Be still...

I am beginning a "contemplation binder" as part of my Advent renewal practice. A colleague in town invited and encouraged me to be a part of an on-line Advent/Christmas retreat - and I am loving it. At the heart of our pilgrimage is a chance to "pray the hours" in a new and embodied way. Truth be told, I've never been very good at this except when I am away on retreat. Then, I order my life around four key times to pause and pray. But most of the time I am neither on retreat nor aware enough of how I can reclaim a measure of order and tranquility deep within given the chores and challenges of each day in ministry. Most of the time I let myself be a victim of the hours rather than a celebrant.

What this gentle on-line retreat is helping me realize, however, is that the whole point of praying the hours is NOT to retreat from the world, but rather to be engaged in real life fully but from the heart of stillness. Henri Nouwen once wrote:

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 that lead to violence and war. Instead, we enter into a new dwelling place. Prayer points to a new way of speaking, a new way of breathing, a new way of being together, a new way of knowing, and yes, 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 exercises, Sunday services, grace before meals, sentences from the Bible and many other things. 

All of these things 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 into the house of God's peace... Prayer is the center of the Christian life. It is the only necessary thing... for it is living with God here and now.

It is one thing to know this intellectually - and affirm it while on retreat or vacation or sabbatical - but it is another thing entirely to know and practice it within the ordinary rhythms of my life. I am not very good at this yet. I sense I can move more authentically into a new rhythm, however, as I tenderly practice the daily lessons on this retreat. Already I have turned my IPhone into a church bell that rings softly four times each day to call me into awareness again at dawn, day, dusk and dark.. I have started a contemplation binder/journal, too so that I can carry various prayers, poems and practices with me throughout the day. Last night I brought it to my bedside so that I could pray this poem from Rumi upon waking:

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don't go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don't go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the door sill
Where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don't go back to sleep.

At noon time today, after a few quiet moments of prayer, I read and watched today's lesson. At
first I was apprehensive for it was an invitation to "dance" a prayer. My experience with liturgical dance has been spotty - most of it doesn't communicate anything good to me - as it mostly looks goofy and forced. Back at San Francisco Theological Seminary, when I had started my Doctor of Ministry in spiritual direction, however, one afternoon was given over to embodied prayer that was liberating.

And that's what today's practice was, too: liberating. Joy-filled and simple. Embodied and tender. More like the movement of a tree's branch in the wind set to a folk hymn than anything like the liturgical dance I've encountered over the years. So as I began to pray the song with my arms and body, my heart and soul, I experienced a quiet blessing. There is more for me to do as this day unfolds, but I am going to return to this prayer later this evening and pray with my flesh again.

Prayer is leading every sorrow to the source of all healing; it is letting the warmth of Jesus' love melt the cold anger of resentment; it is opening a space where joy replaces sadness, mercy supplants bitterness, love displaces fear, gentleness and care overcome hatred and indifference. But most of all, prayer is the way to become and remain part of Jesus' mission to draw all people into the intimacy of God's love. 
                                                                                                                                      Henri Nouwen


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