The way I see it, a mystic takes a peek at God and then does her best to show the rest of us what she saw. She’ll use image-language, not discourse. Giving an image is the giving of gold, the biggest thing she’s got… Hurling and wielding the best stuff she can imagine, insisting on an unmediated Way of Wakefulness,…she agrees to the quiet morning hour in front of God in exchange for a bit of revelation. She doesn’t ditch tradition as much as take it for its word and peer inside its cavernous shell. There must still be something worth saying. There must still be something worth pointing to.
-Jessie Harriman in God Laughs and Plays by David James Duncan
I greet you with my pockets turned inside out, holding out a few crumbs I picked from the seam.
Most every time I write this blog, I write from such a place of intellectual and spiritual poverty, that I feel like I am scraping gum off the sidewalk to offer you.
Oh, I have plenty of previously written material. Some of it you might like or find useful. I also seem to have an endless supply of ideas, opinions, and questions we could take up together here. However the longer I sit in that quiet morning hour waiting for a bit of revelation, the more stale and the less true all my previous thinking and posturing appear to be.
Something in me insists on peering into the Mystery anew each time I write. This is both an irresistible delight and a harrowing encounter with my own empty pockets.
I haul myself and the collected wear and tear of personal and world events before the throne of Great Stillness. There I reach out beyond my limits and press my palm in the face of Mystery and say, “Here. Here. Put it here.”
Then I wait.
In that waiting there is only the ache of love – nameless, infinite, ever beyond my control.
“Trust” was the word I found in my palm this week. Trust? That old thing? How many times does this word turn up in scripture and in the words we say to each other? How about something new, fresh, maybe a little edgier?
Thousands of children with stick legs and arms are dying in the horn of Africa. A young man just nineteen years old came home to the little town up the road, where he was buried with military honors. Global markets, drunk on anxiety, dip and sway, fall and crawl up again. Politicians argue. A self-styled prophet of God goes to prison for doing unspeakable things to little girls.
Holy One, the world is going to hell in a hand basket and all you can offer is trust?
Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
And lean not on your own understanding;
In all your ways acknowledge Him,
And He shall direct your paths.
Do not be wise in your own eyes;
Fear the Lord and depart from evil.
It will be health to your flesh,
And strength to your bones.
Proverbs 3:5-8, New King James Version
So – help yourself these crumbs:
Trust in what you cannot fully know or name or understand, or write about.
Trust in the enduring love in your heart that weeps with compassion and yearns for justice and struggles
to know what to do in these challenging times.
Trust in your conviction that God will not be defeated by the evil and sin of humans.
Trust that Someone is afoot, knitting together the broken bones of Christ’s body.
And most amazing of all:
Trust that our trust and faith are the salve,
which heals all wounds.
And he could do no miracle there except he laid hands on a few sick people and healed them.
And he wondered at their unbelief. Mark 6:5-6
Posted in Contemplation, prayer, Prayer, spirituality
Tagged christ, Christianity, David James Duncan, emptiness, God, Jesus, Mystery, Prayer, Religion & Spirituality, trust, writing
In the spring of the year in small towns in Kansas ladies often gather in church basements for their annual salad luncheon. This event summons forth the culinary creativity of the local community. Here you may find things done to beets and broccoli, which no respectable vegetable or fruit would ever dream of. Featured ingredients of these marvels include Jell-O, cool whip, Eagle brand condensed milk, and cherry pie filling.
The salads, spread out over several tables, accented with canning jars of lilacs, are something to behold, maybe, for some, even to kneel before. Chicken salad, cucumber salad, pasta salad, bean salad, and seven layered pea salad are served in big bowls and platters. Rainbow colored Jell-O salads hold bits of carrots, celery, fruit and nuts under layers of cream cheese and shredded cabbage.
After the meal, the women clear the tables, refill the glasses of ice tea, and settle back to listen to the guest speaker from out of town.
On one of these occasions over twenty five years ago I was that out of town guest speaker. This fact alone made me an expert on something which these women already knew plenty about: prayer.
