Tag Archives: Lent

A passion: Deaths and wonders

At times last year, my spiritual director must have felt he was riding a bucking bronco when we met. We sold our family home of 25 years, totally rehabbed the new condo, which was probably the most disastrous rehab we ever experienced, then said good-bye to my hired role in Circle of Hope – mostly during a pandemic and an election circus! Maybe my director was fine, but I still feel like I may have hit the dirt a few too many times. Fortunately, I have some rodeo clown friends and a cowboy family to pick me up.

When I drag in, looking a bit dusty and dazed, my director will often respond to one of my stories with, “It’s a ‘passion.’” He does not have a ready definition for what he means by “a passion,” and I am not much for defining spiritual experiences anyway. But I think I might understand what he means more all the time as I experience the little deaths that lead to new life. As I endure the indignities that accompany the joys of transition, my life keeps teaching me. Like Paul says:

And as for us, why do we endanger ourselves every hour? I face death every day—yes, just as surely as I boast about you in Christ Jesus our Lord. If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus with no more than human hopes, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (1 Cor. 15:30-32)

What Paul is doing is a “passion.” He writes with a passionate heart about risking it all on the hope of resurrection.

Facing death is normal Christian life. It is so wonderful we can face it in the distant future with confidence. Most most of us think we’ll be alive a lot longer, so that confidence is easier and no less comforting for being so. It is also wonderful we can face the “wild beasts” in the present with confidence. That’s usually more difficult and often feels comfort-challenged.

In Paul’s story above, the enigmatic reference to “wild beasts” probably refers to the riot started by the silversmiths in Ephesus who thought Paul’s gospel would wreck their lucrative trade in honor of the religious power, Artemis, who ruled the area. I wish I were more like Paul, but at least I know what it is like to face power struggles with blinded people who think Jesus is no more than an alternative fact, at best. You undoubtedly have such struggles, too, at whatever level you struggle.

In facing what seem to us like death-dealing forces, we are like Jesus being attacked in John 10. His opponents are ready to stone him, and he says, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?” I think my director would call that moment “a passion.” In the face of the violent, judgment-wielding world, we speak the truth in love. If we die that day, just a little or for the last time, we do.

The Elements of Holy Communion — Jacques Iselin

The death and wonder in the communion meal

It does not seem accidental that bread and wine are central to how we understand the crucifixion and resurrection this week. They are symbols of transformation. The grapes are crushed and reduced. When they “die” their inner juice and flavor are released. Then in the darkness we wait for them to become new wine. Likewise, simple flour with a little water and salt becomes many variations of bread. Add yeast and the whole lump of dough expands and becomes new. In the transformation into the food that feeds us there is a death of the old and the wonder of the new.

When our own transformation passion is working in us it is a bit more traumatic, isn’t it? It is painful for us to feel crushed, even when we know the newness is being released. And we don’t like being expanded, or stretched, even though it is the process of welcoming that wonderful fullness for which we have been longing all along. And when it comes to being the bread of life with Jesus, that can seem like a bit much.

Last week, when I saw my director, I could not tell if I was stuffing my pain or dampening my wonder. Both actions would be good ways to try to avoid dying that day. Pain reminds us we are going to die – severe SMH. I want to shut pain out. And wonder reminds us of why we don’t want to die – severe FOMO. I want to keep wonder in. Yet I don’t want to wall off my heart. 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. Paul actually said that in Philippians 3, but I say it too.

Our passion in the Holy Week

I don’t want to die. But I certainly want to live. So I always need a Lent to teach me about passion — the Lord’s and mine and ours. I keep learning that living is giving – whether Jesus is about to be stoned, or Paul is fighting wild beasts, or we are facing societal breakdown, or we face all those other breakdowns: mental, physical, and relational. I don’t mean we give because we are afraid to die, although that may be where we start. I mean we give because we know we are alive and will live forever. It isn’t, “If I give I will live.” It is, “I give because I live.” I like living. Giving is living.

This week is all about how dying leads to rising, how living is giving. As my Lenten guide, Alan Jones says:

We are made in the image of God who gives himself away. [We are made in the image of God who gives herself away]. The mystery of that self-giving is what Easter is all about. The closer we get to our destination the closer we are to the crucifixion. Holy Week and Easter are not the only times when we remember God’s Passion for us. They also invite us into our own passion. Lent is a long period of reality-testing that questions our view of ourselves and the world. (In Passion for Pilgrimage: Notes for the Journey Home)

That testing has surely been happening to me. Maybe we have all been experiencing a pandemic-long “lent” that is testing who we are and questioning the world in which we live. If so, maybe a big resurrection is about to dawn. I hope so. The Holy Week calls us to show up and endure the process, especially if we missed the rest of the season!

The situation in the country is giving us lots of opportunity for a reality test. But my experience seems more acute than an assessment of where society should be going. My daily dying won’t be something that works back on me from what is happening in the world.  I’m already happening. Resurrection is already loose in the world. My profound actions will not make it happen. To the contrary, my grapes are being crushed and the yeast of God’s Spirit is expanding me.

Some days I don’t think I can die any more or rise any more. Perhaps when I feel that way my wine is taking some time to ferment and my dough is resting. But by this time in my life, I often know that despair might signal Easter is coming. Ready or not, a resurrection is imminent, as surely as the daffodils are coming up to bloom and, as a church, we keep turning our faces into Spring.

Light in my darkness: Common life, mystery and the moon

I found out my old computer had a built-in microphone the other day. I told my wife of my discovery and she said, “Yes. They have microphones.” She was not as embarrassed about me as I was – or at least she did not say it. I supposed she thought I knew what I was doing when I set up my external mic all those times. My computer darkness is rather deep it would seem. But I got a little light.

