Archives for category: Contemplation

”Paul Quenon, O.C.S.O., a monk at Gethsemani, has been praying psalm 91 nightly for decades, but only in the last month have the words hit home: “I never thought the threat of plague would pertain to us or specifically to me.”… “Our society revolves around the notion that power and wealth give meaning to existence, that they allow us to take control of our lives. Power and wealth create an illusion of meaning and purpose while undermining our spiritual destiny.” We think they give us some measure of control, but in reality they “close the door to grace.” read more

Gregory Hillis

Gregory Hillis is an associate professor of theology at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky.

@gregorykhillis

Downing Street London

So the Lockdown continues and there’s a few lessons I’m learning; Lockdown Lesson #1.

The lessons are less about immediate survival, though that is one benefit. They are about refining my approach to llfe so I’m prepared once the Lockdown is eased. Lockdown is an opportunity both to take stock and take action over how I choose to live my future. I don’t need to replicate my past; I have a golden opportunity to change the way I live for the better.

Lesson #1 was triggered by an article published on the app Medium. It was a biographical reflection from someone who, as part of the university programme, opted to sign up for a season in a buddist temple. It was a momentary decision, and didn’t arise from a longing for silent contemplation. In brief they left early, driven mad to distraction through their dislocation from their life experience.

However, reflecting on Lockdown, they wrote;

‘Although I am living at home with my mom, being with my own thoughts this closely, for this many days, can be excruciatingly uncomfortable. In some moments of antsiness and boredom and low self-esteem, I would rather do anything other than sit here. I want to grab for things I am convinced can make the loneliness better ― productivity which leads to validation from others, busyness which keeps me moving just fast enough so I don’t have to acknowledge that I feel sad, scheduling back-to-back virtual hangouts so I can quell the small voice inside that tells me that people don’t like me.’

A list of distractions which alone can only create stress if forming the bedrock of daily living. They recalled the fact that on entering the buddist temple they had to surrender their mobile phone. This experience was like having a limb amputated. It struck a chord. How often do I reach for my mobile phone and idly flick throung news stories I’m not that interested in or endless Facebook newsfeeds for no apparent reason?

mayhem and madness

More troubling is that I do this whilst already distacted by some Netflix offering that fails to hold my attention.

This spoke to me. My mind is restless and demands constant stimulation. Yet, my active mind is never the space in which I shall find peace, tranquility or self realisation. It is always demanding I feed its restless energy, and in fact is driving me rather than actng as a valuable part of my persona. My brain thinks therefore I do; the tail very much wags the dog!

Silence, or wakefulness and watchfulness as I prefer to describe it, is not the ability to control the mind, but the refusal to follow where it chooses to lead. I start my day with 30 minites silence ahead of morning prayer,. I know my mind will seek to hijack and sabotage such minutes of pure watchfulness, but all I say is do your thing and I’ll remain present whilst disinterested in any thoughts you want to distract me with.

Like a spoilt child, my mind hates to be ignored. So it takes discipline and learning to leave it to its own devices, whilst I quietly contemplate the Divine, aware of the traffic noise my mind generates yet no longer engaged and thus distracted by it. This is the great learning that comes from entering the silent land.

So, Lockdown lesson #1; take your mobile phone, press the off switch and give it a rest. Whilst a useful device for certain purposes, like the brain, it soon demands my complete servitude. I live to please its every interruption and command. Yet, my will is neither fuelled by my brain nor my mobile devices. My will is the expression of my preferences. I determine the life and landscape I occupy.

Of course as a contemplative my phone seldom rings; few people feel the need for the services of a contemplative today. Besides which, poorly managed interruptions really defeat the very essence of the contemplative life. Separation is an essential part of my reality.

But I feel for all of us the rediscovery of the on/off switch for our mobile devices might be the quickest route to rediscover how best we might manage the restlessness that directs our lives. As we resume life beyond Lockdown this may give us a fighting chance to resist the temptation to subcontract our self-esteem and validation to external forces that both drive and rob us of the essential qualities that make us each unique.

