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Walter

choir loft in Florence Cathedral

Improvising on Taize – Humming

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Last week, Rachael refreshed our memories about Taize and their emphasis on singing chants together. She shared this quote:

“At Taizé,” wrote Olivier Clement, “people from different and sometimes opposing denominations, cultures, races, and languages pray and work together. Yes, it is really possible; Christ destroys every separating wall.” Regarding the attraction of the young, Olivier Clement explained the “Taizé phenomenon”, saying: “Young people today are tired of talk and tired of scoffing: they want authenticity. It is no use talking to them about communion if we cannot show them a place where communion is being worked out – ‘come and see.’ At such a place people are welcomed as they are without being judged; no one is asked for their doctrinal passport; but nevertheless no secret is made of the fact that everyone is gathered around Christ, and that with him – ‘I am the way’, he said – a way forward begins for those who want it.” (p. 12)

– From a message from Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, to the community in 2010, on the 5thanniversary of Brother Roger’s death.

This week we sang some Taize chants again. This time we talked about the bodily value of singing, of letting our vocal chords vibrate along with the music of others – a harmonious consent.

We talked about Cynthia Bourgeault’s reminder of three key facets that are brought together through singing or chanting: 1) Breathing, 2) Vibrations, and 3) Intentionality. When monks chant the Psalms or young people gather to sing Taize verses, these three come together and facilitate contemplation. I shared the story of the “monks” (i.e. actors) in Of Gods and Men who bonded as they never had before on set because of the hours they spent chanting together during filming and rehearsals. And a second story was told about monks who, when ordered by their superior to stop chanting in their monastery became sick until they were encouraged to sing again.

Other traditions have similarly placed an emphasis on the contemplative potency of entering into sound. Hindus, for example, chant “Om” as the “word of God.” And scientists have confirmed the biological value of such chanting and humming, possibly because the vagus nerve passes through the vocal cords and helps to create a relaxation response.

So we hummed and chanted along with Taize songs like this one.

Try humming along!

hand holding stone at Montserrat

Focusing Prayer – Improvising on Welcoming Prayer

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In previous weeks, we explored “welcoming prayer” in depth, including the way in which it can deepen our attention on what is happening in our bodies and senses. This week, Rachael introduced us to “focusing prayer,” which gives a similar attention on one’s senses.

Focusing prayer is a practice that learned from Eugene Gendlin’s research on the importance of “focusing” attention and respect on what is happening in the body of therapy clients during sessions. His research noted that therapeutic gains were more significant and persistent when clients noticed a “felt shift” in their bodies.

Catholic priests and psychologists,  Peter Campbell and Edwin McMahon, adapted some of these ideas and integrated this focus on the “wisdom of the body” with Ignatian prayer. Connecting imaginatively with the felt sense in the body, those praying in this way would deepen their awareness and acceptance of what their body was aware of before their analytic minds could grasp it. The result is a blend of something like the Examen with a body-oriented welcoming prayer.

Check out this handout for the steps of the process:

Download (PDF, 172KB)

Deepening in Welcoming Prayer

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This term we are looking to deepen our understanding and practice of some of the primary types of contemplative exercises. As we do so, we looking for the ancient roots to these rhythms and some of the contemporary improvisations that help them to be more accessible and relevant.

In the first weeks, we have been looking further into “Welcoming Prayer.” This is practice that was developed by Mary Mrozowski and others at Contemplative Outreach. You can look more into its history and purpose here.

One of the reasons for this prayer is to help people to re-connect with the kind of “consent to loving presence” that is a part of Centering Prayer. But we don’t always have the time and the focus to engage with the silence of Centering Prayer. Sometimes we are carrying stress or emotional reactions to a diversity of experiences that make stillness very challenging. Welcoming Prayer is a way use our emotional upset and accompanying bodily sensations as an opportunity to practice softening and accepting. It has much in common with a variety of mindfulness techniques.

One of Mary Mrozowski’s inspirations for the practice came from the eighteenth century classic, Abandonment to Divine Providence by Jean-Pierre de Caussade. This contemplative invitation to surrender (think, “Not my will but yours be done”) challenges the reader to be active in the circumstances of their life, but to relax into the part that is simply up to God.

In recent years, Cynthia Bourgeault has written profoundly on the effectiveness of this practice being heightened if we remember to focus on “sensation” and not on “attitude.” The work is done in the body and not in the intellect. Focusing on and accepting the bodily sensations that accompany our emotional state, we stop “bracing and resisting”; instead, we allow our body to sink into the sensations and to yield. As we soften, we allow more space for our true heart’s response, a creative response with integrity, to eventually replace the reactivity and the ego-defending stories that we tell ourselves.

You can see practical details on welcoming prayer if you scroll down through the posts. And here is the chapter by Bourgeault that explains the focus on sensation: 

Download (PDF, 2.87MB)

singing in the Munich campground - Europe 2010

Week Eleven – Taizé Singing

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This week we spent around twenty minutes singing five Taizé songs together – three in Latin and two in English.

