Jesus takes Peter, James and John to a mountaintop and there they have ~ well ~ a “peak” experience extraordinaire.
It’s a great story. It contrasts with last week’s story of Jesus in the desert being tempted by the devil. Today Jesus is receiving a wonderful affirmation.
According to our Scripture-scholar friend William Barclay, this story is another of the great hinges in Jesus’ life on earth—and we’ll see why. He was just about to set out for Jerusalem, setting his face toward the cross.
The story is cloaked in mystery. We can only try to understand. We usually associate this event with Mount Tabor, which is in the south of Galilee. However, Luke tells us this event happened eight days after events in Caesarea Philippi which is in the north. Not on that, Tabor is only about 1,000 feet high, and in the time of Jesus, Barclay indicates there was a fortress on top. It’s much more likely that this event took place amidst the eternal snows of Mount Hermon which is 9,200 high and much nearer Caesarea Philippi. (The image above is from a Flicker photo of Mount Hermon taken in 2009.
Jesus took his favorite disciples, Peter, James and John up on the mountain to pray. On the mountain top, Moses and Elijah appeared to him. Moses was the great lawgiver of the people of Israel; Elijah was the greatest of the prophets. It was as if the princes of Israel’s life and thought and religion were affirming Jesus to go on.
There’s a vivid sentence here about the three apostles . . . .
“When they were fully awake they saw his glory.”
In life we miss so much because our minds are often asleep.
~ There are many of us who are so wrapped up in our own ideas that our minds are shut. “Someone may be knockin’ at the door” but we’re often like sleepers who will not awake.
~ There are others of us who refuse think about anything. Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” How many of us have thought things out and thought them through?
~ We can drug ourselves mentally against any disturbing thought until we are sound asleep that Big Brother can taken over. Ever seen the “Matrix?”
But life is full of things designed to awaken us.
~ There is sorrow. Often sorrow can rudely awaken us, but in a moment, through the tears, we will see the glory.
~ There is love. Barclay references a poem by Robert Browning telling of two people who fell in love: She looked at him; he looked at her—“and suddenly life awoke.”
I remember a similar experience in reading Thomas Merton’s Seven Story Mountain for the second time several years ago. When I finished it I found myself immersed in joyous tears for weeks on end—filled with love for Jesus that this young monk and elicited in me. This Lent, I’m trying to re-enable that experience.
~ There is a sense of need. It’s easy enough to live the routine life half asleep; then all of a sudden there comes some completely insoluble problem, some unanswerable question, some overwhelming temptation, some summons to an effort that we feel is beyond our strength. And that sense of need can awaken us to God.
We would do well to pray, “Lord, keep me always awake to you.”
Source: William Barclay /Gospel of Luke pages 147-8.
But here’s a couple of other observations from the February 2016 issue of the Magnificat liturgical magazine:
After the disciples witnessed Jesus conversing with Moses and Elijah, this appears in the text . . . .
While he was still speaking, a cloud came and cast a shadow over them,
and they became frightened when they entered the cloud. (Lk. 9:34)
The overshadowing of the divine Spirit does not darken, according to Saint Ambrose, but reveals secret things to the hearts of people. It is the luminous cloud the soaks us from the dew that sprinkles the minds of people with faith sent by the voice of the almighty God.
He’s talking about mystical experience that arise from deep prayer or centering prayer sometimes or even just experiencing an amazing sunset or an exhilarating conversation with a friend.
Anyway, what a gorgeous sentence that is “a luminous cloud that soaks us / from the dew that sprinkles the minds of people with faith” . . . Wow! Think on that one.
Immediately following, we here from the cloud a voice that said,
“This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”
It is a call to heed Jesus’ teaching about his Passion and our need to take up our cross and follow him: Jesus is he Messiah who suffers.
“After the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. They fell silent” . . . .
Their silence was a mark of awe. As it was on the last day of Jesus’ life, when he said, “It is finished.”
You may never had a mountain top experience like Peter, James and John have had. Even one mountain top experience — one “peak experience” as Abraham Maslow likes to call them can be life-changing.
Any close encounter with God can be life-changing.
As I conclude, I encourage you to make the intention to be open to joyous experience of your own when such moments come. When they come, embrace them. Try not to resist or deny them as many of us do. Surrender to the moment and experience it as deeply and richly as you can.
And now before you go, here is the Eucharistic hymn sung by a young boy and a mass choir~ Ave Verum Corpus. Click here.
First Sunday of Lent ~The Fidelity of Jesus ~ March 10, 2019
This is a story about fidelity in the face of temptation.