In similar fashion, my supervisor criticized a technique I was using. I would not say we had a “spat” about it, but I sounded a bit testy when I mildly implied he did not know what he was talking about. Afterwards I regretted seeming even a little defensive. He was just doing his job, after all. Later on, I was reading an assigned text and realized the author used the same kind of technique I was using. That was kind of a twofer experience. I saw the darkness of my defensiveness and then received another kind of light when I was affirmed. Now I can use two techniques. If I am on my game, I feel OK about wandering around in the dim light before dawn, luxuriating in the moonlight, assuming sunrise is likely.

moon in the darkness over Philadelphia

Darkness is the seedbed of light

What I am learning again is that my darkness is often the field where my light grows. The fertile darkness of Lent so many of us avoid is redolent with the spiritual humus where light grows. I live in a high rise to the west of downtown, now. The moon rising over Philadelphia often wakes me up in the night. It teaches me. As you can see, last week the moon of God’s light and love rose in my darkness a couple of times and woke me up. Thank you Jesus for more salvation

Although we often sing of “the light of the world” we might want to give that image a little boost of terror. If we actually saw God revealed in full glory, the brightness might make us want to tear our eyes out. Remember, we can’t even look at the sun straight on without damaging our eyes — as Trump was surely told that time.

Light does not always feel like a blessing. My blindness regarding the operation of normal computers by normal people recently came to light. I felt ashamed. My supervisor shone some light and spotlighted how I was not going with the program. It showed how vulnerable I feel when I do not appear perfect. We often “seek the light” when we are in much more dangerous and destructive places. But we may not see it or not really want it.

We may be so blind or feel so threatened we embrace darkness as the true light. I can easily imagine me telling my wife, “Real computer users use external mics.”  Sometimes the more enveloped we are by darkness, the less likely we are to give up the belief we are in the light. Nothing prevented me from saying, “That supervisor and his cronies are damaging people with their one-sided teaching!”

The yearly pilgrimage through Lent lead us into our real darkness and ends with a promise of real life in the light. You will have to test that out, of course. My experience, and the Bible, tells me that the darkness I fear, which I would like to sleep through, is the place I find light.

Our deep darkness this Lent

This year the darkness in the U.S. could really help our Lent or just swallow us up. Vaccination and daylight savings time has certainly lightened my step. But the deep darkness afoot could lead to the deeper light of God. Two major events have occurred during this season which might be seedbeds for glory to grow in us.

Members of the Floyd family at memorial after settlement was announced.

The George Floyd murder trial is beginning. I will never forget the picture of that poor man being murdered on TV and the eruption of anguish and fury which followed.  I wonder if we Christians can follow Jesus through the Lent of this trial without being swallowed by the ideologies swirling around it.

The Nobel Prize committee called Doris Lessing, after awarding her the prize for literature in 2007, “that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny.” That she did. When she emigrated from Zimbabwe, she was not overly impressed by the shallow people in charge of the deep causes for which she worked.

When I came to England, I found the Left could be dull persons shouting at meetings boring me to death with their egos. With words. Verbiage the more outrageous the less it meant. They hated art. In time, I came to fear they hated people as well. Living lives of frenzied emotionality  based on the sufferings of other persons in countries about whom they seemed to care very little except to find them convenient for certain neurotic needs of their own. (Via Kate Millet in Flying)

When I see the Floyd family walking around the scene of George’s death, considering how to invest their $27 million monetized justice, I have to pray for Jesus to be their light and to save us all.

Another strange darkness during Lent is the big, bright Covid-19 relief bill which the Republicans all voted against. I think that party has tried to present themselves as heroes in a culture war against godless people who will force your child into a multi-gendered bathroom and such. But, in fact, in opposition to the moralists screaming on the street, they have embraced an anti-fundamentalist “openness” of their own, and invented a religion based on Donald Trump’s lies and the willingness of Q-Anon people and Senators to swallow illusions. The United States is pretty much the home of do-it-yourself religion by which people arrive at their individual beliefs. Trumpism may be the full flower of that dark path.

Robert Bellah is kind of old hat by now, but he nailed where the U.S. was headed. It got there under Trump.

There is a fear in our loose-bounded culture that strong belief in anything, particularly in the area of right and wrong, means one wishes to coerce others into sharing one’s views. (More in Uncivil Religion)

When I see the Senators devote themselves to division and infect us all with enmity, I have to pray for Jesus to be their light and to save us all.

Such a rich, deep darkness around us that so many see as light! Isn’t it the perfect atmosphere for Lent?

It takes a real Lent to cultivate light in the darkness

Will the pandemic end by July 4th and our normal illusions be restored? Will the economy rebound without an inflation crisis so we can return to its domination? We’ll see. But it would be a missed opportunity if we did not ask the questions in Christ. The darkness of this Lent coming to fruit in the trial of Derek Chauvin and the ongoing power frenzy in the government is a fertile field for light to grow. Most of the time we like staying dim. But we’ve been in the dark a long time. If you at least see the moon, I would meditate on the sun it reflects. There is light.

A few suggestions for how to get some rays:

1) Be an obedient moon, yourself. Know you reflect God’s light, in Jesus. Let that light sink in and follow it. Have a “single eye.” You are not God. Find yourself in relationship to the Creator.

2) Give up any individualist view of religion. The sun rises on everyone, not just people with whom you agree. And you don’t rise at all without Jesus. Keep questioning your private judgments. I recently found out old computers also had microphones. Who knows what else I have yet to learn?

3) Accept that your choices matter and be responsible for what you do. Be seen for who you are in Christ and be free from the shame that leaves you in the dark. If you are defensive, you are. If you are affirmed, accept it.

4) Build community. We are all reflections. The light comes to us all. We are all struggling. Love and reconciliation will always be what shining means. If you are at peace with those near to you, wonderful. It will be easy to find someone with whom you, or Jesus, are not.

Old people don’t sleep as much. When I was young, I slept with a bat under my bed to fend off intruders in the dark. Now I am up in the night relishing the moon. The purposeful darkness of Lent might generally scare you to death – just look at the four demanding admonitions above! It is for serious humans. While I think the times are scary, the moon keeps rising in the night in different quadrants of the sky and in different permutations, always waning and always growing. Though the night is very dark, light grows there if we welcome it and live in its glory.

