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The Second Essential of Prayer

Once we have achieved an appreciation and something of a practice of ‘Stillness, Prayer essential #1, what are we to do in this new found yet soon to become familiar Stillness? The second essential is Attentiveness. Attentiveness has two meanings.

Meaning One

I guess we all recognise the demand to pay close attention to our context, ‘Driving requires attentiveness to road and traffic conditions‘, i.e. not the time to write a complex rebuttal to a disagreeable proposal. Once in the Stillness therefore it is not the stillness itself that is the objective of our prayer. It is the context to which such Stillness has introduced us.

As I sit in summer mornings enjoying the swelling sounds of the dawn chorus I can hear a cacophony of enjoyable birdsong filling the air. However, as I apply attentiveness, I distinguish blackbird from song thrush, robin from goldfinch. Naturally the ability to distinguish such sounds is dependent upon a certain amount of work carried out in familiarising myself with the different songs of British garden birds, and would prove of little value on a trip to Malaysia. Which goes to show that the attention we have given over our life to discerning and distinguishing the character and the ways of God is the foundation upon which we establish prayerful attentiveness. I hear yet must learn to discern what it is I am hearing, an act of attentiveness.

Meaning Two

However, attentiveness also means attending to the interests and comfort of others as in, ‘They live in constant, kindly attentiveness to each others needs‘. In approaching God it is not simply that I anticipate or demand that God in some interventionist and measurable way attends to my ever swelling bandwidth of ‘needs’. Rather that I attend to the ‘needs’ of the Divine. Can I really suggest that an omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient God has a ‘need’ of my attentiveness? Regardless, I do. And that’s because God’s will in the earth is expressed through the obedient action of those who determine to love and serve God. God is voiceless and shapeless without an engaged, redeemed humanity.

Purpose

God is purposeful in that there is always an end as well as a present in view. For me prayer once was a response to the present with little objective focus upon the end in view. In fact God thinks from the end backwards, in which case the present is rather more incidental than essential. Whilst this might feel like it reduces human value, it cannot, for such value can only ever be established with the end in view, i.e. I have been created human, in the image of God for the purpose of growing up into maturity in Christ. Over investment in the realities of the present can only lead to stunted growth, in other words a deformity or abnormality perhaps in the aspiration that I’m invited to share alongside God.

Attentiveness affords me the opportunity to discern the present in light of the end in view. I recover perspective.

Illustration

As my first darling wife, Katey, battled with MS, the initial prayer focus was consumed with the present; an assumed need that she be physically healed. I’ve no doubt God does intervene and physically heals today. We had both prayed and seen medically confirmed healing through the vehicle of prayer. Indeed we had experienced such healing ourselves. However, physical healing is incidental and not the end God has in view. This end is most certainly about healing, yet healing as wholeness or completion, where only death affords us the key to such completion.

Whilst Katey and I, and a concerned congregation, threw every prayer we had at seeking to determine a new, or different, present, we paid little attention in discerning the distinct word of God in the season. In fact we assumed we were mounting a raid against Satan to rescue Katey from what can only have been the devil’s work.

Exhausted and momentarily exhausted and disillusioned, where a moment is as a thousand days if not years, it was out of broken dejection, and the aloneness and sense of abandonment that followed in the melting away of an exhausted and confused congregation, that we together began to pay attention to God and seek to discern the voice of God. The end remained the same, ‘To you have I lifted up my eyes, you who dwell in the heavens: my eyes like the eyes of slaves, on the hand of their lords…our eyes on the Lord our God, till he shows us his mercy…Have mercy on us Lord, have mercy‘.

We again reminded ourselves we are God’s property, albeit fearfully and wonderfully made. That God alone has the word of life and so it was to the Lord we directed our gaze. No longer consumed by physical disease we waited and began to develop an attentiveness to who God was in this set of circumstances and discern God’s unique words for us both. We found comfort even as we knew pain and disappointment. Attentiveness is a long way from the soothing balm of a hot bath of scented bubbles.