So this is how I came to be finishing up my cranberry fluff salad, as my hostess was introducing me. I began to pray, as was my custom, “Lord, what do you want me to tell the people?” This was the prayer I often prayed as I prepared sermons and presentations. Though this prayer was part of my preparation long before my actual presentation, I would check in with God just before I began speaking in case there were any updates.
After I prayed, what I had always heard in the silence of my heart was, “Tell the people that I love them.” Okay, I would think. I can roll with this. Over the years, God was very consistent in the direction: “Here’s the word, sweetie, tell the little boogers I love em. They still need to hear it.”
So it was, that as my hostess was reading off my credentials to the ladies and I was wiping the crumbs from my mouth, I asked my question, what do you want me to tell the people?
And God said:
Tell the people that I miss them.
This post marks the one hundredth post of the Praying Life Blog. Over the past two years, I have been attempting to tell you this in various ways. This post gives it to you straight:
God misses you. God longs for you, pines for you, walks the floor at night for you. God throws himself down on the ground weeping for you. God slumps on the couch, drowning his sorrow, eating three cartons of Haagen-Dazs rocky road ice cream for you.
God misses you.
A whole lot.
This is what you must write to the angel of the church in Ephesus:
I am the one who holds the seven stars in my right hand, and I walk among the seven gold lamp stands. Listen to what I say.
I know everything you have done, including your hard work and how you have endured. I know you won’t put up with anyone who is evil. When some people pretended to be apostles, you tested them and found out that they were liars. You have endured and gone through hard times because of me, and you have not given up.
But I do have something against you!
And it is this:
You don’t have as much love as you used to. Revelation 2: 1-4
my cup is
my mouth absent
Here – receive the fullness of this emptiness:
the bottom of a pail
the obscurity of a veil
carrying you rapidly
down an endless river to nowhere.
This is the best I will ever have to offer.
Take a drink.
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.
- Love and the Wind (theprayinglife.wordpress.com)
- Christmas and the Recollected Soul (theprayinglife.wordpress.com)
- The Amaryllis and the Evangelist (theprayinglife.wordpress.com)
- Embarrassing Prayers (theprayinglife.wordpress.com)
Posted in apophatic spirituality, Christianity, contemplation, Prayer, Spiritual Formation, spirituality
Tagged emptiness, fullness, kenosis, letting go, seeking God perfectly, Thomas Merton
For thus said the Lord God; the Holy One of Israel:
you shall be
your strength. Isaiah 30: 15
The verse was not what I expected or hoped for. I wanted a word from the Lord, which was snappier with more glory and fortune cookie flair. For example, “So the Lord restored Job’s fortunes and doubled all his possessions. … and all his brothers and sisters and former acquaintances and friends gave him a sheep and a gold ring.” Job 42: 10-11
Instead, Isaiah 30:15 dropped into my consciousness almost before I had finished my request: Holy One, give me a verse of scripture to guide me in the coming year. I need a point of true north to align myself with and measure my life against, a place of solid ground in the midst of chaos.
One of my Facebook friends took suggestions for her verse from friends, who offered rich verses for her to reflect on in 2011. She came up with her own: Paul’s lovely advice to the Philippians: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true…, honorable…, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Philippians 4: 8. There is enough in these words to keep one’s head on straight for a whole year.
I got unbidden, rushing in even before I could think of something better or ask my friends, this humble little verse, from Isaiah. No Sweetie, no high drama, livestock, or gold rings for you. Turn back. Sit down. Be still. There you will find all you need.
I chaff with this because I have already carried (or been carried) by this verse for years. Haven’t I gnawed all the meat off it and sucked it dry of all its juices? Apparently not. So in obedience to the one I serve, in 2011 from time to time I will post about some aspect of this unpretentious verse.
Today, we start with the first two words – In returning. Around 734 BCE the prophet, Isaiah, spoke these words to the people of God as part of a scathing denunciation of the blindness and incompetence of their leaders. He was speaking to those who relied on their own resources rather than the power and wisdom of God. He pointed out their pride, idolatry, and greed. Rather than trusting in God, they trusted in deceit and oppression. The remedy to this path of destruction began with a returning to something once known, but tossed aside in a frenzy of anxiety and lack of faith.
