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contemplation Archives - St. Stephen's University

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.

statue of St. Francis in San Damiano

Week Three – A Classical Rhythm of Contemplation

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This week Walter shared four latin words that have been used to describe a rhythm of contemplation for centuries:

Lectio – (lit. “reading”) – Receiving – when you catch a “glimpse,” something of what is heard or seen or read “hits home,” gets your attention as speaking to your spirit. Most typically, lectio divina practices this in relation to a short piece of writing (often Scripture), but the same sense of receiving can refer to any reading or listening or something in nature or any object of attention that speaks a word to the spirit.

Meditatio – (lit. “think or reflect on, meditate”) – Repetition – giving reflective attention to something until it is integrated, moves from the head to the heart – becomes real. Often this is literal repetition – holding a word or phrase through the day. Definitely more repetition than analysis.

Oratio – (lit. “prayer”) – Response – a response of the heart to the ‘word’ received and repeated. Less a response of many words and more a sense of consent, gratitude and love, but may also include a sense of asking for assistance related to the word.

Contemplatio – (lit. “time out,” assoc. with Gk. theoria “to see God”) – Union – a whole-being “yes,” fully entering into what has been received, deep and experienced integration.

(Based largely on Basil Pennington’s Centering Prayer)

We ended by practicing a lectio divina exercise based on Isaiah 30.15-18.

light through a window

Week Two – Kataphatic and Apophatic Approaches

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This week, after we shared different experiences with contemplation that we’ve had, Rachael introduced some of the labels given for different approaches: like the differences between kataphatic and apophatic approaches or between receptive and attentive approaches (see Keating’s diagram below).

Kataphatic refers to the positive or affirming value of thoughts, images and understandings that help us approach the Mystery, while apophatic refers to the negating approach that recognizes that the Presence of God is far beyond all of the words or thoughts that we can find. So apophatic approaches favour silence or “unknowing” that help to make sure that ideas and images and language, and their limitations, don’t get in the way of connecting with God.

We finished by practicing centering prayer again. Remember that in the last post there is a link to an introduction by Thomas Keating. Here is another video with a testimonial about the potential of centering prayer from Phileena Heuertz.

And here is the quote that I referred to stumbling on, right after talking about the same idea the previous week:

Like a wild animal, the soul is tough, resilient, resourceful, savvy, and self-sufficient: it knows how to survive in hard places…. Yet despite its toughness, the soul is also shy. Just like a wild animal, it seeks safety in the dense underbrush, especially when other people are around. If we want to see a wild animal, we know that the last thing we should do is go crashing through the woods yelling for it to come out. But if we will walk quietly into the woods, sit patiently at the base of a tree, breathe with the earth, and fade into our surroundings, the wild creature we seek might put in an appearance. We may see it only briefly and only out of the corner of an eye – but the sight is a gift we will always treasure as an end in itself.

And here is the diagram from Thomas Keating:

Chart of prayers ranging from receptive to attentive

Tangibility and Symbolism: a Celtic tradition

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Humans are born with an inherent belief that there is something that exists that is greater than themselves: whether it be a god, science, or simply a greater ‘goodness’ (or evil). Many have trouble grasping, or putting a more tangible face to this presence. In the case of the druids, the simple beauty and power of the natural world proved sufficient in finding a real sense of deep spirituality. It allowed them a physically tangible front to their spiritual connection.

Cara Thiessen experiences a nesting ground of dozens of great herons in Kyleakin, Scotland.

And it’s not difficult to see why the druids connected so deeply with their natural world. Scotland is crowded with absolutely gorgeous, untouched scenery. While it may seem strange that the pagan druids worshiped trees as though they were gods, it makes perfect sense: God is within and without his creation. As a Christian, I personally expect to find spiritual connection within the natural order. There is almost nothing like feeling the love and power of God in a sunset.

A completely untouched photo of the sunset over Oban's seaport on an April evening.

One of the arguably most consistent and beautiful pieces of Celtic culture is the art of symbolism. Symbolism, much like the natural order, provides one with a physically tangible front to their spiritual or emotional connection. The Celtic Christians used their pre-established connection with nature as a basis for early symbolism, borrowing from the pagans and often placing their stone cross carvings into the very surface of mother earth. Eventually the crosses stood erect, but maintained a natural beauty. Today, the ancient Celtic stonework blends beautifully with its surrounding natural world in a harmonious union of tangible spirituality.

A Catholic graveyard on the banks of Loch Lommond. Note how the stone only continues the appearance of natural order, rather than taking away from it.