The key is to move from being a victim of thoughts (the commenting, chattering mind) to being their witness (the heart’s stillness) . . . What we have observed of fear can be observed of practically any struggle with afflictive thoughts and feelings. We must move from being a victim of these thoughts to being their witness. Typically we spend many, many years being their victim. We are imprisoned by the chattering mind. Gradually we learn to distinguish the simple thought or emotion from the chatter and we discover an inner stability that grows into the silence of God.
Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation

 

 

Simon & Garfunkel Concert, Central Park

Slow down you move too fast‘ was one of Simon and Garfunkel’s anthems that charmed us all in the late sixties. Wow! If the sixties were fast, then how would we describe today? Everyone working frenetically, more in search of survival than their dream or self realisation. How times have changed. Well up until ‘Lockdown: Covid-19, 2020’.

Now I am, if nothing else, a throwback to the sixties that framed much of the contours of my worldview. Certain foundational understanding was also established. So today I feel I live in a permanent state of retroversion, having the appearance of somethone that existed in the past. I guess that the hippy that took hold of my persona has never left; one reason I feel something of an alien at times within contemporary life.

Does this matter? Well, not to me. I’ve grown quite content, now that I have stepped away from the realised and hidden persuaders that mount a consistent assault upon my self esteem as I entertain a vacuous need to conform to some vague notion of what we are all meant to be/become. I have lanced this illusion, for illusion it was and forever will be.

However, even as I pursue my choice of life as a contemplative, a semi hermit devoted to prayer, the Lockdown has opened my eyes to how much more I need to, or at least might, slow down.

Here in St Cuthbert’s, Jayne and I have a wonderful garden we are slowly developing. In normal times it offers welcome, peace and pleasure to those seeking quiet contemplation – simply put, a time to step back and be still. This is something that Lockdown has imposed upon us all, whether we’re ready or not.

What I’ve appreciated is that the emergence of spring blooms, blossoms and flowers slowly emerge by degrees. Bare branches overnight sprout buds, yet those buds then take time slowly to open. Every part of that opening process is in slow motion. Day by day we walk and observe each tree and plant and marvel at the beauty of this opening process. Like a child, each stage is precious and perfect in itself, yet the adult who emerges is the perfection of all the frozen time frames, mental photos captured in our hearts and heads.

The simple learning is that discovering the beauty in slowing down is itself a product of deliberate action. It takes work and effort. Lockdown is a deliberate policy, enforced upon us. I know for some it’s tough to endure; no garden, crowded living spaces, tense relationships between adults and children. Yet, I’ve also heard wonderful stories of families who’ve completely reconstructed their lives. Praying together, playing together working alongside each other.

Indeed, one family even made a movie of their version of Red Riding Hood which they sent round to their friendship group to cheer us all up. They found the time to create something memorable together, embracing the time and seizing an opportunity from the midst of our present crisis.

Naturaly Lockdown will end. Life will resume. Will we breath a sigh of relief, ‘back to normal’? Yet, a normal that is in reality no more than a persuader, sometimes realised, more often than not hidden, that drives us. We react and respond to external assumptions that are presented as the rational proposal for successful living. Maybe, we might consider the birds as Jesus suggested. In my case I’ll be considering the trees and the plants, although the birds are also busy about feeding their young, so worthy of consideration.

I wonder if this ‘selah’, although imposed due to horrendous circumstances in which so many suffer and lose their lives, is perhaps an international call to pause, draw breath and decide if the objectives and reaities that made up our lives when entering Lockdown are those we choose to carry into the future that awaits us?

You and I alone can decide. I have my re-entry refrain ready; ‘Hello lamppost, what’cha knowing, I’ve come to watch your flowers growin

Easter Sunday is a day of decision. ‘The women‘, so scripture tells us, decided to go an annoint Jesus’ body with ‘perfumes and ointments‘. Their Sabbath of rest provoked a decision and an action. The purpose of stillness and rest is that we determine to make our way to Jesus. Perhaps it is with a heart heavy with disappointment like these women. What we had imagined was true about God we can no longer believe in. Yet, our fondness for the memory means that we treat it with respect, even in its death and disappearance from our world of apprehension.

