Thursday, February 25, 2010

Contemplative Prayer...again!

Stop the Snow Machine!
It is a beautiful morning here in the Smokey Mountains! The sun is shining and the sky is blue. The online weather says it is snowing in Sparta, NC and I will check that out later when I drive down into town to errands. It's seven miles into Sparta but all downhill and not unusual to find the weather different at the bottom of the hill!
I was so fidgety this morning when I sat down to pray. My mind was jumping all over the place and I could not be still. I wondered if it was alright to scratch my eye or change my position; and then, of course, I got carried away with these thoughts. I realized that I was observing myself praying and got distracted by that. I found it helpful to remember some words from Into the Silence by Martin Laird:
"We cannot reduce prayer to a technique... Contemplative prayer is a skill, a discipline that facilitates a process that is out of one's direct control, but it does not have the capacity to determine an outcome...Contemplation is a sheer gift. There is nothing we can do to bring forth its flowering, but there are important skills, without which it will be unlikely to flower."
I have not idea how long it took me to settle into a rhythm of silence because the gift of being away for rest means that I don't have to watch the clock or set a timer...I can just be in the silence. And so it was a "sheer gift" to be able to become still finally and let myself be a part of the stream of God's love. That's what it felt like for me on this cold, windy morning. I was somehow one with a river of Love that eventually wound through the cares and concerns of our lives. In Laird's book he quotes Teresa of Avila, "Beloved, there is much we can do to open ourselves to receiving his favors." God is always Self-giving; it is a question of removing the obstacles that make it difficult to receive this Self-gift. This receptivity is what contemplative practice cultivates."
I am grateful for this time of cultivation in the silence of my friends, these mountains. When I was a child living among these oldest of mountains, I called them my "purple hooded priests." That's how they looked to my 11 year old imagination in the evening light. I doubt I fully understood the concept of priest then, except I knew from somewhere that priests listened to confessions and I wanted that "listening presence." And I had it in the gift of these graceful peaks.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Lingering Winter

Icicle Outside Church Office
I love the icicle pictured above - it looks like a bird in flight. Yesterday I drove to Sparta, NC for a week of rest and quiet. Katie (my intrepid golden retriever) and I got to the house around 5:30pm after 10 hours on the road. It's not a difficult trip but long. When we got into Virginia from Tennessee it became a snowy landscape. By the time we got to Galax, VA it was obvious they had been hit by the same storm that covered the east coast. I think their snow began in December and they haven't seen the ground since!
I took the Blue Ridge Parkway from Galax to Glade Valley where the house is. There was still a good bit of ice and snow on the road and evidence of lots of fallen trees which someone had cleared. That part of the Parkway is used quite a bit for local traffic. There were deer everywhere! I was so grateful it was still daylight so I could see them. The deer here are gray colored instead of the brown beauties in Indiana. We got into the house to find a foot of snow still remaining on the ground. Katie and I spent the night without heat due to a furnace problem. Wonderful folks from the company I use came out to help and make the diagnosis. We were fine - Katie generates enough heat for a small country! And today everything is fixed and the driveway cleared. I did see a fun sign on a church in Galax - "GOD LOVES YOU SNOW MUCH!" Clever. I drove down to Elkin, NC today for a few things. It's 23 miles and when I started back it was 56 degrees in Elkin and 41 degrees at the house. Amazing what a couple of thousand feet in elevation can do!
The silence here is so wonderful. It is a wonderful place for prayer. I am amazed still at how time seems to stand still in the silence of meditation. I have been working my way towards 30 minutes of meditation each day. Twenty minutes is the most I have been able to do so far. I don't really think about the time but try to let myself end where it feels comfortable - sometimes that is 10 minutes, sometimes more or less. I keep reminding myself that this is not a contest, not a race, it is about being with God, being silent and listening. I do know that when I end my time I feel like the world is bathed in quiet. I want to whisper so as not to disturb. Wonderful!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Two Books for Lent

Forty Days to a Closer Walk with God: The Practice of Centering Prayer
by J. David Muyskens

