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By | Languages of Contemplation, School of Contemplation | No Comments

We often practice “centering prayer” as part of the School of Contemplation. At the heart of this practice is the language of “consent.” Since this concept is so central and stands for so much, it often takes a while to deepen in understanding of what it means. Consent has to do with making oneself available to the experience of being loved and accepted by God.

The chart below describes some of the aspects of this consent; one might see how consent refers to a response or stance that is both “simple” and yet very full. In the practice of centering prayer, one’s chosen word (or short phrase) is meant to symbolize or represent this consent. Yet, it certainly does not mean “thinking about” any of these concepts below. Such reflection may be important but not as part of the contemplation per se. Contemplation is about the act, intention or experience of consent, not the reflection on or analysis of what that consent means.

Here is a chart that reflects some of the potential meanings of consent. Today we did an activity in which thought about each line and asked ourselves how easily we could say “yes.”

Note: This chart is divided in two to provide accessibility to those who thrive on more traditional God-centred language (on the left) and to those who for various reasons find traditional language for God distracting or unhelpful (on the right).

I permit, accept, receive the gift/Presence of Divine Love

I acknowledge that the Universe/Reality has brought about my being and accepts me
I accept/join the activity/work of God in and around me. I accept that God’s intentions for me are good. I accept what is, this moment (though I may work for change)
The Reign/Reality of God (kingdom) is within/among us. I enter into participation. I acknowledge and enter into the connectedness of all things.
I consent to trust God for what lies beyond my control. I am detached from the results of my actions. I accept both the invitation to agency and the dependence in my life. I accept that much of life is beyond my control. I am detached from the results of my actions. I accept both the invitation to agency and the dependence in my life.
I accept feeling what I feel and knowing what I know. (God is not aligned with dishonesty, denial or repression.) I accept feeling what I feel and knowing what I know.
I accept the grace of God’s forgiveness that welcomes me with all my mistakes and weaknesses – I may have to face the consequences of my actions, but God’s love also welcomes me I accept myself in spite of my mistakes and weaknesses (my acceptance is not based on my performance or achievement – though I also accept the consequences of my actions)
bench by lake

Nature Contemplation

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For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made. Rom. 1:20

Observe the wonders as they occur around you. Don’t claim them. Feel the artistry moving through and be silent. – Rumi

This week, Donna Dunsmore led us on a contemplative walk. Before we left, she shared these thoughts:

• Over the centuries Christian monastic practice in both the East and West has accorded contemplation of nature an important role in spiritual growth.
• monastic tradition has stressed natural contemplation as the second important aspect of growth that prepares us to encounter God “face to face” without images or thoughts
• creation provides us many opportunities for noticing, and appreciating. When we start noticing, we often find things that lead us to ponder and wonder. It also can lead us into deeper experiences of God himself, those times when we sense a deep presence, peace or unity with all things Getting outside provides God the chance to reach us.

And prayed this prayer (from Celtic Daily Prayer – p. 169):

Lord, You alone know
What my soul truly desires
And you alone
Can satisfy those desires

Then we were sent off with these instructions:

As you walk to your spot, focus on gratitude.

( 2 options)

  1. Find one focus (rock, petal, leaf, tree bark…) and experience it with your senses
  2. Sit or stand in one spot and allow yourself to be part of creation around you (let your senses take it in)

 For either 1 or 2:

Breathe deeply

Take in the experience with more than one sense

Allow the experience to enter your being

Trust that God is touching you in creation and that you are being filled

Flexio Divina, Natura Divina & Visio Divina

By | Contemplative Rhythms and Improvisations, School of Contemplation | No Comments

Over the last few weeks, we have looked at innovations on the practice of Lectio Divina. This began with Rachael reminding us of the place of lectio as part of the four-fold contemplative pattern: lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio. In this pattern, lectio is the particular time for receiving a “word from God” from some source. Literally, it refers to “reading” but it could refer not only to written text but to input from a wide variety of sources, which we explored with some of our innovations.

So we practiced “flexio divina” by reminding each other that we can practice this type of reading not only with Scripture but with other helpful passages of prose or poetry. The following week, we were even more innovative and went outdoors. There we walked in the early spring and experimented with “natura divina,” reading what we might learn from the book of nature. Finally, we took another turn at “visio divina. 

Whichever form our “reading” takes, it’s an invitation to be more intentional about paying attention, keeping our eyes and ears open to living with more awareness and Presence. Then, the invitation, as always is to take it deeper through the stages of meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio. 

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”:


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.