Trail in an unknown forest

an unknown forest

Off a road we never travelled,
the empty lot for the trailhead parking
seemed eager for a visitor
on a mild day in March.

Bits of snow lay untouched on the path
and painted the forest floor in patches.
The sunshine felt as new as the trail
after months locked indoors.

The rocky way relied on blazes
and our old feet relied on memory
of many hikes over many years, those
with less expectation of falling.

There are wonders to be seen.
Inside and out there are vistas.
Now the tree growing out of a rock
seems like a personal statement.
Now the stone like the Stone Table
has a deep spiritual history.
Now the slab like a stage
is pondered from erotic to sublime.
Now the muddy flats speak of
foreign places and mysterious art,
while the destination creek flows
with thoughts for the future.

It is always striking how the way into
the unknown of a new forest seems long.
How far is it? Should we keep going?
How can we gauge the effort this takes?

Yet the way back through the now
familiar landscape, dotted with experience
like patches of snow, seems short, soon to
embolden an unknown route back home.

Just a bit of courage to try
a new path and the interior landscape
feels the breeze of a spring thaw
where it is frozen with fear and doubt.

Though the pilgrimage of Lent seems long
in a year so hard and fraught,
so many days it seems like a short way
back to the home You make for us.

And even when my courage seems so small
and the mud of spring annoying,
You move me to stay on the way of the heart:
that old unknown end, always a familiar new end
marking the trailhead of hope.

The way of significance: Our Lent pilgrimage through the media debris

Is it just me, or does your mind sometimes seem like a collection of sound bites and tune fragments stored up over decades of media saturation? My brother told me that even though his voice changed, with age, from a remarkable tenor to a mundane baritone, he was still a valuable member of the cover band because he could remember complete lyrics to all the old songs. (He also plays several instruments, I must add!). The rest of us are stuck in an ever-growing collection of undifferentiated mental debris — reminiscent of the Pacific Ocean plastic “gyre” I am fond of talking about, bits of stuff floating around in our heads.

The pandemic is waning (Lord, hear our prayer), but our media consumption is probably not. Entire new islands of media pollution may be forming right now! I know I have been filling my limited brain capacity with even MORE stuff. I think two favorites, Hillbilly Elegy and Nomadland were a lot like Lent — somewhat depressing subjects, calls to change and grow, and road trips. In the case of Lent, our “road trip” is like drawing back the curtain on a movie about our spiritual pilgrimages and seeing whether we are actually moving or, alternatively, trapped on screen, appearing to move by watching images move.

Can I keep moving through this mess?

I am trying to stay on pilgrimage, even though it is perilously easy to permanently stay at my latest point on the map. The courage it takes to keep growing is daunting. Wandering around with godless Frances McDormand in Nomadland felt vicariously heroic, free and honest. I did not like her or her life, but it sure looked more authentic than staying trapped in some subdivision like her prospective mate ended up. I have felt trapped a lot during the pandemic and it is easy to just stay trapped until someone sounds the all clear. Don’t you periodically wake up and see yourself sitting in your cage munching fake food, listening to fake news and fake exposés of fake news and inexplicably funding Netflix? We need to force ourselves onto our personal pilgrimages for Lent.

My Lent book, Passion for Pilgrimage: Notes for the Journey Home by Alan Jones, is helping me stay on the road. And, in my case, it is helping me write an elegy for my own past, as I move on into what is next. In the chapter I just read, “The Road that Leads Nowhere,” Jones is highlighting how our many choices as Americans has basically ended up with us not making any choices. He says, “We get lost spiritually precisely in proportion to the casualness of our choices.”

Does being in the band have meaning or am I just filling up my time? Should I explore my past and figure out how I got on the road I am on or just watch others doing that on the screen? Is the terrible thing I am experiencing pushing me out on the “road” or shall I push that energy back inside somewhere? Shall I keep writing this blog or decide I need more readership to be relevant? Shall I let the Lent story draw me into the eternal story about going home or shall I just stay trapped at home? You can tell I think everything I have talked about so far is filled with significance.

It always takes risking significance

Jones says, “Our smallest actions and decisions can be fraught with significance and have serious consequences, [because] the same energy that made the sun and the stars came into play, and the result was you. You matter and your choices matter. If you lose sight of that, you get frozen and lost. You are not an accident. To discover that is already to have recovered enough passion to turn you away from a dead end and toward life.”

I rarely think relating to Frances McDormand or Glenn Close on the screen is a dead end. Although their stories were filled with roads to nowhere, they are helping me with Lent, as we speak. Getting something out of the screen rather than it just sucking the the life out of us is hardly automatic. Christians often hide the fact that we are in the screen’s “tractor beam” just like everyone else, being dragged places we might not choose if we were more conscious. My cell group always has great suggestions for what to watch next; it is one thing we all know. None of us need to risk significance, we can just sit there and make choices with our remotes.

The series I have been recommending is another import on Hulu from the Brits, Larkrise to Candleford. The show is about a village girl and her townie relative experiencing the 1890s as everyone begins to move into the modern age. All the innovations of the next era crowd into village life and cause people to choose about things they don’t want to think about. As a result, people hang on to the past or jump into the future, with poignant personal and relational consequences. What I like about the series most, however, is how we can watch people from the past take their lives seriously. We let people from the past do these things we long to do. I like shows like Larkrise (calling Call the Midwife) because I long for the characters’ experiences. The past is clearer in memory than it was when it happened, so nostalgia is comforting. But I honestly think more people in the past felt their lives had meaning and their choices made a difference. Such significance seems harder than ever. Wasn’t it just last week that Trump claimed he won the election at CPAC? Didn’t Republican Senators just extract compromises in the Covid Relief Bill and then all vote against it? It is hard to take life seriously in a reality like ours.

Choosing against our illusions is hard

We make fun of people in the simpler past. But we also suffer from a twinge of envy when we weigh our lightness against their heaviness. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera says people in the past engaged in “something and not nothing; hard not soft; risky not safe; productive of long and dire consequences, not immediately dismissed in a cloud of smoke from a cigarette ironically name ‘True.’”

