Lenten Reflection 2014: Sometimes It’s Not That Complicated

“Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.”

I seem to forget that Jesus said that. Quite frequently, in fact. Sometimes all I can hear is the call to follow, to take up my cross and get going, to get out there and bring good news to everybody.

And it’s true that Jesus said these things, but I forget that he also said, in his very last days on Earth, “Abide in me.”

The One who had no place to lay his head told us he would be our place. The One who calls us to take up our cross and follow him said he would make our yoke easy and our burden light.

This Lent, Jesus called me to go back to my first love. To find joy and peace just in being with him, like how good friends can sit together, saying nothing, doing nothing, just enjoying each other’s presence.

During Holy Week, I read Psalm 131, which really brought it all home for me.

My heart is not proud, Lord,
    my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
    or things too wonderful for me.
But I have calmed and quieted myself,
    I am like a weaned child with its mother;
    like a weaned child I am content.

Psalm 131 1-2

God welcomes me when I’m tired, when I feel overwhelmed, when I feel broken. God invites me to bring this to our times together and lay it down, so I can be calm and quiet, like a tiny child leaning on my mother’s shoulder.

Notice that it’s specifically a weaned child. The weaned child is not restless with hunger, fussing and wanting milk. The weaned child can be content just leaning on its mother, enjoying the deeper-than-words bond they share.

I’ve also been reading the book of John a lot lately, the one where Jesus says “I am” a lot. I am the bread of life. I am the light of the world. I am the good shepherd. I am the way, the truth, and the life.

Sometimes these statements don’t sound very humble. But the more I read them, the more I hear Jesus humbly offering to take care of all our needs. “I will feed you, lead you, light up your life. I will take care of you and satisfy your needs in a way no human person can. Just come rest in me.”

I make my faith about so many other things sometimes. I worry about getting to church on time, about reading the Bible “enough,” about doing the right things for the right reasons. And we should care what we do; we should want to grow and change for the better.

But the real insight of this Lent, for me, was that I can’t do any of those good things, not for long, unless I abide in Jesus. Like I can’t do a good day’s work if I haven’t gotten any rest.

I need to listen to that call to rest. When I try to pour myself out for others, I quickly feel like I have only the dregs left. But when I let God fill me first, that’s when my cup spills over.

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Getting Ready to Close the Door Again

Jesus said, “When you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

So it’s felt a little weird to “open the door” on my prayer life here on my blog for the last month. The last thing I wanted to do was say, “Look at me, look how much willpower I have and how awesome I am.” Because I don’t and I’m not and it’s not about me.

But here’s the thing. Some things in life, as worthwhile as they may be, are extremely difficult to do without support. That’s why we have NaNoWriMo and twelve-step groups.

I remember the group that first got me into this Centering Prayer thing. I remember how helpful it was to have Sister Shirley telling me it was normal to find it both simple and hard. And I remember how encouraging it was to go around the circle every week and hear everyone tell their stories, good and bad.

Like falling asleep while praying in the bath and waking up to ice cold water.

Or having to learn to gently ignore painful old memories that surfaced during prayer.

Or, miraculously, a new awareness that life is not an emergency, that breathing is still possible in times of great stress.

I hope this month of my sharing prayer has blessed you in the same way. I hope it’s helped in some small way to have one more presence out there, struggling and encouraging.

And I thank you for keeping me accountable this month. I hope when I close the door, I’ll have even more motivation to pray behind it.

Today’s 15 minutes of prayer: In the conference room. Learning, slowly, to watch my thoughts go by like clouds…

I’m spending this month blogging with other Faith and Inspiration writers at The Nester’s 31 Days challenge. Here’s the complete list of my posts for the month so far.

When I Don’t Know How to Pray

Today is one of those days that leave me wondering if I woke up in a strange mirror universe where no one speaks my language.

I hate those days.

I love communicating things to others, helping them understand. It’s why I love teaching and writing. In college, my teachers didn’t praise my papers for being brilliantly original – and in creative writing, I’m far from a master wordsmith – but gosh darn it, people have told me hundreds of times that my writing is clear.

Apparently that’s pretty important to me, because on days like today, when I feel like no one gets what I’m saying, I get disheartened really fast.

Customers. Coworkers. Church members. Loved ones. I’ve had misunderstandings with them all today, it seems. And since I’m wired to seek understanding, I wonder, Since my words don’t work today… what do I do?

Honestly, I don’t even know how to pray today. I can’t articulate my problems. I don’t even know what to ask for.

So on a day like today, silent prayer is a real blessing.

Because it’s easy to forget I don’t need to use words. God knows what I need before I ask. The Holy Spirit intercedes for me, prays for me when I don’t know what to say.

I can relax. I can know for the first time today that there’s no danger I won’t express myself well, that I won’t be understood.

