contemplation

Pray then Contemplate then Meditate then Pray...

Photo by  Motoki Tonn  on  Unsplash

Photo by Motoki Tonn on Unsplash

Listening to different groups of people I hear three words used to describe some of their practices. The religious (often conservative) use the word prayer, academics (often liberal) use the word contemplate, and mystics (not just Christians) use the word meditate. Sometimes there words are used interchangeably in popular culture, but my lived experience teaches me that these are not different words for the same practice, but rather three different practices. The trouble is, most of us just do one of these when we really need all three.

Prayer is many things, however at the core, prayer is paying attention. it is the act of paying attention to the needs around us. It is paying attention to gratitude. It is paying attention to the hurts and pains in the world. It is paying attention to what the still small voice of God whispers to us.

While prayer is using our peripheral vision to pay attention, contemplation is the practice of focusing on something. It is focusing on one scripture or one concern. It is focusing on what God is inviting us to do or become.

Meditation is the practice of letting go. If prayer and contemplation are about opening our eyes to different degrees, meditation is about closing them. Not closing them to the pain of the world or the concerns of God, but closing them so to empty ourselves. Meditation gives us access to our limitations and shows us how we are not in control or in what ways we are limited to effect change.

To pray, contemplate or meditate in isolation is not only difficult to do but we are missing out on the fullness of these practices. They each build upon one another and connect to one another. We pay attention, we focus, we release, only to pay attention once more.

Since we are just out of Lent, perhaps it is easier to pull the example of Jesus from Matthew 26 36-42. First Jesus prays (pays attention):

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I go over there and pray.’ He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. Then he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.’ 

Jesus is praying and in doing so he is paying attention. He is paying attention to his situation becomes grieved and agitated, even to death. Jesus asks the disciples to “stay awake with me” to pay attention to what God desires.

The story continues:

And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.’ Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ 

Now Jesus moves from praying to contemplating. He is focused on the real possibility right before him. He narrows his choices to two - let this cup pass or thy will. Additionally we wonder if Jesus frustrated with the disciples because they are asleep or because they are not paying attention? The story then makes the final turn toward mediation:

Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.’

Jesus lets go of a desire to control the outcome. He is aware of his limitations in the situation. He clears his mind through meditation and said “the same words” of release to God. Once this threefold movement is complete, Jesus remains frustrated, not at his impending death mind you but at the disciples who could not even do the first step to stay awake, pay attention, pray.

The Time I Hear a Sermon in the Bathroom

This very hard working man violating two social mores in one moment: 1) the oft cited rule that socially acceptable conversation avoids politics and religion and 2) the unspoken rule that conversation between men in the restroom is restricted to dads coaxing their sons to aim properly. So when he said, “give me a word.” I was caught off guard.

Photo by  Paul Green  on  Unsplash

Photo by Paul Green on Unsplash

I shared with him that I have been reading about Saint Moses who said that a monk should sit in his cell for the cell will teach you all you need to know. I said I have been reflecting on this as a need for silence and solitude in a hyper-connected and noisy world.

The worker smiled and grunted with satisfaction. So I asked in return “give me a word.”

The worker began to tell me the story of the rich man who avoided Lazarus their whole lives. He recalled how when they both died the rich man, from hell, asked that Lazarus would come, from heaven, to give him a cool drink. (Those of you who know this story from the Gospels can fill in the details.)

I smiled and grunted with satisfaction.

We “man hugged” (the handshake where you pull each other to bump chests and slap the back of the other two times before you disengage) and went our separate ways.

The life of the Christian is one that holds the call to action and the call to contemplation in tension. It is not sufficient for the social justice warrior to dismiss the need for silence and stillness. It is not sufficient for the hermit to dismiss the prophetic action need in the world.

You may think that action and contemplation are opposite ends of the spectrum, that they cannot coexist in one church much less in one person. We are led to believe that we must be either/or. Justice or worship. Action or contemplation. Left or right. Unity or disunity.

The deeper call of Christ is not either but both. Perhaps this is in part why the way of Christ is so difficult – you have to embody a constant and unresolvable mystery.

It is easier to take a side.

Catechism is not enough...

From his book, The God Who Comes, the late Carlo Carretto sates: 

The catechism is not enough, theology is not enough, formulas are not enough to explain the Unity and Trinity of God. We need loving communication, we need the presence of the Spirit. That is why I do not believe in theologians who do not pray, who are not in humble communication of love with God. Neither do I believe in the existence of any human power to pass on authentic knowledge of God. Only God can speak about himself, and only the Holy Spirit, who is love, can communicate this knowledge to us. When there is a crisis in the Church, it is always here: a crisis of contemplation. 

In all the conversation about the future of the UMC. The concern about people not "following the Discipline" and those who "unequally apply the Discipline". The chatter about Love Your Neighbor and the Wesleyan Covenant Association. The chatter around the UMC is one emphasizing the practical, relevant and the immediate. To put it another way, we focus on the things that are not contemplation. 

When we are have the same vigor around the need for silence that we do around protesting. When we are concerned about what pastors are "being still" than where they are marching. When we are more concerned about the Church's relationship with Christ than who is getting married. Then we are beginning to see a Church that is moving from our crisis. 

Until the days of loving and humble communication, we will be in crisis. 

The #UMCGC of "Go" Misses the Church of "Be"?

The emphasis/theme of General Conference is on of "Therefor Go". Sermons and rallying cries are around the standard of "Go". It is a big tent theme where all sorts of people are getting behind. There is a strong sense that the UMC is at her best when we "Go" into the world to make disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world. That is a noble goal and theme. I wonder, with so much focus to "Go" are we overlooking "Be"? 

It is great to have social action, but action without contemplation (a Richard Rohr major theme) we are missing the point. Perhaps it is worth allowing the good Father to share in his own words from May 13, 2016 devotion:

I used to think that most of us must begin with contemplation or a unitive encounter with God and are then led through that experience to awareness of the suffering of the world and to solidarity with that suffering in some form of action. I do think that's true for many people, but as I read the biblical prophets and observe Jesus' life, I think it also happens in reverse: first action, and then needed contemplation.
No life is immune from suffering. When we are in solidarity with pain, injustice, war, oppression, colonization--the list goes on and on--we face immense pressure to despair, to become angry or dismissive. When reality is split dualistically between good and bad, right and wrong, we too are torn apart. Yet when we are broken, we are most open to contemplation, or non-dual thinking. We are desperate to resolve our own terror, anger, and disillusionment, and so we allow ourselves to be led into the silence that holds everything together in wholeness.
The contemplative, non-dual mind is not saying, "Everything is beautiful," even when it's not. However, you do come to "Everything is still beautiful" by facing the conflicts between how reality is and how you wish it could be. In other words, you have to begin--and most people do in their adult years--with dualistic problems. You've got to name good and evil and differentiate between right and wrong. You can't be naive about evil. But if you stay focused on this duality, you'll go crazy! You'll become an unlovable, judgmental, dismissive person. I've witnessed this pattern in myself. You must eventually find a bigger field, a wider frame, which we call non-dual thinking.
Beginning with dualistic action and moving toward contemplation seems to be the more common path in the modern era. We see this pattern in Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, and Jean Vanier. These people entered into the pain of society and had to go to God to find rest for their soul, because their soul was so torn by the broken, split nature of almost everything, including themselves.

As we focus on being a church of "Go", that is important. However, if the "Go" is not moving us into contemplation then we will be nothing but a glorified social action group that carries the name of the United Methodist Church.

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