For many people the name “Taizé” simply evokes a certain style of meditative singing, though some are aware that Taizé is in fact an ecumenical monastic community in France, from which singing originated.

The Taizé Community is an ecumenical monastic order in the small village of Taizé, in Burgundy, eastern France. It is composed of more than one hundred brothers, from Protestant and Catholic traditions, who originate from about thirty countries across the world. The community was founded in 1940 by Brother Roger Schutz, a Swiss Protestant, to help people going through the ordeal of the Second World War. The small village of Taizé, where he settled, was quite close to the demarcation line dividing France in two and was well situated for sheltering refugees fleeing the war, including Jews. Over the years, the Taizé Community has become one of the world’s most important sites of Christian pilgrimage. Over 100,000 young people from around the world make pilgrimages to Taizé each year for prayer, Bible study, sharing, and communal work. Through the community’s ecumenical outlook, they are encouraged to live in the spirit of kindness, simplicity and reconciliation.

The SSU Europe trip of 2014 visited Taizé for a couple of nights, as did the walking pilgrimage group led by Joel Mason and Katie Gorrie in 2013, and these SSU visitors enjoyed participating in the common prayer meetings, which happen three times a day and consist mostly of singing. The songs are short and simple – often based on Scripture, and written in Latin or a variety of other languages – and are repeated many times so as to become meditative. This creates a contemplative space, allows the meaning of the words to sink more deeply into the singers, and also leads to a beautiful experience of human voices uniting together in song across languages, nationalities and faith traditions – an icon of the beauty of God in our diversity and unity.

Here is a link to one of the songs we sang. (The picture in the video shows the large meeting room at Taizé, with the brothers dressed in white at the front.)

street art in Colombia - Esperanza (Hope)

Week Ten – Contemplation and Activism

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This week Walter shared some of the characteristics that he has seen as characteristic of those writers and activists who have based their service or their activism on a contemplative foundation:

  1. The foundation of the active vocation is in our awareness of the presence of God in our lives – and the invitation to flow outward and join in that love.
  2. Empathic and Compassionate discernment that includes love toward all – the oppressed and the oppressors. The work must grow out of compassion and empathy and not out of intellectual analysis alone – otherwise it tends to reek of self-righteousness.
  3. Regular rhythm of lament – solidarity & co-suffering. Activism can’t be chosen as an avoidance of lament or it will be an act of denial.
  4. Persistent, non-violent and hopeful action that is not tied to results. It envisions a new, just shalom but does not require the reward of success. (But ineffective results are considered in discernment)
  5. The unity and inter-connectedness of all activism and service. Peacework, care for the poor, care for Creation, relational healing etc. are all one work.

What is the relation of [contemplation] to action? Simply this. He who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity, and capacity to love, will not have anything to give others. He will communicate to them nothing but the contagion of his own obsessions, his aggressiveness, his ego-centered ambitions, his delusions about ends and means, his doctrinaire prejudices and ideas. There is nothing more tragic in the modern world than the misuse of power and action. —Thomas Merton

This was followed by an introduction to “Welcoming Prayer”:

Instructions

When you have an overly emotional experience in daily life, take a moment to be still and silent and follow these steps.

  1. Focus, feel and sink into the feelings, emotions, thoughts, sensations and commentaries in your body.
  2. Welcome God in the feelings, emotions, thoughts, commentaries or sensations in your body by saying, “Welcome.”
  3. Let go by repeating the following sentences:
  • “I let go of the desire for security, affection, control.”
  • “I let go of the desire to change this feeling/sensation.”
reading while camping

Week Nine – Journaling

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Rachael shared a lifelong contemplative practice that has meant a great deal to her. In her introduction, she explained how it has felt so free and so much a gift to herself, that she did not see it as prayer. But in preparing her chat, she realised that her practice could very much be seen as a prayer – even though thoughts were often not expressed directly toward God. She prepared this handout to summarize her thoughts:

Download (PDF, 188KB)

contemplative reading by a hermitage in Perugia

Week Eight – Spiritual Reading

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Walter shared a form of contemplative reading that is somewhat related to lectio divina but a little closer to regular reading or study. This involves the unhurried reading of inspiring material that draws the reader into a place of receptivity and contemplative wonder. Here are some of the steps that were shared:

  1. Find something worthwhile to read that “awakens heart and mind” for you.
  2. If the author seems worthy, commit yourself to trying out the author’s way of thinking (like being an empathic listener). Don’t read resistantly. Open yourself. Wonder. Give your whole attention to what you are reading.
  3. Read contemplatively and “spaciously” – notice what is happening in that meeting place between your spirit and God’s spirit as you read. It is hard to read spaciously if you are hurried or read in a utilitarian way.
  4. If anything does “light up” as you read, then let your mind roam around in what is opening up for you. Don’t rush to get back to the book. For me, this kind of mind-wandering related to what a book is opening up to me is one of the deepest forms of prayer. (It leads to pondering questions like: What changes if this is true? How might this change how I think? Feel? Act? What part of me is resisting and why? God, what are you thinking? How does this make sense of other things?)
  5. If the ideas are worth it – be changed, and if possible do something right away to help it last – tell someone, write your new thoughts down, do something different, re-read the chapter that brought a response from you, write a quote on a FB post, etc.

