Category Archives: apophatic spirituality

Feast

don’t wander down the dim halls of memory
lost in a musty maze of dead
ends

don’t launch out into the future
on the treacherous sea of pulp
fiction

trust this pulsing moment
tawdry, tattered, or bright
let things come to you

in the marriage
of your yes
and the outstretched hand of now

sit down at the feast
of what is so
savor swallow

eat it all

steaming-bowl

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

it is in the being of the days a thing makes sense
the clear, confusing, giddy, dull, and tearful passing of the time

 

 

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Winter Gifts

Eli in the snow

My soul shall be filled as with a banquet.
– Psalm 63: 2-9

At dawn my sleepy lab whines softly. I rise and let him out to sniff his boundaries and empty his bladder. A few minutes later he pounces on the door. Eyes glinting light, he shakes off the blanket of snow on his back. Then lifting one front leg after the other, he prances in the kitchen, pulls a dish towel off the counter and waves it toward me. The toaster, jar of peanut butter, and humming refrigerator sparkle like icicles in the sun.

IMG_0136

I love winter – all of it – grey dishwater skies, wind rattling the siding on the house, cold, ice, blizzards, early sunsets, long nights, and dogs ploughing glad furrows in the snow.

I love that winter is a force I cannot control, but only yield to with humility and respect.

I love winter’s summons to gather up the scattered pieces of myself, burrow down deeply, and simmer in darkness, drawing strength for spring.

I love having to wait and trust in what is unknown and unseen.

Winter grows gratitude in my heart for the privilege of shelter, warmth, running water, and the freedom to stay home. Winter also blooms with compassion and sends me out to help those for whom winter is not some cozy spiritual experience.

 winter woods

Winter spirituality is a less-is-more Holiness of pared down praise. Winter speaks in koans and says, “Behold the fullness of this emptiness!” Now excess in prayer and lifestyle seem gauche and redundant in a world, stripped down to its bare essentials – all bones and angles, holding out its harsh, nonnegotiable truths.

I had had enough of winter thirty five years ago, when I pulled out of my drive in Kalamazoo, Michigan and headed south to Kentucky. I had spent the previous thirty three years of my life in Michigan and Iowa. I am not sure why I am so hungry for ice and snow now.

Hermitage winter

In contrast to the world of humans with our getting and spending, the natural world never tries to impress or persuade me of its opinion. It has nothing to market. It simply is in its implacability, given over to being what it is – a dead maple limb in my front lawn after the storm, a dried tomato vine, a fox checking the garbage can, a rabbit without regret or apology leaving tracks in the snow.

What is implacable about me, unchanging, or nonnegotiable? I wonder. I am a hermit at heart and welcome snow days. I love people and I love being with people. And love for them burns in me like a furnace and pours out molten in my prayers.

And there is this other love – a love of absence, silence, solitude, simplicity – a winter of the soul, where I sit down to a great feast so satisfying that I need nothing else.

Sunset Heartland Center

You Will Die Before You Finish This Prayer

“I think what is going to help you most when you start your prayer – and it doesn’t matter whether it is long or short – is to make quite sure that you are certain that you will die by the time it is ended, that you will finish before your prayer does!” cheerfully advises the fourteenth century English author of the Epistle of Prayer.

The author, most likely a country parson, is writing to a young person, who asked for advice on how to control the mind when saying prayers. This is a request I often hear. Some things never change in the praying life.

I recently tried the parson’s advice and it about did me in. I attempted to make certain I would die before I completed my prayer, and learned that there is little like death to focus the mind:

The world rushed in with her fetching beauty, her clear blue sky, and yellowing maple leaves, waving, “Don’t forget about me, and me, and the red bird house, and the wren, and the dragonfly and the glaciers gripping the ground, and the wild horses pounding over the plains. The wind, whooshing leaves down the street, sent a shower of glimmering memories – babies, kitchens, ginger snaps, story books – I gave thanks for galoshes to help me wade through all the goodness. I will be ancient or dead before I finish stringing the pearls of this gratitude.