This is a story about the Jesus I know and love.
Before I get into my own thoughts on this important opening story in the life of our Lord, I’d like to share some notes from our Scripture scholar-friend William Barclay.
He says that the word to tempt in Greek peirazeinhas a different emphasis than its English counterpart. We always think of tempting as something bad. But peirazein has a different emphasis; it means to test.
One of the great Old Testament stories makes this clear. Remember how Abraham narrowly escaped sacrificing his only son Isaac? God was testing him, not tempting him!
So, with Jesus, this whole incident was not so much a tempting as the testing of Jesus.
We have to note further where this test took place. The inhabited part of Judea stood on a central plateau that was the backbone of southern Palestine. Between it and the Dead Sea stretched a terrible wilderness, thirty-five by fifteen miles. It was called Jeshimmon, which means “the Devastation.” The hills were like dust-heaps; the limestones looked blistered and peeling; the rocks bare and jagged, with heat like a vast furnace and ran out to the precipices. 1,200 feet high, that plunged down to the Dead Sea. It was in that awesome devastation that Jesus was tempted or rather the Father was shaping him ~ testing his mettle ~ for his mission.
Then there are these other points to take note . . . .
First, all three gospel writers seem to stress the immediacy with which the temptations follow the baptism. As St. Luke describes it: “Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days to be tempted by the devil.”Barclay suggests to us that we do well to be on guard when life brings us to the heights that that’s when we’re in the gravest danger of a fall.
Second, we should not regard this experience of Jesus as an outward experience. It was a struggle that went on in his own heart and mind and soul. The proof is that there is no possible mountain from which all the mountains of the earth could be seen. This is an inner struggle.
It is through our inmost thoughts and desires that the tempter comes to us. His attack can be so real that we almost see the devil.
(Pope Francis in a meditation in the Magnificat liturgical magazine was saying that Christian life is a battle. And then cautioned when someone said “you’re so old-fashioned; the devil doesn’t exist, ‘Watch out! The devil exists. We must learn how to battle him in the 21st Century. And must not be naïve. We must learn from the Gospel how to battle him.’”)
Third, Barclay goes on, we must not think that Jesus conquered the tempter and that the tempter never came to him again. Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom. In Christian warfare, says Barclay as well as Pope Francis, there is no release. Some people think they should get beyond that stage; Jesus himself never did, even in his last hour in Gethsemane.
Forth, one thing stands out about this story—these temptations could only come to a person who had special powers and knew he had them. We are always tempted through our gifts. We can use our gifts for selfish purposes or we can use them in the service of others. (A word to some of today’s political leaders perhaps?)
Fifth, the source must have been Jesus himself. He was alone in the wilderness. No one was with him in his struggle, so he must have told his men about it.
We must always approach this story with unique and utmost reverence, for it is laying bare his inmost heart and soul.
The story of Jesus moving into the desert this year, of course this year, is from the Gospel of Luke.
Here’s what Barclay has to say . . . .
No sooner than Jesus is has been immersed in his own baptism by John the Jordan River and basks for a moment in that glory that the battle of temptations begins.
Luke tells us that the Spiritled Jesus out into the wilderness for his testing time. The very Spirit that came upon him during his baptism.
In this life it’s impossible to escape the assault of temptations; but they’re not sent to make us fail. They’re sent to strengthen the nerve and our sinews of the mind and heart and souls. They’re not meant for our ruin, but for our good.
The Lord once found his people in a wilderness, a wasteland of howling desert(Dt 32:10) That’s where we first find Jesus and that’s where he first finds us—in a wasteland of sorrow, confusion, suffering, sin. Magnificat
Barclay gives the example of a football player who is showing signs of real promise. The manager isn’t going to put on the third team where he’ll hardly break a sweat, but on the first team where he’ll be tested and have a chance to prove himself.
That’s what temptation is meant to do—to enable us to prove our strength of character and to emerge stronger for the fight.
From this episode, our first lesson should be that human life on earth is a life of warfare and the first thing Christians must expect is to be tempted by the devil. Reading in the Gospel that Jesus was tempted right after he was baptized, they will not grow fainthearted and fearful if they experience keener temptations from the temptations from the devil after their conversion or baptism than before—even if persecution should be their lot. Magnificat
And then there’s this: Forty days is not to be taken literally. It’s the regular Hebrew phrase for a considerable period of time. Moses was said to be on the mountain with God for forty days.
And it was Satan that tempted Jesus.. The word Satan in Hebrew means adversary.