I can simply be still and know God is there.

Today’s 15 minutes of prayer: Afternoon break, in the conference room where I’d tried so hard to articulate myself (and seemingly failed miserably) less than an hour before. How wonderful to embrace the restfulness of silence in that very same space.

I’m spending this month blogging with other Faith and Inspiration writers at The Nester’s 31 Days challenge. Here’s the complete list of my posts for the month so far.

The Real Secret About Prayer

I’m starting to learn something important, I think. I’m starting to see what Jesus meant when he said, “Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.”

There is so much I can’t hear in the noise of the everyday. Advertisements. Work chatter. My own thoughts.

I miss the small, still voice saying the obvious: that the world and everything in it is God’s.

That by praying, I’m not inviting God into my life; I’m just waking up to the fact that I’ve been surrounded by God’s abundant life all along.

That love is the most important commandment. That mercy triumphs over judgment.

That the world is flooded with grace. Inexhaustible, dynamic grace. Yes, even for this very moment.

Of course, Jesus gave us words to use in prayer too. But there’s something about praying in silence. I think it has a lot to teach me.

Today’s 15 minutes of prayer: Spent almost entirely with a purring cat on my lap. Does it get any better than that?

I’m spending this month blogging with other Faith and Inspiration writers at The Nester’s 31 Days challenge. Here’s the complete list of my posts for the month so far.

Prayer and Healing

I’ve talked before about the fact that I sometimes feel like desiring healing is selfish. Since Centering Prayer is primarily a way of healing my spirit, it brings up those feelings again. How can I sit alone with my eyes closed when there are dishes to be done, loved ones whom I owe a call, causes that need my energy, all kinds of obligations to be met?

It’s good to take a moment to step back and examine what my prayer practice is supposed to accomplish.

Just because it’s an activity I do alone, does that mean it’s just for me? Is the primary reason I desire the healing of prayer to alleviate my own suffering, feel better about my spiritual life, fight off guilt, check it off my to do list?

Prayer does heal my spirit. But prayer is not something I do truly alone. Prayer is something that brings me into communion with God. Through the practice of silence, I am emptying myself so God can fill me, and that is what heals me.

The effects of prayer don’t stop with me, either. The more I’ve allowed God to heal me and heal our relationship, the more God can affect whatever I do – even those mundane things like dishes or emails. The quality of everything I do can change. I can give of myself more fully. I can love more easily. I can sympathize with others more readily.

When I think about it this way, prayer is not a waste of time. Prayer can help me spend all my time more wisely. Prayer is time set aside to love God authentically, with more and more of my heart, soul, mind, and strength. And when I do this, love of neighbor follows.

There is no commandment greater than these.

Today’s 15 minutes of prayer: Cross-legged on the bed as the last one awake in a sleeping household. So much activity in my day today – all good things, but made even better with a moment to rest in gratitude.

I’m spending this month blogging with other Faith and Inspiration writers at The Nester’s 31 Days challenge. Here’s the complete list of my posts for the month so far.

Thoughts on Prayer and Time

First off, for the purposes of my prayer practice and blogging, I don’t count a day as ending until I go to sleep. So even though I’m writing this at one-thirty in the morning, I’m still on track. So there!

I also wanted to share some thoughts on the fact that my daily prayer minimum for this challenge is fifteen minutes. In the official school of Centering Prayer, the recommendation is to spend at least twenty minutes to half an hour in prayer at a time. Sister Shirley, who first taught me about Centering prayer, referred to one twenty to thirty-minute prayer session as “the maintenance dose.” If you want to experience real spiritual healing, she said, you should aim for a consistent practice of twenty to thirty minutes twice a day.

Now, I don’t think there’s anything particularly magical about the numbers here. However, in my experience, it is true that the longer you spend in meditation or prayer, the easier it usually becomes (not always, but usually). Time is needed for your brain to truly shed the worries and thought loops it’s accumulated throughout the day. The longer you spend in silence, the more accustomed you become to the silence, and the more open you become to the Presence in the silence.

That being said, if I have to choose between praying for the perfect amount of time or not praying at all, I know what I should pick. Fifteen minutes is a good length of time for me because that’s how long my breaks at work are, so on really hectic days, that’s one of the few blocks of time I know I’ll have free. God knows our limitations and our weaknesses and can do more with them than we can possibly imagine. It’s always better to take one step in the right direction than shrink back for fear of not being able to go far enough.

I pray all the time for God to help me love prayer more and more. Hopefully, there will come a day when prayer will actually crowd out my other activities. For now, I am taking baby steps because I need to discipline myself into having a practice that lasts for any length of time. I need to just practice showing up and knowing that God was already there all along.