After the gratitude came the love, flowing up to the porch, running under the door, pooling at my feet and rising, slowly to my knees. I climbed up on the table and the love still mounted. Love is the color of spring and snow and fire. It moans and sings and weeps. It tastes bittersweet, smooth and creamy, warm and rich as hot chocolate. Then I grew bold and dared to believe that I could breathe in it, could breathe under-love, and that I would not drown or melt in it. So I slipped off the table and swam a few strokes around the room, then let the love sweep me out an open window into the world, buoyant and giggling.

When I came across the English parson, I had been feeling little gratitude and not the least bit buoyant. Instead of gratitude and this exuberant love, sorrow and longing for God had occupied my heart. My praying life had honed down to a narrow naked ache, like a thorn, for several weeks. I hurt. I went to sleep with the thorn and woke with it, a stab of incompletion and desire, lodged like a fish hook in the center of my being. There was no one thing I could name that would satisfy or heal this pain, but only the one whose name was above all names, who was before there were names.

The thorn was part grief and a prickly call to deeper freedom. As I grieved recent and old losses in the midst of many present blessings and considerable gladness, I was being weaned from some of the things of this world, which are lesser than God. And it hurt. I sensed there was something I was to let go of, but I couldn’t quite see what that was, though it seemed to have to do with some of my mental constructs, attitudes, ways of naming and holding what I knew as reality. It seemed to have to do with who I thought I was and how I held myself together. And this felt really, really scary.

So I prayed, meditated, read holy words, exercised, talked with friends, listened to and felt deep compassion for others. I also played a lot of mindless solitaire on my phone.

I went to the Antiochian Orthodox church down the street, where, except for the jean clad worshippers, I felt I had stepped into an ancient Syrian synagogue where Paul might step out and begin preaching any moment. I let the tonal chants in four part harmony wrap around me, as the icon saints gazed out from all four walls. Each word and act in worship was directed, not to audience appeal, market demographics, or video screens, but to the Holiness that filled the space. It was clear most of the people, as well as all those saints with their sorrowful eyes, also had thorns of longing love in their hearts too.

I have had periods of prayer like this before and trusted God was at work somehow. I know that uncertainty, alienation, and disorientation are part of growing in faith. The temptation during such times is to turn in disgust on oneself, dredging up failures, mistakes, weaknesses, and falling into a dark pit of self-negation. Yet I have learned over the years, that it is precisely, when we feel the most pitiful, that we are most in need of our own tender compassion and love.

During this time I gobbled up The Cloud of Unknowing, another fourteenth century English classic I first read years before. The writer affirmed what I was experiencing and assured me that it was God at work in me. He counsels “to reconcile yourself to wait in this darkness as long as is necessary, but still go on longing after God whom you love. … Your whole life now must be one of longing… And this longing must be in the depths of your will, put there by God, with your consent.” Rats, there seems to be no escape, short of solitaire or The Voice.

I recently realized with relief that the thorn was gone. The longing remains, but the acute pain is gone. This was a few days after I imagined that I would die before I finished my prayer. I have no idea why or how it left. I am just grateful to not feel so gripped and mournful reaching out to the heavens. Living in the cloud of unknowing and uncertainly is difficult to those of us who take pride in our intellect, our ability to be in control, to know things, and manage our own destinies.

Some religion is all suffering and damnation. Some religion is all sweetness and happy thoughts. Mine is sorrow and love. In the painful friction of sorrow and love new life ignites, leaps forth, and gives light in the darkness. Lately the words to When I Survey the Wondrous Cross have been singing themselves in my mind. So much of Christianity is mystery and wonder to me. I am clueless. I go walk around the block with my dog, praying that God make something holy of my life. I do not care what it is.

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross

See, from His head, His hands, His feet
Sorrow and love flow mingled down
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

Were the whole realm of nature mine
That were a present far too small
Love so amazing, so divine
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
– Isaac Watts

Have you ever found yourself wandering in the cloud of unknowing without a prayer, but the longing of your heart, the aching desire for God?
If you wish, share a little of your experience here.

Where Miracles Occur

Bristlecone Pines, California

The tension in my shoulders is melting. The tightness and ache in my jaw and throat are releasing. The constant, exhausting, mental jabber is growing silent.  The resolute soldiering on, pushing forward without awareness, without seeing anything, but a goal which constantly recedes over the horizon, is giving way to being    here      now.