Yet, what they expected to find, a sealed tomb, was not what they saw. The entrance stone was rolled away. They confronted a whole new reality. Questions flooded in. Where was the body? Who had taken it? Who had broken the Sabbath rules and ‘worked’ to remove both stone and body, breaking the religious law and rythm of rest and stillness?

Such questions created the threshold upon which fresh opportunity is always born. They rightly resisted a search for immediate answers to satisfy their questioning minds. Rather, they chose to wonder what this might mean. They pondered, they contemplated, they meditated; the best way to live within the space born of stillness, silence and solitude. The characteristics we are invited to explore in this period of lockdown.

Returning to the eleven disciples they told their story, which was met with incredulity, disbelief. So some of them rushed to the tomb to satisfy themselves. Doubt can prove the necessary stimulus to awakening fresh faith. Doubt and disbelief are the friends of faith seekers who face an uncertain future. They are the compost and the fertiliser for fresh growth. The first shoots of which are wonder, astonishment and awe.

It is only as the circles of our certainties are breached that we stand any chance of finding fresh understaning. An understanding that has the capacity to carry us through the day that lies before us. It is the reason Jesus so strongly demanded that NOW is the only moment that natters. Yesterday, with its fond memories and sad regrets, is long past. Whilst tomorrow, with its imagined fears, has yet to arrive. I, and you are marooned within the present moment alone. So our thoughts, constructed by memories of our past and fears for our futures, conspire to distract us from this present moment.

The discovery of an empty tomb was a present reality. It’s meaning or consequences unknown. Yet, Jesus’ erstwhile followers responded from their hearts, with wonder, amazement and astonishment. Something with unknown consequences is always best pondered.

Had a twenty first century media circus arrived upon the scene the good people of Jerusalem and beyond would have been subjected to the views and analysis of endless experts, whose credentials, albeit flashed across TV screens, offer little by way of reassurance that they know anything more than the facts themselves tell me. The noise created by so many voices, disperses the stillness and drowns out any sense of wonder.  Such media easily steals my imagination and populates it with ideas, no doubt well meant, but which have their own irrevocable logic. They bind me and restrict my movement and action.

Today, I personally choose to stand before that open tomb, with the women and the disciples, in an attitude of wonder. The stone rolled away challenges all my assumptions of what I might expect. I can decide to settle for a logic born of the wisdom of others. I can decide to weave my own coherent narrative joining the past, which I’ve observed, with the evidence before me in the present with a proposal about the future, born of my reason. But I choose not to do so.

I gaze upon the the open tomb and allow my imagination to consider that this is a door into an as yet unknown future. One in which I do not seek to satisfy my own need for answers, but one in which I decide to continue asking questions. For if the one who was dead is alive, how can he die again? And if alive, must the imagination draw any line as to what is now possible? I find myself pondering a range of possibilities, none of which I can apprehend until and unless I choose to decide to set out in pursuit of them.

Easter Sunday is the day in history when the world changed. It became different. I too am invited to change. To exchange my spectacles, through which I view life and determine shapes and identities, for a new pair. To consider exchanging the life I’ve known for a different, if quite similar one. To become altogether different in the way I will live from now on. All change requires my decision. No one and nothing changes me. I alone have the capacity to make changes in the way I think and perceive.

I believe it was only because the disciples chose to wonder and to ponder that they were enabled to meet the risen Jesus. Whilst Mary initially perceived Jesus as the gardener, and assumed he might have removed Jesus’ body, it was only as she recognised and responded to a familiar voice that she was able to perceive Jesus. For many of us we all too easily embrace the logic of misbelief and unbelief. In so doing we dismiss the sounds that awaken new neural pathways within our understanding and, in dismissing such sounds, fail to perceive the risen Christ.

The stone has been rolled away; the tomb is empty. Today suggests that we have everything to play for in an as yet unrealised tomorrow.

I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
    and in his word I put my hope.
 I wait for the Lord
    more than watchmen wait for the morning,
    more than watchmen wait for the morning.

Easter Saturday probably best equates to the lockdown in which we, like many other nations, find ourselves. There is an unnatural silence due to an absence of what we’d assumed until very recently were the actual sounds of normal life. We are left wondering if those sounds will ever return. Or has covid-19 ended once and for all the busy life we’d become so familiar with and habitualised? Now, as never before in our life experience, we have both time and space and it’s a luxury we’re not sure we want or can effectively utilise.

