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May 142017
 

This post is part of a series titled Choosing Authenticity: A Prayer of My Own.  It is Part 6/9 of Reflection IV: of that series titled Listening Obedience | Attention Is Everything.


 Choosing Authenticity
A Prayer of Our Own

Reflection IV
Listening Obedience
Attention Is Everything
(Part 6)


Prayer
Attention To Our Sacred Inner Being

As we saw earlier, the dictionary defines prayer as:

a spiritual communion with God or an object of worship, as in supplication, thanksgiving, adoration, or confession.*

This definition captures the essence of the way we typically approach prayer. We tend to focus on “supplication, thanksgiving, adoration, or confession.” These are all valid and even necessary ways we communicate with God. They are all an important part of what prayer should be, and yet they all focus on our approach to God. If we are not careful this focus can cause us to miss prayer’s deepest meaning: “a spiritual communion with God”. The dictionary defines communion as:

the sharing or exchanging of intimate thoughts and feelings, especially when the exchange is on a mental or spiritual level.**

It is this “sharing or exchanging of intimate thoughts and feelings” that is the very essence of prayer for me. It is not enough for me to communicate with that Mysterious Other I call God. “Supplication, thanksgiving, adoration, or confession” is extremely important, but it can take us only so far. What I seek is what the monastics call Divine Union. I want God to communicate with me too. I want God to actually lead my life. I want God to actively provide ongoing “guidance, strength, and courage” for my routine day-to-day interactions with the people, events, and things that make up my life. I want real communion with God—real day-to day two way communication. Nothing else is enough.

Let me be very clear here. Someone once said, “we do not need to listen to God because God has already communicated everything he had to say in scripture”. I simply do not believe that is true. When my wife read this statement she said, “So does that mean that God is dead and there is no holy spirit?” That seems to be a reasonable conclusion to me. Scripture, and other people’s commentary on scripture, can only tell me how the writers of both scripture and the writers of scripture commentary related to God. It can help clarify goals and practices, but it does not and cannot provide real two-way “communion”—real “sharing or exchanging of intimate thoughts and feelings”. It ultimately does not and cannot take us to Divine Union. It can call us and lead us toward a deeper communion, but it is not that communion, and it is not near enough.

Then how does this communion take place? How does Divine Union actually happen? How does this Mysterious Other actually communicate with us and provide “guidance, strength, and courage”? There is a place deep inside of us I have come to call the Sacred Inner Being where this relationship—this communion can happen. One of the most profound goals of prayer in specific and the whole spiritual life in general is to discover, acknowledge, and develop an ongoing relationship with that Sacred Inner Being. It is here that we can develop real communion—a deep, ongoing, two way relationship and communication with God. It is precisely here that this Mysterious Other can provide us with that ongoing, day to day “guidance, strength, and courage” so central to living a spiritual life. It is here that divine union can happen. That Sacred Inner Being is always there. It is always available to us. Always! We have only to be open to it.

It is through prayer and spiritual practice that we can learn to quieten our ego driven turmoil and be attentive to that Sacred Inner Voice we so often ignore. As we learn to recognize the source of that Sacred Inner Voice in our prayer—in our time apart—over time it becomes a part of the way we approach and live our active lives. That Voice will more and more speak to us in the events of our day. It will provide us with that “guidance, strength, and courage” we need. Over time that voice will lead our lives and we will experience true Divine Union.

Two People Talking

Photo by Winnie Southworth

Listening to that sacred inner voice is not enough. If we are to experience true Divine Union we also have to be obedient to the “guidance, strength and courage” that comes to us through that Voice. We have to live our lives in response to that Voice. This is the very essence of what spiritual maturity is all about—learning to listen to our Sacred Inner Voice and be obedient to it in all of the myriad interactions we have with the people, events, and things in our day to day lives.

As a recent personal example, I have been looking for, or better said, wishing for, a really good life coach. I had convinced myself that I would not be able to find one that would really understand me, or as my grandson’s then girl friend once put it, that “really gets me”. I do not fit the traditional molds. I am not a traditional Christian. I am a strong introvert in a primarily extroverted world. And I am certainly not into the traditional culture.

So I am sitting in a group meeting I participate in. Everyone is engaged in small talk and I am wanting to be at home in my room. There is a woman there who I had never really connected with, but I did know that she was a coach. She started talking about something I was interested in, and I realized she was someone I could talk to. That said the introvert in me was resisting asking her about the coaching. As I was about to leave that Still Small Voice that I have come to trust “said to me” “Richard, you should really talk to her about coaching, and you should do it now”. The resistance in me was palpable, but I was “listening”, and I knew I needed to be “obedient” to the leading of that Sacred Inner Voice, so I walked up to her in the group and asked her about the coaching, something I would normally never even consider. We met a week later and really hit it off. It was clear to me that she really did “get me”, and we developed a coaching relationship that is really special to me.

If I had not been listening, and if I had not been obedient to what came to me I would still be complaining about not being able to find a coach that “gets me”. Let me be clear here, there was no audible voice that “spoke to me”. It was simply that “Still Small Voice” that rose up from that deep place in me that I have come to trust. It was just a clear awareness of what I was called to do, and I was listening to it, and I was obedient to it. I trusted it, and I knew it was guidance from that Mysterious Other I call God. (More about how we “know” and come to recognize and trust that inner voice later.)

Questions for Reflection

  1. Do you recognize that Sacred Inner Voice in your life?  Does that voice sometimes speak to you and provide you with guidance, strength, and courage?  Do you trust that guidance?  Are you obedient to it? 

____________
* Apple Dictionary, iOS Software version 7.0.4., © 1983-2013, Apple, Inc. All rights reserved.
** Apple Dictionary, iOS Software version 7.0.4., © 1983-2013, Apple, Inc. All rights reserved.


If you liked this post, check out the other posts in this series:

Listening Obedience:  Attention Is Everything View…
Introduction

Developing Attention  View…
The Power of Focused Attention

Developing Openness  View…
Becoming Vulnerable 

Attention To Our Speech View…
The Discipline of Restraint of Speech

Developing Apatheia View
Attention To Our Thoughts, Emotions, and Impulses

Prayer (This post)
Attention To Our Sacred Inner Being

(Coming Soon)

Developing  A Way of Life
A Guide To Live By

Obedience
Seeking Consonance

Richard’s Rule of Life


Follow our blog.

Feb 202017
 

This post is part of a series titled Choosing Authenticity: A Prayer of My Own.  It is Part 5/9 of Reflection IV: of that series titled Listening Obedience | Attention Is Everything.


 Choosing Authenticity
A Prayer of Our Own

Reflection IV
Listening Obedience
Attention Is Everything
(Part 5)


Attention to Our Thoughts, Emotions, and Impulses
Seeking Apatheia

New versions of the old beast seem to rise from the murky, tempestuous sea of our time with relentless steadiness, with vast armaments, wars, famine and disease, earthquake and flood, with political and social oppression, bad jobs and no jobs, unresponsive and entrenched bureaucracies, brutality and callousness, family and social disintegration, with environmental rape, with trivial, mind-numbing consumer diversion.