The other title for Satan is the Devil: the word comes from the Greek diabolos, which literally means a slanderer.It’s a small step from the thought of one who searches for everything that can be said against a man (adversary) to the thought of one who maliciously and deliberately slanders man in the presence of God.
In the New Testament, we learn that it is the Devil or Satan who causes human disease and suffering. It is the devil who seduces Judas. It is the devil who is destined for the final destruction.
And I wrote this many years ago. . . .
This is a story about earth-shaking silence that bore the sound of deafening harsh voices and one soft and gentle voice Who sent Jesus among us so we could know we had a father/God who loves us with an everlasting love.
First, a harsh voice prompted Jesus to turn stones into bread as a way of manipulating others to get them to follow him. Jesus could have made people dependent on him; instead, he shared with them what he realized: Our common dependence on the Father of all, who gives us our daily bread.
Another harsh voice tempted him to throw himself down from the parapet of the temple, a 450 ft. drop, and have his angels come and raise him up. He could put together a traveling road show of clever signs and wonders. Things would be easier that way. People would easily follow a clever magician. But this would draw people away from the Father, not toward him.
The soft voice was simply asking Jesus to reveal the real order of the Father’s kingdom.
Jesus realized his mission in life was to reveal Abba’s love as Father of all. Jesus was to let the world know that there was a soft voice within us all, who is there to affirm and to love, to test and to guide.
A third harsh voice promised Jesus the whole world, saying: “You’ve got the power to gain the whole world. You can be king of this world.
And Jesus sadly realized that many of his followers, even in the Church, would succumb to greed of every form. They would kill in Crusades and Inquisitions in the name of love.
As he was tempted, he was led into a soul-embracing love of the One he was to reveal. In the desert, Jesus must have knelt down and promised in all simplicity to seek and to do the will of the Father from moment to moment. And in that act of fidelity, in that decision, the new covenant surely was sealed in Jesus’ heart.
In the desert and its temptations, the whole of humanity was drawn into the possibility of intimate experience of the divine. Because one person was willing to be led into the holy of holies, we all can go with him. We can go–provided that we–like Jesus, are willing to be tested and cleansed, strengthened and purified.
In this story, at the beginning of Jesus’ mission, is the answer to the question: Why did Jesus have to die?
The answer was:
To surrender himself into the hands of evil people was the only way Jesus could be faithful. God could have intervened on behalf of his own Son. But that was out of the question.
The world could not accept God as a gentle Father. They found his message of love much too demanding. And since the authorities could not and would not accept him and his message, the only recourse left to him was simply to give witness to that message–even to the end.
He chose to be faithful to the soft Voice of the Father, not compromise the message, even if it led to his death.
Jesus had to suffer and die because, because tragically, that was the only way the world would allow him to be faithful to the Word he heard ~ and preached.
The Father was more pleased with the fidelity of one son than he would have been with the spread of a message that did not reveal his love.
This is a powerful lesson for those among us who would COERCE others into being good.
The false voices which Jesus tamed and quieted ~the voices of greed or accolade or power–we must tame and quiet, relying on his power as elder Son.
The soft voice of the Father to whom he was so devoted, the voice that was the source and object of all his fidelity, each one of us should train ourselves to hear.
And then learn . . . day after day after day to love . . . more deeply . . . more intimately . . . more really–the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
This is the Jesus I know and love.
And I ask him to teach me the gentle ways of the Father. Through Jesus, may we be faithful too.
Luke ends today’s Gospel passage by saying: “When the devil had finished every temptation, he departed from him . . . for a time.” Words that we should prayerfully consider and take heed.
And before you go, here’s the ol’ Gospel song, “Jesus walked that lonesome valley. Click here.
And here are today’s Mass readings, if you would like to reflect on them. Click here.
“I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse.
Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the Lord, your God, heeding his voice, and holding fast to him” (Deuteronomy 30:15-20).
Now here are my thoughts on Moses’ address to his people. One often hears the words Choose Life as a Pro-Life message. That’s important, but we’re invited to choose life again and again, every day. This Lent is an acceptable time to choose the life that affirms and nourishes us and to deliver ourselves from the dysfunctional communication and game-playing within our own home that damage the souls of our spouses and our children.
Let’s choose Life this day in the way we speak to and about the folks we meet today.
Choice is an act of the will, the highest power of the human person. We need to choose our words carefully. To preside over ~ take responsibility for what comes out of our mouths. To realize our words create life or death.