Time has been too easily squeezed into a narrow definition; that of ‘utility’. What can I achieve in the time that I have? How many ‘widgets’ might I produce? How much money might I accumulate? How far can I progress my career? All the while adding more demands, and with each demand increaed pressure, upon what can only ever be a finite quantity; 24 hours in any day.

This misunderstanding of time as utility confuses our rational mind. Now that we have the time many of us have longed for, we discover we are all too easily bored. At a loss of knowing what to do with boundless, albeit finite, time. This is because even our so called ‘free time’ we treated as utility. Whilst we longed for ‘vacation time’ and days off, we couldn’t help but rush to fill such space and time with holidays, theatre visits, bingeing on streamed TV series and the like.

There was never sufficient time to give any thought to consider investing time in doing nothing. This was after all  to waste a utility; nothing gives rise to nothing, which, by virtue of its ‘nothingness’, cannot be objectively measured and therefore enjoyed. Must enjoyment always relate to objective criteria? Nothing appears to give little useful sensual feedback for my empty selfhood struggling to find and express itself.

Living as a contemplative, committed to prayer here in St. Cuthbert’s Oratory, I have many times had to wrestle with the anxiety that my life amounts to at best very little, at worst nothing whatsoever. For where can I locate the objective measure for my value? ‘Oh’, I hear my imagined critics saying with some disdain, critics who I’m sure include members of my own family, ‘what a waste of a life. Such a promising start; Oxford and national Christian leadership. Now all squandared by simply doing nothing‘.

I fight back against all such tormentors of the mind, for if they take hold, and resistence is a perennial struggle, then I am cast into the deepest depths of despondency. My self confidence drains away. My focus is entirely upon myself rather than remaining fixed upon Jesus. Like Peter I slip beneath the cold, tempestuous waters of a Galileean lake out of fear that my life decision has left me to drown in the arrogance of my own presumption.

Yet, all those who treat time as utility can also all too often remove their gaze from God in their quest to find how they might make the most of time as utility. Many are convinced they are furthering God’s cause. However, scripture is clear, God’s cause is in no need of any help; never has been and never will be. Surely Easter, the consummation of God’s incarnate sojourn, is evidence, if any were required, that God’s cause remains entirely at God’s discretion. There is and never was any need to look for human encouragement or involvement.

That’s why nothing is perhaps the best response once one has made one’s peace with God. The ‘lending God a hand‘ mentality reveals to me an all too human need to fill my time with some worthy cause from which I might draw down some sense of my own purpose and value. Yet, my ultimate value has been disclosed by the ends to which God went to woo and win my heart. I contributed nothing to God’s decision to do so, nor to God’s strategy and method in accomplishing this great redemptive miracle.

So, why does Easter Saturday resonate so closely with our current lockdown staus? It is beacuse for this one day all of creation holds its breath. God, in the expression of Jesus, has died and is gone. The whole universe is teetering on the edge of the abyss of despair and destruction. Satan is already making plans for his coronation and entering into his assumed kingship. This can ony be to the detriment of all humanity. For one whole day the promise remains just that; a promise! Only Easter Sunday will provoke a galactic sigh of relief. It will reveal that God remains true to God’s word, even though not to do so is an impossibility for God by God’s own admission. Yet, it’s Saturday, and Sunday has not yet arrived; nor has Jesus.

Whilst Jesus is in the tomb, or visiting Hades with a message of Good News, there is nothing humanity can do. It is indeed the very essence of Sabbath. A period of looking to and waiting upon God. Waiting with the bated breath of uncertainty. We can only contemplate our complete impotence to change our circumstances, however much we hope and dream we might. We remain dependent upon the intervention of God alone. Yet, this is forever true, even when not facing a life changing pandemic. It’s simply that now the volume of the silence has been turned up.

So today, let us reflect upon how we can make peace with our doing nothing. That is the nothing that opens the cavernous space, an opportunity, to contemplate God and yearn for the fulfilment of God’s promise. The scale of that promise exceeds my ability to enter any comprehensive description save that it is the fulfilment of all things; it is the total fulfiment of myself.

