Monthly Archives: April 2016

Refuge – Prayer and Contemplation

It was said of him (Abba John the Dwarf) that one day he was weaving rope for two baskets, but he made it into one without noticing, until it had reached the wall, because his spirit was occupied in contemplation.

Abba John said, ‘I am like a man sitting under a great tree, who sees wild beasts and snakes coming against him in great numbers. When he cannot withstand them any longer, he runs to climb the tree and is saved. It is just the same with me; I sit in my cell and I am aware of evil thoughts coming against me, and when I have no more strength against them, I take refuge in God by prayer and I am saved from the enemy.’

—– Abba John the Dwarf

At various times people are in need of refuge from the troubles they face in life. The word refuge means: a condition of being safe or sheltered from pursuit, danger, or trouble. We all need refuge because danger lurks, and safety is a primary need of all. As followers of Christ, we need refuge from the problems of this world. Life is so trying and difficult that we just want to say that this “Christian thing” just isn’t working. Our culture does not readily respond to the idea of committing to a power greater than ourselves. Many times we feel that we are the first people to experience this. Not so, the men and women of the desert faced this long ago. These Monks were occupied in contemplation and took refuge in prayer. Maybe we can, too.

Jesus Open armsA few questions:

  • Who or what do you turn to when you feel tired or oppressed?
  • Is there any time in your schedule to just “get away” while you are in the middle of the crowd?
  • Does the concept of contemplation seem workable to you?
  • How and where do you pray?

First, it is essential to now that you have a refuge when you feel tired or oppressed. The psalmist said: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.” In this lifting up our help comes. There are not enough self-help books and webinars to save us from those times of spiritual tiredness and oppression. These battles are not limited to our spirit because they effect everything. We have all experienced times when could not lift our eyes to God or anyone else. In those times we must turn to our inner selves. The spirit of God dwells in all of us and is readily available in our times of need. The best way to tap into our inner spirit is to be still and let the spirit touch us. Contemplation is a tool by which we hear the voice of the spirit. We are carried away to a place that is spirit chosen. When there, the world seems far away. This journey could be short or long, alone or in a crowd, in stillness or motion.

Second, we must learn to get way while we are still in the crowd. Very few people can escape to the literal desert to find God. We must find Him where we are. All of us have likes and dislikes, things that energize us and things that drain us. The key is allowing our times of energy to be times that we can be in touch with God. Find a place to get away. Maybe it is by taking a walk in a crowded park. My favorite place is a coffee shop. The roar of the grinder, the rumble of the conversations, and even the distinct voice that is coming from the table next to me are like the bells of the monastery calling me to prayer. My coffee shop time is my “get away” time. There is me, God and the 30 other people in the shop, but I have gotten away. Find your place in the middle of the crowd and just get away.

Please don’t take my ideas as being negative towards real silence and isolation. We are all better people for taking times of literal silence, but our challenge is to be a monk in the world.

Third, contemplation is a scary and elusive word. A fellow monk once said of the Thomas Merton, “Merton told us we weren’t contemplatives; we were just introverts!” You can imagine that did not go over too well with men who had lived in community for ten, twenty and even fifty years. What Merton was saying is that contemplation is not isolation but involvement with God and man. Through our times of contemplation and prayer we find energy to engage the world as radically different people. The concept of isolating ourselves in some type of cloister to find God is a type of contemplation that just will not work for the bulk of us. Unfortunately, that is the picture we see when we envision contemplation. If we take the time to rethink contemplation, I believe we can all be contemplatives and monks in the world. That leads us to the how and where?

Fourth, how and where do we engage to take our refuge. The “how” is that we clear our minds and begin to focus on God. Silence, walking, writing, reading, Lectio, are all excellent “hows.” Primarily, all of us need to have a desire to encounter God at all times. Not many people fail to encounter God if they engage in silent meditation and focus attention on our breathing and God’s role in giving us life. Sacred reading is a fine way of turning our attention to the one who is sacred. The very way we are given the words we write causes us to look to God who gives us that gift of language and expression. Sometimes taking a walk and seeing the majestic creation, not just in the big mountains and blue sky, but in the small flower that grows in the crack of the city sidewalk helps us realize that God created it all. Such a walk is not a walk with a destination but a journey to discover the divine. Now the where. Quite simply it is the places God has given you -your home, a church, a sidewalk, anywhere that is available. I waited a great portion of my life to find the monastery, only to find that it was everywhere. There are  cloistered monks who never find their monastery.