I can still remember the jingles of True cigarette commercials from my first stage of media saturation as a child. Of course, they are on YouTube:

My book for Lent and my latest show choice challenge me to be true and make true choices. Shall I do something hard (like have a serious marriage) or stay soft? Shall I do something that is meaningfully part of God’s creation or keep acting like what I do has no consequences as long as I do not harm someone else according to the law? Shall I just accept the absolute b.s. of almost every TV commercial or get furious that “True” cigarettes were and are an abomination that subvert the very word “true” and disgrace the Way the Truth and the Life?

My father died of emphysema and my mother chronically suffered from the effects of second-hand smoke. Fortunately, smoking and the addiction and health disasters that go with it are on the decline — but not fast enough for me. American cigarette producers got thwarted at home so they marketed worldwide. Worldwide tobacco use and addiction is just now reaching a peak and heading for decline. True cigarettes were introduced in 1966 when I was twelve. My Dad was at the height of his cigarette smoking. I was just beginning to refuse to collude with his habit. There are a lot of choices I had to make or avoid. I wanted Dad to love me. But I did not want to accept cigarettes to procure that love. I made many compromises I am still pondering and repenting.

Lent is a great season for repenting, which is basically a choice to go another way, to go home. Lent is a season that lures us out on the road, away from our addictions and resistance, and makes us susceptible to cooperation with God’s grace. As a result of making any of these true choices, we’ll probably uncover many of the false ones that tie us up, especially in our relationships. So we will repent and even feel better.

We try to get by with unhealthy habits, especially in unhealthy relationships, by not making a choice or by choosing everything. We don’t really want to do anything that has “long and dire consequences” like refusing to be codependent with someone who is killing themselves spiritually and otherwise or like making the commitment to hold a church together. To do so, we would need to risk going against the flow. What has society created? — a no-fault, guiltless world. How do policemen keep killing people with impunity and governmental grifters get away with breathtaking corruption? How is it that it is so easy to blame and hard to forgive?

Even in the church, reconciliation often means not having to say you’re sorry because no one will admit you (or they) are that wrong or even that significant. We avoid conflict by not recognizing anything for which repentance is required. That makes for a very soft response to an increasingly hard world. Are we getting used to being little Trumps demanding our right to choose whatever we want – even if it does not exist? I know it is terrible to imagine, but are we little Trumps starring in our own show, making up our own reality, and daring everyone to tell us we lost the election? Did we watch TV long enough for that to be a possibility?

I hope not. That’s why I wrote to you, since you are the kind of person who steps into Lent every year and lets it take you somewhere true.

The Lent story and your story: Precious gifts for listeners

I woke up early last night, in the deep dark, flooded with stories. I have experienced a downpour of precious heartfelt tales in the last few days. I have one more segment of a weekend retreat with budding spiritual directors today. Much of what we have done centered around practice sessions which our teachers and colleagues devoted to experiencing God with us. “We beheld his glory, the glory of the only begotten of the father, full of grace and truth.” Our stories are meeting God’s.

The first night of the retreat I woke up with a pain in my calf. I could go back to sleep, but I can still feel the  ache of the Charley horse. This night I am awake with a heartache. Some of the stories I heard contained heartbreak, some great joy and depth. But all the stories stretched my soul. I heard further stories from my family and my cell. I remembered some significant events from my own story. And I entered into the yearly retelling of the Great Story of Lent, which dares us all to become grounded in our own telling as we look into the eternity Jesus has opened up for us. Lent stretches us all.

Romanian Lent story
Click pic for Romanian ritual associated with Lent

The Lent ritual can ground us

We need to go on the Lenten journey each year for several reasons.

1) We are not who we were last year and we need to keep moving toward home. Our personal story linked to The Story needs to be re-viewed and edited.

2) The story of the death and resurrection of Jesus has to be played out in our bodies. We need to feel it in our bones as individuals rooted in the earth, fully present, here and now. And we need to feel the story in the bones of the body of Christ, our church, also anchored in a place and in a time. Like Jesus is an incarnation of the Spirit of God, in him we also embody heaven and earth. The story of Jesus is an example for us in how we are to retell that union day after day. Lent draws us to do the telling.

In his famous book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat neurologist Oliver Sacks told the story of a woman who had lost her sense of her body. We all have a sense of knowing where our body is. But she said, “I feel my body is blind and deaf to itself. It has no sense of itself.” We can all imagine the commitment it took to regain whatever sense she could of being fully herself. It began with telling her story to her loved ones and doctors and remaking connections. It seems to me that Lent always comes just in time, just before our sense of reality is swallowed up by other forces. We can lose our sense of ourselves in Christ. I can only imagine how 2020 swallowed up your life. I know I have come to admit it was probably the most difficult year of my long life. Lent challenges me to enter the story again and find my footing on the old path which is, again, new to me as who I am now, getting a sense of myself.

Telling our Lent story keeps us going

Alan Jones, in his book on Lent, Passion for Pilgrimage, says,

We need a song to sing, a story to tell, a dance to dance so that we know where we are and who we are. But we seem to have lost the art of storytelling and dreaming. Singing bits and pieces of what we know and telling snatches of half-remembered stories are better than nothing. The more we sing and tell the old, old story the less we will be satisfied with psychological and spiritual junk food, with false and temporary means of embodiment. Individually and collectively we feed on junk food – we hum snatches of tunes, dance a few steps, tell the fragment of a story. All this keeps us alive but barely. The Church invites us into a painful and passionate process of discovering who we are by the telling of story. It offers us the kind of food that will make us into a true body with others….Lent creates the space for us to dare a little in the direction of passion. We begin daring to hope for a homecoming. We already know scraps of the tune. It is now a matter of listening to the same old story to catch all of it.

