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.



Nov 12 2010

Lentil Soup for the Body and Spirit

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Yesterday as I sniffed and sneezed and shivered from the flu, the thought came to mind: “Surely, I can watch a movie since I can’t focus on anything else right now.” But alongside that thought was another, and thankfully, louder one: The whole point behind taking a break from 2-D screen stories was to practice not using them as an escape from unpleasantness. So I didn’t. And as I turned the heat up to broil and put on three layers and shuffled aimless from room to room, a story came to mind from the desert fathers.

Abba Antony was struggling with weary boredom in his life and work (it’s odd to think of those radical monks getting bored), and prayed for wisdom about how to deal with it.  Later, when Antony got up to go out, he saw a man that looked like him, sitting at his work, getting up from his work to pray (desert monks stood to pray and then did a full bow, with knees and head to the ground), then sitting down and working, then getting up again to pray. Antony realized it was an angel of the Lord sent to teach and reassure him. The angel said, ‘Do this and you will be saved.’ Anthony felt both joy and renewed courage at the angel’s words.

Now, the desert fathers are best when not taken too literally.  There was more to Antony’s life than work and prayer. This story focuses on identifying and taking simple mini-steps in moments of challenge.

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I took a good look around my apartment and knew that, one step at a time and very slowly, I could pick it up (it had that 48-hour-sickroom-no-energy-to-put-things-away look) and choose to make something sustaining and healing to eat. My spirit was willing (sort of), but my body was weak.

Ah, yes. The body.

Somehow, even as a staunch believer in Jesus’ incarnation, divinity in human skin, my reflections on contemplative living have rarely mentioned the body’s role in spirit-full practices. And the body is important, because it is where we are and partners in all our choices.  If the body is not convinced, well, it’s going to be tough going.  The body can register a complaint quite loudly.

I firmly believe that contemplative living (meaning a prayerful attentiveness to 3-D life and God in the midst of said life) is possible in any circumstance.  It looks different for me than my dear friend with two small children and twinfants.  (I’m constantly in awe of her ability to deeply pay attention and prayerfully reflect in the midst of the physical and mental joys/demands of four children.) Or my former pastor, who shared that set-apart daily times for prayer and being in the Word were the only way he could keep going.

The particular situation, the embodied life, is the only place where the choice for contemplative living can be made–not a pretend “if-only-I-lived-in-a-monastery (or fill in the blank), then-I-could-pay-attention” life.

Sometimes the body needs a gentle (or not so gentle) nudge, sometimes it has a deeper wisdom that needs to be listened to.  The Holy Spirit meets us faithfully where we are at (in our bodies) and helps us to discern when to nudge it in a different direction or when to follow its suggestion. I did pick up my apartment and cook dinner, doing a single-task shuffle while listening to big band holiday music.

I also took a long nap in the midst of it. Resting is a step just as much as work.

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***

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In honor of the body’s (and spirit’s) need for nutritious and yummy food, and my current non-dissertation reading, Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table, I will leave you with the most amazing (and easy) soup recipe, slightly adapted, from her food blog, Orangette:

Red Lentil Soup with Lemon

4 Tbsp. olive oil, plus additional good oil for drizzling
2 large yellow onions, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
2 Tbsp. tomato paste
2 tsp. ground cumin
½ tsp. kosher salt, or more to taste
A few grinds of freshly ground black pepper (optional)
Pinch of cayenne or Aleppo pepper, or more to taste
2 quarts chicken or vegetable broth
2 cups red lentils, picked through for stones and debris
2 large carrots, peeled and diced (optional)
Juice of 1 lemon, or more to taste
1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro (optional)

In a large pot, warm the oil over medium-high heat until hot and shimmering. Add the onions and garlic and cook until golden, about 6 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste, cumin, salt, pepper, and cayenne, and cook for 4 minutes longer. Add the broth, 2 cups water, the lentils, and the carrots. Bring to a simmer, then partially cover the pot and reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Continue to cook until the lentils are soft, about 40 minutes. Taste, and add more salt if necessary. Stir in the lemon juice and cilantro.  (I left out the pepper, carrots, and cilantro.)

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