Oct 28 2011

{Day 28} Friday Florilegium

We often ask what disciplines will help us to live more contemplatively or prayerfully. The following quote is some of the most profound wisdom on the topic of spiritual disciplines I’ve ever read. It is by an anonymous 14th century spiritual director and author, most known for his (or her) book The Cloud of Unknowing.  The Cloud author also wrote a letter of spiritual direction in response to questions about contemplative living, The Assessment of Inward Stirrings, from which this quote is taken:

You are well aware yourself that neither silence nor speaking, extraordinary fasting nor ordinary diet, solitary living nor company–none of these in themselves, nor all of them, are the true end of our desire. But they are to some people, though not all, true means which help to the end, as long as they are used lawfully and with discernment; otherwise they are more a hindrance than a help. Hence I do not intend to counsel you here simply to speak or to be silent, simply to fast or to eat, simply to live in company or alone. And why? Because perfection does not lie in any of these…

When then you see that all these things can be both good and evil in their use, I beg you to leave them both alone; that is the easiest thing to do if you wish to be humble. And leave off this detailed introspection and searching of your mind to find out which is better. Rather do this: Set them both aside, one here and one there, and choose for yourself something which is hidden between them. When once you have this third thing, it will permit you to take up and to leave aside either of the other two in freedom of spirit, at your own good pleasure, without incurring any fault.

And now you ask what this third thing is. I shall tell you what I understand it to be: It is God.

For him you must be silent, if you are to be silent; for him you must speak, if you are to speak; for him you must fast, if you are to fast; for him you must eat, if you are to eat; for him your must be solitary if you are to be solitary; for him you must be in company if you are to be in company; and so for all the rest, whatever they be. For silence is not God, nor is speaking God; fasting is not God, nor is eating God; being alone is not God, nor is company God, nor yet any one of every such pair of contraries. He is hid between them; and he cannot be found by any work of your soul, but only by the love of your heart. He cannot be known by reason. He cannot be thought, grasped, or searched out by the understanding. But he can be loved and chosen by the true and loving desire of your heart. Choose him then, and you are silent in speaking and speaking in silence; fasting in eating and eating in fasting, and so with all the rest.

Art by Louise LeBourgeois


Oct 27 2011

{Day 27} Vegging Out and other Habits of Distraction

Over the past month of considering contemplative living, I’ve invited you to reflect on your activities and start to make cause and effect connections. I would imagine that you’ve discovered that some activities encourage your intention to pay attention to the present moment, and some distract, escape, or numb you–heart, mind or spirit–to now.

Anything can be used as a distraction to contemplative attention. As I suggested in an earlier post, sometimes the present moment is simply too much and we have a desire to take shelter, to feel safe or “get our mind off” something. It’s an understandable response and often a self-protective skill.

Today, I’d like for you to consider that response without judgment.

When used occasionally, sheltering activities are often enjoyable and allow us to relax. But they can over time and practice, become habits of distraction. Then, whenever the troublesome feeling or weariness or need to escape arises, we distract ourselves. Rather than exploring, gently and patiently, what may be the cause of the unpleasant emotions or thoughts or physical feeling, we choose to focus attention elsewhere.  I have a theory that people who are drawn to contemplative living often face stronger temptations to escape the present moment.

Let me offer an example from my own life of how a common activity can easily become a distraction from the present moment.

I’ve always loved stories–I easily get caught up in them. I’m also an introvert. For me, screen media offers the enjoyment of adventure, people, places, ideas, and relationships, all from the safety of my own desk. I need only watch.

A little over a year ago, I wrote about a growing conviction of mine that screen media had encroached upon my ability to pay attention to reading, academic study, and people around me. I had given away my TV years ago, but found that the time I was spending via the internet, involved in the story lives of so many characters were taking a toll. I was no longer simply enjoying the experience, but using the screen stories to distract myself from dealing with my own life. At one point, I asked God about some of my struggles with living a contemplative life and his response was clearly, “Are you willing to do what it takes?”