I suppose for a few of my readers (and certainly for people you know) a resistance to Lent is well-formed. We always resist change or we would not be able to maintain the evils we do to ourselves and others. Even though we love what Paul says, “If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation; the old has passed away, behold the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17, RSV), we still experience this newness as a kind of suffering. We don’t want to tell the story of how we feel disembodied for the shame of realizing we are not perfect. We will not go home, like the prodigal son in the Lord’s story must, because we would have to remember and tell the story of where we have been.

Image result for schitt's creek redemption

Lent gently but firmly insists that we find meaning in the empty spaces within us which are surrounded by the damaged and deluded senses that form our reality. Lent is a story, again and again, of how God emptied herself to become one with us, to reopen a way to our fullness. In that same chapter Paul says, “For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” God breaking in like that shined a painful light on how empty it is to find our meaning in 80 episodes of Schitt’s Creek. But isn’t it also amazing that fragments of goodness in that junk-food show lead us to turn our attention to something deeper in us and deeper in God! For those listening, a redemption story is being told every day.

Lent is our story meeting God’s

I don’t know about you, but it often feels like the deep, dark night of the world to me. I ache. I wake up with stories on my mind. Granted, I am kind of a professional story holder. But I am sure you experience the same kind of suffering as you relate to yourself and others and you run into the parts of your story and others which no one wants to remember, much less tell. To that achy place of resistance, Jesus is coming. I love how we open up a whole season of the year to welcome Him.

Lent is the disruption in the schedule that meets the disturbance of our souls. In that passionate place, Jesus meets us and saves us – a first time and again and again. The story of how Jesus saved us and saved us again needs to be told again this year. The story of Lent, how God loved the world in Jesus, didn’t condemn it, and opened up the way to freedom from sin and death for the whole world has many ways to be told again, and needs to be told. If you resist even the idea of that passion, you must have a soul. And that soul has a home waiting. The story of how you get there is precious.

We need each other: I welcome that

Sometimes my clients tell me, “I wish I did not have to come to therapy/spiritual direction. Why can’t I just do these things on my own?!”

Shortly after my church got going, Will had similar questions:

It is frustrating, isn’t it? We have to learn new things and unlearn old things. It takes time.

Zoom doesn’t cause the right trouble

It does not just take time to grow, it takes discipline. We don’t change unless we get troubled. Spiritual disciplines are all about purposely troubling ourselves to cooperate with our transformation. For instance, I wish I had to get in my car today and drive to my spiritual director’s house for our appointment. That way my schedule would have to trouble itself to center around the preparation to make it there on time and so face the problems associated with seeking God and attending to my inner work. Zoom is OK and it also causes some good trouble, but I miss getting dressed presentably, taking the anticipatory trip and then riding home with good things from God to chew on. All that trouble makes me feel like I really did something — because I did.

I have rituals that do not bring life

I not only need to honor the time and discipline it takes to grow, I need to protect the rituals that habitually steer me the direction my heart wants to go. Unfortunately, this year we have established all sorts of new rituals forced on us by the pandemic. Like starting most conversations with “You’re muted,” and “Can you hear me?”

But here comes Lent, the mother of all rituals, to present an opportunity to get out of our terrible new ruts. I started in January, actually, with a lockdown-sloughing diet. That feels good, like I actually care about myself. But today I am definitely driving clear back to West Philly to the best shop in town to get my “fastnacht,” diet or not. It is a ritual. Then I plan to get into Lent, pandemic be damned. I’ve got to get a life! Our pastors are theming Lent in a very straightforward way, as you can see by their “ad” below. That sounds good.

Lent is not just a solitary pursuit

Our personal disciplines and ritual-keeping are important. But what we need most of all to keep us on track for spiritual development is each other! We need other people to help us and move with us – not just therapists and directors, but all those people we are frightened to need. It is no shame to need someone to help us see ourselves and know God; it is just reality. Somehow, we think we should be perfectly self-sufficient. Maybe you think that is “freedom.”

If you could be healthy and happy on your own, you would be. (And if you think you are, God bless you!). Most people are not. Rather than wondering why I need to see a therapist or spiritual director, or be part of a cell, or worship and learn with the church, or read another book, or get up before the kids get up and pray, we might ask, “Why wouldn’t I need all those people to feel truly alive?” Even when I am alone I am with God I bring all the ways others have blessed me with me!

Individual growth is often painful and all too slow. It just is. What’s more, we can’t see ourselves or grow without others to love us and help us along the way. That’s just true. Even if it scares you to feel weak and dependent, why don’t you welcome those feelings during Lent? That might be revolutionary!

The welcoming prayer

My pastor introduced many of us to Thomas Keating’s Welcoming Prayer last Sunday during our meeting. I think it might make a good ritual for anyone who feels ashamed of not being who they aren’t or not being where they think they ought to be in life. Your “emotional program for happiness” might be all about achieving autonomy, being free, or becoming unhurtable. During Lent you might have enough time, if you disciplined it, to get to know God dying for you in Jesus, subject to our sin and death and rising into the fullness of love.

I’ll leave Keating’s prayer with you:

Welcome, welcome, welcome.
I welcome everything that comes to me today
because I know it is for my healing.

I welcome all thoughts, feelings, emotions, persons,
situations, and conditions.

I let go of my desire for power and control.
I let go of my desire for affection, esteem, approval and pleasure.
I let go of my desire for survival and security.
I let go of my desire to change any situation, condition, person or myself.

I open to the love and presence of God and
God’s action within. Amen

Joy in one hand and suffering in the other

“As we move along our pilgrimage through this life, we learn to carry joy in one hand and suffering in the other.” I heard that truth in one of the many enriching events I experienced last week. Then our Daily Prayer entry reinforced it as our pastors got us started on our Lent journey:

The experience of God’s love and the experience of our weakness are correlative [they move together like a team]. These are the two poles that God works with as he gradually frees us from immature ways of relating to him. The experience of our desperate need for God’s healing is the measure in which we experience his infinite mercy. The deeper the experience of God’s mercy, the more compassion we will have for others. – Thomas Keating in Invitation to Love

It is so true! Read the quote again and let it sink in — just like we were doing at the Lent retreat last Saturday.