My today will involve morning prayer, consideration of the mercy of God, the silent contemplation of Jesus, all those things whose utility is non-measurable this side of eternity. Yet also all those things that provide the heartbeat for any healthy Christian disciple. Like the disciples hidden somewhere in Jeruslaem, fearing their discovery and destruction, we too must wrestle with the promise of God and fight to maintain our prayer of hope for the resurrection of life beyond Covid-19, a life I pray that, just as the disciples and the emergent Christian church dscovered, can never go back to what it had been prior to that first Easter weekend.

Lord grant me to greet the coming day in peace.

Help me in all things to rely upon your holy will.

In unforseen events let me not forget that all things are under your care. Amen

Today is Good Friday. Unusual this year for we are all under lockdown in our own homes. The normal church services are only available online. Yet, one benefit arising from our restricted movement is more time to reflect upon the events surrounding our redemption.

Such reflections may well prove both helpful and necessary for our peace of mind. In many conversations, now all conducted over the internet, it is clear that this is a time of anxiety for people. Legitimate anxieties such as how might I earn income, how vulnerable am I to catch covid-19, the pain of being unable to gather with immediate family or friends? Others face the pressures of living within a confined space, with no means to find time and space alone.

On rare excursions out, the world has changed. Few cars, social distancing maintaining gaps between neighbours and friends, and long, queues snaking around supermarkets. Everything is different and this very quickly begins to play upon our fears and stir up anxieties within.

Finding and sustaining faith during such times can prove challenging. Much depends upon the level of intimacy we have built between ourselves and Jesus over the years. This sudden change in our life experience can only highlight for us the character of the friendship we enjoy with God.

Today many of us will reflect upon the long and brutal walk Jesus was forced to take. Bearing the instrument of his own torture and death upon his back, he was experiencing the greatest test to his faith to date. Like Abraham had to hold a knife aloft above his only son, bound in readiness for sacrifice, so Jesus must face this the greatest test to his self professed claim to be the Son of God and his total confidence that God would neither fail nor forsake him.

Many of us find ourselves in just such a situation. This is a season of our own Passion or season of enduring suffering, the actual meaning of the word. We are invited to persevere and the ‘not knowing’ what the future holds for any of us can unleash a host of ‘demons’ that continually torment our minds and depress our mood.

Our confidence can only lie in recognising that in agreeing to follow Jesus, a voluntary decision that is within the power of everyone of us to take or reject, we also agreed to walk in Jesus’ footsteps. Therefore, today of all days, whilst sombre in tone, is also a source of our instruction and encouragement. We are only living where Jesus has been before us.

Whilst painful, this is a safe place. Our lives are hid with Christ in God. And whilst we cannot know the future in any practical detail, we do know, like Jesus, that our lives are ultimately in safe hands, those of our God and Creator. What we have to do is turn our gaze from considering the many possibilities that flood our minds about our unknown tomorrows and direct our full attention to how and where we are today.

The remarkable thng about Jesus, who remember had never experienced resurrection and only had his Father’s promise to go on, maintained a very present focus. In the Stations of the Cross, which many traditions will contemplate today, Jesus, amidst the beatings and his stumbling beneath the weight of the cross, has time to comfort both Mary his mother and the women of Jerusalem. The point being he remained focussed upon the present. This was true once crucified and raised aloft as he took time both to forgive those who’d engineered and carried out his execution as well as welcome a penitent thief into paradise, an eternal embrace conducted within the social distancing execution demanded.

All I can ever respond to is my present. However, my mind fills with thousands of anxieties as I imagine, and seek to navigate my future. Sadly tomorrow does not exist. Only NOW is real. Naturally the circumstances of my now will raise the specter of those issues I have willfully buried beneath the busyness my normal life affords. But maybe, these days of enforced solitude are an opportunity not simply to clean the house and tidy the garden, for those fortunate enough to have one. They are perhaps a heaven sent opportunity to dig up and dust off all those unresolved fears. Time to consider what it is I really need to worry about and why.