Find your refuge, its right in front of you.

Prayer

Lord help me to discover that special treasure that you have given me. May I experience the warmth of your spirit today and every day. Let me not spend so much time searching for the perfect place that I miss the refuge you have given me. Thanks for being there in all those unexpected places and remind me that I simply must still myself enough to see you.

Amen.

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Light in the Chapel

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A picture of the prayer chapel of the Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai. St. Catherine’s is one of the oldest monasteries in the world.

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Obedience

In the eleventh century, King Henry III of Bavaria grew tired of court life and the pressures of being a monarch. He made application to Prior Richard at a local monastery, asking to be accepted as a contemplative and spend the rest of his life in the monastery. “Your Majesty,” said Prior Richard, “do you understand that the pledge here is one of obedience? That will be hard because you have been a king.”

“I understand,” said Henry. “The rest of my life I will be obedient to you, as Christ leads you.”

“Then I will tell you what to do,” said Prior Richard. “Go back to your throne and serve faithfully in the place where God has put you.” When King Henry died, a statement was written: “The King learned to rule by being obedient.”

Henry didn’t want to be obedient, he wanted to run. Obedience is a heavy word. The “O” word brings with it a chill of negativity. To be obedient is to surrender our freedom. We have been trained that individual freedom is the most important right we will ever possess. The concept of leading by being obedient seems to be contradictory. We lead by telling others to obey us. This concept is so difficult; we just want to run. Indeed, to run as far away as we can.

How many times have you wanted to just run away or bury your head in the sand? Life throws some tough times at us all. There are so many challenges that lead us to believe running (dropping out) is the best option. When we tire of our roles and responsibilities, it helps to remember God has planted us in a certain place and told us to be a good accountant or teacher or mother or father. God expects us to be faithful and obedient to the task where He puts us.

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Seeing God Fully

My first thought was that I really wanted to know what it was like for Jesus to suffer and die. Upon further contemplation my desire was to be there with Him as was Mary Magdalene and the Christ lovers were. Just to be able to experience in the flesh the feelings and sounds of His passion would give me a far deeper understanding of Him. I just want to know His suffering. My first prayer is that God would grant me my desire.

— Julian of Norwich

We spend most of our lives trying to avoid suffering but Julian was godly young woman who prays for great suffering to come upon her. That is quite fascinating, and tells us a lot about her devotion to Jesus as Savior. We all want a Savior, a liberator, a rescuer, but very few want to experience the pain involved with being such a person. Julian was different, she sought it, she welcomed it, because she knew that it was the only way anyone sees God fully.

We all want to achieve great things, learn new skills but the commitment of time and effort and the sacrifice to do so turns us away. The boy who wants to play pro football doesn’t want the concussions and bad knees that plague players for the rest of their lives. In order to experience the fullness of God, we must travel down the road of suffering. Jesus said: “The Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be slain, and be raised the third day.” To know God fully we must somehow embody His passion. People go to extremes to know the passion of Christ, some are even nailed to a cross, because it is so important to feel as He felt. In doing so, we see our true worth in His eyes.

Julian gives us a model, a very hard-hitting model, from which to fashion ourselves. She invites this suffering, indeed prays for it, because it will bring her closer to God. I am not saying that we should intentionally hurt ourselves, but I am saying that we should find a way for our hurts to be part of our spiritual journey and not the events that drive us away from God. Our hurts should teach us that we are created in God’s image and are experiencing the very same things He experience on His earthly journey. Suffering, passion and pain are windows to God. We are allowed to see Him fully as we feel that sense of helplessness that comes with such experiences. Like Julian, I feel it is very important to know and feel His pain. The passion is the only way we can know Him fully.

Prayer

Lord grant that as I suffer, and I will suffer from time to time, that I can use the suffering as a way of drawing closer to you. I pray that I can get a glimpse of what you endure don the cross and carry it with me every day. Help me to take seriously your command to take up my cross and follow you. Help me to find the cross and walk as you walked.

Amen

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Loving Like God

Abba John the Dwarf said, ‘A house is not built by beginning at the top and working down. You must begin with the foundations in order to reach the top.’ They said to him,’ What does this saying mean?’ He said, ‘The foundation is our neighbor, whom we must trust, and that is the place to begin. For all the commandments of Christ depend on this one.’