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St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass CO — Keating’s home for many years.

They make Lent sound so easy

Father Keating’s words seem somewhat obvious, don’t they? — that is until we move from his great teaching and into the next moment of our day! In that next moment someone or something is very likely to jostle our hold on joy in one hand or and kick us into the automatic, suffering-grabbing reactions we’re holding  in the other.

If I were on retreat in Snowmass, Colorado (as I intend to be someday!) with a beloved leader like Father Keating and other privileged people who could afford such an experience, the correlative experience of love/joy and weakness/suffering would undoubtedly make as much sense as it does right now as I am writing about it in the quiet of my study. But I must add, when I was driving to the Sunday meeting not long ago, feeling late, I suffered another of the million potholes in Philly right before someone pulled out in front of me. That moment exposed my weak hold on joy and my hyper-awareness of the injustice I suffer.

While Father Keating and other luminaries have been invited into my spiritual home for a long time, their light is easy to dim.  They make spiritual disciplines like Lent, seem kind of easy. But they aren’t. So I am writing today to see if I can encourage you to give it all another go, like I am. It would be lovely to always stroll along with a nice awareness of carrying correlative things that God will use to grow us up. But I admit that is not always my immediate post-pothole response. I expect Lent to be just as challenging. It is a call to experience the potholes and cutoffs of life as opportunities to gain resurrection, as invitations to love. Stick with me a bit longer and maybe you’ll feel like that invitation is more likely than it seems.

Psalm 63 makes Lent look a bit harder

Spiritual maturity takes time and effort. It’s the journey of a lifetime. In Psalm 63 [our song] the anxious psalmist says, “My soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” As he turns to prayer in his desperate condition he feels joy and love. That’s one hand. But at the end of the psalm he is back to facing the weakness and suffering of being threatened by  someone who seeks to destroy him, who he has to fight for his life! That’s the other hand.

No one is seeking my life (except maybe the dismantled EPA); other than that, my prayers are a lot like Psalm 63. For instance, just this past weekend the plumber was at our Pocono home (our personal Snowmass). On the one hand that retreat place brings me endless joy and is often filled with love. On the other hand, the plumber discovered a rock from our symbolic mountain had dislodged a sewer pipe! The foundation of our house is threatened and it will cause unknown suffering to fix it. Can we carry such joy in one hand and suffering in another and trust God to grow us up through the journey?

I think we will make it again, just like I think you will make it through Lent again. That is, unless some crisis breaks your sewer line and you keep pouring crap under the house. A lot of spiritual teachers seem surprisingly unfamiliar with crap. I think that’s because, unlike a lot of us, we’re hearing from them after they’ve already got the pipe fixed. My pipe has to wait for a thaw to be fixed. I hope I am helping you thaw in relation to Lent, so you can get started.

Some days of this Lent WILL be easier

Happy lottery winner.

I think it is easy for all of us to feel weighed down by the suffering we are carrying. When I go into a Sunday meeting, sometimes it looks like we are all kind of hunched over to one side, some of  us almost dragging our knuckles on the ground, weighed down by the weaknesses and suffering in that hand. But then something happens that reminds us that we have another hand waiting to be filled.

Things happen like this. Last week NPR reported how Mike Weirsky, who is unemployed and recently divorced, purchased lottery tickets at a QuickChek in Phillipsburg, N.J., right across the Delaware River from Easton, PA. Then he was distracted by his cellphone and left the tickets on the counter. He said, “I put the tickets down, put my money away, did something with my phone and just walked away.”

As the time for the drawing neared, he looked around his house for the tickets for hours. He could not find them! So he went back to the store to see if they had them. To his surprise, he somebody had handed them in the day before. The cashier “made me explain what I bet and what the tickets were, and she handed them to me, and I walked out.”

Then, during the snowstorm Sunday before last, Weirsky got around to checking his numbers — and realized he was holding the winning ticket. He’s going to take a lump sum payout of $162 million, buy a new truck, and then listen to his lawyer. Snowstorm, divorce, unemployment and who-knows-what-else in one hand; in the other hand, winning lottery tickets. I’m not sure his winnings will provide all the joy he desires, but I am still happy for the guy.

I think Lent is also a bit like winning the lottery. On the one hand, Lent accentuates the suffering, of course — the whole season ends with a crucifixion! But in that big other hand, Lent also leads to resurrection! I heard a couple of stories from the retreat last Saturday that were like stories about winning the spirituality lottery. I’m still feeling like I found my lost ticket myself. After some encouragement from Gwen to try imaging prayer, I returned to the interior “spiritual landscape” that was so important for me 30+ years ago, expecting that my ticket to that joy was unrecoverable. But, to my surprise, the Spirit gave me an encouraging little gift that raised my sights away from my dry and weary land and into the stars. That’s a handful I am carrying with me on my Lent journey.

I’m praying you can also feel God with you as move along into your true self: joy in one hand and that pesky-but-redemptive suffering in the other.

First Reformed: Is it the perfect movie for Lent 2019?

Ethan Hawke plays the disintegrating Pastor Ernst Toller of First Reformed.

Like other screenplays Paul Schrader has written (like The Last Temptation of Christ), part of me wishes I had never seen First Reformed. But I also can’t get its questions out of my mind. I think it might be the perfect movie to start off Lent 2019.

That is, it is perfect if you want to make the best use of your snow-covered Pennsylvania landscape for its stark shadows, deep cold, and demanding requirements. That landscape would be a perfect setting for the feelings of this movie, especially when the piles of snow get dirty. First Reformed is a trip to the dark side of one man’s spiritual journey — and your spiritual landscape may have a hint of his journey, as well. There is no music here, just the unnerving hush of the sound design. The camera seems to be looking for ghosts all the time, exploring some metaphysical absence. One reviewer said it reminded them of a poem by Robert Lowell recording an 18th-century preacher’s feeling that “the breath of God had carried out a planned and sensible withdrawal from this land.” Ethan Hawke as Pastor Ernst Toller stares into the same abyss.