What it took, initially, was a 40 day fast from all screen media. I told my dear friend Kimberlee and asked her to hold me accountable. For good measure, I put internet blocks on websites like Hulu and cancelled my Netflix account.

The first week was difficult, especially when I was tired. At one point, I found myself pacing my apartment, wanting to escape the silence, wanting desperately to get lost in a story.

What God showed me is that these stories were only a substitute to deeply paying attention to my own.

By the second week, I found my thinking clearer and the sense of resistance that I’d always felt, but could never figure out its cause, disappeared. Everything seemed more real. I had more mental and emotional energy.

Rather than getting lost in a story, I sat with what I was feeling or thinking. Gerald May, in Addiction and Grace, suggests that the way out of attachments is not to find a replacement attachment or addiction–something healthier, yet just as much an idol–but to sit in the spaciousness of what was once present, in all the scary vulnerable openness.

Or I simply rested, since most often the desire to watch a show or movie came when I was weary.

After the initial 40 days, I completed two more 40 day periods.  It didn’t become a permanent change in my life, but I did learn to stay in the moment more often than escaping. I’m currently allowing myself some screen media each week, but very aware that (for me) it is just shy of becoming a distracting activity again. I will most likely be doing another fast for the 40 days of (Celtic) Advent.

What is important about paying attention to our distractions is that, while anything can become a distraction, nothing really is. Just by paying attention to the coping mechanisms you’re using, just by noticing, “Oh, I check my email when I’m craving human interaction,” or “I click over to Facebook when my work starts to bore me,” transforms the distraction into food for contemplative reflection.

Sit with the craving. Sit with the boredom. Let it share its wisdom. Let God meet you exactly where you are.

While the distraction can take you out of the present moment, paying attention to the distraction (and the vulnerability it is masking) brings you right back in.

And, whenever we begin to pay attention, we can asked the question, “Where is God with me right now?”

Practice: You probably already have some ideas about an activity that has become a distraction for you–TV, movies, internet, social network, exercise, shopping, cell phone use, work, a relationship, the list could hold anything.

Choose the one that you are most likely to do when you are tired–the “vegging out” activity.

I invite you to let it go for a time. Instead, sit with your weariness, frustration, sadness, loneliness, whatever it is you’re wanting to leave behind.  Listen to it, don’t leave.

Bring how you are feeling into your conversation with God.


Oct 25 2011

{Day 25} The Contemplative Body, Part 2

Silent All These Years – Susan Forshey, 2000

In my last post exploring the importance of the body in contemplative living, I suggested that there are three challenges to paying attention to the well-being or ill-being of the body:

  • We are unaware.
  • We are aware, but believe it won’t change; or,
  • We are aware, but feel powerless to change our behavior, even knowing the consequences

In exploring the first challenge, I hope that in the past few days you’ve had an opportunity to notice the ordinary day-to-day sensations surrounding sleeping, eating, working, etc., and are beginning to bring into awareness moments where there is a deeper connection between head, heart, and body; those moments where the disconnect is wide and dizzying; or those moments of waking-up after a period of numbing through media, internet, task surfing, or some other activity done not for itself, but as a distraction.

In each of these cases, the practice is about paying closer attention, but not making huge shifts in your schedule or activities. Just notice.

Even as you sit, reading this blog post, extend your contemplative attention: What is happening in this moment? How does my body feel? How does my spirit feel?

And then ask, Where is God with me in this moment?

We are embodied. Our feelings, thoughts, and the experience of our spiritual aspect are all tied together. While we often split body and spirit, or mind and feelings, in truth, what we are doing, thinking, feeling, and our experience of God in this moment are all filtered through our bodies.

Simply notice the information your body is providing–feelings, thoughts, pain, memories, a sense of well- or ill-being, energy, weariness–and let the Holy Spirit use this information to help you make connections.