The tunnel vision squint and laser focus are opening and broadening to a wide spacious plain that keeps revealing more and more. Reality unfolds like an undulating wave continuously turning up complexities, beauties, grace, and both harsh and comforting aspects of what is really going on.

I have been decelerating and decompressing over the past several weeks.  This process is not over, for it is the work of a lifetime. I need more time to shed the brain debris and external and internal clutter. I need to continue to tame the habit of acceleration, and restrain my inner harpy, that merciless harridan of self aggrandizement.

Though I have tried to practice and teach this for years, I feel like a rank beginner. And, as is the way of the Spirit, I am being shown how far I have to go. I am watching my many-faceted resistance, as I begin the slow, groaning, screeching grind to a halt. For ironically, in order to go further on this journey, I have to stop.

Sabbath means, literally, to stop. I am aiming for a Sabbath life, a life lived contemplatively, steeped in the awareness of the presence of the Holy, which initiates, and infuses my work and play. I like the broader definition of Sabbath, which Donna Schaper offers:

Sabbath sense is anything that makes spacious what is cramped. That makes large out of small, simple out of complex, choice out of obligation. Sabbath sense is anything that reconnects the necessities of drudgery to the marvelous uselessness of beauty. Sabbath sense is acknowledgment of the presence of Spirit in the petty and the profound.

In this time of beginning and transition, of halting and rest, I have discovered a different kind of urgency, than the urgency of schedule, production, and accomplishment. This is the urgency of a compass, a magnet, an urgency so primal it is like breath itself. This is the urgent love of the Maker of All honing into each particle of creation, boring into us and drawing us inexorably to itself.

"Tarfala Valley"

I have always been attracted to sparse, barren, open spaces – the high alpine tundra, and the edges of the tree line. There for over five thousand years the bent and twisted Bristlecone Pines dance their gnarled tango with the howling storms and eye the prize for the oldest continuous living residents on this planet. I look at maps for the wind-scoured boulder fields, the isolated islands, and the endless expanse of ice sheets at the poles. These places both fascinate, and frighten the wits out of me.

In a lovely blog, Being Poetry, I came across this quote from poet William Stafford:

Each poem is a miracle that has been invited to happen. I must be willingly fallible in order to deserve a place in the realm where miracles occur. 


Stafford, pacifist and formed in The Church of the Brethren, grew up in the semi arid high plains of western Kansas. He was also formed by those windswept plains, where you can see for miles. In these recent weeks I have been unwillingly confronted with my fallibility, my utter inability to live and be all that I desire. I hear Stafford advising, “Forget about overcoming anything. Embrace it all and live honestly from it.”

So I am heading out to the edges of my infallibility, that terrifying point where I and all I can think and do and figure out and hum to myself ends, and God begins.

Today I say that to live a life of prayer, I must go out to the edges of myself and my security. I must go beyond my ego to the outer banks, to my own fallibility, where the edges of the sea of God wash over my toes and beg me to fling myself into that deep Immensity.

I do not want to be safe. I do not want any part of a faith or a God or a religion that is safe. I want to stand in the barren field of the world, strewn with boulders, with only our wounds and fallibility, and without a prayer, a blog, a book, or a penny in my pocket, but the brooding mercy of God.

It is not a comfortable, quiet life of ease that God is calling me to, here in my retirement. It is to a life of surrendered love, where my meat and drink, and every breath are drawn from the grace of God. I am fearfully and gratefully being towed through fallibility to a place in the realm where miracles occur.

You come too.

English: Bristlecone Pines on a spur ridge bel...

Not Knowing and the Crucifixion of the Intellect

He went out, not knowing where he was going.
Hebrew 11:8

Waiting in the check out line, I indulge in my guilty pleasure – scanning the headlines of the National Enquirer. BILLY RAY RAGE: DISNEY DESTROYED MILEY CYRUS! GAGA-MADONNA WAR ERUPTS! I resist pulling an issue of Celebrity News off the rack to catch up on Tom and Katie. I save that for the beauty salon, when I am less apt to run into someone I know.