In today’s gospel, Jesus says,
“If anyone wishes to come after me, he must take up his cross daily and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.
What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself? (Luke 9: 22-25)
My reflection: Jesus gives us a koan here. That’s a Zen word for a riddle given to a student to mull over until the the student gets the insight.
Try to get into it this Lent. Ponder its meaning for you right now. Copy it on a card and repeat it often until you get it.
Jesus’ message is so counter-cultural. In our society people do anything to avoid the smallest bit of pain. There are even numbing pads so that you don’t feel it when you prick your finger for the Accu-check for diabetes. And we avoid emotional pain by not thinking through our problems. Some folks do this by getting a hasty divorce to run away from our problems or by dumping a girlfriend who no longer suits us via way of a cruel text message.
Lent places before us the Cross of Jesus and his loving embrace of it as our Savior, yes, but also as a model for us. He willingly stretched out his arms to be nailed. Jesus knew he would have to face a lot of suffering on his journey. He knew he would make people angry by proclaiming the truth he saw in his heart. He knew that it would lead him to death, but he never strayed from the road to Jerusalem.
The issue is Acceptance of whatever life calls us to.Jesus accepted the Cross because he chose to be faithful to his mission.
He was a person of absolute integrity. No one was going to dissuade him from being who he was.
This is the Jesus I know and love: The one who has the strength to love, no matter what. He’s my Lord, my Savior, my mentor, if you will. I would like very much to be like that. How ’bout you?
Tomorrow we begin to reflect on Jesus’ forty-day retreat into the desert’ (the Mass text for this coming Sunday) to prepare for his mission. Now before you go, here’s a hymn about taking up your cross. Click here.
And here are today’s Mass readings if you would like to reflect on them. Click here.
Ash Wednesday is upon us once again. Easter is late this year ~ Sunday April 19th.
So, you may ask ~ what are ashes all about?
We Catholics like symbols. (So does Harry Potter.)
What can they tell us about life? And death? And reality?
When the priest smears ashes on the penitent’s forehead he says one of two poignant phrases:
REMEMBER THAT YOU ARE DUST AND UNTO DUST YOU SHALL RETURN,
or REPENT AND BELIEVE IN THE GOSPEL.
So, it’s a sign of humility, a sign that we are part of the earth, that we are dust.
Are we to reflect and ask ~ Are we just dust?
Have made an ash-heap of our life?
Are we sitting in an ash-heap?
Is there nothing but ruin, smoldering embers around us?
If so, do we despair?
Or can we dream of re-building?
Whether or not, the answers to these questions apply to us literally, it is important to humble ourselves before our God.
That’s what the ashes signify. And Ash Wednesday is a day of fast and abstinence from meat to remind us that we should begin this penitential season well.
Here’s an article that explains the theological significance of the season of Lent.
Consisting of forty days, in commemoration of the time the Lord Jesus spent in the desert before starting his public ministry, Lent is a time of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving in which we believers prepare ourselves for the joyful celebration of the Paschal Mystery.
While the phrase “paschal mystery” is fundamentally Christian and should be a term readily known by every Christian disciple, most believers are unaware of its meaning and miss its significance.
With this observation in mind, let’s ask: What is the Paschal Mystery?Why does it require a penitential season to prepare for its celebration?
The Paschal Mystery is nothing more or less than the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is the fulfillment of ancient prophecies, the purpose of his messianic mission in destroying sin and death, and the unfolding expression of his immense love for us. The Paschal Mystery is the source of our belief in eternal life and the foundation of the hope we have of dwelling forever in heaven.
Anyone who claims the title of “Christian,” therefore, must realize what the Paschal Mystery is and what its role is in our desire for redemption.
It is for this reason that we believers needs Lent. The mystery of the Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection requires constant reflection and re-living in the lives of believers in order for the mystery to be fully assimilated in our hearts and appreciated in our everyday lives. With the pace of life and the multiple distractions presented by our world, it’s too easy for a Christian to miss the mystery. And so, Lent comes and commands a pause. It orders us – through various penances, some universal to all believers, while others of a more personal choosing – to slow down and see the mystery, feel the love, and desire heaven above all things.
And so, Lent is not a season about self-help or self-improvement for their own sake. It’s not just about giving up caffeine or chocolate (although these could be good penances) or about eating right or being more punctual (although it could be good to improve these habits). No, above all these things, Lent is about the believer deepening in her knowledge and experience of the Suffering, Crucified, and Resurrected God who loves her and seeks to be with her. It’s about grasping – and being grasped by – the radical and self-emptying love of Jesus Christ.