The perfect movie for Lent 

This film might be perfect for Lent if Lent is about discernment — about listening for God’s call, about waiting for God’s presence, and about an irrational hope for resurrection. Even though the austerity of the film’s vision wore me down, I could not help but worry whether Toller’s disintegration was leading to an ecstatic awakening or abysmal despair. Schrader is better at despair than hope, but he apparently wrested the script out of his hands before he cut us off from hope completely.

The film might be perfect for Lent 2019 because it is so odd to see a film about the church as it is. It is a scathing but also sympathetic and realistic view. We have craggy Ethan Hawke with his bad haircut grappling with doubt, hopelessness and a crushing sense of guilt — an alcoholic punishing himself with self-examination in his empty-but-historic church building.  On the other hand we have Cedric the Entertainer playing Joel Jeffers, his plump, well-dressed counterpart — the pastor of a megachurch called Abundant Life Fellowship that owns the First Reformed building and calls it “the gift shop.” He is sunny, unreflective, pragmatic and caring to Toller’s suffering, self-condemning, wild and isolating. Together they are the church. Schrader wants us to learn how to hold joy and despair in each hand.

The film might be perfect for Lent 2019 because the reality that loosens Toller’s grip on the unreality he is trying to maintain is global warming. What would Jesus actually do in the face of something that needs action or faces humanity with death? It is the first-world problem that cannot be solved with a clever advertising campaign or an updated OS. Schrader writes film-school screenplays so discussing what happens in the movie is not the same as a spoiler alert, so I will tell you a bit.  Toller is mourning the loss of a child and the end of a marriage. An affair with the Abundant Life choir director has ended awkwardly. His physical health is deteriorating along with his mental state. Then, right when I was tempted to switch to some more amusing Netflix offering, a young woman named Mary is introduced into the story and asks Toller to counsel her husband, Michael, who is an environmental activist recently released from prison in Canada. Mary is “great with child” (of course), and Michael (as in the leader of God’s angelic armies, of course) can’t bear the thought of raising a child in the face of ecological catastrophe. I know many people who are finding or losing faith in the face of a pile-up of tragedy and crisis in their lives like snow drifts from a changing weather pattern.

One of the reasons the film stuck with me (like I can remember what happened, unlike after I enjoyed The Incredibles) is that there are many ways to describe what is happening to Toller after Mary and Michael push their way into his isolated life.

  • Is he having a midlife crisis? It certainly looks like one, but that seems like too weak a description.
  • Is he having a psychological breakdown? Some unhinged things definitely happen – like a surreal out-of-body experience in which Mary and Ernst are flown from bright stars down to an overflowing tire dump.
  • Is it a political awakening? He can’t help but agree with Michael that the country and the church are completely missing the point as they refuse to fight the oil companies and persist in turning faith into a fantasy.
  • Or is it a religious reckoning? Toller’s merciless journal and his awakened displeasure in being part of a church for which he did not sign up would lead us to think that.

Mr. Schrader doesn’t suggest that these elements are mutually exclusive. Instead, he shows how they are the barbed wire the pastor wraps around himself in the end. What we don’t know is whether the scourging cleanses or just kills.

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Cedric Kyles (the Entertainer) as Pastor Jeffers of Abundant Life Fellowship

I have hope in our alternativity

Schrader’s relentlessly hopeless view of humanity is always hard for me to bear.  In some way I don’t want to be talking about his movie at all, lest some poor refugee from the land of fundamentalism or Calvinism might watch it and the film ends up being like barbed wire piercing their already-tender spiritual flesh. Be careful!

But it may be the perfect movie for Lent this year, since the writer, ultimately, is calling us to examine ourselves to see whether we are in the faith, which has always been a basic use for Lent. It is a call for alternativity to a Church that succeeds at marketing and succeeds at laundering the ill-gotten gains of post-capitalism but which can’t stomach actual spiritual struggle and can’t stand up in the face of climate catastrophe, among other things. It can’t even talk about reality without folding into political camps or dividing up according to the ways of the world. It is so interested in self-preservation it would never go to the cross, lest that adversely impact its market share. And that is just a bit of how the film calls for alternativity, just like Lent.

I did not want to have the dialogue with the movie. It is just too hard. Then I realized I probably did not want to face Lent again, either. It is also rather hard. And part of the hardness of it goes back to the terrifying observation from Robert Lowell that “the breath of God had carried out a planned and sensible withdrawal from this land.” I don’t want to face the reality or even the possibility of that. But that is exactly the kind of observation Lent calls for, isn’t it? So I think I’d better observe it.

If we aspire to alternativity and not merely to Cedric-the-Entertainer-like Christianity designed mainly for people committed to consumerism as their primary faith, then we need to start with the ashes of our empire dreams and personal salvation fantasies. Lent may not do that for you yet because you have never considered Lent seriously. I usually follow a sentence like that with, “And that’s OK if you haven’t considered it,” because I wake up every day with hope in God’s goodness, and you may yet consider it. But it is objectively not OK if you do not consider the loss of everything. Because not considering the death and resurrection of Jesus and not heeding the call to leave death and enter life could kill each of us and kill the whole world, which we might be quickly accomplishing.

The word in the wilderness: The fruit of the isolation we fear

I am not sure how it happened. But I realized early on that loneliness and my sense of isolation as a Christian had a lot to do with my infantile sense of being the center of the universe and unattended by those upon whom I was dependent. Later on I met God through Jesus Christ and I realized I was mistaken. In him is life. When I am alone I am actually alone with God. This experience completely changed my life. But it did not change without a process, like Lent. Thank God the season will be here again, soon.

Lent is a fruitful wilderness

Lent grows people who know they are one with God in their isolation and can act out of that oneness, even when they feel lonely. We know about many examples of people with the spiritual capacity to listen in the wilderness and then and act out of the oneness with God they find there, especially to speak what needs to be said to people who need to hear.

I offered a few stories about this to North Broad in December. Let me revisit two, starting with my own experience of the wind in the wilderness in my splendid and disturbing isolation one summer.

