Tuesday, March 30, 2010, 3:30 PM
To begin again.
I wanted to spend Holy Week at this monastery to do just that — to begin again — and wondered how God would surprise me as to the manner of that new beginning. I knew that any sense of recollection I had once possessed — of God being present to me in a quiet but profound way — had scattered to the winds. I had so many things on my mind — concerns that seemed heavy yet airborne in swirled confusion, like the roofs and silos and cows that get thrown into the air and spun by Kansas tornadoes. What did God have to say to me this week, specifically?
When I met with the priest who will be giving me spiritual direction this week — whom I’ll call Father Ambrose to protect his anonymity — I found out a good part of what God wants me to hear. Father Ambrose had prepared, and he was ready to see if he could “hit the nail on the head right off the bat.” I now know what it’s like being driven by a hammer.
Father Ambrose had read last week’s letter to the Catholic Exchange community — my “preamble” to this journal. He liked what I had said about love being at the center of the universe, and pointed out that to extend God’s love to others you have to let yourself be loved by God. He had God’s invitation for me: an invitation to contemplative prayer, to a way of experiencing God that is unmediated by the words of the Bible or the images of the liturgy, to communing with God person to person.
The technique for beginning to pray in this way is simple and has been taught to millions in recent years through the works of Thomas Keating and Basil Pennington on “centering prayer.” It involves growing quiet and in this way asking God to be present; that He meet us one-on-one. The best description I’ve ever heard of the experience came from a friend of mine who said that in moments of contemplative prayer he knows God’s love in the same way he knows his wife’s love through their eyes meeting.
I had a spiritual mentor once who always said, “Delay does not mean denial.” I thought of that today because I have been hankering after such an experience of God’s love since I first started reading Catholic mystics and Orthodox spiritual writers. It’s called the “apophatic way” — a way to God that involves putting aside one’s brilliant insights and learning, as well as daily concerns and cares, for sheer, naked encounter with God.
Father Abrose gave me a book of essays by Keating, Pennington, and the Jesuit, Thomas Clarke, as a refresher course on the practice of contemplative prayer. This passage struck me:
If we are faithful to this form of prayer, making it a regular part of our day, we very quickly come to discern — and often others discern it even more quickly– the maturing in our lives of the fruits of the Spirit…What happens — the way the Spirit brings this about– is that in this prayer we experience not only our oneness with God in Christ, but also with the whole of creation, in God’s creative love and sharing of being. Thus we begin, connaturally as it were, to experience the presence of God in all things, the presence of Christ in each person we meet — M. Basil Pennington.
I’ve experience a small measure of this in the past. For about two years — just before the economic crisis hit and the financial wobbles began — I was keeping a regular morning hour before the Eucharist. I devoted most of this to reading morning prayer and the Bible, but I reserved some time as well for silence. I’d just say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening,” and try to stay quiet before the Lord.
I never felt anything in particular, but I did notice that people began responding to me differently. People I knew only casually started being more open with me.
In turn, I figured out that the first — and sometimes the last — part of witness is caring. I could be an “evangelical Catholic” by loving others and letting God attend to their souls. That’s not to say a word in due season isn’t appropriate, but that word will travel more surely to the heart when spoken out of genuine concern. God was giving me the gift of compassion.
This is all well and good, but I have to say I came out of my session with Father Ambrose feeling overwhelmed and even sad. In middle age I know myself too well to imagine that I’m going to be able to adopt the discipline of contemplative prayer twice a day with ease. I have started down too many roads. I have seen enthusiasms come to tears. Worse, I have wasted time.
Toward the end of that really disciplined period of prayer in my life, I started feeling like I wanted to write a book on prayer. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to write about prayer as I wanted to go deeper into prayer, and I figured that if I wrote about it, I couldn’t help but do it. (The same strategy behind this journal.) I cast about all over the country for the proper master in prayer. I even hunted down the former abbot of Genesee, Dom John Eudes, in the Philippines. (You can reach around the world to people — even to monks — through email.) At the Abbey of Genesee, with John Eudes serving as a spiritual mentor, Henri Nouwen wrote The Genesee Diary, one of the best books ever written about a monastic sojourn.
All my efforts at getting this book project going came to nothing.
Today, God seemed to be saying — actually shouting — NOW, now is the time for you to begin your journey into contemplative prayer. “Delay is not denial.” Not then but now.
Now? I don’t know if I’m really up to this now.
I realize, though, that the whirlwind tossing all those cows into the air is me. I have filled my life with busyness and distraction to no end.
God is inviting me, I think, to come rest in him. To realize that He’s in control. I seem to remember John Eudes (caveat: I could be wrong about it being Eudes — I haven’t re-looked at the book) telling Henri Nouwen that part of the goodness of his devoting time to pray came through its “purposelessness.” Nouwen was possessed and consumed by all his ideas and projects. John Eudes told him that putting these aside for prayer would be salutary because the sheer act of doing so would reinforce the temporary and provisional nature of these ideas and projects. Only God was of ultimate concern, because only our relationship with God will last throughout eternity.
How long have I known this? Why can’t I ever keep it uppermost in my life?