Week Seven – Liturgy (in particular: when words become acts)

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This week we took a look at one particular aspect of liturgy – taking the words of a blessing prayer so seriously that praying it feels like an action, a vow. This is seen in the older versions of  St. Patrick’s Breastplate: “I bind unto myself today…”

So we looked at loricas and caims – two Celtic blessing prayers. A lorica is a “breastplate,” a protective blessing in which we devote ourselves to being surrounded by the spirit of Christ. A favourite version of this is the Northumbria community’s version of St. Patrick’s Breastplate:

Christ, as a light
Illumine and guide me.
Christ, as a shield
overshadow me.
Christ under me;
Christ over me;
Christ beside me
on my left and my right.
This day be within and without me,
lowly and meek, yet all-powerful.
Be in the heart of each to whom I speak;
in the mouth of each who speaks unto me.
This day be within and without me,
lowly and meek, yet all-powerful.
Christ as a light;
Christ as a shield;
Christ beside me
on my left and my right.

 

reflective face - detail of sculpture by Paul Day

Week Six – Reflection (the Examen)

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This week, Lorna shared the Ignatian practice of the Examen with us. She said:

The Examen is a way of reflecting on the events of our lives, to become more deeply aware of God’s love and participation in those events so that we can become freer to respond to this love.  It helps to begin with gratitude, and so we took some time to remember some of the ways we have most often, or most clearly experienced the love of God.

And here are the specific, practical suggestions for using the Examen:

A WAY OF BEING ATTENTIVE TO GOD IN YOUR EXPERIENCE…

Spend a few minutes quietly ‘under the gaze of God’, who knows and loves you.

Reflect briefly upon your life in the past day or so, asking God to bring to your memory one or two events that are important for you to notice.  Be attentive to how your heart is moved as events come to your awareness.

Linger/stay with one event, talking with God about what its meaning or significance might be for you at this time:

Is there a gift to celebrate and for which to give thanks?

–          a grace received or needed?
–          a new understanding about God, yourself, a situation…?
–          an invitation calling forth some response?

Talk with God openly and honestly about what has been touched in you during this awareness reflection.

If you are praying in a group setting, share briefly with the others something of your experience in this time.

sitting alone in Saxon Switzerland

Week Five – Silence & Solitude

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This week we spent time talking about Silence and Solitude as key elements of most contemplative practice, and why these are such powerful words and realities, often holding a deep invitation and resonance for us, even while they can also scare or repel us. As a group, we shared thoughts about this ambivalence, and about why we would bother pushing through any resistance we have to spending time alone and in quiet, concluding that the reason we often resist Silence and Solitude is the very reason we need them. Rachael brought the following poems, passages and quotes from through the ages to help shed some light on the difference between loneliness/isolation and solitude, and how one can be a gateway to the other; and on the deeper realities of self and God that can be found when we intentionally let go of our busyness and noise, and set aside all the words, thoughts and feelings we get attached to about our selves and God.

We ended our time by practicing doing just that with some silent Centering Prayer and then with the Blessing of Solitude by John O’Donohue.

Some readings from today:

“…The first step in spending time alone is to admit how afraid of it we are.

Being alone is a difficult discipline: a beautiful and difficult sense of being solitary is always the ground from which we step into a contemplative intimacy with the unknown, but the first portal of aloneness is often experienced as a gateway to alienation, grief and abandonment. To find our selves alone or to be left alone is an ever present, fearful and abiding human potentiality of which we are often unconsciously, and deeply afraid.

To be alone for any length of time is to shed an outer skin.”

  • from David Whyte’s,  Alone  

 

May you recognize in your life the presence, power and light of your soul.
May you realise that you are never alone, that your soul in its brightness and belonging connects you intimately with the rhythm of the universe.
May you have respect for your own individuality and difference.
May you realise that the shape of your soul is unique, that you have a special destiny here,
that behind the façade of your life there is something beautiful, good, and eternal happening.
May you learn to see yourself with the same delight, pride and expectation with which God sees you in every moment.

  • A Blessing of Solitude, by John O’Donohue

 

“Silence is God’s first language.” St. John of the Cross, 16th C

“Silence is the language of God, everything else is a poor translation.” Rumi, 13th C

“God [is] hidden within me. I find Him by hiding in the silence in which He is concealed.” Thomas Merton, 1948

“Silence is the gateway to the soul, and the soul is the gateway to God.” (Fr. Christopher Jamieson, Abbot of Worth Abbey, UK, in The Big Silence, 2010)