Inside us, driving, competing, confused desires and fears bounce us from fleeting pain to fleeting pleasure, making us ever restless, causing us to seek ever more and other there, rarely content with enough here.  That is man becoming without being, adrift without a compass, revolting in revolt, falling through in blindness calling it rising, or in darkness calling it damned.*

Tilden Edwards

The turmoil and violence that we see internationally, in our country, and in our communities ultimately has its roots in the inner turmoil of compulsive thoughts, emotions, and impulses that drives each of us as individuals. Together they form what is traditionally called the ego. Our ego expresses itself in a seemingly endless myriad of “obsessions, addictions, violence, and loss of meaning.” Recognizing, acknowledging, and accepting responsibility for our own inner turmoil is the first step, and often one of the most difficult steps, on a journey toward wholeness and holiness. If we can quieten that inner turmoil, even for a moment, and listen, we will encounter a deep yearning for a new way of life.

It is important to note here that all turmoil is not made up of intrinsically negative things. Sometimes it is created when we overextend ourselves with essentially positive things like taking our children to school, church events, and social events. If we are a working parent, we can get overwhelmed trying to balance work and family relationships and other responsibilities. In one way all of this is good, and yet it can create its own turmoil—its own series of compulsive thoughts, emotions, and impulses. It can create its own cycle of “obsessions, addictions, violence, and loss of meaning”. We can feel trapped in the seemingly endless series of ego driven demands and needs and desires, however good and even necessary all of these things may seem.

For many of us—even most of us—the turmoil resulting from these “driving, competing, confused desires and fears” seems to dominate our lives.  All of our energy is consumed in the never-ending effort to meet their demands.  We are clearly motivated, and often downright driven, by these and other powerful compulsive thoughts, emotions, and impulses. Much, if not most, of the stress and the dissonance in our lives is the result of these powerful ego driven drives that seem to possess us and to have a mind of their own. Individuals and life events “push our buttons,” and we become ineffective, depressed, and often even mean and violent. In spite of our best efforts, for many of us, these compulsive ego driven drives rage inside of us and control much of our lives. They impact our marriages, our relations with our children and other family members, and our work relationships. Even those of us who are reasonably well adjusted frequently find ourselves surprised by the strength and the power of these preconscious compulsive thoughts, emotions, and impulses.

At times this turmoil takes the form of a kind of numbness or indifference. We seem closed to the people, events, and things in our life, including those closest to us. On the surface we appear unaffected by the turmoil around us. But like anger or anxiety or fear, the numbness and indifference is just another expression of the turmoil. It is made up of its own ego driven compulsive thoughts, emotions, and impulses, and it both drives us and limits us in very powerful ways. This numbness and indifference can also be an unconscious, yet powerful, defense mechanism that distracts us from the drives which often seem overwhelming. Boredom is just another form of this turmoil. As Mary Michael O’Shaughnessy, OP has put it: “Boredom is anger worn thin.”

Identifying and owning that hidden ego driven turmoil of compulsive thoughts, emotions, and impulses and the unique ways it expresses itself in our individual lives is crucial to the Spiritual Journey. It is a crucial part of what spiritual practice and prayer is all about. The movement toward the healing of the ego is the very essence of the conversion of heart that is so central to the Spiritual Life.

From this perspective the first goal of the spiritual life is a state referred to in Greek as “apatheia.” “Apatheia means, literally, “without emotions’—or, more precisely freedom from emotions.” It is telling that there is no English word that accurately translates the Greek word apatheia. In fact the concept is very difficult to even describe accurately in English. Typically we use the word apathy. According to the dictionary apathy refers to a “lack of interest or concern, especially regarding matters of general importance or appeal; indifference,” or to a “lack of emotion or feeling; impassiveness.” Even though the dictionary refers to apatheia as the root of the word apathy, the definition misses the deepest meaning of apatheia and assumes that apatheia is a negative state, essentially equating it with not caring about the important things in life.

The Revolutionary is not a person who doesn’t care or who is “impassive,” and yet, as Nouwen points out the revolutionary person:

is moved by what happens around him, but he doesn’t let it oppress or shatter him. An inner freedom flows out from him, giving him an independence which is neither haughty nor aloof, but which enables him to stand above immediate needs and most pressing necessities.**

Quiet River

Photo by Richard N. Southworth

It is the freedom from his own inner turmoil—from his own compulsive thoughts, emotions, and impulses—that places Nouwen’s Revolutionary squarely in the state of apatheia.

For much of my life I was filled with a strange combination of anger, boredom, and anxiety. These strong emotional reactions filled much of my life, and drove both my inner and outer reactions to the people, events, and things that made up my life. Something happened in my life that I did not like, and I felt angry. Life failed to provide something I wanted, and I felt bored. Faced with a difficult task, I was filled with anxiety. Once those reactions set in I was locked into a series of patterned, often destructive responses—a series of compulsive thoughts, emotions, and impulses. There was no freedom of choice, and at times only an iron will prevented me from becoming abusive and physically violent and allowed me to perform most necessary daily responsibilities with reasonable effectiveness. The effort was exhausting and added to the turmoil.

When my therapist told me that it was not possible to actually heal the destructive emotional patterns and the best I could hope for was to learn to manage it better it seemed to confirm my personal experience. She and I were both wrong.

As I have discovered and implemented my personal spiritual practice the conversion of heart I sought began to happen. More and more I have found myself in situations that in the past would have generated strong destructive emotional responses, and the responses did not come. I do not mean here that I was better able to control or manage my responses. I mean that I did not feel angry. I did not feel bored or anxious. As a result of these changes I have experienced a great freedom—“a great freedom from (my) emotions.” More often now I find that I am able to choose my responses to the events of my life in a way that is almost indescribable. In this state of apatheia I am much more aware of, not only my own inner calling, but also the needs and desires of the people around me. Without the inner turmoil I am much more able to live my life in response to that inner calling, but I am also much more able to respond to and care for those around me.

The development of apatheia—this freedom from my compulsive thoughts, emotions, and impulses—is one of the immediate goals of spiritual discipline including prayer. It is the very foundation upon which transformation takes place. Without apatheia I am so full of my own ego, so full of my own thoughts, emotions, and impulses that I cannot even hear “the divine summons” much less respond to its call. Apatheia leaves me open and available, not only to the divine summons, but to the rhythm of life itself. It is the very essence of what it means to be open.

When we quiet our compulsive thoughts we open ourselves to the gift of inner silence. We allow ourselves to move beyond words. When we quiet our compulsive emotions we allow ourselves to move beyond mad, glad, sad, and scared. When we quiet our compulsive impulses we allow ourselves to move beyond basic needs and desires. Apatheia offers us the possibility of moving beyond our habitual responses. It offers us the possibility of freedom from the inner tyranny of those habitual responses to the people, events, and things in our daily lives. Each of us have different combinations of compulsive thoughts, emotions, and impulses. In my case it was, and all too often still is, anger.  So many of the examples I use relate to anger, but it is important to recognize that your struggle may be something entirely different like overeating or drinking or pornography for example. The possibilities are legion.

Much, if not most of our struggles in the spiritual life ultimately involve letting go of the ego. Richard Rohr is reported to have said about spiritual practice, “don’t expect people to rush to a practice the ultimate goal of which is the destruction of the ego”. He is right on that point, the destruction of the ego is a major part of what the spiritual life is all about—of what prayer is all about. If we are unwilling to face up to that ego we cannot progress but so far in the life of prayer.

Questions for Reflection

  1. What compulsive thoughts, emotions, and impulses drive my life? What are the consequences of those drives in my daily life? Am I willing to bring those destructive responses into my spiritual practice—into my prayer?

