The three doorways of contemplative prayer

We often talk about “contemplative prayer.” How is that done? Let me try to teach in five minutes what you can learn in five years.

To begin, we often start by becoming still and aware with what we call “breath prayer.” Seekers practice breath prayer as a basic skill for being quiet enough to pray. If you consciously keep filling your lungs with air and deliberately release it slowly, you will become calm. If you imagine that you are breathing in something worth receiving and breathing out something that needs releasing, that adds to the prayer. Breath prayer is a basis for what Martin Laird calls the three doorways of contemplative prayer in his book Into the Silent Lands.

You can focus your practice of contemplative prayer on an old idea for centering it: a prayer word or phrase. Many people use what is called the “Jesus prayer” as their phrase. One variation of this prayer is: Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me. I use this prayer almost every day in my practice. It doesn’t matter what word you choose. You could use, “I wait on you in silence,” or, “I no longer live but Christ lives in me.” The content of the prayer is nice, but the goal is to use the good phrase you choose as a touch stone for becoming still and aware in the silence. The goal is to let go of all other concerns and recollect yourself. When you become aware that your attention has been stolen, gently return your attention to the prayer word or phrase so you can stay in the moment with God.

Practice that for a moment using a phrase that is great for Holy Week: “I no longer live but Christ lives in me.”

lone tree

As you practiced, you may or may not have felt something. Sometimes awareness can feel like a bodily sensation — a tingle or a warmth, or a soul sensation of peace. Hopefully you felt rest and a sense that there was something beyond your normal awareness. Prayer is not always sensate, but it makes an impact in places we experience later. We can see the results of contemplative prayer in ongoing awareness of God’s presence throughout our day, in a lessening of anxiety over time and in a peace that pervades territories where it was not evident before. When we open our hearts and minds to God’s presence we gain insight and feel favor by forming a personal relationship with God. In the process of deepening our relationship with God, coming with a lack of expectation usually leads to better feelings than searching for what we want or for what we think we ought to be experiencing.

1) The first doorway to enter in contemplative prayer begins when you choose a prayer word and stick with it until you don’t need it anymore.

This practice helps us deal with the fidgety and flighty aspects of our being.

The prayer word or phrase is like a vaccination. A small dose of the disease: words, is introduced to the body to call forth the antibodies that will ward off the full disease: the preoccupation with our inner dialogue and invasion by our huge collection of data. Our overactive minds are like a disease infecting the silence where we meet with God Spirit to spirit. A good mind is great for teaching a class, but it obscures the deeper ground of being and leaves us with the sense that we are separate from God and others. We end up getting our sense of self from pasted-together bits and pieces of mental process rather than from relating to God. The vaccine of the prayer word detaches us from our inner chaos and helps us let go of our clever minds. But we’ve got to practice before this way of prayer is effective. It is like learning to play the piano or developing some other skill.

Jesus son of God have mercy on me is the phrase to which I return when I notice thoughts are invading my stillness and distracting my attention from yearning for God’s presence.

2) The second doorway is becoming one with the prayer word.

When you get started with this kind of prayer it can be like hitting a brick wall. Repeating your prayer word or phrase can take quite a bit of mental effort. The more we practice, the more our contemplation becomes simple awareness instead of activity. We start to feel the benefits of calmness. We start learning not to control everything, but to go with God. Life and wisdom is not found in trying to control the wind, but in hoisting our sails to move with the Spirit in the present moment. This praying is hoisting sails.

The second doorway is deeper. The first doorway was like a refuge for our weary anxious souls. The second is a matter of having our sights lifted to what comes after we are not so fidgety. We begin to see the things about ourselves that were previously out of our perception. Our therapist often does beginning soul work like this too. There is kind of an unloading of the unconscious. You can see how rich a place this might be, noticing and letting go of the usual inner videos and audios that dominate our internal landscape. Eventually they lose their power to control us. When some people get to this place, maybe they stop using a prayer word altogether. They can just sink into awareness without using it so much.

prayer dawn3) The third doorway is being present in awareness itself

This sounds kind of spacey, and it is. We have gotten though the doorway into stillness. And we have entered into deeper awareness of things in us that we have let go into God’s hands. Now we are invited into a shift from recognizing thoughts to recognizing how we recognize. We are simply aware. Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waters (Ps 42). We become aware of the deafening silence of earth and the new sound beyond sounds of knowing God. We hear what Elijah named “the still small voice.” In this home we can also experience the I am of being ourselves. We enjoy the self-forgetful communion with God for which we are created, and it transforms us and enlivens us.