A good Lent, therefore, is reflected in a devout and attentive celebration of Holy Week and Easter. The rejoicing that’s a part of these holiest days should not occur because the believer sees it as a reprieve from a dislikable and contested time of penance but because the believer has been purified even more from darkness and is able to more profoundly understand and share in the Lord’s Paschal Mystery.
The purpose of Lent, therefore, is a microcosm of the life and worldview of the Christian believer. Knowing ourselves to be the sons and daughters of the Resurrection, everything we think, feel, and do is placed in the light and hope of eternity. This gives the disciple of Jesus Christ the strength to forgive an enemy, control their sexual passions, suffer patiently, and selflessly serve others. When the Resurrection is lived and heaven is seen as a real possibility for the righteous, then everything is worth it and everything becomes ordered to it.
It doesn’t do a Catholic much good who show up on Ash Wednesday, get a smudge of ashes on their forehead without the slightest intention of doing what they symbolize: CHANGE.
And so, dear friend, don’t just give up something for Lent. Get at the root of your life where you need to look at the real stuff.
I invite you to go deeper into the practice of your faith.
Make the sign Mean Something!
Let it transform you from inside out.
The question is: Do we ~ you and I ~ have the COURAGE TO CHANGE?
So, let’s do Lent well ~ together.
During Lent, be ready to walk with Jesus to Jerusalem.
Find out who this Jesus is ~ for you.
And what wisdom he has to offer us that will help us to change and enrich our lives for the better.
Whether you are Catholic or not, perhaps you will find some wisdom,
some meaning for your life in these pages. Join us as we walk the journey together
as Jesus did ~ through suffering to death to new and risen life these six weeks of Lent 2019.
God of pardon and of love,
Mercy past all measure,
You alone can grant us peace,
You, our holy treasure.
Now before you go, here’s a short hymn about an offering of ashes. Click here.
And here are today’s Mass readings if you’d like to reflect on them Click here.
Well, this week the Big Easy and Rio have one thing in common — one huge party! And what is so interesting its very Catholic. It’s a time to let your hair down before the strike of midnight Ash Wednesday when we Catholics used to abstain from meat during the six-week Lenten season.
The root of the word “CARnival is the same as the word “inCARnation”~ a word that means the enfleshment of the Son of God.
Now here’s a bit of Carnival or Mardi Gras history for you.
A carnival is a celebration combining parades, pageantry, folk drama, and feasting, usually held in Catholic countries during the weeks before Lent. The term Carnival probably comes from the Latin word “carnelevarium”, meaning “to remove meat.” Typically the Carnival season begins early in the new year, often on Epiphany, January 6, and ends in February (or early March this year) on Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras in French).
Probably originating in pagan spring fertility rites, the first recorded carnival was the Egyptian feast of Osiris, an event marking the receding of the Nile’s flood water. Carnivals reached a peak of riotous dissipation with the Roman BACCHANALIA and Saturnalia.
In the Middle Ages, when the Catholic Church tried to suppress all pagan ideas, it failed when it came to this celebration. The Church incorporated the rite into its own calendar as a period of thanksgiving. Popes sometimes served as patrons.
The nations of Europe, especially France, Spain, and Portugal, gave thanks by throwing parties, wearing masks, and dancing in the streets. All three colonizing powers carried the tradition with them to the New World, but in Brazil it landed with a difference. Not only did the Portuguese have a taste for abandoned merriment, (they brought the “entrudo”, a prank where merrymakers throw water, flour, face powder, and many other things at each other’s faces), but the Negro slaves also took to the celebration. They would smear their faces with flour, borrow an old wig or frayed shirt of the master, and give themselves over to mad revelry for the three days. Many masters even let their slaves roam freely during the celebration. Since the slaves were grateful for the chance to enjoy themselves, they rarely used the occasion as a chance to run away.
Pre-Christian, medieval, and modern carnivals share important thematic features. They celebrate the death of winter and the rebirth of nature, ultimately re-committing the individual to the spiritual and social codes of the culture. Ancient fertility rites, with their sacrifices to the gods, exemplify this commitment, as do the Christian Shrovetide plays. On the other hand, carnivals allow parody of, and offer temporary release from, social and religious constraints. For example, slaves were the equals of their masters during the Roman Saturnalia; the medieval feast of fools included a blasphemous mass; and during carnival masquerades sexual and social taboos are sometimes temporarily suspended.
Tomorrow: Why Ashes on Ash Wednesday?