Back home as I haul in the groceries, my dog gives me a good sniffing, reading me front and back like a newspaper full of local scandals. All of us critters seem to be created with curiosity, as we wave antennae, bounce sonar, phosphoresce, and sniff out the news of our world and of one another, often shamelessly poking our snouts in our neighbor’s crotch.

Such knowledge – lurid, informative, or life saving – may empower, entertain, set us free, or provide our supper. Knowledge opens doors to invention, opportunity, and innovation.

The Bible understands that the highest kind of knowledge is knowledge, not of my neighbor’s stupid acts and reckless behavior, but of God. Knowledge of God is not for sale in the supermarket check-out line, but is given free through growing intimacy with Holiness. Knowledge of God flows from creation, scripture, people, even, sometimes, the check out line at Savemore, but, most significantly, from companionship and personal communion with the Holy One. Such knowledge and understanding develops through the exchange of love in the experience of a life shared with Christ through prayer. Like my dog, Elijah, one begins to know God, because I have sniffed at God long and often enough to recognize his scent.

Understanding of God is arrived at by literally standing under, that is to say, by lowering and humbling oneself. We stand beneath God, looking up, aware that we see only a portion of what is there. In faith we surrender to hints and intimations, glimpses and sudden dazzling displays of grace.

But inquiring minds want to know! We yearn to know where our lives are headed and to grasp with our minds what is and what shall be. We hunger to secure ourselves. We hitch ourselves up to institutions, college degrees, causes, and ideas. We cinch ourselves into relationships of aggression or hate, boredom or lust, dependency or bullying. We set our agendas and bind them to our foreheads.

Yet, deepening knowledge of God always asks us to trust. As we know God more, faith becomes the consent to knowing less and less about most everything else. As Oswald Chambers wrote, “God does not tell you what he is going to do – he reveals to you who He is.” Such not knowing is almost certain to make us really anxious.


Have you ever been asked to crucify your intellect, to kill that inquiring mind that has to know everything, understand and control everything, and be right all the time? Your life experience may lead to the painful crucifixion of your intellect. On this Golgotha, pinned by the circumstances of your own experience, you find that nothing you can figure out or find out or do can move you out of this impasse. You, left hanging there, can only wait, trust, and abide in love not knowing.

In a time of such acute unknowing we are likely to be filled with an overpowering panic and rising anxiety to secure ourselves with certainties, assurances, undeniable truths, and absolutes. 

 

Now the Lord said to Abram: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I shall show you.” Genesis 12: 1

Seventy five year old Abram and his wife, Sarah, showed a great deal of courage heading off on a journey on the word of the Lord alone without a clear destination. They had no maps, realtor photos of their new home, or contracts to wave before the querulous neighbors. They headed out in obedience under the cold moon and starry skies into a great unknown.

Though I doubt if it happened this way, I like to think of the old couple heading down the road to nowhere, waving their hats, urging the camels forward, and hollering, “Let ‘er roll!”


You are closer to glory
leaping an abyss than upholstering a rut

James Broughton (Little Sermons of the Big Joy)

The Sanctuary Foundation for Prayer
Read more about prayer www.fromholyground.org,
Contact the author lross@fromholyground.org, www.fbook.me/sanctuary
Follow at http://twitter.com/lfross

The Fullness of Emptiness

This day

my cup is

empty,

my page

blank,

my mouth absent

of speech.

Here – receive the fullness of this emptiness:

the bottom of a pail

falling,

the obscurity of a veil

lifting.

Stillness,
carrying you rapidly

down an endless river to nowhere. 

 

This is the best I will ever have to offer. 

 

Take a drink.

Be filled.


This is what it means to seek God perfectly: to withdraw from illusion and pleasure, from worldly anxieties and desires, from the works that God does not want, from a glory that is only human display; to keep my mind free from confusion in order that my liberty may be always at the disposal of his will; to entertain silence in my heart and listen for the voice of God. 

 

And then to wait in peace and emptiness and oblivion of all things.

Thomas Merton


The Sanctuary Foundation for Prayer
Read more about prayer www.fromholyground.org,
Contact the author lross@fromholyground.org, www.fbook.me/sanctuary
Follow at http://twitter.com/lfross