____________
* Edwards, Tilden, Spiritual Friend:  Reclaiming the Gift of Spiritual Direction. (Ramsey, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1980), p. 14.
** O’Shaughnessy, Mary Michael, ???
*** Needleman, Jacob, Lost Christianity: A Journey of Rediscovery to the Centre of Christian Experience. (Rockport, MA: Element, Inc., 1980), p. 137.
**** Excerpted from American Heritage Talking Dictionary. Copyright © 1997 The Learning Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.


If you liked this post, check out the other posts in this series:

Listening Obedience:  Attention Is Everything View…
Introduction

Developing Attention  View…
The Power of Focused Attention

Developing Openness  View…
Becoming Vulnerable 

Attention To Our Speech View…
The Discipline of Restraint of Speech

Developing Apatheia (This post)
Attention To Our Thoughts, Emotions, and Impulses

(Coming Soon)

Self Presence
Attention to Our Presence In Events

Prayer 
Attention To Our Sacred Inner Being

Obedience
Seeking Consonance

Richard’s Answer To Question # ?


Follow our blog.

Jan 162017
 

This post is part of a series titled Choosing Authenticity: A Prayer of My Own.  It is Part 4/9 of Reflection IV: of that series titled Listening Obedience | Attention Is Everything.


 Choosing Authenticity
A Prayer of Our Own

Reflection IV
Listening Obedience
Attention Is Everything
(Part 4)


Attention to Our Speech*
The Discipline of Restraint of Speech

When my granddaughter was about five years old she spontaneously exclaimed to my wife, “Wherever I go there is light!” When I texted this to her mother her mother replied, “And talking!” It seems that could apply to many if not most of us. Wherever we go there is talking. Whenever there is a silent moment someone feels an obligation to fill it with talking. We cannot listen and talk at the same time. We cannot be “just open” and talk at the same time.

Most monks take a different approach. Very few monks take a vow of silence these days, but many do practice a discipline referred to as restraint of speech. In many monasteries the monks eat their meals in silence. There is also what is called the great silence which begins after evening prayers and ends after breakfast. Other periods of silence are often built into their daily routine and times of prayer. These times of silence permeate the monastic day and help the monk to stay centered and focused. Those of us living in the busy, noise filled modern world could benefit greatly from such regular periods of silence built into our day.

But the discipline of restraint of speech means much more than that. Dennis Okholm puts it this way:

When words were necessary, Benedict** exhorted them, they [monks] should speak rarely, briefly, directly, and simply; speech that was malicious, gossip, tasteless, or destructive was forbidden. As Columba Steward explains, “The issue becomes more clearly one of stewardship. Language is a gift that can be used thoughtfully or thoughtlessly, humbly or proudly. Someone constantly aware of the presence of God will know when and how to speak.”***

If we think that working periods of silence into our busy schedule is difficult, it is a cakewalk compared to this type of restraint of speech. What might it mean if we considered restraint of speech as a spiritual discipline in our day to day lives?

In our culture our days are filled with words. We are often the antithesis of this call to speak rarely, briefly, and directly. We are prone to speak often, at great length, indirectly, and complexly. We have an opinion about just about everything, and we do not hesitate to express it. My wife and I have had a habit of engaging in conversation our daughters and grandchildren call bickering. The discussions begin innocently enough. One of us says something, often not even addressed to the other. The other responds, and we are off. These conversations occur all too often and last way too long. They clearly could not be described as either direct or simple. Since my retirement these types of conversations have become even more frequent.

We have often tried to analyze the conversations in an effort to limit them, and we generally only succeed in blaming each other and setting off another round of bickering. As I was reading what Okholm was saying about restraint of speech, I realized that all of the blaming aside, this was the real issue. The vast majority of these conversations were totally unnecessary. I was very often speaking when I simply needed to be silent. At other times I needed to listen to what my wife was saying and only comment when I had something useful to add to the conversation and then not to defend my position when we have different opinions. Were I to do that I would speak much more rarely and briefly. If I were to then only speak my thoughts directly and simply the conversations would be brief and there would be little opportunity for the bickering my grandchildren talk about to even begin.

Thinking back I recalled that, as the manager of a health insurance company Special Investigations Unit I developed a reputation for going into negotiation sessions and resolving disputes between the investigators who worked for me and the providers that were being investigated. I would go into these meetings with very little information, sit in silence, sometimes for a fairly long time, and listen to the discussion. In that silence I would often begin to see where the real underlying differences were that were not being addressed. Still not speaking, I would formulate what I wanted to say, wait for an opening, and make a short statement or ask a question that often turned the conversation in a new direction and led to a resolution of the dispute. My comments and questions were generally brief, direct, and simple. I had more than one Investigator ask me after a successful session how I was able to do that. I had no good words for it then, but in truth it was through restraint of speech. I was able to be silent and listen and think, and then I was able to speak briefly, simply, and directly. I did not feel obligated to enter into the discussion until I had something useful to say, and then I was often able to be silent again and let the investigator and the provider work toward a solution with a different focus. The discipline of restraint of speech calls me to do the same thing in other areas of my life. If I can practice that restraint of speech in my relationship with my wife the bickering would almost certainly stop.

Being Quiet

Photo by Mark Southworth

In this world of stand up comics, talk shows, and twenty-four seven news programs we have almost lost the meaning of malicious, gossip, tasteless, destructive, or forbidden speech. It often appears that this type of speech has become the norm. Any attempt to restrain this type of language, even in our day to day conversation, will almost immediately lead to an assertion of the right to express our opinion or to a reference to the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech.

For many of us, any real honest look at our daily lives from a spiritual perspective would reveal much speech that would be categorized as malicious, gossip, tasteless, or destructive. Were we to commit ourselves not to speak anything that fell into these four categories we would clearly speak much more rarely and much more briefly. Many of the jokes that we tell, the teasing that we engage in, and the little smart remarks that we make on a daily basis would also be eliminated. When I look back at the bickering that goes on between my wife and I, much of what is said in those conversations would fall into one of these categories as well.

As Steward points out, language is a gift that can be used thoughtfully or thoughtlessly. Someone once said that when we finally realize how much we hurt others by just being ourselves we have a pretty good understanding of what sin is. When my wife and I bicker we are using language thoughtlessly, and in the process we often hurt each other. The cumulative effect of this thoughtless behavior keeps our relationship from being fully the great gift that it can be for us. It also hurts others around us and teaches the same bad habits to our children and grandchildren.

Like most destructive behavior in our lives restraint of speech is ultimately an issue of humility. Am I humble enough to “speak rarely, briefly, and directly?” Do I care about others enough not to speak anything that is “malicious, gossip, tasteless, or destructive?” Am I willing to pay careful attention to what I say and use language thoughtfully or will I be proud and arrogant and ignore how my speech hurts those around me and keeps me from being the person I am called to be? Said another way will I be driven by my ego or will I follow that sacred inner voice where that Mysterious Other guides me. The choice is ultimately mine.

Steward puts it in perspective when he says, “Someone constantly aware of the presence of God will know when and how to speak.” This places the discipline of restraint of speech right where it belongs: squarely in the midst of the spiritual life. The very essence of the spiritual life is developing this constant awareness of that Mysterious Presence we call God in the midst of our day-to-day life, and if we do that, restraint of speech becomes a natural part of that process. As Steward points out we become stewards of the great gift that language is in our lives.

