Sunday, January 6, 2019

prayer, bread and music - part three

NOTE: This is part three of a five part series re: spirituality and going deeper into the blessings of grace. Please see the previous posts for context. Later this week I will share my thoughts on bread and music. Today I'll consider what I mean by prayer.

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany, one of the major liturgical celebrations in the Christian realm. It is also the Feast of the Nativity according to the calendar of Eastern Orthodoxy and Eastern Rite Catholics. I will always carry with me the sounds of an Orthodox choir rehearsing on the Eve of this feast day back in 1984. It was in then Leningrad (now restored to St. Petersburg) at about 7 pm. The air was frigid and dark. I was leading a group of 25 youth and their parents (as well as 20 other adults from the local community college in Saginaw, MI) on a pilgrimage of understanding to the former Soviet Union. Entering the candle lit Sanctuary with about ten students and a few parents was a moment of mystery: the a capella music rose towards the Sanctuary's dome, the incense and candles surrounded us in a sweet diffused light, and the young women who spoke English greeted us as sisters and brothers from part of a once long, lost wing of their beloved family. For half an hour our hearts were full to overflowing with comfort and joy as East kissed West and Christmas embraced Epiphany for a moment in time. 

In the West, Epiphany marks the arrival of the Magi - mystical Gentiles who came to pay homage to the baby Messiah in the manger - while in the East the "revelation" of this feast is more about the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist - a sacred affirmation announced by the Holy Spirit proclaiming the reign of God's beloved. In Western Christianity, Epiphany comes at the close of the 12 days of Christmas. It also opens the celebrations of festivities that culminate in Mardi Gras before the fasting of Lent. In the East, this festival takes place on January 19 followed by five Sundays anticipating Lent including: Zacchaeus Sunday, Publican and Pharisee Sunday, Prodigal Son Sunday, Final Judgment /Meatfare Sunday (the start of the Lenten fast from meat),Forgiveness/ Chessefare Sunday (and the start of the Eastern equivalent of Mardi Gras with rich foods eaten in abundance before all the remains are burned in anticipation of the fast of the Great Lent itself.) 

My heart cherishes the way the Eastern Christian tradition mixes food, weather and prayer with the sacred calendar. Feasting and fasting are part of an old tradition that pre-dates the Church, of course, but so what? My more austere Reformed upbringing knew nothing of the liturgical calendar nor the sensual /ascetic ways of growing in holy trust that it teaches. It was well into my early 20s before I began exploring this realm - and now I continue to find ways to take it deeper. I suspect that is why I have defined my spiritual practices with the words prayer, bread and music. 

There have been different articulations of this Trinity over the years including solitude, hospitality and celebration as well as silence, sound and communion. Whichever way I cast the words, however, its been more suggestive than definitive. Having experimented with a variety of formulations, today I sense that my words are simply small, one word poems that evoke the soul of what has become my incarnational and sacramental spirituality: prayer, bread and music. 

PRAYER: the inward/outward practices of listening, responding and experiencing to the holy. My practice with prayer has multiple layers. In some ways, prayer is about how I live and "see" the holy in all things. It includes contemplative prayer, spiritual friendships, study, reflection and worship. It is saturated with silence as well as the sounds of songs, Psalms and traditional liturgy.



Like most children, my first experience with prayer began at home and then in public worship at church. Learning to be still in the company of others, to look inward and beyond myself for short periods, and to make the sounds of tradition part of my memory bank was an important training ground. In time, I heard the hymns of worship as vehicles for prayer. My prayers went deeper when I learned to memorize not only the Lord's Prayer of my Reformed training, but also Hail Mary, psalms, and liturgical chants like the Gloria, Doxology and the blessing of Aaron. These have become trusted tools that take my heart to a safe place for times of reflection. In recent years I have learned to use prayer beads and my breath to focus my inward journey, too. These resources belong to kataphatic spirituality: the "via positivia" where thought, word, liturgy, linear theology, sound and images of the holy inform, guide and shape the life of faith. It is a decidedly Western approach to the inward journey and seeks to help us know the way of the Lord descriptively.