I feel more at peace just talking about this practice which is so dear to me. I have been delighted to see its results in so many other people. They no longer live in their old, dominated selves, but Christ lives in them and they live in Christ.

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Prayer: walk by faith, not by sight.

“Walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7). We often think of this as waiting for God to do something in the future that we would not normally expect. I am moving ahead, hoping for the best. I am walking by faith, not by sight. That is good.

SONY DSCIn the prayer of contemplation, “Walk by faith, not by sight” is something more immediate. It is about becoming aware of the unknown things God is doing in the present moment. Prayer amounts to faithing, not just seeing, because God is with us, right now. Prayer helps us be with God right now.

When I say “contemplative prayer” you might think of mindfulness techniques that people are teaching to jr. highers to help them to settle down. That’s a beginning, but that is not the prayer of contemplation. The prayer of contemplation includes the techniques for reducing anxiety, but it is more. This spiritual practice, and any spiritual discipline, simply disposes us to allow something to take place. We are not doing something to get a result. We are doing something to allow communion with God to be our condition.

It is like this: A gardener does not actually grow plants. She practices skills that facilitate growth that is beyond her control. That’s like prayer. A sailor does not produce the necessary wind to move the boat. He harnesses the gift of wind by exercising skills that can get him home. Prayer is like that. The basic skill of contemplative prayer that facilitates and harnesses is inner silence. There are two practices within this skill set that are very important: stillness and awareness.

We need to talk about the process of facing the inner noise with which we struggle when we attempt to be silent. We do many noisy things when we pray, too. We are embodied spirits. But at the center of us is the silent place where God is simply giving himself to us and we are communing spirit to Spirit. We long to carry this silence with us in the midst of the noisy world and be content that we are in Christ and Christ is in us. We want to be at home. One of the early teachers of the church said, that in this center, we are constantly being called home, away from the noise that is around us to the joys that are silent. He said, “Why do we rush about looking for God who is here at home with us, if all we want is to be with him?”

Martin Laird, a teacher from Villanova who wrote a book called Into the Silent Lands, tells a story about a prisoner who was accustomed to cutting himself or burning himself so that his inner pain would be in a different place — on the outside of him. He came upon some people whose mission was to teach prisoners to pray and turn their prison cells into monastic cells. This prisoner learned from them and after several weeks of meditating twice a day he said, “I just want you to know that after only four weeks of meditating half an hour in the morning and night, the pain is not so bad, and for the first time in my life, I can see a tiny spark of something within myself I can like.” That is the home we are talking about.

rittenhouse square parkOur sense of separation from God is often a matter of our broken perception. We can’t feel God. We have an idea of what we should feel and we don’t feel that. Contemplative prayer is the place we let go our perceptions and become aware of God with us, as the scripture guides us:

  •  My soul, wait in silence for God only, for my hope is from Him (Psalm 62:5).
  • I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you (Jesus in John 14:20).
  • I have been crucified with Christ and yet I am alive; yet it is no longer I, but Christ living in me (Galatians 3:20).

From the perspective of the created order we are separate from God. But from the perspective of being aware, we see Christ when we look inside. When we pray, we are not merely becoming aware of our thoughts and feelings (although that is good!), we are learning to be aware of God and to be with God who is with us.

It is like this: A man was taking his dog to a field where he could run and he ran into another man walking four dogs. They got to the open field and let their dogs go to enjoy running around in a big free space. But one of the new friend’s dogs was off to the side running is relatively tight circles and did not join in with the other dogs. The man asked his new friend, “What’s with your dog?” He gave him an explanation. “Before I got this dog, he had spent years living in a cage. He was used to getting all his exercise, just as you see. He has the field, but he is trained for the cage.” I did not see this dog do this personally, so I can’t prove to you that dogs do this, but I do know myself and I have seen many of you who are reading this. We have the wide open field of grace and freedom to romp in but we run in the contours of our former cage. The prayer of contemplation is retraining our hearts to roam the wide open spaces of eternity freely.