The second challenge is more difficult because, while there is awareness, there is also a belief that “this is the new normal.”

The irony of this post is that it’s four days late because of my own wrestling with this challenge. For the past year and half, I’ve gotten cold or flu viruses nearly every month. This past week, the new normal knocked again on my door, forcing me to bed with a fever. But finally, thanks to reflecting on contemplative living and the body, it was a wake-up call to take some action.

I’m fairly slow to give the signals my body sends me any real credence.

The last time I was in the position of listening, dealing with migraines, it took me way too long to seek a solution. I’d adapted as best I could on my own, but finally reached a morning where I said, “God, get me out of the pit I’ve fallen in.” And he did, through the advice of a kind neurologist who also suffered from migraines, I embarked on a new life, never believing that life could change so rapidly for the better.

Before accepting that nothing can change, it’s important to listen.

Of course, the tension in this practice is that the ill-being we’re experiencing might be the new circumstances of our life.

If that is the case, even then, contemplative attention to the body and to God’s presence with us in our embodiment, can help us deal with the circumstances with care and wisdom.

Practice: So, what is your “new normal?” What are the signals of ill-being that your body is communicating? Bring your experience into conversation with God. We often say that we are to be like “little children” in faith. The little persons I know bring their ouwies to a trusted adult for comfort and a kiss. I think God longs for us to do the same.

While discomfort may be overwhelming any other signals, stay with your awareness and see if there is any sense of well-being, joy, anticipation, or hope in other areas of your experience or body.

Is there a possibility of expanding that sense of well-being?

Sometimes discomfort is not simply discomfort. Discomfort can be married to the disappointment, frustration, anger, or exhaustion that comes with it. Being able to sort out the discomfort from everything else can often bring a renewed sense of well-being even in pain.

Is there a possibility of relaxing your body’s tension around your sense of ill-being?

And, finally, are there some possible cause and effect connections?


Oct 24 2011

{Day 24} The Contemplative Body, Part 1

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly. –Matthew 11:28-30

A battle has been waged through the centuries, a battle that could be simplistically described as spirit vs body, or body vs spirit.  It’s manifested in many different ways. Either the body is seen as the source of evil, from which the spirit must be freed, or the body is indulged to the starvation of the spirit. Either approach is a merciless and death-dealing way of living.

An early sect, the Gnostics, believed that the divine and the material worlds were in opposition. A small spark of spirit existed in each person and needed to be freed from the evil of the body. Christianity ingested to varying degrees their antagonism toward physical existence.

The important point to remember is that the belief of the early Christians was fundamentally different from much of the philosophies and religious practices around them because they believed that God had not only been revealed in Jesus Christ, but that God had taken on our soma, Greek for physical body: God and human, two natures, inseparable, but distinct.

The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.  We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, generous inside and out, true from start to finish. –John 1:14 MSG

Jesus’ resurrection was viewed not simply as a resurrection of the spirit–the early Christians were already surrounded with Greek philosophies and other religions that promised such an existence–but a redemption and resurrection of both spirit and body.

Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15:44, uses a wonderful, mysterious term to describe this new way of being: soma pnematikos, or a physical body full of spirit. God’s redeeming of the unique beauty of the human person in his or her embodiment was an extremely important part of the good news of Jesus’ coming. This is one of the reasons the early church was fraught with so many discussions and arguments about the nature of Jesus–who Jesus is makes a difference to the hope of his followers.

As a side note, some of the confusion in English translations of scripture comes from the translation of the Greek term, sarx, as flesh. For Paul, this was not the same as soma, or physical existence in itself, but the predilection of death-dealing behavior in humanity.

The incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, taken together means something important for the human body. God did not consider the stuff of the human body as evil. The human body is an important component of humanity that, redeemed, would be in some new and wonderful way, a participant in eternal life with God.

What does this mean for our discussion of contemplative living?