My own reflections have helped me see more clearly than ever that so many of the ‘givens’ of my pre lockdown life are the shadows of idols that merely distract me from living a full and complete life. Too many of the aspirations I pursue prove empty promises. They simply evaporate the moment I lay hold of them and prove themselves to be of no lasting or substantial value; they are no help when I face more signifcant questions such as who I am and who has my back in this crisis?

Media directs our gaze toward government, yet what can they do? Despite their essential assurances to quel potential social meltdown, they, like us, are mortal and have no knowledge of what the future holds. Daily briefings from government ministers and an array of ‘experts’ remind us that they are only ever talking about the present, for, as I’ve said, the present is all that any of us can deal with.

So like Jesus, trudging toward Golgotha under the weight of his greatest fears, we are to follow the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength‘.

If we solely look to government this only presents us with the classic misdirect of the illusionist, for we fail to see the source of our help and health, who is God alone. So as we enter this Easter weekend, let’s take the time to place those unrealised fears, stirred by an unknown tomorrow, into the hands of God and pray for both ourselves and those throughout the world who share these troubling times with us.

‘For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world. Amen’

There is a story about one of the great Desert Fathers, Moses the Black:

Abba Moses

“It happened that Abba Moses was struggling with the temptation of fornication. Unable to stay any longer in the cell, he went and told Abba Isidore. The old man exhorted him to return to his cell. But he refused, saying, ‘Abba, I cannot.’ Then Abba Isidore took Moses out onto the terrace and said to him, ‘Look towards the west.’ He looked and saw hordes of demons flying about and making a noise before launching an attack. Then Abba Isidore said to him, ‘Look towards the east.’ He turned and saw an innumerable multitude of holy angels shining with glory. Abba Isidore said, ‘See, these are sent by the Lord to the saints to bring them help, while those in the west fight against them. Those who are with us are more in number than they are.’ Then Abba Moses, gave thanks to God, plucked up courage and returned to his cell.”

Interestingly, a few lines later in the same collection we read this:

“A brother came to Scetis to visit Abba Moses and asked him for a word. The old man said to him, ‘Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.’”

What Abba Moses had learned from Abba Isidore he was the able to share himself: “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” It is a simple, seemingly unremarkable, bit of counsel. Unremarkable, because it seems as if it is basically counsel to do nothing: sit in your cell. That certainly doesn’t seem like much, and it certainly doesn’t seem like a great ascetical labor or warfare. But within this simple commandment is hidden a rather remarkable and profound bit of wisdom.

When we are battling against temptation, we often start casting about trying to figure out what we can do to make it stop. How do we win this fight? How do we make the temptations go away? These are the thoughts that plague us and drive us, like Moses, looking for relief, for something to do.

But, perhaps counter-intuitively, the very first thing we must learn is not to do anything. “Go, sit in your cell.” Don’t, that is, do anything. Why? Because you don’t yet know what to do, and anything you do will be the wrong thing. At this point any action that we would undertake would be something that we have learned int he past, something out of our old, fallen habits and activities, and these are the very things that got us where we are in the first place, i.e. enslaved to the passions. So, the very first thing that we must do is to do nothing but sit in our cell, not act according to old habits and responses, but to simply wait and watch. And immediately, if we do this, we will learn that this sitting in the cell is not nothing but a very definite and profound something. For to sit in the cell is itself a great act of faith.

If we go sit in our cell, we will discover that the thoughts are still there and that the temptations will not magically go away as if God were to wave a magic wand over us. But if we persist in sitting still, neither running from the thoughts nor giving into them, then the cell will begin to teach us everything, as Abba Isidore promised. It will teach us that the very things within us to which the temptations appeal, our passions, are not truly satisfied with the things with we are tempted, but will, if heeded, leave us defeated, empty, and filled with despondency as they have always done. Furthermore, it will show us the very things that drive these passions and give fuel to the temptations: our fears, lust, desires, and a seeking for comfort and consolation in things that can never comfort or console us. Ultimately, if we persist in sitting in our cell, we will be led to the One and only One who can truly give us comfort and consolation, the One who said, “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