  • My heart is like a bird that has escaped from the snare of the fowler (Psalm 123:7).

Our minds tend to run in the obsessive tight circles of our mental cage. We believe we are separate from God, and we were. So now we need to learn something else. I heard a shocking from my friend not long ago. When he was a child his father sang a little ditty that he thought was funny: “Charlie Wilkins is no good. Let’s chop him up like so much wood.” I know this little boy as an old man and you can still see that putrid song playing in his head. We believe we are condemned. So now we need to learn freedom. Prayer is the training ground.

When we think about things, we have a cage of thoughts that guide us. Contemplative prayer helps us go beyond them and enter into the silence where we don’t merely think about things, we commune with God. We concentrate attention in our heart to the place of knowing, the place of awareness that is not full of the cacophony of our mind and surroundings but is full of God. It seems like we are just sitting there doing nothing, when we pray and that is exactly right and exactly good. In that nothing of ourselves and our surroundings we enter the silent land of our true being with God.

Next time I will tell you more about how this is done. But, like I said, we don’t need to perfect techniques to pray as much as we need to access the skills that are built in to our beings by our loving Father. Be silent and turn your heart to God whether you think you know what you are doing or not. Take a step of walking by faith, not by sight. You’ll have a good time with God.

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The despised leader

Jesus “was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity,” why wouldn’t you be the very same? He pointedly told his disciples that they would be treated like he was treated if they tried to disrupt the perverse homeostasis of sin and destruction in the world. The prophet Isaiah revealed that the Messiah would be a suffering servant, not a mighty, political King who would save the family business. The Savior will not appear in his glorious might until the end of days – until that time he appears in his glorious weakness, undoing the sin of the world with suffering love. We’re still fighting with Him about this.

It is small wonder we fight Him. Being dishonored like Jesus is the regular experience of shadowanyone who tries to lead sinners into redemption, or just tries to lead anybody into something better. If you are a Christian and don’t hide it, you are too holy. You try to save the neighborhood and you are too pushy. You are a woman leader and you are too womany. You are a man leader and you aren’t man enough. You are a Christian leader and you aren’t spiritual enough or don’t love people well enough. It is no wonder people are scared to lead, even among this circle of hope, where we try to make it plain that the people love their leader into greatness, not vice versa.

To hear some people tell it, leaders get into leadership because they are mostly narcissistic, power-hungry dominators who just want to satisfy their hunger and enjoy being number one. Those people must be out there, but I don’t meet them in our church too often. Most of our leaders respond to a call when others note their obvious gifts. We tell them we need them to use their gifts to help us to live into our ambitious vision. We usually have to talk people into leading. That’s OK, because we don’t need too many leaders, just enough. They are like an enzyme that keeps our digestion going; we’re the stomach receiving the bread of life.

But maybe more so, people might not be clamoring to lead because being a leader in our whole society is very difficult right now. In many ways leaders are despised, at least subconsciously. School teachers will tell you stories about that from their classrooms full of anxious, unruly kids in schools overseen by anxious, demanding, random bosses. Small business owners talk about strangely entitled entry level workers. Listen to the memories of the Occupy movement. The Atlantic Conference of the BIC can’t even find a person who will be their bishop! Everywhere you try to be leader you get nailed by people who are just one way and don’t listen to people, you’re hounded by people who have a self-interested point to push, or you’re surrounded by people who are so anxious and disoriented that they have a tough time being led!