Returning, turning, going back is what I have been doing a lot of the past year and will continue to do in the year ahead. Every month or so I go back to the small town in Iowa, where I grew up, and gather with my brother and sister to sort through over sixty years of accumulated household goods and memories in my parents’ home. I turn over the remnants of our lives together, lift them out of dusty boxes, and sweep cobwebs away. I pull down an aged, wooden Kraft Cheese box tucked under the eaves in the garage. I unfold yellowed, newspaper clippings and read letters I sent to mom and dad from Cedar Falls, Iowa; Ann Arbor and Kalamazoo, Michigan; and Louisville, Kentucky.
I gaze at a photo of myself I had not seen before. Who is that little girl sitting on the chair? I peer at a snapshot of mom and dad at some fancy dinner, both dressed to kill, vibrant and smiling. In one Father’s Day card we found, mom wrote, “You are a wonderful husband, lover, and father.” We whooped and giggled.
At week’s end I arrange the piles and boxes, run the sweeper, turn down the furnace, and lock the door. Elijah, my black lab, and I walk to the car. He jumps into the back seat, littered with rawhide chews and toys, and we return to Kansas, driving west across southern Iowa to catch I35 south down to Missouri, and then turning back west on I70 to Topeka.
I do not know how many more returns I will make before the auction is over, the papers signed, and the house keys turned over to a new owner. In such returning the prophet promises salvation, healing, some kind of cure for his nation’s disease. In such turning back and turning toward, life unwinds and furls us out, then draws us back again to lie curled round some center like the string of a yoyo.
Isaiah tells the people, flinging themselves toward their own devices, that it is the Lord they are to return to. The question is where in our turning do we find that hidden manger, that center, that core of unnameable, untameable truth? Is in the Tupperware, breeding plastic cartons on the floor of the pantry, or the stack of Styrofoam cups mom washed and saved? Is it in the notebooks, where dad recorded the dates when he replaced the faucet washers, changed the oil in the car, or put in a new furnace filter?
The other night, back here in Kansas in my bed, I heard my cat scratching outside my door, wanting to return to me and rest on my bed, where she likes to lay as close to my face as possible and tickle me softly with her whiskers. Somewhat allergic to cats, I rarely let her in. Having been alone, except for the boy who comes to feed and water her, she reached her paw under the door, pulling a throw rug and making an insistent ruckus.
In the morning I held her while I drank my coffee. She turned and turned on my lap, kneading my stomach, finally resting curled and purring, pressing her head against my chest.
Going back to recover old ground is an ancient dance. Any given life is so full of wonder, terror, and mystery that it deserves returning to over and over. There is always more to be seen and learned about the hands which wrote the note, “This wooden butter paddle belonged to my grandmother Van Doren.”
In one box mom saved programs from important events of family members. I found my high school commencement program. The top six scholars in my class spoke on the topic: 1960-1964 Years of Achievement and Turmoil, Events that Have and Will Affect Our Lives. Individual speeches covered Man’s Progress through Science; The American Image – Latin America; Tensions – Europe and Southeast Asia; The Passing of an Era – November 22, 1963 (the assassination of John F.Kennedy). One of the few African Americans in my class, Kathy Wells, spoke on Man’s Attempt to Overcome Bigotry. My title was Progress – Local and State.
No one can turn up his nose at the quality of the education at my alma mater.
I recently heard someone speak about “God’s plan” for us. The phrase sort of grated on me. “Plan” seems to me to be such a human notion with its linear quality, bound by time, space, and mortal reason. I do not think God has plans in the way we might think of them – a neat ending to a story, a way everything will make sense to us, or a satisfying tying up of all our loose ends.
Rather, I think of God as eternal unfurling with ever increasing nuance and connection until we see all lives as dancing flames rising and falling and rising again.
Meaning is something we tack on to Reality to comfort ourselves with a sense of having a handle on things. But Reality more likely slips through our fingers, whizzing past us, leaving trails of newspaper clippings, baby shoes, an old watch, and a tortoise shell comb worn by your great grandmother.