In the pursuit of a life paying attention to the present moment and to God’s presence in that moment, the body will always be an important partner. We began this month simply using our senses to listen and focus.  But so far the focus has been external, now I would like for us to turn our contemplative attention toward the body.

For those of us with experience of chronic illness, practicing contemplative awareness of the body is a fact of life. For many years, I’ve experienced migraines brought on by certain foods. To have such a clear cause and effect, such as “eating cheddar will cause a migraine,” is helpful. I don’t wish to be in pain and have impaired function, so I avoid cheddar. Many of you may already have this awareness of cause and effect.

The challenge is that it is often not that simple. We may be unaware of what is helpful or unhelpful for our bodies; or we know, but don’t believe we can do anything about it; or we think, I can’t stop, even though I know the consequences.

We’ll take on the first part of the challenge today.

Paying attention to healthful and unhealthful habits of living is the point where contemplative, present moment awareness is put into service of the larger, longer view. This practice is not fueled by guilt or “should,” but is the joyful exploration of abundant life in Christ.

We are not simply locked into the moment. Christ is with us in the present, but is calling us to a glorious finish. We have a goal, what the early Christians called the telos.

Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we, an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing.  No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified. –1 Corinthians 9: 24-27

We are running a race. Paying attention to what helps us run well is critical.

On the other hand, I know that even the thought of running can make some of us want to go back to bed and pull the covers over our head, so as you practice this week, remember Jesus’ words of invitation:

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly. –Matthew 11:28-30

Practice: Imagine that you are partnering with the Holy Spirit to create a “user’s manual” for the incredibly unique image of God that you are. Pay attention to your body this week as you go about your schedule. Take some notes. I find it very helpful to use a monthly calendar with big squares to keep a record. It helps reveal patterns at a glance.

When are you tired? When do you have energy?

When do you feel numbed out? When do you feel restless?

What are frequent pains or discomforts?

What do you eat? How is your sleep?

What is your sense of well-being or ill-being?

What feeds your sense of God’s presence? What supports you in loving those around you? What invigorates creativity? What invigorates prayer and thankfulness?

No need to make any changes, but look for cause and effect relationships.  Bring what you are noticing into your conversation with God.



Oct 21 2011

{Day 21} Friday Florilegium

In honor of hearing Eugene Peterson speak at Seattle Pacific University Thursday evening, today’s florilegium quote is from his book, The Contemplative Pastor:

What does it mean to be a pastor? If no one asked me to do anything, what would I do?…

I can be a pastor who prays. I want to cultivate my relationship with God. I want all life to be intimate–sometimes consciously, sometime unconsciously–with the God who made, directs, and loves me. And I want to waken others to the nature and centrality of prayer. I want to be a person in this community to whom others can come without hesitation, without wonder if it is appropriate, to get direction in prayer and praying. I want to do the original work of being in deepening conversation with the God who reveals himself to me and addresses me by name. I don’t want to dispense mimeographed (!) handouts that describe God’s business; I want to witness out of my own experience. I don’t want to live as a parasite on the first-hand spiritual life of others, but to be personally involved with all my senses, tasting and seeing that the Lord is good.

I know it takes time to develop a life of prayer; set-aside, disciplined, deliberate time. It isn’t accomplished on the run, nor by offering prayers from a pulpit or at a hospital bedside. I know I can’t be busy and pray at the same time. I can be active and pray; I can work and pray; but I cannot be busy and pray. I cannot be inwardly rushed, distracted or dispersed. In order to pray I have to be paying more attention to God than to what people are saying to me; to God than to my clamoring ego. Usually, for that to happen there must be a deliberate withdrawal from the noise of the day, a disciplined detachment from the insatiable self.


Oct 20 2011

{Day 20} Cultivating a Relationship with Your Home, Part 4

Where there is no beauty, put beauty, and you will find beauty. –Francis of Assisi, adapted.

One of the books I read when I began to explore church and faith more seriously I found on my dad’s shelf. It now has an honored place with others that I “borrowed” from my parents. I love the fact it has the quintessential good book smell, my dad’s signature on the flyleaf, and his underlinings through-out.

