Thursday, October 15, 2015

Be still...

One of the gifts of being sick - even the stomach flu - is time to read, think, rest and pray. For
the past three days I've mostly been down with this beast. And while I hate being sick, I cherish the solitude. (Makes me think of St. Leonard Cohen's "Democracy" - I love the country but hate the scene!) During this down time I've gone deeper into both the wisdom of Henri Nouwen, Parker Palmer and Richard Rohr on the subject of "calming our inner chatter," and, revisited some of their time-tested spiritual practices that have served other generations as allies in this quest.

Nouwen writes that "we must go through the stages where feelings of love and hate, tenderness and pain, forgiveness and greed are separated, strengthened or reformed." This is his gentle reminder that the only way we can live through the suffocating and debilitating inner chatter in our heads involves careful and regular practice. Alcohol and drugs deaden the voices for a few hours - or years - but once the buzz is gone, the chatter returns with a vengeance. Sex and work just push the chatter to the periphery, but once we're alone and quiet: BAM! Distraction, denial and deception do not resolve the deadening of God's presence within us caused by our inner dialogues. They simply delay our exasperation and postpone our commitment to embracing a spiritual practice that works.  

In order for our best intentions to become embodied, however, requires a new and more satisfying relationship to prayer than the ones we learned in middle school and adolescence. Again, Nouwen is insightful: "The invitation to a life of prayer is the invitation to live in the midst of this world without being caught in the net of wounds and needs."

The word "prayer" stands for a radical interruption of the vicious chain of interlocking dependencies leading to violence and war and for an entering into a totally new dwelling place. It points to a new way of speaking, a new way of breathing, a new way of being together, a new way of knowing, yes, and a new way of living. It is not easy to express the radical change that prayer represents, since for many the word "prayer" is associated with piety, talking to God, thinking about God, morning and evening liturgies, Sunday services, grace before meals, sentences from the Bible and many other things. All of these have something to do with prayer, but when I speak about prayer... I speak first of all about moving away from the dwelling place of those who hate peace and entering into the house of God... Prayer is the center of the Christian life. It is the only necessary thing (Luke 10:42) for it is living with God here and now.

It is living, walking, talking, thinking and resting in God's presence that assures and confirms that we are God's beloved. It is a sacred relationship born from above, to be sure, but one that must be tended to and nourished from below. That is why Rohr insists that we cannot live as people of peace in the real world without first experiencing - and then practicing - a regular life of prayer and contemplation. "We do not think our way into a new way of living," he insists "but rather we live our way into a new way of thinking." Our encounter with God's love, when it is cherished and strengthened, is the only source of authentic spiritual power in all creation.

What is the source of your spiritual power? It’s radical union with God, not just doing good things or holding a role or function. Often we make the basis for ministry professionalism, education, and up-to-date-ism, which are all good in themselves. But in the end, the only basis for fruitful Christianity is divine union. Such people change you and change the world... Most of us were taught that God would love us if and when we change. In fact, God loves you so that you can change. What empowers change, what makes you desirous of change is the experience of love. It is that inherent experience of love that becomes the engine of change.

To live otherwise is "functional atheism." I've used this term recently and apparently it has
caused some confusion. Parker Palmer explains it with clarity: It is "the belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us. This is the unconscious, unexamined conviction that if anything decent is going to happen here, we are the ones who must make it happen – a conviction held even by people who talk a good game about God." It is saying - and believing - that God is God and we are not, but acting like the world depends upon me for justice, hope, peace, food and all the rest. It is a way of living not only celebrated by our bottom-line culture, but honored by those unwilling to practice Sabbath rest. Abraham Joshua Heschel was clear: if we learn to rest and trust God for 24 hours, perhaps we can learn to trust the Lord for the rest of the week, too.

Rest, trust, a life of peace and ending the "endless chatter of human thought" that deadens our lives to God's presence within are intimately connected, yes? That is why I give thanks to God for this nasty flu: I've been able to revisit an old friend - a prayer tool born of the practices of Fr. Thomas Keating but adapted for my experience - and reclaim it as an ally in nourishing God's peace from within. Keating is the Benedictine priest who popularized the Western Christian form of meditation we know as Centering Prayer. After Vatican II, Keating was encouraged to share this long forgotten prayer form with the West as a loving resource. It was also a tender reminder that the East does not have a monopoly upon sacred wisdom or practices.  (learn more @

What I have been doing of late is using a short series of sacred words like a mantra in combination with breathing.( I've often taught this way of praying to others for times when they know they will face stress or anxiety and have used it myself during heated public meetings.) What I haven't done before, however, is use my intimacy with God's love to help me shut down the inner chatter that invades my consciousness almost as soon as I awake. I can't tell you how many times my mind is filled with someone else's critique, complaint, judgement or simply my own insecure soul's projection of these things unto the day that has only just begun. The inner dialogue is deafening at times.

So I've claimed a paraphrase of Psalm 46:10 as my liberating mantra: as I breathe in, I hear "be still" and when I breathe out, I hear "know God."  It is an ancient prayer, time-tested for probably 4,000 years. It evokes my experiences with God's gracious love. And it shuts down the inner chatter. Now let me be clear: sometimes I have to pray this mantra 300 before I even get into the shower! But it works. And the more I shut down the inner chatter with an affirmation of God's grace, the more at rest I am. There is much more to be said about other types of prayer and meditation, but that is enough for today. 

photo credits: Dianne De Mott

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