Such attentiveness was not primarily to provide us with any emotional satisfaction for we discovered that feelings are untrustworthy and in no way confirmed if God were present or not. Attentiveness was finding the capacity to rest in the reality that God’s will might be done in the earth and in the outworking of that will we discover God and deepen our understanding and appreciation of God, even as and when mortality brings death at an age my humanity might never understand and rail against.

Conclusion

So in the Stillness we learn to become attentive to God. Our own will, aspiration, assumption and perception will readily seek to occupy that Stillness. Only problem with this is that it must inevitable drown out the still small voice who is Jesus. I say ‘learn’ for not one of us can accomplish attentiveness without a disciplined commitment to practice; Intuition + Practice = Performance. Discerning different songs within the overwhelming orchestration that is the dawn chorus takes both knowledge and discipline, and is of course continually accompanied by doubt. In all such attentiveness it remains to me to discover what it is the Master says, where saying is not essentially an audible word. And where attentiveness may require nothing more of me than attentiveness itself.

‘if the Lord had not been on our side…then the waters would have engulfed us, the torrent gone over us…Blessed be the Lord who did not give us a prey to their teeth…Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth’.

Don had a rare combination of strengths—common sense, administrative ability, thoughtful reflection—all wrapped in the gentlest of spirits. He was also in perfect health. Or so we thought, until he went out for a run and had a fatal heart attack.

nativityWhat I remember most about his funeral was the terror that ran through me as I thought about God in this context. Who is this deity who kills off the best people, or at least allows them to die? What else might this deity do?

Yes, such questions may be futile or, horrors, bad theology. It hardly mattered on that day. What mattered was that I felt a real fear of God—fear with an echo of awe.

“Fear of the Lord” pops up often in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. It’s a strange phrase, especially for spiritual directors. We’ve seen how fear keeps spiritual directees from living into the freedom that we, and I daresay God, wish for them.

Some commentators interpret the word fear in that phrase as referring to awe or reverence. That would be nicer. But I think it diminishes the echoes of awe within fear, and fear within awe, that I felt at Don’s funeral.

This strange dance between fear and awe shows up more often than we might think. Looking back on my own life, I can see the extravagant love of God, masterfully weaving the strands of my story. That inspires awe. I also see where the pursuit of God’s call has torn those threads apart: loss of income, boatloads of self-doubt, few tangible results. That inspires fear.

Many people have noted how the beauty of the night sky takes their breath away. That is awe. Yet the sight of the universe can unnerve as well, pulling the rug of our own perceived significance out from under us. More fear.

The awe-fear dance can overwhelm us. It was clearly too much for Job, the biblical character who, oppressed by tragedy upon tragedy, responded by asking God to just go away.Let me alone, for my days are a breath,” he says (Job 7:16–19). “What are human beings, that you make so much of them, … test them every moment? Will you not look away from me for a while, let me alone until I swallow my spittle?”

Perhaps it’s normal, even human, to feel both awe and fear in the presence of something greater or more beautiful than ourselves. Of course, we could just let the whole thing go—and let God go. Maybe Job had the right idea.

But that would ignore our deepest desire: to draw close to the One who, we are told, is the source of something even greater than awe and fear—compassion. So we continue on, embracing all aspects of our experience of the Divine: even the fear that, far from being obsolete, is part of the journey that leads to love.

John Backman

A regular contributor to Huffington Post Religion and an associate of an Episcopal monastery, John Backman is the author of Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart (SkyLight Paths, 2012). He recently completed the spiritual direction training program at Linwood Spiritual Center.

 

A lovely piece excerpted by America Magazine by Fr. James Martin SJ. Worth the read and as we battle ‘Black Friday’ and its celebration of consumerism perhaps find some space for rest and reflection.

The following is a meditation on the place of gratitude in Ignatian spirituality.

thanksgivingThe traditional first step of the examen, the end-of-the-day prayer that St. Ignatius Loyola told Jesuits never to omit from their day, is gratitude. You recall the good things that happened to you in the past day, and give thanks.

