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Contemplative Rhythms and Improvisations

The second term of the School of Contemplation will focus on the similarities and differences in contemplative practices over the last couple of thousand years. What has stayed the same? What new possibilities have emerged? How can recent or personal improvisations keep contemplation fresh?

Stay tuned as we share highlights and resources from this term’s journey below (followed by posts from the previous term):

Flexio Divina, Natura Divina & Visio Divina

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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)

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