Today’s 15 minutes of prayer: At work again. Things are kind of deserted on Saturday so privacy was easy. My own thoughts crowded the whole room, though. But evaluation isn’t useful, is it? This is not about whether I feel super spiritually effective and holy. This is a tiny exercise in faithfulness, and ultimately, grace.

I’m spending this month blogging with other Faith and Inspiration writers at The Nester’s 31 Days challenge. Here’s the complete list of my posts for the month so far.

Step Four: Concluding with Silence

This is the final post in a four-part series on the four steps of Centering Prayer.

I was surprised to find the fourth step when I was rereading that card. It seemed to me not that important to spend a few moments in silence after my prayer period is up. In fact, when my official time is over I often stop immediately and get back to whatever I was doing before.

But when I don’t – when I do spend a few moments in silence between Centering Prayer and the rest of my life – what happens then?

What does the silence make space for?

Well, it allows for a smoother transition between contemplative and active sides of life. It allows me time to think about how beautiful this state of stillness can be.

But more than that, for me, it makes space for gratitude. I find myself saying to the Divine, with words or without, Thank you for that time together.

Sometimes the time budget only allows a few minutes for prayer. And those few are better than none. But when I can add a little more to the beginning and end of my prayer, allowing another few moments before and after, that’s what moves into the space. I pray in gratitude, and I pray for God to increase my desire to pray, to show me how beautiful it is, worthy of way more than just fifteen minutes. I pray to learn how to pray continually.

So not skipping this step becomes a way of reminding myself why I’m doing this anyway, and requesting the grace to keep on doing it.

Today’s 15 minutes of prayer: Spent in my bathroom, kneeling on the fuzzy orange mat. How undignified. And the house wasn’t silent and my prayer wasn’t perfect, but I did it, and it helped me breathe better through a nervewracking situation immediately afterward. Perfection is not the goal. Faithfulness is the goal. And faithfulness does lead to fruitfulness. Just a reminder to myself for the inevitable days when that seems less than obvious.

I’m spending this month blogging with other Faith and Inspiration writers at The Nester’s 31 Days challenge. Here’s the complete list of my posts for the month so far.

To Do: Nothing

banksy - peaceful hearts doctor - 4

(Photo credit: Eva Blue)

There’s a wrong way to do everything. I know this from experience. The other night I was doing the dishes in preparation for welcoming a guest into our tiny, humble home. I was feeling moody for reasons I can’t even remember now, and I did those dishes in the most sullen, hateful way ever. The kitchen was spotless, and my soul was filthy.

I could almost hear Jesus say from the kitchen doorway, “Can I call you Martha?”

I remember the day I read that passage in 1 Corinthians about how there is no message too beautiful, no achievement too grand, no faith too pure, no deed too noble to be rendered utterly worthless by lack of love and I thought to myself: Wow, am I in big trouble. I can’t make myself loving. I’ve tried. Where am I supposed to get this love without which my life is nothing?

I realized the answer later while reading another book: God is love. That’s where you get it: by hanging out with God. You sit at his feet and listen long enough and it seeps into you, sneaky as yeast spreading through dough.

Next problem: how can I, so easily distracted and seduced away from connecting with the people right in front of me, devote my entire heart and soul and mind and strength to an invisible God?

Once again, the answer is there: go in your room and shut the door. Hoard away a tiny slice of silence in your day, an island of peace in the middle of all the meaningless bustle. Put that phone down. You can do it. Forget all the other things on your list and do the only thing that really needs doing.

Nothing. Nothing but soaking up love. Nothing but learning to love again.

So if you’ll excuse me, I need to sit here for awhile with my eyes closed, being super unproductive. Please try not to disturb me. It’s very important.

Silence Is So Accurate: Knowing God

No. 61 (Rust and Blue), 1953, 115 cm × 92 cm (...

No. 61 (Rust and Blue), Mark Rothko (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“When the religious views of others interpose between us and the primary experience of Jesus as the Christ, we become unconvicted and unpersuasive travel agents handing out brochures to places we have never visited.” Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up, and Burnt Out

I struggle with all these words. How can I write about Someone who defies definition, whose best description is the mysterious “I AM WHO I AM”? What does that moniker point to if not mystery? How do I know if I see clearly in the glass or just what I’ve been taught to see?

I have an analytical mind, addicted to judgment and classification. I see a created thing, a part of nature or art, and I ask myself, “What does this mean? What is it for? What does it offer, and should I accept or reject? Is it good, bad, or best? Do I even have time for all this?”

This holding at arms length and squinting is bad enough for created things, much less Creator. God calls me to something different: a relationship. A place beyond judgment or comparison where I can simply be who I am and God can be who God is. The call is always so close, but so quiet that I can often only hear it in silence.