So what does Restraint of Speech have to do with prayer? First of all we should apply it to prayer itself. It seems to me that whenever we pray “there is talking”. Whenever we are talking in prayer we are not listening. We are not open to any response from that Mysterious Other we call God, and that is a central part of what real prayer is. Yes. we should take our concerns to God in verbal prayer—in talking. But then we should be silent and listen for a response.

I was talking to a minister friend a while back, and he told me that whenever he wrote out his sermons at the end he would type “Now sit down and shut up!” Most of us could benefit greatly from adding that silent line to many of our conversations. The Discipline of Restraint of Speech combined with the call to pray without ceasing calls us to take that same logic into the rest of our lives as well.

Question for Reflection

  1. What might it mean if we considered restraint of speech as a spiritual discipline in our daily lives? What if in our day to day lives we were to “speak rarely, briefly, directly, and simply; [what if we avoided] speech that was malicious, gossip, tasteless, or destructive”?

____________

 * An earlier version previously published on my blog Turning Around, January 30, 2008 View…

** A reference to The Rule Of Saint Benedict, a monastic rule used in Benedictine monasteries and often seen as the basis for monastic life.

*** Okholm, Dennis, Monk Habits for Everyday People:  Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants, (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  Brazos Press, 2007), p. 40.  The Columba Stewart quotation comes from:  Stewart, Columbia, Prayer and Community: The Benedictine Tradition, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1998), 51.


If you liked this post, check out the other posts in this series:

Listening Obedience:  Attention Is Everything View…
Introduction

Attention Is Everything View…
The Power of Focused Attention

Developing Openness  View…
Becoming Vulnerable 

Attention To Our Speech  (This Post)
The Discipline of Restraint of Speech

(Coming Soon)

Attention To Our Thoughts, Emotions, and Impulses 
Seeking Apatheia 

Sacred Presence  
Attention To Our Presence In Events

Prayer 
Attention To Our Sacred Inner Being

Richard’s Answer To Question # ?


Follow our blog.

Nov 072016
 

This post is part of a series titled Choosing Authenticity: A Prayer of My Own.  It is Part 1/9 of Reflection IV: of that series titled Listening Obedience | Attention Is Everything.


Boy Sitting On A Mountain

Photo by Brian Hill

 Choosing Authenticity
A Prayer of Our Own

Reflection IV
Listening Obedience
Attention Is Everything
(Part 1)


Introduction

Listen, O my son, to the precepts of thy master, and incline the ear of thy heart, and cheerfully receive and faithfully execute the admonitions of thy loving Father, that by the toil of obedience thou mayest return to Him from whom by the sloth of disobedience thou hast gone away.*

The Rule of Saint Benedict

Much is covered in this first sentence of The Rule of Saint Benedict.  Listening, obedience, sloth, and will are all concepts that cut to the very heart of spiritual practice and prayer, and Benedict has strung them together in a profound way that is both challenging and maybe even disturbing to the modern seeker. I put it this way in my journal some years ago:

There is so much in these short verses. I am still amazed at the way these ancient writings speak to me personally. The message is simple. Listen deeply and profoundly; and obediently live and act on what you hear. This is nothing other than the call to holiness – the call to live a holy life. I want to do that in the deepest place in my soul. “Lord God, come to my assistance.”**

In the context of the spiritual journey listening involves much more than just listening to the spoken or written word. In our day to day life we “listen” mainly for information. We want to understand the meaning of what someone is saying or what someone has written. In this day of television, the internet, and social media, even that is often reduced to short sound bites. We expect to get the essence of the message in a few sentences, and in a few minutes of our time.   Often we are not really interested in the deeper message that may be behind those sound bites.

In spiritual practice and prayer we still seek information and understanding, but it goes much deeper than that, or at least it should. We seek to listen beyond what the general meaning is for what the message is for us personally. We listen not only to the words, but we also listen to our own inner thoughts, emotions, and reactions to what is being said. What in the message speaks to me, and what challenges me to grow and change?  What bores me? What excites me and brings me joy? What in the message is strange, difficult, or maybe even repulsive? Regardless of the reaction, what in me personally is triggered by this message and why?  And critically, how am I called to grow and change and live in response to that message? It is important to note here that we can learn as much, or maybe even more, about who we are as unique spiritual people and who we are called to be, from listening carefully to the things that trouble us as from listening to the things that are attractive to us. It is important for us to listen deeply and carefully to both.

True spiritual listening requires us to be open to the possibility that there is a message for us personally in what we read, in what we hear, and in what we experience, and that message will often call us to grow and change profoundly if we are listening deeply. It requires even the expectation that what is being said or what we are experiencing may lead to our own transformation and conversion of heart. Much in modern rhetoric seems to seek only to change the opinions and actions of others, and in prayer it often seems that the goal of our prayer is to change the Devine.  As I mentioned earlier our prayers often seem like a to do list for God.  In spiritual practice and in prayer we seek to listen first with the expectation that we ourselves will be called to change, both in our thoughts and in our actions—in the way we are actually present in the events of our daily lives. This type of spiritual listening requires attention at the deepest level, and it takes time and effort and commitment.

Ideally this deep listening is not something we do every now and then, or even weekly or daily.  It is not something we just practice in our time apart or when we pray.  If it is to be really effective it has to become an integral part of the way we live our lives.  Then the practice builds on itself.  What we hear in our prayer today is strengthened and clarified as we listen in our time apart tomorrow, and in the ongoing events of our lives.

When we integrate this deep listening obedience into our active lives we come face to face with several important questions.  It almost goes without saying that we are not called to “read” every event, every document, every advertisement, every email message, every text message, every video we see, or every television program we watch, etc. at that deep level.  Taking this practice into our active lives requires discernment.  More on discernment later, but we do need to pay attention to all of the people, events, and things that are a part of our active lives, and reflect seriously on what is important, and what is not.  When we do this we are likely to discover first of all that there are things that do deserve our deep listening obedience and things that we should not even let into our lives at all.   We need to be true to what we discover here.  Where we choose to focus our attention really is critical.

This leads us to obedience. As Norvene Vest points out:

The first word of the Rule is well-known: listen! It is interesting indeed that this Latin word ob-sculta has the same root, and indeed almost the same meaning, as the Latin word ob-oedire, which makes our English obedience. There is a very important connection between true listening and deep obedience; both suggest a turning in order to receive more fully that which is being given.***

Here we are called to be obedient to what we hear. There is the sense that if we are not obedient to what we hear we are not really listening. It is important to note here that we may not be called at all to be obedient to the initial message. But we may be called to be obedient to that deeper message that comes from within us when we listen deeply and carefully. We are often called to incarnate that message into the reality of the way we actually experience and live our lives. We are called to be open and available for the change and transformation and conversion of heart that is available to us when and only when we listen with obedience to the profound longing that is revealed to us in moments of quiet listening—in moments of quiet prayer.

But Benedict does not stop there. He goes on to tell us what keeps us from actually living the holy life we are called to, and what we need to do to move forward on the journey toward that holy life.  Sloth is defined as “laziness: a dislike of work or any kind of physical exertion.”**** For Benedict the failure to be obedient to that still small voice within is essentially laziness, and listening obedience is the key to living a holy life. It is important to note here that, for Benedict, it is not enough for us to wait for the Divine Mystery to somehow change and transform us. In fact it would seem that Benedict would define that waiting as “the sloth of disobedience.” We must regularly renounce our own will and be obedient to the profound calling within us that is found in listening deeply in prayer and to the people, events, and things that make up our lives, and obediently incarnating that discovery into the reality of our lives.