Another way of participating in this journey is the "via negativia" - an apophatic spirituality - that refuses to name or describe the sacred, but rather seeks to experience it. This begins as the way of silence. The gospel stories point to this path whenever Jesus steps away from his active life and retreats to the mountains, sea, desert or other empty places in private to be still and wait upon the the Lord. Visiting Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches, spending time in study and prayer at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary in NY, and later reading Henri Nouwen's devotional book on praying with icons, awakened a hunger to go deeper into silence. I yearned to know how to pray with my eyes. I ached to experience the presence of the holy more authentically. I used the mantra-like Jesus Prayer throughout the day to awaken an awareness of the sacred in my ordinary consciousness. The sung meditations of Taize prayer became another trusted friend on this journey. So, too the work Fr. Thomas Keating shared with centering prayer. This reintroduction of apophatic and contemplative spirituality to Western Christianity revived the mystical wisdom of Christianity to our various traditions after nearly 500 years of banishment.


Silent, contemplative prayer opened my heart to a new way of being. I was trained and encouraged to practice it by my spiritual director Fr. Jim O'Donnell in Cleveland. He loved engaging my  intellect. He helped me explore the interface of spirituality and theology. But mostly he insisted that it was impossible to think my way into transformation. Nor could I stay locked in my head if I wanted to live into the depth of God's grace. In time he asked me to practice "sitting quietly alone two times each day until I experienced being held in the palm of God's hands." It took a few months - and a lot of frustration and resistance, too - but one night it happened. Not in an earth-shattering way. And not like a a romantic, mountain top revelation. It was more like a still, small voice. Quietly, without fanfare, I realized that I was resting in the protection of God's love. 

Such is the blessing of contemplative prayer. It is experiential. It is of the heart not the head. It is slow-moving and unlocks grace from within and beyond. It awakes you to the promise of a transformed life. Letting go of self, we learn to die to what is false and honor what is true in real time. I like the way Rohr articulates the essence of this journey:

All prayer disciplines are somehow trying to get head and heart and
body to work as one, and that changes one’s thinking rather entirely. “The concentration of attention in the heart—this is the starting point of prayer,” says St. Theophane the Recluse, a nineteenth-century Russian mystic. Any other “handler” of your experience, including the rational mind or even mere intellectual theology, eventually distorts and destroys the beauty and healing power of the Big Truth. The second principle is that truth is on some level always beautiful—and healing—to those who honestly want truth. Big Truth cannot be angry, antagonistic, or forced on anyone, or it will inherently distort the message (as the common belief in a punitive God has done for centuries). The good, the true, and the beautiful are always their own best argument for themselves, by themselves, and in themselves. Such beauty, or inner coherence, is a deep inner knowing that both evokes the soul and even pulls the soul into All Oneness. Incarnation is beauty, and beauty always needs to be incarnate, that is specific, concrete, particular. We need to experience very particular, soul-evoking goodness in order to be shaken into what many call “realization.” It is often a momentary shock where you know you have been moved to a different plane of awareness.

Today my inward journey celebrates silence while also making time for the joy of spoken liturgy, worship, confession, prayers of petition and song. Both inward paths help me wander into my inner wilderness and practice letting go of control by trust. In still times and emptiness I begin to own my obsessions and name my pain. Rohr is truly persuasive when he teaches us that until our personal and collective pain is transformed by love, we will continue to inflict it upon others.

Pain teaches a most counterintuitive thing: we must go down before we even know what up is. In terms of the ego, most religions teach in some way that all must “die before they die.” Suffering of some sort seems to be the only thing strong enough to both destabilize and reveal our arrogance, our separateness, and our lack of compassion. I define suffering very simply as “whenever you are not in control.”  When religion cannot find a meaning for human suffering, human beings far too often become cynical, bitter, negative, and blaming. 
Healthy religion, almost without realizing it, shows us what to do with our pain, with the absurd, the tragic, the nonsensical, the unjust. If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it. If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably give up on life and humanity... If there isn’t some way to find some deeper meaning to our suffering, to find that God is somehow in it, and can even use it for good, we will normally close up and close down. Mature religion is about transforming history and individuals so that we don’t keep handing the pain on to the next generation. 
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This is my practice of the inward journey. There are many others and I don't pretend to know what works best for others. This discovery requires a ton of trial and error - and it is all good. Let me suggest a few resources that I have found valuable in my quest.

+ Dakota by Kathleen Norris
+ Open Mind, Open Heart by Thomas Keating
+ Pray All Ways by Edward Hays
+ The Other Side of Silence by Morton Kelsey
+ Listening to Your Life by Frederick Beuchner
+ Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor
+ Behold the Beauty of the Lord by Henri Nouwen
+ Immortal Diamond by Richard Rohr
+ Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer
+ The Heart of Centering Prayer by Cynthia Bourgeault

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