May I suggest that by Wednesday morning to try be ready to enter into a deeper journey to discover our Lord in a new way and at the same time your deepest Self. Be ready to experience new life, new growth for yourself and for our country.
Today we let our hair down a bit and when the fun is over,
may we be ready to enter the desert on Wednesday with you
and discover how desert experiences can cleanse and purify us and make us whole.
Let us enter the desert willingly and learn its lessons well.
We ask you, Lord, to lead the way.
But, before you go, here’s a 14-minute video just taken of this year’s Carnival celebration on March 1st and 2nd in Rio! Be sure to enter full screen. Click here.
(Ladies: Let your husbands have some fun – um ~ it’s not exactly R-rated.)
Centering Prayer and the Importance of Silence in our Lives (Part Two)
I first encountered the idea of Centering Prayer when I went to the Cistercian monastery, Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia, nestled against the Shenandoah River and the West side of the first mountain on the Blue Ridge Parkway to make a retreat with the Abbot—Cistercian Father Dom Edward McCorkell, in 1983.
I was living in Washington, D.C. at the time. Many of you, my readers, have heard me speak of Father Edward and Holy Cross Abbey before in this blog, but in this in another blog to follow I want to share with you how Centering Prayer can enrich your life, and help to “center” you in God’s presence. Centering Prayer has been at the root of my contemplative life.
When I went to see Father Edward the first time I didn’t know what he was talking about! And it took me quite a while to learn because (as many of you know—and to the consternation of some) I have had issues with bipolar (manic-depressive) disorder, and in those days I couldn’t sit still, so sitting for twenty minutes of silent prayer twice a day was quite a challenge indeed! But eventually I got the hang of it, learned to love it, and eventually I began to notice it working changes in my life.
Cistercian Father Thomas Keating, whom I quoted in my last blog, created an international organization to sustain the work of Centering Prayer called Contemplative Outreach.org. They send out little cards the size of a credit card that offer the Rules for Centering Prayer.
The one in my hand says on one side: “Allowing, Accepting Unconditional Love.” And on the other has four simple rules:
Choose a sacred word as the symbol your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.
Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly and introduce the sacred word.
When engaged with thoughts, return ever so gently to the sacred word.
At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.
It’s so simple; and like all things new such as dieting or starting an exercise program, the important part is one’s motivation; I have to ask do I want to do it? And do I have a sense of what I’m headed for?
Virtually every spiritual tradition has a sense of transformation or awakening and demands intentional silence as essential. Be it meditation of the Buddhist, the Sufis, mystical Judaism, or the contemplative prayer of Christians, there’s a common affirmation that the practice of regular silence is necessary.
But what is this “Transformation” or “Awakening”? Some New Age stuff? Hardly. Let the Gospels speak!
“You must be born again from above.” (John 3:)
“ Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ear dies, it remains just a single grain but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)
“For whosoever wants to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for me will find it,” (Matthew: 24-25)
Christianity is surely most interested in the total transformation of the human person.
The Method of Centering Prayer
Father Keating has developed a kind of cult around him with lots of humorous stories. He is said to have described the process of Centering Prayer as “taking a vacation from yourself.” All meditative practices actually intend to do that.
There are basically three kinds of practices: concentrative methods, awareness methods and surrender methods. Centering Prayer belongs to the last (and least common) category.
Concentrative methods, which are probably the most common, rely on attention in which the mind is given a simple task to focus on, mostly commonly a mantra, a sacred word repeated over and over.
Awareness methods are favored in Buddhist practice in which one aligns oneself with an inner observer and watches the play of energy as thoughts and emotions take form.
A surrender method is simpler. When a thought emerges into consciousness or takes form, one simply lets it go. Thomas Keating likes to denote this as a prayer “not of attention, not of intention.
So, our intention is to be totally open to God. Cynthia Bourgeault, an Episcopal priest whose book Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, has assisted me in deepening my grasp of nuances of Centering Prayer says.
“Totally available, all the way down to the innermost point of your being, deeper than your feelings, deeper than your memories and your desires, deeper than your usual psychological self—even deeper than your presence! For even what will go on in this prayer is ‘in secret’ (the word in Matthew 6:6 that Jesus uses in his instructions on prayer: deeper than even your conscious mind and even your most bedrock sense of “I am here.” Hidden even from yourself, in that innermost sanctuary of your being—where, in the words of that most beloved monastic formula, your life is “hidden with Christ in God.” p.22.