All of this will be learned only if we sit in our cell and do not act according to all of our typical reactions, which were, as I said, formed in the same processes that shaped and defined our former way of being as slaves to sin. The new way of being, in Christ, will be formed and shaped in the cell like life in the womb. For that is what the cell is, a virginal womb awaiting the Word. Real spiritual life, then, is not something we produce ourselves within ourselves. Our work is to sit, waiting in faith, with patience and hope. And this sitting and waiting is not nothing but a profound something. It is the plaintive cry of the Psalmist. It is the Virgin maiden awaiting, though she does not know it, the arrival of the archangel. And it is even, mysteriously, the watching, piercing gaze of the Father looking for the arrival of the prodigal. For it is God himself, already in us, awaiting our arrival to the heavenly home, our deep heart.

A few days ago, I had a conversation with a man, a recovering alcoholic, who was experiencing a series of traumatic events in his life. In the past his response to such trauma would have been the obvious reaction to drink, looking for comfort and consolation in alcohol. The temptation is ever present, it doesn’t magically go away when someone stops drinking, and the temptation was present as he spoke. My simple and direct counsel to him was not to drink. That might seem like a simple negative, something not to do. It is, rather, the simple and yet profound wisdom of Abba Moses: “Sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” Not drinking means sitting in the cell. And if that is undertaken as a simple act of faith it will become the womb from which the new life in him will be born.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke, wrote:

“The space within us reaches out, translates each thing. For the essence of a tree to be real for you, cast inner space around it, out of the space that exists in you. Encircle it with restraint. It has no borders. Only in the realm of your renouncing can it, as tree, be known.”

True ascetical life is, to use the poet’s words, “the space within us.” And it is only in this “realm of your renouncing” that anything can be known. Sitting in your cell, not drinking, not looking for comfort and consolation in our old habits and sins, makes the inner space within us a fertile womb which can become, like the Mother of God’s, border-less and more spacious than the heavens when it receives the infinite Word. And it is only there and then that we can know him, and knowing him truly know ourselves for the first time.

Post by Fr. John, Orthodox Church of St John of Chicago.

This May, you can enjoy five days of holiday and spiritual retreat with Dr Micha Jazz from Be Still and Know on Premier Christian Radio.

As well as morning and evening gatherings for reflection and prayer, we shall both be available throughout the day offerng personal spiritual direction and spiritual coaching. We are also happy to host informal conversations on the challenges of prayer during the afternoon. In other words this is a retreat in which everyne can choose the rhythm that best suits their preference.

See details: https://www.springharvestholidays.com/feature-weeks/retreat/

Le Pas Opton offers four-star holiday facilities and quality accommodation in a Christian environment. The Be Still and Know retreat holiday offers the opportunity chance to explore your faith with the support of an experienced Retreat Guide.

Prayer, discussion, meditation plus time to relax in the holiday environment – a perfect combination for spirit, soul and body!

Here in the Oratory our grasp on prayer is improving through practice and reflection and we’re thrilled to see God at work. Prayer is always our response to God as well as our search for enriching God encounter. Join us as together we we seek God’s presence.

https://www.springharvestholidays.com/feature-weeks/retreat/ 

There is a simplicity in silence. Sitting watching the rain over the last two days reminded me of the fullness of life there is in apparently ‘doing’ nothing. Yet watching the rain fall upon a garden bleached brown by the lovely summer to date, awakened again memories of sitting as a child conscious of nothing more then the present moment.

Of course as a contemplative the disciplined practice of silence is an essential element of my daily rhythm of life. I deploy the tool of Centering Prayer as my springboard into silence. For silence can be approached along a number of pathways. The place for silence is growing in importance for as a society we are increasingly turning to noise to distract us from the stresses life presents. I have been surprised over recent years the number of car radios that continue to play even as I travel as a passenger. We talk, yet the radio is a perpetual background noise, filing any silence between our conversation. For others social media affords the suitable distraction. I will turn on the TV instinctively when wanting to relax. Of course all such methods are passive rather than active; I am the object, not the subject of such activity.

I wonder just how lost I am as I wade through yet another Netflix box set. The story lines are much the same, just located in a different context. And I’m amazed at the amount of what I would call ‘soft porn’ has crept onto my screen. I cannot see what additional value or context it affords the plot. Of course all this is entering through my eye-gate and is being processed somewhere in my brain. To good or ill effect I am uncertain, but fear the latter.