____________

* The Holy Rule of St. Benedict, The 1949 Edition.  Translated by Rev. Boniface Verheyen, OSB of St. Benedict’s Abbey, Atchison, Kansas Electronic text (with added scripture references)

** Southworth, Richard N., Unpublished journal entry dated November 28, 1999.

*** Vest, Norvene, Oblate O.S.B. Preferring Christ: A Devotional Commentary and Workbook on The Rule of St. Benedict, (Trabuco Canyon, California: Source Books, 1990), p. 5.

**** Microsoft® Encarta® Reference Library 2003. © 1993-2002 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.


Want more like this?


If you liked this post, check out the other posts in this series:

Listening Obedience:  Attention Is Everything  (This Post)  
Introduction

(Coming Soon)

Attention Is Everything 
The Power of Focused Attention

Developing Openness 
Becoming Vulnerable 

Attention To Our Speech 
The Discipline of Restraint of Speech

Attention To Our Thoughts, Emotions, and Impulses 
Seeking Apatheia 

Sacred Presence  
Attention To Our Presence In Events

Prayer 
Attention To Our Sacred Inner Being

Richard’s Answer To Question # ?


 

Sep 122016
 

This post is part of a series titled Choosing Authenticity: A Prayer of My Own.  It is Part 9/9 of Reflection III: of that series titled What Is Prayer Anyway | Examining Our Vision.


 Choosing Authenticity
A Prayer of Our Own

Reflection III
What Is Prayer Anyway
Examining Our Vision
(Part 9)


Richards

Photo by Michelle Evans

Richard’s Answer To Question #4

 What is your prayer life like today?  In what specific ways do you feel called to deepen your prayer life?

 

 

 


When one becomes an expert in some field, and especially when one presumes to write a book on a particular topic to help others in that area, there goes with that at least some expectation that one will have that part of their own life in some semblance of order. That expectation becomes even stronger when one dares to write or teach about the spiritual life in general and about prayer in specific. At least it seems so to me.

Yet I have often said that if I could live even a tenth of what I know about the spiritual life, I would be a saint. I am not a saint! I am not any kind of a saint. I am closer than I was twenty-five or thirty years ago. I am even closer than I was last week. But I am not a saint. In the end I can’t really live anywhere near what I know about spiritual formation and prayer. Truth is some days I am not at all sure that I know that much about these complex topics at all. Yet I still feel a strong call to share what I have learned.

I am retired, and in that sense I am mostly free to set up my prayer life however I want—or better said, however I feel led by that Mysterious Other I call God. In response to that freedom I have told myself that I could take my time apart pretty much whenever I wanted. I have convinced myself that I could go into my room and close the door and pray any time I felt called. What I find is that this theory has put me in a kind of maintenance mode. In this maintenance mode I often do not feel “called” on any regular basis and when I do feel called it is mostly when I feel stressed or upset for some reason. In this mode the times when I do “take my time” the process is abbreviated. I often go in my room, sit down, and go straight to contemplation, skipping things like centering, reading, meditation, and prayer. I often sit for twenty minutes and just get up and go back to work. This is good, but it is not near enough. It mostly keeps me on even keel, but it does not always lead to that growth and transformation and conversion of heart that is so central to what I know to be real spiritual formation—real prayer.

What is worse is that for some time now I have been having trouble sleeping. I tend to wake up at four or five o’clock in the morning. I tend to blame that problem on getting older, and keep trying to go back to sleep, often with little success. Sometimes I play games on my mobile phone or read on my iPad. Might this not be that still small voice calling me to take some serious time apart? Might it be coming-out of the monastic call that has been so important on my journey? Whatever else it might be it is clearly a gift— an opportunity for me to take that time and use it wisely. I am reminded of this reflection by Henri Nouwen:

“In the morning, long before dawn, he got up and left the house, and went off to a lonely place and prayed there.” [Mark 1:35] In the middle of sentences loaded with action — healing suffering people, casting out devils, responding to impatient disciples, traveling from town to town and preaching from synagogue to synagogue — we find these quiet words: “In the morning, long before dawn, he got up and left the house, and went off to a lonely place and prayed there”. In the center of breathless activities we hear a restful breathing. Surrounded by hours of moving we find a moment of quiet stillness. In the heart of much involvement there are words of withdrawal. In the midst of action there is contemplation. And after much togetherness there is solitude. The more I read this nearly silent sentence locked in between the loud words of action, the more I have the sense that the secret of Jesus’ ministry is hidden in that lonely place where he went to pray, early in the morning, long before dawn.

Sitting At Sunrise

Photograph by Brian Hill

I know that the secret of my own spiritual life is “hidden in that lonely place” where I go to pray. I know that I need to get out of maintenance mode. I need to get up “long before dawn” and go to my lonely place and pray there. And I know that I need to take the time to formally center myself. I know that I need to read and study. I even know what I need to read and study. The Rule of Saint Benedict was central to my practice for years, and I need to make it a part of my time apart again. I know that I need to take time to reflect yet again on those readings, and then ask that Mysterious Other I call God to guide me and to give me the strength and courage to take this into my active life. And yes, I need to sit silently and listen for that still small voice within. I know all of that. I teach and write about all of that, but I do not do it regularly. Why do I hesitate? What do I fear? For me, Marianne Williamson answers the question well.:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

“Lord God, come to my assistance. Make haste oh my God to help me”.


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If you liked this post, check out the other posts in this series:

Introduction View…

What Is Prayer Anyway?  View…
Seeking a Deeper Understanding

Prayer Is Not Magic View..
It Is No A ToDo List for God

Prayer Is A Relationship View…
Prayer Is Not A Monologue

The Foundation of Prayer View…
Stillness, Quiet, and Silence

Types of Prayer View…
Expanding Our Vision of Prayer

Praying Without Ceasing  View…
Letting Our Lives Become Prayer

What Will Prayer Ask of Us? View…
The Call To Transformation

Richard’s Answer To Question # 4 (This Post)
What Is your Prayer Life Like Today?

Sep 052016
 

This post is part of a series titled Choosing Authenticity: A Prayer of My Own.  It is Part 8/9 of Reflection III: of that series titled What Is Prayer Anyway | Examining Our Vision.


 Choosing Authenticity
A Prayer of My Own

Reflection III
What Is Prayer Anyway
Examining Our Vision
(Part 8 of 9)

 

What Will Prayer Ask Of Us?
The Call To Transformation

Sometimes it seems to me that we approach prayer as something designed to change God—to persuade God to do our bidding.  As I mentioned earlier, all to often our prayers sound like a todo list for God.  If we  pray for ourselves we are often just asking God do something for us, and even if we pray for growth or change we are asking God to change us.  We want God to do all of the work.

But then there is this from Romans:

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. 

Romans 12:2 (NIV)

Canon

Photograph by Winnie Southworth

This sounds more like we are being asked to grow and change, and there are very specific instructions for that growth and change.  A persistent commitment to prayer will call us to that growth and change.  It will call us to “the renewing of [our] mind”, and to discerning “his good, pleasing and perfect will” for our lives.  We can pray for God’s guidance and strength and courage, but in the end true prayer will call us to do the “work of the spiritual journey”—to receive that guidance and implement it into our active lives.  In the end this is work which we have to do ourselves.