Palmdale without Palmdale

Back in the day, when I was in my early thirties, I spent a few retreat times alone in the Franciscan Spirituality Center outside Palmdale CA. Retreating made me a little strange, but I learned to love my wilderness experiences, especially in the desert. I love the desert. I have often met God there. The monks would give me the room of a visiting monk, which was pretty nice compared to the other rooms. I was often there all alone. It was a splendid kind of isolation.

One time I drove out to the center and I just felt terrible. I think I was having some kind of marriage issue. I think my close friendships were in a mess. And I was in a general thirtysomething angst fog. I got to my room and collapsed on my knees next to the bed. I felt blank. It felt like I needed to force myself to stay there on my knees, since I was on retreat and all. But I had no prayers. Not even “Help.”

After a few minutes I began to relax and felt so tired. I lay my head on the bed. Almost immediately I felt a little breeze. I looked over and the window was open a crack — for fresh air from some thoughtful Franciscan. I instinctively laid my head back down on my praying hands, and there was the wind. Dry desert wind gently blew over me until I began to feel it filling me and blowing through me, moving my feelings and reminding me that the Spirit of God was with me.

It was the beginning of a significant retreat. I went away with a marriage change to effect. And I went back with a direction: get beyond yourself and give my word to people. I experienced for myself a pattern often recounted in the Bible. The word of God comes to someone in the “wilderness.” Then the word of God comes through someone as they speak it with passion, authority and courage (although sometimes reluctantly). This all results in the person having a real relationship with the Word of God, Jesus, himself in a deeper and more satisfying, if often trying, way.

Over and over God meets people in their wilderness

Throughout the history of the church, we see again and again how God finds these out-of-place individuals, a bit wild like John the Baptist, nervous like Gideon, incapable feeling like Moses, scared like Peter. They are all thrust into the wilderness in one way or another, receive the word, bring it, and change their world in significant ways. We aspire to be those people. That’s why we remember them in our Celebrating Our Transhistorical Body blog.

 

On November 18 we admired Odo of Cluny (a French way to spell Otto). It is a high-minded name, usually for the upper classes. It means “possessor of wealth.” The Cluny region in France, where he ended up, has always been a little hotbed of edgy Christianity. Today Cluny is about twenty minutes from Taize (whose music we sing), not far from Citeaux (home of Bernard of Claivaux), and Lake Geneva (where John Calvin built his community).

When Odo, was a young priest in Tours, he read The Rule of St. Benedict for himself for the first time. He was stunned. He realized he was not much of a Christian. He decided to leave his home town and become a Benedictine monk. You can imagine how this made him a little strange. In 909 he went to Beaume, a monastery (unlike many) where the Benedictine rule was strictly observed, and Abbot Berno received him into the community.

That same year, Berno started a new monastery at Cluny in Burgundy. He established it on the pattern of Beaume, insisting on a rigorous application of the Benedictine rule, which, to be honest, is not that rigorous compared to other rules, so you can see how lax and lifeless communities can get (note to self). In 927, Odo succeeded Berno as Cluny’s abbot and spread its influence to monasteries all over Europe. It turned out to be a huge influence, probably one of the most amazing movements of the Spirit you have never heard about.

Odo went to existing monastic communities and talked them into returning to the original pattern of the Benedictine rule of prayer, manual labor, and community life under the direction of a spiritual father. Imagine how hard it is to get our congregations to change how they do stuff. He was a change agent when he came to visit. Under his influence, monasteries chose more worthy abbots, cultivated a more committed spiritual life, and restored the depth of their daily worship. Odo helped lay the foundation for a renewal movement that went on for 200 years and reformed more than a thousand monastic communities. Those communities transformed the religious and political life of Europe.

The word of God came to Odo in the wilderness of his nominal Christianity. Then the word of God came through Odo as he spoke it with passion, authority and courage — so much so that he started a revival and became a peacemaker between warring kings. All this because the word of God, himself, the risen Jesus came to him to get his mission started.

Where do you think the Spirit is leading now?

The same Spirit that moved thirtysomething me, Odo, and others brought us together as Circle of Hope. The word of God came to us in Philadelphia, in the wilderness of postmodernity and vacuous expressions of the church.

That Spirit also isolated us in ways. While we might seem normal to us, the reforms we instituted make us loved and resented in the BIC. A man is flying in from Kentucky to consult with us this month because he thinks he is as strange as us. But our bishops are never sure we are really team players. We don’t get along with Trump Christians, we deploy women pastors. We welcome gay people, accept cohabiting people as married. We listen instead of fighting and think reconciliation is more important than being right. We love psychotherapy. We believe black lives matter. We abhor war and suspect guns. We love immigrants. We talk about Jesus all the time to liberals and celebrate Lent with our spiritual ancestors. We practice contemplative prayer and don’t put men or anyone else at the top of a pyramidical structure. It goes on.

We are ambitious. We might go to your monastery tell you what God showed us. We might follow a radical rule of life together right in your backyard. So we might get as isolated like Moses, feared like Odo of Cluny. That might be Lent for many of us – receiving the wind of suffering, struggle, change, and reform that often isolates the reformers while they are bringing people together in Christ.

What is the word that Jesus wants to get out there now? — any new mouthpieces being grown up in the wilderness around here? I know there are. Do not let anyone shut you up. Tell the truth no matter what it costs. Love your hearers even if they don’t understand you right off. Give them what they need even if they throw it back in your face. The message is old. It came as a variation in the 900s and 1980s. But it always has a unique slant. What are you feeling? What does the wind of the Spirit blow into your mind and heart? Trust it!

During Lent we deliberately open ourselves to the disruption of death and resurrection. The discipline season leads us to the end of ourselves so we can rise again. We become isolated so we can be joined with God and others in a new way. As we have repeatedly experienced, through our times in the wilderness we end up being the vehicles for the Spirit, who come with a word from Jesus uniquely tailored to the needy world of today. What an honor! No matter where the wind of the Spirit blows me, I am always honored to feel it at all.

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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.

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