It is an essential step. As David Fleming, S.J., an expert on spirituality, wrote me in a letter, “Ignatius saw the examen as prayer, not just focused on the person, but as directed to God. That’s why the examination begins with thanks to God, establishing the focus. It’s not simply self-examination or dreamy introspection, it is a way of prayer, a way of being with God.

And Ignatius meant giving thanks for any “benefits,” as he said, in the broadest possible sense. Obvious things would include any good news, a tender moment with a spouse, finishing an important project at work. But also less-obvious things: the surprising sight of sunlight on the pavement in the middle of a bleak midwinter’s day, the taste of a ham-and-cheese sandwich you had for lunch; satisfaction at the end of a tiring day caring for your children.

For Ignatius many things–no matter how seemingly inconsequential–are occasions for gratitude. You recall them and you “relish” or “savor” them, as Ignatius would say.

Savoring is an antidote to our increasingly rushed lives. We live in a busy world, with an emphasis on speed, efficiency and productivity, and we often find ourselves always moving on to the next task at hand. Life becomes an endless series of tasks, and our day becomes a compendium of to-do lists. We become “human doings” instead of “human beings.”

Savoring slows us down. In the examen we don’t recall an important experience simply to add it to a list of things that we’ve seen or done; rather, we savor as if we were a wonderful meal. We pause to enjoy what has happened. It’s a deepening of our gratitude to God, and reveals the hidden joys of our days. As Anthony de Mello, SJ, notes, “You sanctify whatever you are grateful for.”

The way of Ignatius celebrates gratitude. The Spiritual Exercises are crammed with references to expressing gratitude for God’s gifts. “I will consider how all good things and gifts descend from above,” he writes in the Fourth Week, “from the Supreme and Infinite Power above…just as the rays come down from the sun.” The examen, as we’ve mentioned, begins with gratitude. According to John Padberg, S.J., a church historian, for Ignatius the “most execrable and the worst” sin was ingratitude.

Gratitude is an essential element in healthy friendships, too.

When I asked my friend Steve, a Jesuit priest in New York, about friendship the first thing he mentioned was the examen. “When I think embraceabout friendship, the first thing that comes to mind is finding God in all things,” he said. “That surfaces during my examen, when frequently God directs me to things that God thinks are important–rather than what I might be focusing on. Often that turns out to be friends and interactions with other Jesuits–in even the simplest of ways: a random comment in a corridor or a homily from another Jesuit. The examen helps me to be more mindful, and more grateful for, my friends.”

Paula, a friend who works in campus ministry at a Jesuit school in the Midwest, noted wryly that while everyone will say that they are grateful for their friends, the examen makes it easier to focus on that gratitude. “The examen always helps in friendships and in family relationships,” she said, “because it helps with gratitude.” For Sister Maddy, a woman religious who works at a retreat house in Gloucester, Mass., even days when friends aren’t as present are occasions for being grateful for them. “Every night during my examen, I remember my gratitude for friends–even if I’ve not been in contact with them on that particular day. I’m grateful for them wherever they are.”

Paul, until recently the rector of a large Jesuit community in Boston, said that gratitude was the most neglected part of friendship. For many years, Paul was in charge of training young Jesuits in Boston and Chicago. He has a lifetime of experience in counseling others in their spiritual lives. “One of the most important parts of friendship is living in gratitude for the gift, and growing into that kind of gratitude,” he said.

Paul noted that one common problem in Jesuit friendships stemmed from a lack of gratitude. Without gratitude, you take friendship for granted. “You forget that it takes a little effort. And the small things matter: making time to call, staying in touch. If people can name a friendship, and can appreciate it, they are more inclined to work at it.”

True friendships are hard to come by, said Paul, and they take work. And patience. “There are a small number of people who, for whatever reason, easily make and keep friends. But the vast majority of the human race has to ask for friendship, and be patient in waiting for it to come. When we imagine friendships, we tend to imagine things happening instantly. But like anything that’s rich and wonderful you grow into it.”