At its heart Christianity is an inner path of growth and transformation out of which all else in the spiritual life grows.  The essence of that path is captured in these two verses from Romans.  Do not conform to the pattern of this world.  Be transformed by the renewal of your mind.  Discern how we are called to live our lives.  The monastics call this path conversion of heart.  From a more academic perspective it  is called spiritual formation.  Our journey along this path is a lifetime journey.

Belief is not enough.  Baptism is not enough.  Prayer is not enough.  Fellowship is not enough.  Worship is not enough.  Service is not enough.  All of these and other similar activities are good and absolutely necessary parts of the spiritual life,  but they are not enough.  If the spiritual life is to reach its full potential ongoing personal transformation is essential.  That call to “be transformed”, and to “test and approve what God’s will is” must form the very foundation of our daily lives—the very foundation of our belief, our baptism, our fellowship, our worship, and our service, and thus of our prayer.

It is this ongoing “work of the spiritual journey” that is at the center of my own spiritual journey and all of my writing and teaching. There are valid spiritual Practices that facilitate this ongoing growth and transformation that I have come to call The Practice.

Butterfly

Photograph by Kate McFarland

It is spiritual practice—prayer practice that:

  • quiets the inner turmoil of compulsive thoughts, emotions, and impulses that typically drive our lives, and;
  • guides us to the ongoing discovery of who we most deeply are  and who we are called to be as unique spiritual persons, and;
  • facilitates the ongoing incarnation of those discoveries into the reality of our day-to-day active lives.

Said another way [a valid life of prayer] must ultimately lead to real growth and change—real transformation and conversion of heart.  It must ultimately lead to our active lives increasingly becoming an authentic expression of who we are and who we are called to be by that Mysterious Divine Presence that created us and  guides us and gives us strength and courage.   It must facilitate Choosing Authenticity.

That is what prayer is all about.  Ultimately that is what the entire spiritual life is all about.  I want to share some of my own experience and some of what I have learned so far through study and through my own practice.  It is my hope that it will challenge you to begin or deepen your own journey of growth and transformation.  If I can help just one person along this journey this labor of love will be worth it.

Question for Reflection

  1. Have I felt called in my prayer to growth, transformation, and conversion of heart?  What specifically have I been called to change in my prayer life, and in my active life?  How have I responded to that call?  In what specific area of my life to I feel called to growth and change now?  How will I respond?

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If you liked this post, check out the other posts in this series:

What Is Prayer Anyway?  View…
Seeking a Deeper Understanding

Prayer Is Not Magic View..
It Is No A ToDo List for God

Prayer Is A Relationship View…
Prayer Is Not A Monologue

The Foundation of Prayer View…
Stillness, Quiet, and Silence

Types of Prayer View…
Expanding Our Vision of Prayer

Praying Without Ceasing  View…
Letting Our Lives Become Prayer

What Will Prayer Ask of Us? (This Post)
The Call To Transformation

Richard’s Answer To Question # 4 View…

 

Aug 292016
 

This post is part of a series titled Choosing Authenticity: A Prayer of My Own.  It is Part 7/9 of Reflection III: of that series titled What Is Prayer Anyway | Examining Our Vision.


 Choosing Authenticity
A Prayer of My Own

Reflection III
What Is Prayer Anyway
Examining Our Vision
(Part 7 of 9)

 

Praying Without Ceasing
Letting Our Lives Become Prayer

Prayer is more than something we do from time to time, or at least it should be. In its most powerful form it is a way of approaching our lives. The call to ”pray without ceasing”* conjures up a vision of a monk walking along saying the “Jesus Prayer” (“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!”)** all day long. As good a practice as this may be from time to time for some, this book does not envision that type of practice. The call to pray without ceasing calls us to be conscious of the presence of that Mystery we call God and be guided by that consciousness wherever we are and whatever we are doing. It calls us to take our daily time apart for prayer and reflection. Approached in a certain way prayer practices open us to that consciousness. In that time apart it also calls us to listen carefully to that still small voice within where that Mysterious Other we call God guides us and gives us strength and courage. In that listening it calls us to discover who we are, who we are called to be, and ultimately how we are called to live our day-to-day lives. The call to pray without ceasing calls us to incarnate those discoveries into the way we actually experience and live our lives—”without ceasing”. It calls us to live that sacred rhythm of discovery and incarnation in every event of our lives. In this way our entire life increasingly becomes prayer. This “pray[ing] without ceasing”—this sacred rhythm of withdrawal into prayer and engagement in our active lives—is ultimately a lifelong journey of growth and transformation and conversion of heart. That is ultimately what prayer is all about. In its most basic sense this is what prayer is. This is ultimately at the very heart of why we pray.

Henri Nouwen points out that:

A prayer in church, at table or in school is only a witness to what we want to make of our entire lives. Such a prayer only recalls to mind that praying is living and it invites you to make this an ever-greater reality. Thus there are as many ways to pray as there are moments in life. Sometimes you seek out a quiet spot and you want to be alone, sometimes you look for a friend and you want to be together. Sometimes you’d like a book or some music. Sometimes you want to sing out with hundreds, sometimes only to whisper with a few. Sometimes you want to say it with words, sometimes with a deep silence.In all these moments, you gradually make your life more a prayer and you open your hands to be led by God even to where you would rather not go.***

Prayer At Picnic

Image From http://www.bigstockphoto.com

There is more to this prayer without ceasing than having some time apart each day, as good and absolutely necessary as that practice is. If those times of prayer are to permeate our lives and make our lives more and more a prayer without ceasing, we have to open ourselves to that possibility. Regular time apart for prayer are necessary but still not enough. It is possible and maybe even likely that we can have those regular times of prayer without making the transition to prayer becoming a way of life. For that to happen with any consistently we have to change our attitude and our approach to prayer and to our active life. We have to change the way we are present in the events that make up our lives. We have to open ourselves to that growth and change.

Prayer often calls us to go “even to where [we] would rather not go”. Yet as Quoist put it, “Where shall I hide? I meet you everywhere. Is it then impossible to escape you?” If our image of God is big enough the answer to that question has to be a resounding “Yes, it is impossible to escape you!”, but then why would we want to escape anyway?

Question for Reflection

  1. Is prayer a regular part of the way I actually experience and live my life or is it mostly limited to my time apart for prayer? How might I might I make prayer more of an active part of my day to day active life?

____________

1 Thessalonians 5:17 (KJV)

** Unknown Author, The Way of A Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way, (New York: Doubleday, 1992). p. 21,

*** Nouwen, Henri J. M., With Open Hands.  (Notre Dame, Indiana, Ave Maria Press, 1972), p. 158.

 


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If you liked this post, check out the other posts in this series:

What Is Prayer Anyway?  View…
Seeking a Deeper Understanding

Prayer Is Not Magic View..
It Is No A ToDo List for God

Prayer Is A Relationship View…
Prayer Is Not A Monologue

The Foundation of Prayer View…
Stillness, Quiet, and Silence

Types of Prayer View…
Expanding Our Vision of Prayer

Praying Without Ceasing (This Post)
Letting Our Lives Become Prayer

What Will Prayer Ask of Us? View…
The Call To Transformation

Richard’s Answer To Question # 4 View…

 

Aug 242016
 

This post is part of a series titled Choosing Authenticity: A Prayer of My Own.  It is Part 6/9 of Reflection III: of that series titled What Is Prayer Anyway | Examining Our Vision.


