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Languages of Contemplation

knocker on door

Consent

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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

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)

Dali painting

Week Four – Visio Divina and more

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This week Rachael introduced visio divina (“divine seeing” – contemplating images or nature to open ourselves to what we receive through them). She brought a folder full of images and we chose one and spent some minutes in silence asking ourselves questions like: Where do I see myself in this image? If you missed it, see an introduction to the practice here.

Walter also introduced why one reason for exploring different “languages” of contemplation is because different senses seem associated with different ways of processing in different people. For some people auditory input touches our heart while images bring out our analytical side; for others kinesthetic (participation/action) touches our heart, etc.