Ernst Benz begins the discussion of Eastern Orthodoxy not with doctrines but with the role and understanding of icons. At the time I first read it, there was no internet (hard to imagine now), so I still remember how some of the concepts made no visual sense to me, never having been in an Orthodox church.  But the message was clear: images played an important part in the Orthodox life of prayer. This I understood.

Living in Germany at the time, I was aesthetically and spiritually formed by the medieval cathedrals with their murals and statues, hidden side altars and chapels. As one of my professors at St John’s put it, churches need secret space and shadows for those times when the soul is called into solitude with God, even in the midst of community. I loved those nooks and cranies of sacred space, the life and color of the images, and the warmth of the candlelight.

Benz’ book offered me two things that have stayed with me. The first is that images reminding us of sacred presence are important. In the violent iconoclast controversy of the 8th and 9th centuries, icons were burned and the Orthodox church nearly went through a tidal shift in its manner of prayer. But theologians of the day called upon Colossians 1:15 where Jesus is called the image (ikonen) of the Living God, his own humanity as a way for our participation with the Trinity.

Icons are not idols, which demand worship for themselves, but windows for humanity to be drawn into the Kingdom through prayer and remembrance. Idols stop the gaze; icons direct the gaze through and beyond themselves to the Ever-Presence of God.

The second idea Benz offered me was the importance of dedicating a specific area of the home to God’s presence.

In the Orthodox tradition, this is called the Beautiful Corner, usually on the eastern side of the house.

Coupled with my love of the secret side chapels in the enormous cathedrals, Benz’ book encouraged me to create a beautiful corner in my bedroom. My parents, bless them, bought me a little table, white eyelet lace cloth to cover it, and some red, green and purple fabric for the church seasons.  On it I placed various images of the cross, Jesus, Mary, and found-objects from nature. Over the years, I’ve collected many different items and frequently change it depending on the liturgical season or what I’m praying about.

The first real icon of my collection I found when I was 14, the day before leaving Germany for the Pacific Northwest.  Mary icons often find their way into the corner because of God’s call to her to birth the Christ–a call I believe each Christian receives and responds through grace in some wonderful and mysterious way. As a woman, I appreciate her witness.

While a beautiful corner sounds peaceful and lovely, I’ve found that it can be a place of conviction and a call to repentance as well. Sometimes, the last place I’ve wanted to be near is a reminder of God’s presence. As I willfully choose to go my own way and ignore the still small voice, the temptation is to simply take back the space and live forgetful of the sacred.

One particularly difficult season a few years ago, I did just that. I took all the icons and images down and tossed them in a box. I thought, out of sight, out of mind.

I told God, “Enough. I’m through.”

For awhile, I went my way and God let me alone. But then slowly, I realized God was still there, still whispering. I may be able to remove the reminders, but God could not be put in storage. Slowly I took things out of the box and said a small yes again to God’s unrelenting love.

What I meant as tantrum, God used to remind me that his presence is more than my small ideas and certainly beyond my control (Thank God!).

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
 if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
 if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you. –Psalm 139:7-12

Practice: Is there a special place, a beautiful corner, that reminds you and your family of God’s loving presence? If not, where would you put it? What would you put there?

If you have a beautiful corner, how long has it been since you changed it? Sometimes what becomes familiar is easily forgotten. I invite you to spend some time rearranging and praying.

If you are going through a season where God is “in storage,” I invite you to wander your house and find one object that calls your heart and thoughts to prayer (photos of little ones always does it for me). Put the object in a prominent location, and slowly, as you feel led, add other reminders to pray or say “thank you”–maybe a leaf from a particularly glorious fall tree, a cross, a verse of scripture that tugs at your memory. Over time, items will be added and you will have a beautiful corner for prayer.

Get young people involved–I think they have a wonderful, playful sense of what makes sacred space beautiful.


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