In our intention it’s not possible to make ourselves empty or still. As soon as we focus on doing so, we’ll get a stream of thoughts about what to fix for dinner or what I forgot to put on our grocery list or what I was so mad about my husband or . . . All this is perfectly normal. All you have to do in Centering Prayer is: If you catch yourself thinking, you let the thought go.
Bourgeault: “If you find yourself tangled up in with a thought—no matter what kind of thought—you simply, gently let the thought go. You release it, thus bringing yourself back into alignment with your original intention, which was to maintain that bare, formless openness to God.”
Father Keating has a story about a nun who was frustrated on her first twenty-minute taste of Centering Prayer, lamenting, “Oh, Father Thomas, I’m such a failure at this prayer, In twenty minutes, I’ve had ten thousand thoughts.
“How, lovely, the Abbot responded, without missing a beat, ten thousand opportunities to return to God!”
Cynthia suggests that this simple story captures the essence of Centering Prayer in that it focuses on our intention to return to be open to God.
Years ago, I would rise early in the morning and have very fruitful sessions of prayer and then I fell out of practice for a number of years. I just returned to practice after a weekend retreat with Father Bill Sheehan, OMI (I’ll introduce you to him in my next and final blog on this subject.) And at present, the thoughts just keep coming, so I just have to stay with the sacred word. But Cynthia suggests, “even in those turbulent periods of prayer, when it seems like one thought after another, there are in fact tiny microscopic pauses when the thought drops out and the sacred word also drops out. These moments don’t last long, typically, but no one ever said that the Divine needed a lot of time to touch our innermost being.” Her words have been a consolation to me in my present somewhat meager practice.
She also consoles, “Whatever your mind serves you up is just fine.” And Father Keating has said the only thing you can do wrong is to get up and walk out. Father Keating emphasizes, even if you feel your efforts are unsuccessful, realize what it means to “consent to the presence and action of God within us” in whatever form it comes. The power of the prayer is in the consent.
The Sacred Word.
It’s a word you choose yourself. It could be a religious word, such as Jesus / Father, Abba / Kyrie / Come, Lord. Or it could be a word that describes a spiritual attitude, such as, open / still / be here / listen / let go.
Ms. Bourgeault, indicates that it’s easiest to describe what the sacred word is not.
First, it’s not a mantra; you don’t repeat it constantly. You only use it when you notice a thought arising.
Second, a sacred word is not a “special” word. It doesn’t sum up the height and depth of your love for God. It’s just a “place-holder, the finger-pointing to the moon of your intention.” It should be as simple and as emotionally neutral as possible.
Third, the sacred word is not a thought-suppressing word, or “a baseball bat to put down thoughts or replace them with itself.”
Time is what makes gradually makes the sacred word sacred. Over time, it will lodge itself in your unconscious and then start to work its magic.
It’ll pop up spontaneously when you start thinking. And after a while, you’ll notice it emerging in the middle of your life in stressful situations—in a traffic jam, or otherwise ungrounded in an argument at home. Therefore, think about your sacred as a long-time commitment; it will surprise you how helpful it will be for you.
And now my prayer for you . . . .
Dear God, After all these years
I finally realize how deeply you love me.
And I want so much for others to know
how much you love them too.
Help them to come to you in the silence of their hearts.
To know how deeply they also are loved.
And now, before you go, here’s a great song for you on this theme. Click here.
Centering Prayer and the Importance of Silence in our Lives
Most of us learned that Prayer is talking to God. Right? And so we babble on in our prayers and list all our needs, or say a rosary, or read Scripture—all certainly worthy methods of prayer, of course.
But how many of us really learned to listen to God in our prayer?That requires silence. And many of us are afraid of silence because we may not like what’s running around in our head.
However, true silence can be acquired. “Silence is God’s first language,” according the sixteenth century mystic Saint John of the Cross. When one enters into silence, that person, sooner or later comes into—and experiences the loving presence of God. To help facilitate the process and habit of entering into this kind of silence is what Centering Prayer is all about
If you permit me a little fun with you, perhaps you’ve noticed that I sign off on my writings by saying “contemplative writer.” When you say that word, by the way, it’s contemplative, not con-tem-play-tive. (Pronouncing it correctly will place you in the company of those who—ahem—know something about this stuff!
So, first, what is Contemplation?
We’ll let Cistercian monk Thomas Merton who was a monk of the Abbey of the Gethesemani in Bardstown, Kentucky tantalize you with his description of what contemplation is . . .
Contemplation is the highest expression of our intellectual and spiritual life. It
is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual
wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is gratitude for
life, for awareness and for being. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being
in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant source.