Let’s face it, intelligent people do not always clamor to get into leadership because they are leery of being despised, being isolated and perpetually dealing with conflict. They look around at the world and say, “I don’t know if I have the stuff to deal with that!” Some of us can’t even have a healthy conflict with a toddler, much less have one with a sinful adult! We can’t stand being despised while our child is screaming in time out, much less can we risk experiencing whatever an adult might do to us.

by Erik Johansson

by Erik Johansson

Even if it is hard, whether it is in our families or in our neighborhoods, in the church or in our whole society, we need people who risk going first, who are a trustworthy presence, who take the lead. Some of us need to be a leader all the time, because we have the God-given calling and gifts to do it. You know you are — you are called and people follow. Thank you. We need you. But we only need enough of those people. Most of us just need to be ready when we are called on to supply some leadership and not be afraid to face the inevitable issues of going somewhere everyone needs to go and asking them to follow. In the process, we are going to fear that people will be mad at us, since someone will inevitably be mad — especially if you want to go God’s way, people will oppose you like they opposed your Lord.

That’s the rub; we need to be ready to be despised. Since you know it is hard and it creates conflict to lead, and since people are all-too-ready to tell you to back off, and since it seems impolite, if not illegal, to question anyone’s direction, what would possess you to stick your neck out and get us from here to there? It can be painfully isolating. Leadership often makes you feel like you are not one of the gang, anyway. If you actually cause trouble by leading, someone will despise you.

But it is also very satisfying to rally people to trust God. When you obey his call to step out in trust, it feels like you are really living. And standing up against the forces of evil is a lot better than the enemy running all over your people, that’s for sure. If reading that rang a bell in you, thanks for letting it. You’re probably a cell leader or a team leader. You’re probably leading a healthy family, office or crew. We need more people like you who will be empowered by the Spirit to take their stand for Jesus in a difficult world and build a vibrant, authentic church.

Jesus reveals the secret of how to do that. Being scorned and refusing to compete to be king of the world is the way to eternal life. Humbly doing what needs to be done, going first, taking the direction that needs to be taken and asking people to come along is following Jesus. For some of us, that is a full-time job. For all of us, that is everyday life. Like Paul wrote: God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. Because boasting before God is what makes us despised in eternity. Gaining the whole world at the loss of our true selves is the greatest loss of all.

If you are leading all the time, follow your Leader; it is the best you can do. Your trust in God is better than any technique you will apply or any power you will exercise. For all of us, in a leadership position or not, we need to stop cooperating with what holds us back. Let’s keep talking ourselves and one another out being despised for the lowliness and anxiety-bucking obedience that makes us appreciated in heaven. Don’t let bad feelings you have about yourself or ill-feelings others seem to have about you make you withdraw and isolate when you are called to go somewhere better and take people with you.

Remember, no matter who despises you, even when you despise yourself, you will never be stolen from the kingdom of grace in which you live. The corruption of your heart is restrained by the influence of the Holy Spirit. The world is passing by under your feet and cannot hold you in its chains. The enemies of God have been bound and cannot permanently harm you. Even if you are despised by yourself and humanity, in Christ you are the beloved of God.

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You’ve probably taken self-reliance too far

The process of getting some personal autonomy is very important. We need to gain the capacity to be ourselves apart from our parents and to become our true selves in relation to our ultimate parent: God. We yearn to achieve this maturity and we also resist it every step of the way. It is a difficult journey. We can end up too autonomous and we can end up lacking in self-reliance. Most of you reading this have probably taken self-reliance too far.

It’s no wonder you are so splendidly alone at the command center of your own private universe. You were trained to be so at a very early age. Our society is pretty much convinced right now that being self-reliant is the epitome of maturation. We start lessons on autonomy early in our culture. We start getting frustrated with what you can’t do by yourself as soon as you can do anything by yourself. Gwen and I used to laugh over a book we had when our children were small that was all about doing things by oneself. We still use this little girl’s voice when we are making fun of each other for being too self-reliant because we heard her saying in our imaginations: “I can do it by myself.”

all by myselfI went looking for that old book and I found a LOT of books with that same basic title. We really want people to be able to do it by themselves! I ran across a version by one by my favorite kid’s book authors, Mercer Mayer. What’s more, I found a youtube of someone reading it to us! So here is your training for autonomy, in case you missed learning how to be needless of parents and community…and God: All By Myself by Mercer Mayer.

