. And I think the challenge is simultaneously social and profoundly personal. To choose to step out of the busyness, is a counter-cultural commitment. To ground yourself in the enormity of God's grace - and the whole body of Christ - is to practice living like you are NOT the center of the universe. To discern your place within the whole is to trust that God's love is greater than your wisdom, gifts or energy. Socially this is the polar opposite of popular culture's teaching that EVERYTHING is about YOU:  be all that YOU can be! Politically this is true, too because our vision is on the common good rather than the whims of the individual. Fr. Richard Rohr puts it like this:

It seems to me that contemplation makes it almost inevitable that your politics is going to change, the way you spend your time is going to be called into question, and any smug or inferior social and economic perspective will be slowly taken away from you. When anyone meditates consistently, the things that we think of as our necessary ego boundaries—giving us a sense of our independence, autonomy, and private self-importance—fall away, little by little, as unnecessary and even unhelpful. This imperial “I,” the self that most people think of as the only self, is not substantial or lasting at all. It is largely a creation of our own minds. Through contemplation, protecting this relative identity, this persona (“mask”), eventually becomes of less and less concern. “Why would I bother with that?” the True Self asks.

If your prayer goes deep, invading your unconscious, your whole view of the world will change from fear to connection, because you don’t live inside your fragile and encapsulated self anymore. In meditation, you are moving from ego consciousness to soul awareness, from being driven to being drawn. Of course, you only can do this if Someone Else is holding on to you in the gradual dying of the False Self, taking away your fear, doing the knowing, satisfying your desire as a great Lover. If you can allow that Someone Else to have their way with you in contemplation, you will go back to your life of action with new vitality, but it will now be smooth, a much more natural Flow. It will be “no longer you” who acts or contemplates, but the Life of One who lives in you (Galatians 2:20), now acting for you (Father) and with you (Holy Spirit) and as you (Christ)!

The challenge of contemplation is clearly social, but it is equally personal. My spiritual director in Cleveland once had me practice this very simple and very difficult exercise: twice each day he asked me to sit quietly until I experienced myself resting in the palm of God's hand. That was it - no intellectualizing on the scriptures, no breathing practice or yoga postures - just resting until I felt myself surrounded, embraced, filled from the inside out and resting in the palm of God's loving protection. It took about six weeks and I didn't realize it at first - but when I felt this love from the inside out as well as all around me - I knew it was real in my heart.  Again, Rohr observes:

Contemplation is the key to unlocking the attachments and addictions of the mind so that we can see clearly. I think some form of contemplative practice is necessary to be able to detach from your own agenda, your own anger, your own ego, and your own fear. I find most people operate not out of “consciousness,” but out of their level of practiced brain function, which relies on early-life conditioning and has little to do with God encounter or grace or mercy or freedom or love. We primarily operate from habituated patterns based on what Mom told me, what went wrong when I was young, and the defense mechanisms I learned that helped me to be right and good, to be first and famous, or whatever I may want to be. These are not all bad but they are not all good either.

All of that old and practiced thinking has to be recognized and accounted for, which is the work of contemplation. Without contemplation, you don’t see clearly. Everything is all about you, and you just keep seeing everything through your own agenda, anger, and wounds. Isn’t that most people you know?  Few ever achieve much inner freedom. Contemplation, sadly, helps you see your woundedness! That’s why most people do not stay long with contemplative prayer, because it’s not very glorious. It’s a continual humiliation, realizing, “Oh my God, I did it again. I still don’t know how to love!” We need some form of contemplative practice that touches our unconscious conditioning, where all our wounds lie, where all our defense mechanisms are operative secretly. Once these are not taken so seriously, there is finally room for the inrushing of God and grace!

All three consequences of contemplation are blessings - disciplined blessings, to be sure - but blessings nonetheless. Last week I found myself saying in worship, "From time to time, people ask my 'why are you always urging us to practice slowing down? You sound like a broken record. That is so unimaginative!" And that is true.  But, I continued saying, "I can't help but be redundant when we continue to be so bad at contemplation. When people complain to me that their lives are so busy - when wounded souls tell me they ache for some spiritual refreshment - and when loving people act-out in ways that are crazy and hurtful ... it is clear that we aren't practicing the disciplines that can cure our souls. In a word, we're carping without resting in the blessing of contemplative prayer."

Earlier this week I found myself being ambushed and hurt - it came out of nowhere - and threw me into a panic. And I found out - again - how much I need to keep practicing resting in the Lord. Thank God for the tiny reservoir of grace I sensed that was born of past encounters. It is what I trusted and it is what compelled me to go deeper.

Do not fret because of the wicked;
   do not be envious of wrongdoers, 
for they will soon fade like the grass,
   and wither like the green herb. 
Trust in the Lord, and do good;
   so you will live in the land, and enjoy security. 
Take delight in the Lord,
   and he will give you the desires of your heart. 
Commit your way to the Lord;
   trust in him, and he will act. 
He will make your vindication shine like the light,
   and the justice of your cause like the noonday. 

Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him;
   do not fret over those who prosper in their way,
   over those who carry out evil devices. 
Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath.
   Do not fret—it leads only to evil. 
 For the wicked shall be cut off,
   but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land.

 I like the way Rohr wraps this all together:

When we are introduced to the One Life, our smaller life becomes a
matter of lesser importance. We are less concerned about how, when, where, and whether. A new, larger Self takes over. It’s all about getting your True Self right. “Who are you?” is the master’s insistent question. Who I am, and the power that comes with the response, answers all my questions. Life becomes a joyful participation in Being! Basically, you are enlightened every time you awaken to your True Self! I do not believe it just happens once, although the first time is a whopper, as we see in the enlightenment of the Buddha.

Every time you are tempted to hate yourself, just think, “Who am I?” The answer will hopefully come: “I am hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3) in every part of my life. In Christ, I am bearing the mystery of the suffering of humanity, its sad woundedness; but I am also bearing the very glory of God, and even “sharing in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). I am a living paradox of divine and human, just as Jesus was and which Jesus fully accepted.

It seems that God keeps looking at what is good in me, what is God in me, and of course always finds it entirely lovable. God fixes God’s gaze intently where I refuse and where I fear to look—on my shared, divine nature as God’s daughter or son (1 John 3:2). And one day my gaze matches God’s gaze (frankly, that is what we mean by conversion and prayer). At those times I will find God fully lovable and myself fully lovable at the same time. Why? Because it is the same gaze, but they have become symbiotic and look out at life together.

Now it is Sabbath time on a stunning autumn day that just begs for a walk in the woods.


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