Some rare creations can slip through the defenses of my mind, evade all lines of questioning. All in a flash, I see them as they are, or as close as my clouded eyes can see. They speak to me like a dream, wake me up and make me see the world primal, tender, untaught and open. To me, this is what makes great art.

The late works of Mark Rothko are this for me. When they were on exhibit in my city, I would go visit them almost weekly, just to sit with them like friends, to linger my gaze on beloved details like with a loved one fast asleep. Reproductions can’t do justice to their life-sized worlds of subtle color and delicate, reverent brushstrokes, seeming smudged and uneven, but nonetheless right. Wandering from one painting to another, this one sunrise-colored, another one big green-blue shadow, I couldn’t help thinking the artist looked at these paintings with wordless, unmixed love. Some might dismiss his creations as unworthy of a second glance. He saw each one different, perfect, complete.

And as I looked, God whispered, “This is how I see you.”

This writing about God stuff is impossible. And yet, for you, I want to try. Anyway, God gave me this mind, this quixotic desire to describe. But I need to remember this always: The Good News is not the newspaper. It is the ultimate work of art, unwrapping my logic to ravish my heart.

As Rothko said when asked for an artist’s statement, “Silence is so accurate.”

Silence… Or Not

praying trappist monk

praying trappist monk (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 Silence is always elusive in the city. I perch on my studio apartment’s loveseat with closed eyes and I hear the hum of appliances and the whisper of traffic outside like waves on the shore. I duck into a deserted conference room at the office and hear my coworkers’ voices, people opening and closing the main door. A friend and I try to find a place to pray after dinner together downtown, but end up sitting on some concrete steps and hoping the passers-by stay tuned into their phones or their ipods, too distracted by their own sounds to disturb us.

It’s not easy at the best of times, sitting there and trying to listen for the still, small voice. Even when there’s no barrage of noise from outside, there’s my own consciousness blathering away, fickle and distracted by every little thing, and my body putting in requests every two seconds: chocolate, a new position in the chair, a sweater, chocolate again. Sometimes it makes me just sick of myself.

I once heard a Buddhist practitioner of meditation cheerfully say, “Don’t worry, after awhile it will feel less like having your eyeballs shaved.” I was happy to know someone else could relate. Sometimes when I get back on the meditation wagon it feels like I’m coming off some drug instead, my mind just going everywhere and my entire body developing an itch. In a way, I am having withdrawal, from the world of words and left-brained thinking and frantically constructed reasonable explanations of a subtle, constantly shifting reality.

The tradition of silence that I practice (sporadically, whenever I can find a quiet corner and can muster up the self-discipline) is called Centering Prayer. It originated as a discipline very early in Christianity, first outlined in print by the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing (a book rich both in wisdom and wit, highly recommended). I was taught the tradition as interpreted by the modern-day Trappist monk Thomas Keating, and the three easy(!) steps are these:

1. Sit down comfortably, close your eyes, and relax as best you can.

2. Pick a word, ideally something nice and short, that will help direct your thoughts to the Divine Presence.

3. Sit in silence until you notice yourself sneakily breaking your interior silence with some kind of hope or fear or regret or craving or random thought. Return your consciousness to the word you chose as a reminder of what you’re doing here, then start over with your silence as needed.

I like this method because, first of all, I’m a verbal person, so having a word to center me helps. Other people may find it more useful to bring their attention back to their breathing, or simply to let their thoughts dissolve when they become conscious of them, maybe picturing them drifting away like clouds or smoke. Second of all, it’s easy to practice anywhere. You don’t need a special mat or a guided meditation CD. I find it helpful to set a timer for some small amount of time, like 20 minutes, to help me to relax (I think I fear otherwise I’ll fall asleep indefinitely), but that’s all the equipment I need. And finally, it assumes you are going to screw up, that you won’t sit there in perfect tranquility for however long. Your mind is going to try to get away with stuff, and that is fine. You just guide it back with great patience, like it’s a really cute puppy trying to learn to stay but distracted by every new smell, and you calmly start over.

This Lent, my church is having weekly prayer meetings that are in total silence for an hour. Now, you Quakers and Buddhists out there are snickering, but for me, sitting in silence for an hour is a really big deal. Especially in our church, which is pretty old and sometimes quite cold and sometimes warmed up by a radiator that makes a lot of bumps and bangs and possessing a high ceiling that amplifies the sound when someone coughs. Also I might have the slightest problem with an overactive brain, as you may or may not have noticed.

But as I learn to be patient with my mind, to wait calmly for it to come back from its distractions, I know that God is waiting for me in the same way, but with much more inherent patience. Even if the silence within is but a split second, God will find a way to inhabit it. Even I, with the handicap of my overactive brain, have found God there. I just love that about God, omnipresent but still so humble, ever present and available but waiting for me to notice, to choose to listen, even past the sounds, for the silence.