Into a Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation
by Martin Laird

The book by Laird pictured above was sent to me recently by a friend. Many books on contemplative prayer are difficult to read and hard to follow. This book, which I am halfway through, makes contemplative prayer accessible. It is an encouraging book which gives clear direction to those of us who want to find that place of silence where we know God's presence. Martin Laird, who is a professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University, talks about God being our "homeland" (from St. Augustine's The City of God: "We must fly to our beloved homeland"). That is just one of the evocative images that Laird uses in describing the practice of contemplative prayer. In the opening chapter, Laird talks about our desire to see the mountaintop experiences with God. Discovering God in the silence of contemplative prayer is more about becoming part of the mountain. Finding stillness is about allowing the patterns of life's weather swirl around us. We are part of that which cannot be moved. Laird points to Psalm 123:7 "Whoever trusts in the Lord is like Mount Zion: Unshakable it stands forever."

Over the past couple of weeks I have been setting aside time each day to practice this contemplation. I am still in a very beginning place with contemplation, but the encouragement and help I am receiving from this book is wonderful. A couple of times (okay, more than a couple!) I have gone to sleep after about 10 minutes of prayer. I tried to avoid feeling guilty about this and realized that the profound relaxation of this kind of prayer is something I am not used to. So, gradually I am getting more aware of that place of relaxation and how I can enjoy its comfort without falling asleep.

The other book I am going to use is the one at the top of the page which has 40 small chapters (1 to 2 pages) - one for each of the weekdays in Lent. I am longing to let this Lent be a time of finding God in stillness and quiet. I am sure in my heart and mind there are other motives for this discipline - like, it will make me a better priest, or it will somehow make me more quiet of heart and mind - but my conscious desire is to draw close to God and find a place where I can find shelter from the weather of life. I hope to write more over the days of Lent about what I am learning about contemplative prayer in my life.

On a more mundane (should I say, earthly?) plane, we had about 6 inches of snow last night. The wind was quite high with it and so I now have some places in my backyard (on the north side of the house) where snow is a good 18 inches high. I have shoveled out a path down to the lower part of the yard this afternoon. Katie was with me and at one point I looked around and she was just lying in the snow watching me. She has always loved to be "cool." I have a picture of her lying on a mound of ice where someone emptied a cooler when we lived in Fayetteville, NC...but that was in July! Anyway we got the job done and fed the birds while we were out. A good snow day here in Indiana!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Valentines and Ashes

Shadow of Cross on Iona
This is the last Sunday of Epiphany. Lent begins this week with Ash Wednesday and tomorrow is Valentine's Day. And...if those are not enough images we have the Transfiguration of Jesus as the gospel lesson tomorrow! It is a feast of images! And the choice is not just of images to fill our minds. We also have to decide what we will DO for Lent. Will we "give up" our favorite thing to feel some sense of sacrifice? Or shall we "take on" a new discipline to strengthen our spiritual life?
Peter and James and John went with Jesus up onto the mountain. It's possible that they thought this would be a time for rest, or a chance for intimate conversation with Jesus - perhaps he would reveal his deepest secrets to them. Revelation does occur on the mountain. Jesus is revealed as the fulfillment of both the law (through Moses) and the prophets (through Elijah); and he is revealed as God's Son. "Listen to him!" says God, for he is the Chosen One.
Can it really be that simple? Does it all come down to that one act of listening? Perhaps there is nothing so important in our lives as listening. How many arguments; how much pain has been wrought because we did not listen? How many opportunities have we missed by not hearing? Oh, if we could only go back and listen, really listen to our parents, spouses, friends, doctors, and co-workers. So maybe, just maybe, our Lenten discipline should be to listen. To stop all the furtive activity of life and spend time listening. We could begin each day just sitting in silence listening for God's heart beating in ours and for God's love echoing through the creation. We could continue during the day by stilling the replys and lists we are forming in our minds as others talk and instead...just listen. What would we hear...?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Mid week thoughts

New Harmony must be on the "flight path" for the geese as they navigate between summer and winter homes. The past few weeks they have been on the move north. The sky is thick with them as they come overhead to follow the Wabash north along the Indiana / Illinois line. This winter I feel like they are a tad on the early side. We have had one snow storm after another with temperatures in the teens. But there they are winging their way north into even colder temperatures and frozen lakes. They are quite noisy as hundreds of them fly together. We get to see them a lot in the early morning when we are out mushing around in the snowy backyard.