—-Abba John the Dwarf

In the 1960’s there was a movie called: “Dr. Strangelove.” The simplistic plot was about a ridiculous plan of a retaliatory nuclear attack. The plan was ridiculous and so was the name of the man, Dr. Strangelove, who formulated it. This Abba’s is based on the biblical record of a conversation that occurred between Jesus and a lawyer. He asked Him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answered, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”  That is a difficult, demanding, somewhat strange command. The fascinating thing about the wisdom of the monk is that he tells us to begin with something we can see. As much as we would all desire to see God, we can’t see God in the flesh but we do see our neighbor. The key to experiencing God is understanding the depth of His love. God loves us at our worst and we are challenged to love our neighbors at their worst.

All too often when go for what is easy, quick, and painless the result is the foundation of our spiritual house is sinking sand. The love of neighbor is the key to understanding the nature of God. He is a loving, understanding creator and not a cruel and harsh master. To the contrary, with a heart of compassion and mercy, He welcomes sinners into His kingdom. They don’t get the “cheap seats,” but receive a regal welcome. The beginning of that journey is to see God in His creation. Loving His creation – cheats, liars and thieves – is loving Him. Maybe this is a strange love to many of us, but it is the way God loves.

Prayer

Lord help me to grasp this most difficult teaching of loving my neighbor. All too often our neighbors are those who hurt us the most. Allow your grace and my understanding of your love to rise to a level that allows this love to flow from me. In the act of such love we find an elusive peace that brings us closer to you.

Amen

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Contemplative Prayer

I was directed to these 6 tips on Contemplative prayer by a fellow blogger. They were written by Carol Crumley who is Senior Program Director for Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. St. Benedict, a sixth century spiritual leader, advised his monks to “listen with the ear of the heart,” that is, to listen deeply, noticing the many ways God spoke to them in their daily activities as well as through scripture and worship. I share these 6 tips with you.

6 Tips on Contemplative Prayer

1. Establish a daily set-aside time when you can honor your desire to open to God. We recommend 20 minutes of silent prayer time daily. For some that might seem like a long time. For others, it may be way too short. The exact number of minutes is not that important. Start with what is right for you. The important thing is doing it daily.

Thomas-Merton-4.4.162. Create a set-aside place, a space that honors your intent, where you can sit comfortably and uninterrupted for your prayer time. This might be a prayer corner or even a prayer chair. If a chair, just make sure it is different from the one you sit in to watch television, work on your computer or take a nap. A different chair will help you be more alert and attentive in your prayerful listening. You might also place a candle or flower or image in your prayer space, something that helps draw your focus to God’s presence.

3. Begin with stretching and releasing any physical tensions. We carry the tensions of the day or night in our bodies. Notice the places in your body that are tight or constricted. Stretch into those places, hold for a moment or two, and then relax the tension. Sometimes a gentle body-stretching practice is all that is needed to quiet the mind and prepare the body for opening in prayer.

4. Notice your breath. Your breath is a spiritual tool that you always have with you. It is your most intimate connection with God. Sense your breath as a living instrument of God’s spirit, ever cleansing and inspiring. At any time or place, you can notice your breath. Is it rapid or slow? Shallow or deep? Just noticing and slowing your breath can quiet the mind and draw you deeper into the heart of God. It is the most fundamental practice in the spiritual life.

5. Open to God’s living presence, keeping your desire for your own and the world’s fullness in God before you in prayer. No words are needed. Simple, quiet openness and availability are enough. Trust that God’s healing, transforming power is at work whether you know it, you believe it, or not.

6. Find support for your spiritual life. Support can come in many forms. Listen to music that stirs your soul. Go to a museum and feast your eyes on great art. Walk in nature. Read some of the great classics by contemplative authors. Study the lives of the saints. Find a spiritual director who listens with you to the movement of the Spirit in your life. Attend worship services that nourish your spiritual heart. Seek out others who share a similar desire and join with them for dedicated times of prayer.

We live in a noisy, busy world. Quiet, silent prayer is counter to our culture and yet it offers the missing spiritual resource our souls need. Contemplative prayer is not just for ourselves alone. Eckhart Tolle reminds us that, “To meet everything and everyone through stillness instead of mental noise is the greatest gift you can offer to the universe.”

Contemplative Prayer is a way of being rather than something that we do, a way of being open to God all the time. As you return to your busy day, remember, there are no right ways or wrong ways to pray. You can trust whatever is simplest and feels most natural for you.

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