However it happened in your family, we have put a heavy emphasis in our society on the universal need for individuals to individuate. We keep getting trained to be the one and only person in so many ways these days. At least our batmansuperheroes keep teaching us that lesson. Batman is alone in his cave, the master of all technology — nothing is more isolating than spending half your day trying to figure out why your computer does not work, since you are supposed to know everything. Then there is Superman, the ultimate American, alone in his fortress of solitude, being the lonely baby Moses from Krypton, figuring out how to answer distress calls, by himself, from all over the world — he is just like you in the center of your mess trying to figure out how you’ll meet all the requirements and save the world.

As a result of this training, how often do you not call someone for help because you are sure they would be too busy — so you do the best you can to do it by yourself and try not to die from stress? Are you afraid to be inadequate? Are you afraid to be a burden? I hope not, but I would not be surprised if you were.

If your parents had not trained you, you would probably have learned the same survival lessons on your own. Because it is true that we had better learn to be self-reliant if we live in a world without God. A world without God cannot be trusted, and the people who inhabit it are dangerous and demanding. When it comes down to it, if you don’t have God you’ll be in trouble if you can’t rely on yourself.  Married couples are often shocked by this reality when they finally get a look at the incapable, overly-dependent mate they are stuck with. They realize that their partner has some significant weaknesses that are not miraculously going away. So they have a dilemma, “Do I take care of this untrustworthy person my whole life? Do I have a major power struggle that lasts a decade until they shape up? Or do I take off now before I get in too deep?”  This struggle comes on a spectrum from modest to major, of course. It might be “Do you really think I am going to pick up your clothes or fill the gas tank your whole life? You can do that by yourself.” But it might also be “Oh my, your mother really did make you feel incapable and despicable and you are just seeing that!” or “Your lack of having a father left you with a whole set of deficits” or  “The fact that you just became a Christian means that you have a ton of new things to change into and you are not there yet.” The balancing of self-reliance and dependence is not that simple.

In the church we have similar dilemma. We make a covenant with someone or just love someone and take them into our hearts and our church and then we discover that they can’t do stuff. They can’t pay their bills, or respond to a phone call or even greet us warmly. They have issues even though they have been in therapy for a few months. They make the same mistakes all the time, even after you got the courage to say something. What do we do? I have little discussions about this all the time. I am usually on the side that says, “It does me no harm to carry a person who seems to be unable to be self-reliant. So what if they can’t pull off autonomy?” I don’t want to infantilize anyone by being the only one who can do something – keeping people unable or never letting them have their own power. But at the same time, I don’t need to despise people and deprive them because they supposedly should be better than they are.

A lot of people solve the problem of needing to rely on God and others by never attempting anything that is beyond their capabilities — I can’t fail at what I don’t try. They try really hard to never get in a mess. You might say their whole life is focused on avoiding problems that would point out that they have problems. The contestants on the Biggest Loser are always learning the lesson of relying on others because they are all  attempting something that has been beyond themselves. For instance, box jumpJennifer did not win this season but she made a huge difference in her life — and she eventually overcame her fear of attempting what seemed impossible for her: the box jump. The moral to the film clip is: You can do it by yourself if you never try the box jump and just stay locked up in whatever you use to vainly protect yourself. In Jennifer’s case it was her self-protective weight. But if you try something beyond your present capacity you’ll need to rely on someone other than yourself, too, like Jillian — even better, God!

The best way to learn to rely on God is to try something that requires God to do. Has that become your instinct yet? Is it your reaction, to rely on God and his people? Are you learning that, or just sticking with autonomy, as you have been taught from birth? Likewise, one of the best ways to learn to rely on others is to try something that requires a community, not just an individual, to do – which are most things worth doing.  When you need help do you reach out in love, or do you just search Google for two hours? While sorting out how to live in love with healthy, mutual dependence, you’ve probably taken self-reliance too far. If you start with God-reliance it will probably loosen you up to take further steps to undo the pressure to do it by yourself.

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Patrick had nerve

St_-Patrick2Why aren’t we spiritual ancestors of St. Patrick more like St. Patrick? Unlike him, we are often stuck on a treadmill of trying harder at things that aren’t working. We keep looking for answers to questions that no longer need to be answered. We get stuck in endless either/or arguments when the dichotomies were false to begin with. We undermine the leaders we so desperately need to help us off our treadmill and out of our arguing. We need the kind of nerve Patrick had.