Silence is a practice best served without distractions. For those familiar with Centering Prayer it is by use of a prayer word that the individual seeks to refocus upon God when the mind consistently seeks to distract with a myriad of unrelated thoughts. The mind never stops, therefore this constant traffic noise of random thoughts will never go away. Yet learning to abide in silence is of increasing importance in value as we age and have more time on our hands and less energy for activity.

Another favoured route is to use Ignatian techniques that utilise the imagination. This means our mind is employed in directed activity to serve our desire to make use of the silence. These meditative approaches, as distinct from contemplation, enable us to direct the minds creativity to serve a divine purpose.

For me I have discovered an increasing desire for more silence as I’ve applied myself to contemplation. Rather than reading I seek time to be still, silent and rested in the divine presence. The simplicity is the very fact that I need little to sustain me in such a space. I emerge sometimes frustrated for managing my forever active mind has proved draining. Yet, then I remind myself I am being hijacked by a sense, deeply embedded in the human psyche, that time somehow has to produce results. Time spent in silence is its own result. It demands no ancillary product.

So gazing at the rain falling from the sky was a valuable lesson recovered from my childhood practice. I do indeed need to become a child again to approach God in any meaningful way.

IF you are interested in discovering more about the simplicity of silence consider our day retreat in the Oratory on Friday October 19, TURN UP THE QUIET’. A Beginner’s Guide to Contemplation‘.

I hear the question often, ‘why retreat?’ It sounds like a negative concept suggesting defeat and withdrawal. And the spiritual life is never easy, so if I acknowledge retreat it only further undermines my confidence in approaching a dimension of reality that lies beyond reason.

There is a common phrase, ‘Two steps forward, one step back‘. It speaks of the slow place of progress in any sphere of life. However, when it comes to Retreat I reverse it and suggest that in taking time with God it’s always, ‘One step back and two steps forward‘!

A retreat affords us the space to do three critical things that inspire and enable personal development.

First, a retreat affords me that rare luxury of space away from my ‘normal’. Familiar sights, sounds and responsibilities easily focus my attention on what isn’t working. I find it hard t imagine anything beyond what has emerged as the normality of my life experience. If there are elements I don’t like my natural human response is to project blame anywhere but onto myself. Yet I alone have the keys to structuring my life, regardless of the bum hand I feel life has dealt me or the people who ‘just don’t understand me‘ and now conspire to make my life miserable. In the space a retreat offers I have an opportunity to de-clutter my brain and rediscover objectivity. Remember perspective, whilst feeling like reality, is never anything more than ONE perspective, albeit my own strongly held one. I can change my perspective, though it takes a plan and time to do so.

Second, a retreat focuses my attention upon key content. Most of the time my brain is like an eight lane highway along which myriad thoughts trundle, backwards and forwards. Trying to make the time to ignore the traffic noise and narrow my focus onto one thought that might offer a key to unlocking my overarching mood is rare in the pace at which we live life, and our electronic availability. We can be ‘on air’ 24/7 if we want. It’s a discipline to maintain a work period distinct from leisure and family time. It’s a double discipline to resist reaching for phone and tablet first thing in the day to scan messages and social media content. When I dumb down the traffic flow and become attentive to one theme over a day, I am surprised how many fresh insights I gain across a wide range of personal concerns.

Finally, a well led retreat will encourage me to determine what simple, practical and manageable steps I can take to ensure what I have encountered on my retreat does not disappear as my mind resumes its journey on a highway to nowhere. Such practical steps are the stepping stones that establish a pathway leading me toward a fuller engagement with God and a deeper understanding of myself, God, neighbour and personal context.

Retreat for me has become a regular means of ensuring my overall well being. I increasingly know that I can make life work for me and not simply get up to work for life. Hence I am pleased to announce that the Retreat days here in the Oratory have been posted for the next year. There’s a wide range of subject matter and taking time out to benchmark where you are at and to audit your spiritual well being is something that can only add value to the quality and content of your daily life.

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