But what about those readers for whom talk of friendship reminds them of their loneliness? This discussion may help you find ways to strengthen or deepen your appreciation of relationships with family and friends. But what about the lonely reader? Well, you can enjoy God’s friendship in prayer, seeing how God is active in your work, your reading, your hobbies.

Still, what can we say to those who long for a friend?

It would be wrong to downplay the pain of loneliness: I have known many lonely people whose lives are filled with sadness. Perhaps the only thing I could add is to remain open up to the possibility of meeting new friends and not to move to despair, trusting, as much as you can, that God wants you someday to find a friend. The very desire for friendship is an invitation from God to reach out to others. Trust that God desires community for you, though that goal may seem far away.

“For those who wonder why it’s not happening faster in their lives,” said Paul, “I think that it’s more important to love and take the first step. And it also may seem that most people have to spend their lives giving more than receiving,” said Paul.

“But at the end, even with all the work that is involved, even if you only find one friend in your whole life, it’s worth it.”

Excerpted from The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything,

James Martin, SJ

Retreat Day with Dr Micha & Jayne Jazz May 25, 2016 @ The Wisdom Centre Romsey, 9:30-16:30 refreshments and lunch provided. All inclusive price £35.

Just a few places remain for this day retreat in Romsey Hampshire. We already have a group of twenty people booked to explore deepening their understanding of contemplative activism Please do let us know if this is a day that you might value.

We shall explore the whole area of attachment and detachment with the help of the text of Cloud of UnknowingScholars date the anonymous authorship of Cloud of Unknowing to 1375, during the height of European monasticism. Written as a primer for the young monastic, the work is instructional, but does not have an austere didactic tone. Rather, the work embraces the reader with a maternal call to grow closer to God through meditation and prayer.

Our day will begin with coffee from 9:30 and we shall make a formal start at 10:00. The day will be a combination of learning together and self discovery through directed, individual activities. The objective as ever is to take a step back from the busyness of life and  deepen your personal understanding and awareness of both God and self. The core theme in our time together will be to examine the relationship between contemplation and activism.
 
You do not need to have read the text of Cloud of Unknowing and I shall have copies in a modern translation available for purchase on the day if you think you might want to explore further in this wonderful contemplative fourteenth century text. Do however bring your own notebook and pen. Slides of the day will be circulated after the retreat as a PDF via email.
To book: Email stcuthbertsoratory@gmail.com.

It’s the celebration of the Baptism of Jesus today in the Church Liturgy. It’s also the day when all the Christmas decorations are taken down within the Oratory. Later than some I know, where twelfth night is the traditional time for removing the Christmas Tree. Yet, today it seems people get fed up with the aftermath of Christmas sooner than ever and decorations disappear almost as quickly as the season’s goodwill.

Removing the meaning from Christmas and reducing it to a festival of self indulgence, forced good cheer and the largest spending spree in the year, whilst honouring its pre Christian roots, robs the event of its true magic and mystery. The idea that One larger than the totality of Creation, more complex than any thought attainable by the human mind, the very essence of the love we all yearn for and seek after, might squeeze into the form of a human child whilst retaining Divine identity is for all unbelievable; for some therefore unreal, for others of us, extraordinary.

As we return the decorations to their boxes and pack away the tree the Oratory is stripped back to its naked form. It immediately strikes me as being much larger now all the Christmas glitz and glitter’s gone. It’s also so barren, its basic functionality – a roof over our heads – re-established. It was into such a barren context, a life that offered little more than a battle for personal survival, a search for meaning and identity, a battle with nature and neighbour to progress through life’s innumerable challenges Jesus came. The world’s population wasn’t looking for a miracle, yet out of grace God provided one anyway, manifest as the babe who shepherds and wise men worshipped in turn – those on the margin of society to those who ran society. We stand with shepherd and Magi today and must answer the question, ‘Is this a mere fantasy designed to distract us from the harsh realities of life on earth, or is it a marvel to be considered and approached through the eye of faith?‘ Regardless each of us needs to accept responsibility and take our decision.