 Choosing Authenticity
A Prayer of My Own

Reflection III
What Is Prayer Anyway
Examining Our Vision
(Part 6 of 9)

 

Types of Prayer
Expanding Our Vision of Prayer

Thomas Moore captures the understanding of what prayer is for many of us:

All the classical things that have been said about prayer are true—petition, praise, adoration, communion, conversation. But one’s notion of God and divinity has to be sufficiently empty, and its mystery sufficiently accounted for, or else prayer becomes exploitation of the divine. Prayer only makes sense in the paradoxical presence of both human pain and desire on the one hand, and divine infinitude on the other.*
Man Praying

Image by Irene Furr

Petition, praise, adoration, communion, and conversation. These are the “classical things that have been said about prayer”. To these I would add confession, penance, and forgiveness. These are the things that most of us have been taught about prayer in Sunday school and church, if in fact we have been taught anything at all. For most of us these are the things that come to mind when we are asked the question, “What is prayer?” They are the things that we think about when we are called to build a relationship with that Mysterious Other we call God. They are the very essence of the traditional answers to the question, “Why do we pray?” As Moore points out they are all valid. They are all a central part of what prayer is all about. It is beyond the scope of this reflection to explore each of these types of prayer individually. The question for us here is how we approach these essential aspects of prayer.

Almost all of these types of prayer are most often seen as different types of verbal or discursive prayer. Even when we think of communion and conversation we still think of these practices as us speaking to God—as us “saying our prayers”. This verbal discursive prayer is the approach I have encountered almost exclusively in the churches I have attended over the years. These “classical approaches to prayer are all valid and profound types of prayer, but taken by themselves they are not enough.

As I have written elsewhere:

There are literally thousands of spiritual practices [prayer practices] available. As I have looked at this vast array of different exercises, I have found that most of the consonant practices are variations of six primary practices. These practices include centering, reading, meditation, prayer, contemplation, and action. Taken as a whole these practices are part of a monastic teaching known as Lectio Divina or “divine reading”.

Again, it is beyond the scope of this reflection to explore each of these types of prayer individually. Some would not refer to some of these practices as prayer at all, yet that would serve to ignore the whole Christian contemplative tradition, as practiced by many spiritual masters, saints, and monks throughout Christian history. It would also serve to ignore the profound prayer experiences of many sincere contemplative Christians, including myself. That said we should also note that the forth practice in the lectio divina model is “prayer” which is essentially verbal or discursive prayer. The critical point here is that our understanding of what prayer is should include all of these different aspects of prayer. Yes, prayer includes us approaching God through verbal prayer. Yes, prayer includes us opening ourselves to God through contemplative prayer.

Richard Sitting

Photo by Winnie Southworth

Taken together these prayer practices can change our lives in profound ways–if we are open to that growth.
We need a broad understanding of what prayer is and what it can be for us. We should not settle for just verbal prayer or just contemplative prayer. Individually they are not enough. We should not settle for just the approach to prayer we learned from our parents or from Sunday School and Church. It is not enough either.

Our mission, if we choose to accept it, is to develop a “prayer of our own” that works for us personally. Each of us, as part of our prayer practice, needs to sincerely try different approaches to prayer and observe what works for us when we pray. We need to make appropriate adjustments in our regular practice until we find what really works for us. This process of observing what happens to us when we pray and making adjustments needs to be an ongoing part of our overall prayer practice. We will deal more with this issue in a later reflection.

As an introvert I have personally identified most strongly with contemplative prayer, and it has dramatically changed my life. When I was working, what worked for me was about forty-five minutes “early in the morning, long before dawn”. I would sit in my favorite chair in front of an alter I created, read a couple of psalms to center myself, read a passage from Preferring Christ: A Devotional Commentary on the Rule of Saint Benedict, and then sit in silent contemplation for about twenty minutes. Now that I am retired I have adjusted that schedule to include longer periods of time, and often more than one “time apart” a day. I have also added some quiet walks, especially in the evenings, to my practice, and I have used many different readings. These ongoing adjustments are the result of my ongoing effort to pay attention to what happened to me during these times ap. art, and to continue to make my time apart more and more “a prayer of my own”. If you take this effort to develop a prayer of your own really seriously it can change your life as well.

Question for Reflection

  1.  What is your prayer life like today? In what specific ways do you feel called to deepen your prayer life?

____________

* Moore, Thomas, Meditations:  On the Monk Who Dwells in Daily Life, (New York:  HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1994), p. 69.

** Southworth, Richard N. Choosing Authenticity:  Religion Is Not Enougn, (Seattle, WA, CreateSpace, 2011), p. 53..


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Other Posts in this Reflection:

What Is Prayer Anyway?  View…
Seeking a Deeper Understanding

Prayer Is Not Magic View..
It Is No A ToDo List for God

Prayer Is A Relationship View…
Prayer Is Not A Monologue

The Foundation of Prayer View…
Stillness, Quiet, and Silence

Types of Prayer (This Post)
Expanding Our Vision of Prayer

Praying Without Ceasing  View…
Letting Our Lives Become Prayer

What Will Prayer Ask of Us? View…
The Call To Transformation

Richard’s Answer To Question # 4 View…

 

Aug 172016
 

This post is part of a series titled Choosing Authenticity: A Prayer of My Own.  It is Part 5/9 of Reflection III: of that series titled What Is Prayer Anyway | Examining Our Vision.


 Choosing Authenticity
A Prayer of My Own

Reflection III
What Is Prayer Anyway?
Examining Our Vision
(Part 5 of 9)

 

The Foundations of Prayer
Stillness, Quiet, and Silence

All too often we approach prayer as something we have to do—something we have to say. As Susan Cain put it in the subtitle of her book Quiet, we live in “a world that can’t stop talking”. Everywhere we go there is music and noise, in restaurants, in banks, and even in restrooms. As I write this my granddaughter is playing noisy video games on my iPad in the next room. As soon as we get up and when we come home we turn on the radio, our music, or the TV. Now we can listen to music and watch videos on our mobile phone wherever we are. We also live in a world that can’t stop doing either.

We carry those tendencies over into our spiritual life and even into our prayer. We have to “say our prayers.” We have to “take our time”. Even when we speak of contemplative prayer we have to quiet our mind, and we have to listen to God. We develop all kinds of prayer lists and methods to use when we pray. I get an electronic prayer list from my church via email each week, and I am given another printed updated prayer list in Sunday School each week. We are asked to pray for the people and the issues contained on these lists. We are encouraged to read scripture, recite psalms, and read from other spiritual texts as part of our prayer. I even have an app on my mobile phone that allows me to listen to multiple readings from the divine office several times a day.

Let me be clear, all of these and other active prayer practices are good and even necessary parts of the spiritual life. They are an important part of what prayer is all about. But so is stillness and quiet and silence. The title of a book I read once was Don’t Just Do Something. Sit There. Just “sit[ing] there”, just being still and just being quiet must also be a part of our vision of what prayer is for us.

Some time ago the rest of my family went on vacation for a week, and I stayed home alone. My intent was to treat the time as a retreat. I would spend time in prayer and contemplation, I would take long walks in the neighborhood, I would catch up on my reading, and I would focus on my current writing project. The truth is that I actually had a todo list for that retreat, and I was really looking forward to having time to work on the things on that list. After they all left I walked back into the living room and set down in my favorite chair. I did not do anything from my todo list. I just sat there. I was just silent. I just enjoyed the house being quiet. I did not try to quiet my mind in contemplative prayer, and I did not think about my writing. I just sat there enjoying the stillness and the quiet. For the first three days of my retreat I returned to this practice of just sitting quietly again and again. I did none of the things on that todo list. I took care of my meals and other personal items, and I sat in the quiet. I went to the YMCA and sat in the hot tub. There were times when I started to feel guilty and felt the cultural imperative that I should use the time more productively, but for the most part I did not actually do anything. For much of the time I just sat there and soaked in the stillness and the quiet.