Contemplation is, above all, awareness of the reality of that source. It knows that
source, obscurely, inexplicably, but with a certitude that goes both beyond reason
and beyond simple faith. For contemplation is a kind of spiritual vision to which both
reason and faith aspire, by their very nature, because without it they must always
remain incomplete. Yet contemplation is not vision, because it sees ‘without seeing’
and knows ‘without knowing’. It is more profound depth of faith, knowledge too
deep to be grasped in images, in words or even in clear concepts. It can be
suggested by works, by symbols, but in the very moment of trying to indicate what it
know the contemplative mind takes back what it has said and denies what is has
affirmed. For in contemplation we know by ‘unknowing’. Or, better, we know
beyond all-knowing or ‘unknowing’.
Poetry, music and art have something in common with the contemplative
experience. But contemplation is beyond aesthetic intuition, beyond art, beyond
poetry. Indeed, it is also beyond philosophy, beyond speculative theology It
resumes, transcends and fulfils them all, and yet at the same time it seems, in a
certain way, top supersede and to deny them all. Contemplation is always beyond
our own knowledge, beyond our own light, beyond dialogue, beyond our own self.
In other words, then, contemplation reaches out to the knowledge and even
to the experience of the transcendent and inexpressible God. It knows God by
seeming to touch him. Or rather it knows him as if it had been invisibly touched by
him….Touched by him who has no hands, but who is pure reality and the source of
all that is real! Hence contemplation is a sudden gift of awareness, an awakening to
the real within all that is real. A vivid awareness of infinite being at the roots of our
own limited being. An awareness of our contingent reality as received, as a present
from God, as a free gift of love. This is the existential contact of which we speak
when we use the metaphor of being ‘touched by God.’
(From New Seeds of Contemplation / Burnes & Oates / 1999)
Well, Centering Prayer is not Contemplation itself, but is leading toward it. Contemplation—entering the presence of the holy—is what Centering prayer is designed to assist us with.
The rules for Centering prayer fit on a card the size of your credit card. They’re sent out by an organization called Contemplative Outreach.org, founded by another Cistercian Abbot Father Thomas Keating—who is really the founder of the Centering Prayer movement and long-time Abbot at Snowmass Abbey in Colorado. (We’ll get to those rules in our next blog.)
But first, in a brief article he gives a short Theological background for Centering Prayer.
The grace of Pentecost affirms that the risen Jesus is among us as the glorified Christ. Christ. Christ lives in each of us as the Enlightened One, present everywhere and at all times. He is the living Master who continuously sends the Holy Spirit to dwell within us and to bear witness to his resurrection by empowering us to experience and manifest the fruits of the Spirit and the Beatitudes both in prayer and in action.
Lectio Divina (Reflective reading of Sacred Scripture) is the most traditional way of cultivating friendship with Christ. It is a way of listening to the texts of scripture as if in conversation with Christ and he were suggesting topics of conversation. The daily encounter with Christ and reflection on his word leads beyond mere acquaintanceship to an attitude of friendship, trust and love. Conversation simplifies and gives way to communing, or as (Pope St.) Gregory the Great of the 6th century, summarizing the Christian contemplative tradition, put it, “resting in God.” This was the classical meaning of contemplative prayer for the first sixteen centuries.
Contemplative Prayer is the normal development of the grace of baptism and the regular practice of Lectio Divina. We may think of prayer as thought or feelings expressed in words. But this is only one expression. Contemplative Prayer is a process of interior purification leading, if we consent, to divine union. The Method of Centering Prayer is a method designed to facilitate the development of contemplative prayer by preparing our faculties to cooperate with this gift. It is an attempt to present the teaching of an earlier time (e.g., The Cloud of Unknowing) in an updated form and to put a certain order and regularity into it. It is not meant to replace other kinds of prayer; it simply puts other kinds of prayer into a fuller perspective. During the time of prayer we consent to God’s presence and action within. At other times our attention moves outward to discover God’s presence everywhere.
In saying that contemplative prayer is the normal development of the grace of baptism, Father Keating is negating those who say that contemplation only belongs to those in the Contemplative Orders like the Cistercians or the Carmelites. His Contemplative Outreach movement that has crossed the globe and many religious traditions is quite revolutionary stuff!
In our next blog, we’ll look at how the process of a Centering Prayer session fits together. How ‘bout dat?
Now, before you go, here’s a contemplative hymn for you, Let all Mortal Flesh Keep Silence. Click Here.