This babe Jesus grew with the purpose of God woven within him. At the appropriate time he approached the Jordan, responded to his cousin’s call to repentance and was baptised in the river. John recognised Jesus’ divinity, God affirmed it as he rose from the water, yet in reality Jesus now chose himself to realise his divine destiny. As he sunk beneath the water he was stripped of everything save his identity in God. This was the identity God proclaimed and the dove gave witness to. As he emerged from the river with the astonishment of the crowd, with the affirmation of  The Baptist and the comforting confirmation of his Father, Jesus stepped into the wilderness. All the glitz and glamour of the baptismal moment evaporated, and he was left stripped bare to face the harsh reality of a world in which temptation surrounded him and each moment he was invited to choose for himself or for God.

As I ponder a Oratory stripped bare, I am invited to meditate upon wilderness, the harsh realities of life, which Christmas in all its forms can usefully disguise for a brief moment, and consider again who will I decide for in this moment and the countless moments that await me throughout this new year? Jesus stepped from the joy of his family life in Nazareth, into establishing his true family, the family of God in the earth.

Present  future

Present future

 

Community living sounds appealing. Today I find many pursuing the idea, if not the practice. Individuals are out looking to rent or purchase property to practice community, and I trust it’s always forchristian_Community the reason of a purpose more important than Community itself. The reason is that some years back a phrase was adopted that causes me real concern. This phrase is ‘Intentional Community’. My problem lies with the fact that Community here provides the noun and so the intention is to create community, as though community is a good idea, even a God idea, in and of itself.

My preference is to speak of ‘Communities with Intention’ where that intention is carefully thought through and articulated. Hence the Sisters of Mercy established by Mother Theresa are a Community (expressed in a variety of sizes and distinct geographical locations) with the intention of caring for the dying. They know why they are together and the challenges of living in proximity can be addressed through the lens of how might we address such tensions in the light of our primary calling and agreement to care for the dying?

Living cheek by jowl with others, either in a Community House or a Laura of several separate households, raises challenges. We do not naturally get on with one another and each one of us is selfish, fractured through the Fall. It takes a strong commitment to manage self if I am to engage creatively, practically and positively with other community members. The irritations that arise within me are in fact a source of discipleship and part of God’s plan to enable me to grow into maturity in Christ. This is my prayer – even though achieving that reality causes real pain.

I have lived in Community in a variety of forms for over twenty years. My learning was that I am in fact the greatest obstruction to effective community, not my fellow communitarians. Whilst all the problems I faced I might initially lay at their door, when brave enough to be honest, I realised it was about my internal reaction and desire to be master of my own environment. This latter is perhaps a very effective description of sin. God knows how best to unhinge me so that I might not only recognise my own frailty but also discover my need both to depend upon God’s grace and learn how to access such grace. This is not a natural process but a disciplined one.

 

Today we live in a small family community with the intention of providing a secure environment for my ninety year old mum. What might possibly go wrong with that? Well we all go wrong with

Mum's First Selfie. New Year's Day 2016

Mum’s First Selfie. New Year’s Day 2016

that for as in every community the romantic notions attached to the intention are tested to the limit whilst my own selfish sinfulness is revealed. My own heart for the ageing within our wider community is tested to the full in the microcosm of living alongside one older person. The good intention and romanticism fast disappear and the harsh reality of what it means to love neighbour as self placed fair and square before me. I face the question is this truly what I want, or is it really just one more attempt to promote self and secure warm applause for sacrificial goodness that is neither sacrificial nor good?

We don’t live in a world searching for Community. We live in a world in which we are searching for purpose whilst challenged within by our own selfish sinful demands and desires. In agreeing a Community intention and exploring that in honesty together we can make a start in dealing with our individual selfishness and discover the depth of the rottenness within each one of us whilst finding the fullness and acceptance of God for us in the grace we’re invited to share together.

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