Peace

Photo by Teresa Parr

Over time the external quiet of the empty house and of me just sitting still brought an inner quiet and peace as well. The tension in my body dissipated. I let go of the feeling of guilt for not being productive. I allowed myself to “just be” without talking or actually doing anything. I put my phone on “do not disturb” and I did not read my email. I never turned on the television or my music. I did not call or text anyone. It was the fourth day before I even looked at my todo list. When I began working on those items I found that I approached them very differently. Even my time apart for prayer and contemplation was different. I was present in that time differently. I was more open. My mind was less cluttered. As the week went on I found myself “just sitting” spontaneously during the day in a way that I could not do before and actually would not have thought to do before.

It has been my experience that these three things—stillness, quiet, and silence—form the very foundation for prayer. Without this foundation prayer all too often becomes just another item on our todo list. It becomes part of life out of balance. Prayer becomes a demand. It becomes something we do, not a real part of who we are and how we live our lives. For me these three practices are a essential part of my spiritual practice—of my prayer practice.

If I cannot be still, if I cannot be quiet, and if I cannot be silent—if I cannot experience these three foundational things both internally and externally, I cannot hope to really take my prayer practice to its deepest level. The imperative “Don’t Just Do Something. Sit There.” must be a foundational part of our prayer practice, and ultimately of the way we live our lives.

Question for Reflection

  1. How comfortable am I with being still, with being quiet, and with being silent? How easy is it for me to move to a place of inner and outer stillness and quiet, and silence when I pray? How is stillness, quiet, and silence a part of the way I live my life?

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Other Posts in this Reflection:

What Is Prayer Anyway?  View…
Seeking a Deeper Understanding

Prayer Is Not Magic View..
It Is No A ToDo List for God

Prayer Is A Relationship View…
Prayer Is Not A Monologue

The Foundation of Prayer (This Post)
Stillness, Quiet, and Silence

Types of Prayer View…
Expanding Our Vision of Prayer

Praying Without Ceasing  View…
Letting Our Lives Become Prayer

What Will Prayer Ask of Us? View…
The Call To Transformation

Richard’s Answer To Question # 4 View…

 

Aug 102016
 

This post is part of a series titled Choosing Authenticity: A Prayer of My Own.  It is Part 4/9 of Reflection III: of that series titled What Is Prayer Anyway | Examining Our Vision.


 Choosing Authenticity
A Prayer of My Own

Reflection III
What Is Prayer Anyway?
Examining Our Vision
(Part 4 of 9)

 

Prayer Is A Relationship
Prayer Is Not A Monologue

Hands

Image by Irene Furr

Prayer is also not a monologue or what my wife has called a “suffering list”. It is not just us talking to God. It is not just us taking our pain and suffering, and our needs and our desires (our suffering list) to God. It is not just us praising and worshiping God either. It is all of those things, but it is infinitely more than any and all of them. As Moore put it, “Prayer only makes sense in the paradoxical presence of both human pain and desire on the one hand, and divine infinitude on the other”. When we approach prayer as a monologue we fail to honor that “divine infinitude”. We limit our ability to have any kind of meaningful relationship with God. We limit God’s options. All too often we in effect “say our prayers” and go on with our life, leaving the rest up to God. We absolve ourselves of any responsibility. We ignore even the possibility that God might speak to us—that God might call us to respond differently to the situations we pray about, or that God might call us to see the situation differently, and/or to grow and change ourselves. There is almost a cult around the idea that we should give it up to God, and in all too many instances that becomes a copout. As someone said, “lift it up, don’t give it up”. Yes, it is a good thing for us to hold up our problems, concerns, and needs to God, and in certain cases, to let them go and “trust in God” to deal with them, but there is way more to it than that.

We will talk in detail in another reflection about openness and listening, but if our prayer is to be more than a monologue we must approach it with openness. We must stop talking and take time to listen. Jesus put it this way:

6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.  7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.  8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Matthew 6:6-7 (NIV)

These are pretty harsh words. A pastor friend of mine told me that when he prepared a manuscript for a sermon the last line was always a note to himself that said “Now. Sit down and shut up!” This is good advice when we pray. Yes, it is good to “say our prayers”, but then we need to “sit down and shut up!”, and we need to listen. Sometimes it is good to do that right from the start. As one writer put it, “Don’t just do something, sit there”, or in this case, don’t just say your prayers, sit there. Be silent and listen for that still small voice within that can give us insight into the situations we pray about, guide our response and give us the strength and courage to follow that guidance.

I was at a hospital some time ago with two sisters. Their father was dying. They had been praying for him to get well. When it became very obvious that this was not the likely outcome, one of them acknowledged that he was if fact very likely dying, and said, “I don’t know how to pray now!” She looked at me, as if for some kind of guidance. Hesitatingly I responded, “Maybe it is time to pray that his passing is easy.” In a sense that advice was good. It was in fact time to accept that he was dying, but what I wish I had said, was a more gracious version of “Maybe it is time to just ‘sit down and shut up’ and listen for God’s guidance, connect with God’s strength, and God’s courage to face the reality of the situation.

In all of these classical approaches to prayer—petition, praise, adoration, communion, and conversation, confession, penance, and forgiveness—we need to be absolutely certain that our expectations are not magical. We also need to be sure that we are open and listening carefully for a response from that Mysterious Other—listening for the murmurings of that still small voice within where that Mysterious other, if we are paying attention, speaks to us and gives us guidance and strength, and courage.

It is precisely here that we are called to spiritual growth, transformation, and conversion of heart. We cannot just will ourselves to be silent, and open, and to listen and to hear that still small voice within. We have to develop the ability to be silent both externally and internally. We have to learn how to discern that Still Small Voice within. In the end these classical approaches to prayer must be an integral part of an overall life of prayer that includes a discipline of spiritual practice and spiritual living that permeates all aspects of our lives. As Nouwen put it, “Only within this kind of life does a spoken prayer make sense”. Only within this kind of life can we avoid these “classical things that have been said about prayer” from becoming magical or perfunctory monologues.
Jesus offers us a very short and simple example of how we should pray. There is no temptation to magic here, and there is no babbling:

9 “This, then, is how you should pray: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, 10 your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us today our daily bread. 12 Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.

Matthew 6:9-13 (NIV)

Question for Reflection

  1. Are my prayers a monologue? Do I spend time in silence listening for that still small voice within? Am I able to quieten the thoughts, emotions, and impulses and really listen to the still small voice?

Other Posts in this Reflection:

What Is Prayer Anyway?  View…
Seeking a Deeper Understanding

Prayer Is Not Magic View..
It Is No A ToDo List for God

Prayer Is A Relationship (This Post)
Prayer Is Not A Monologue

The Foundation of Prayer View…
Stillness, Quiet, and Silence

Types of Prayer View…
Expanding Our Vision of Prayer

Praying Without Ceasing  View…
Letting Our Lives Become Prayer

What Will Prayer Ask of Us? View…
The Call To Transformation

Richard’s Answer To Question # 4 View…

 

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