Some of what I am thinking comes right out of Edwin Friedman’s book Failure of Nerve. But St. Patrick (387-461). demonstrated how to be a healthy and effective leader long before system theory gurus discovered what he already knew. Whether is it a family, a cell, a church or a business, a person who lives out of their true self makes a good leader. Friedman thinks knowledgeable people can become this “differentiated” person, and some can. But, for most of us, we need Jesus at the heart of the process to have a prayer of becoming so mature and useful.

Right now most systems we encounter are stuck in a morass of anxiety and ineffectiveness: the schools, License and Inspections, the Water Department, to name a few, but also some families, some communal households, quite a few cells, some compassion teams. Why don’t we have more leaders like Patrick in these places? Why aren’t Christians in the United States, in general, more like Patrick – building defiant fires on hills and daring the powers-that-be to oppose Jesus? How did St. Patrick’s Day become famous for being a day when people get drunk? Could it be a failure of nerve?

It could be. Someone has to get free. Someone has to go first. Someone has to risk realizing their imagination.

Patrick got free. He was a barely-Christian teenager when has was captured by Irish slavers. While he was stuck on his hillside tending sheep for the man in the wilderness of Foclut, he did not conform, he turned to prayer. Eventually he had a vision that told him to escape. He writes that he heard a voice tell him, “Come and see, your ship is waiting for you.” After running for his life across the whole island he made his way on to a ship departing for France where he perfected his faith.

Patrick went first. Restored to his family in Britain, perhaps he could have taken his place in their patrician life and helped rebuild and protect his homeland. But he was not content to stay on the treadmill. He writes, “I had a vision in my dreams of a man who seemed to come from Ireland. His name was Victoricius, and he carried countless letters, one of which he handed over to me. I read aloud where it began: ‘The Voice of the Irish.’ And as I began to read these words, I seemed to hear the voice of the same men who lived beside the forest of Foclut . . . and they cried out as with one voice, ‘We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.’ I was deeply moved in heart and I could read no further, so I awoke.” He went to Ireland and immediately began having success in leading people to a knowledge and faith in Jesus.        

Patrick risked realizing his imagination. He wrote, “Daily I expect murder, fraud or captivity, but I fear none of these things because of the promises of heaven. I have cast myself into the hands of God almighty who rules everywhere.” It seems like he almost delighted in taking risks for the gospel. He wrote, “I must take this decision disregarding risks involved and make known the gifts of God and his everlasting consolation. Neither must we fear any such risk in faithfully preaching God’s name boldly in every place, so that even after my death, a spiritual legacy may be left for my brethren and my children.” The famous prayer attributed to him called “the breastplate” is all about gaining nerve in the face of threats.

drunk st. patricksIn a famous letter, amazingly still preserved from the 5th century, Patrick takes a stand against a great enemy with which he was very familiar: slavery. A British tyrant, Coroticus, had carried off some of Patrick’s converts into slavery. Patrick, now a bishop, excommunicated him and told him to repent and free them, writing: “Ravenous wolves have gulped down the Lord’s own flock which was flourishing in Ireland and the whole church cries out and laments for its sons and daughters.”  That’s nerve.

Being one’s true self and trusting God in the midst of a world that is always difficult often makes one a leader, it at least allows us to influence people by being the presence of Jesus and offering an alternative to the destruction happening. Patrick did not think he was particulalry qualified to be such a person. Despite his success, as an older man he writes, “I still blush and fear more than anything to have my lack of learning brought out into the open. For I am unable to explain my mind to learned people.” Nevertheless, he gives thanks to God, “who stirred up me, a fool, from the midst of those who are considered wise and learned in the practice of the law as well as persuasive in their speech and in every other way and ahead of these others, inspired me who is so despised by the world.”

So many in the world get drunk on St. Patrick’s Day! Is it a way to avoid looking at their lack of nerve? So many more don’t get drunk and don’t even know it is a special day honoring a special man. They are so consumed by the slavery of whatever dominates them that it is hard for them to even visualize an alternative: drunkenness or holiness. They need a leader, they at least need a person with some nerve. Someone has to get free. Someone has to go first. Someone has to risk realizing their imagination.

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