A friend sent me a news report from the Church of England Synod today saying that the conservative priests in the C of E are threatening a mass exodus to Rome if the Synod approves a resolution to allow women priests in England to become bishops. I have several feelings about this. It seems to me that they are holding the C of E hostage to get their way in a matter that was really decided when they chose to ordain women priests. If a woman priest is gifted and called to the episcopate is it impossible that it can be God's call? I know that those priests who are making this demand base it on scripture's witness of a male dominated church and some of Paul's statements about women. I hope that we have come further in both our understanding of Middle Eastern culture and the interpretation of scripture than this. When I was in Rome last year we went to the Catacombs of Pricillia just outside of Rome. We went there because one of the paintings on the wall (which date from the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE) is of a woman in the "orans" posture. This is the posture one assumes when celebrating Eucharist - arms outstretched. It is thought to be an early picture of a woman presbyter. So, I think Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury should tell the men who are threatening to leave that he will not negotiate on this matter. I know that Pope Benedict will joyfully receive those priests...and their wives!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Epiphany V

Fishing with Jesus

Jesus tells the disciples who have fished all night and caught nothing, to put their nets out into the deep water. (Luke 5:1-11) I don't like deep water. Oh, I don't mind it in the swimming pool where you can see the bottom. I can swim and when I get tired I can float. What I don't like about the deep water of a lake or the ocean is that you can't always see what's out there with you. What if there are undesirable creatures lurking out there in the deep. It's so hard to know when you cast out your net into the deep exactly what you will get back!

It's the fear we all face when we find out that God wants us to fish for people. What about all those unusual fish out there in the deep waters of life? What if we catch one of those in our net? What do we do then? It's enough to make you stop fishing, which is what most of us have done. Church attendance is down and we blame it on the secularization of our society. The main reason we don't have more people in church is that we have quit fishing. When was the last time you or I invited someone to church - one of those folks in the deep water of life? Fishing is not easy work - ask anyone who fishes. It takes time and hard work.

Jesus got my attention with this bit of fishing advice. Perhaps I can overcome my fear of deep waters...

Monday, February 1, 2010

Lost Things

Stone Spiral

Some times I feel like I am walking in circles. I spend so much time looking for lost things and I retrace my steps over and over looking for the thing I have misplaced or lost. The real frustration of all this activity is that I usually find the thing I'm so desperately searching for when I least expect it (and, sigh...not when I need it). I am perplexed by several things which I have lost lately. One very important item I have lost recently is the cord that transfers pictures from my camera to the computer. I have searched for it everywhere I can think of and I suspect I have thrown it into the trash by mistake. I wish I could just remember when I last saw it, but alas, I am growing older and ...

The awareness of "creeping senility" is supplemented by another lost item - my double pointed knitting needles. I picked them up recently (last week) to move them - I remember having them in my hand, but you guessed it, I can't remember where I put them! I have looked in and under all the usual places but cannot find them. I wonder if the "prodigal" needles will come home or should I make a trip to the store to replace them. I think of the parables that Jesus told about "lost" things: the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son (Luke 15). My angst over mundane things like a camera cord and knitting needles is less than noteworthy compared to God's grief when we become lost from God. We wander, we stray, we go to "foreign" countries; and then in those grace - filled moments of revelation we see how far we are from home. It is in those moments that we, like the prodigal son, run toward God. It always startles me to find God running in my direction to meet me.

I remember studying the parable of the "Lost Son" and realizing that for the father to run to the son who returned, he had to lift his robe. Showing one's legs in that culture was an embarrassment. But the father was so longing for the son's return that this embarrassment was nothing to him. In the same way God gives up every thing to pursue us. I am grateful...

Well, I am now on to the big event of today - trying to catch Pumpkin to put her in her carrier for a trip to the vet. It's her yearly physical and usually results in a lot of drama. But what are Mondays for...?

Pumpkin - in one of her "better" moments!