Today I think, rather than One who has plans, God is an endless returning, retracing, weaving in and out, a grand do si do in waltz time, circling back and forward, all the while holding out his hand for us to join the dance, seeing the same place over and over, as if for the first time.
What we call the beginning is often the end.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.
T.S. Eliot “Little Gidding”
I would love to know the wisdom you will be carrying with you in 2011. What is your verse, or piece of direction to see you through the coming year? Leave it here in the comments, or post it on our Facebook page.
A very blessed New Year to you!
The Sanctuary Foundation for Prayer
Read more about prayer www.fromholyground.org
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Not enough time, not enough energy, not enough hope, not enough money, not enough jobs, not enough room, not enough love, not enough peace …
not enuf nuthin !
So goes the lie.
As the holiday season of plenty, hope, and generosity opens its arms to us, some individuals are pained by and suspicious of the season’s glittering wares. The family, who have lost their home to foreclosure, the unemployed factory worker, and other despairing and heartsick souls may feel plenty is beyond their reach and scarcity their new normal.
The media depictions of holiday cheer play on our insecurity and sense of lack. They insinuate that no matter how much we have, we do not have the latest and greatest. Advertisers lure us with promises of more. We may find ourselves stumbling after ghostly phantoms in the desperate hope that this year we might find that illusive wholeness we are seeking.
How does one feel whole and fulfilled, when one is more aware of scarcity in one’s life? Perhaps abundance in the midst of scarcity occurs for us as it did for Jesus, when he fed five thousand people with five barley loaves and two small fish.
We welcome what we have, however meager. We give thanks, and watch it multiply.
Here is a simple, yet demanding, exercise to practice such a miracle in your own life. It is called The Welcoming Prayer. It was developed by Mary Mrozowski, one of Thomas Keating‘s closest associates and a prime mover in the development of centering prayer. She based the Welcoming Prayer on the 17th-century French spiritual classic Abandonment to Divine Providence by Jean-Pierre de Caussade as well as Fr. Keating’s teachings and her own lived experience of transformation with its underlying attitude of surrender. There are a number of variations on this prayer. Here is one.
Focus and Sink In:
Become aware of what is troubling you or occupying your mind. For example, your sadness, anger, or fear regarding scarcity of some kind in your life. Focus on your feelings, both cognitively and physically, noting how and where the feeling affects your body.
Instead of resisting, or feeling ashamed or denying, welcome the truth of what is troubling you. Welcome the feelings with curiosity and compassion.
(Here is the hard part)
Let go of your desire for power and control over the situation. Release your desire to be “right.”
Let go of your desire for affection and esteem from others.
Let go of your desire for survival and security.
Let go of your desire to change the way things are.
Allow yourself to sink into the abundant flowing love of this moment. French priest, Jeanne Pierre de Caussade, describes this love:
The present is ever filled with infinite treasure; it contains more than you have capacity to hold. … The will of God is at each moment before us like an immense, inexhaustible ocean that no human heart can fathom; but none can receive from it more than he has capacity to contain, it is necessary to enlarge this capacity by faith, confidence, and love…
You may find the letting go section of the prayer difficult to do. One or two of the desires may be harder to release than others. Think of this as useful information about what things, other than God, are of primary importance in your life. Notice which desires might be getting in the way of your freedom in Christ. If you find you cannot release one of these, you might simply pray that God give you the desire to desire to let go.
The Welcoming Prayer invites us to trust in God’s presence and providence and to discover the infinite wealth of God available to us in each moment. “The divine will is a deep abyss of which the present moment is the entrance. If you plunge into this abyss you will find it infinitely more vast than your desires,” writes de Caussade.
I believe this is absolutely true. Over and over in the midst of distress, I have wrung my hands about there not being enough of one thing or another in my life. Yet as I have focused and welcomed the feelings and my present reality, let go of my ego’s desires, and rested in God, my need has been supplied with an abundant depth and power that swept away all my grasping and anxiety.
I heard the geese honking at dawn last week. My dog halted at the door and cocked his head and we listened together in wonder. I love the sound of them moving over head, giving themselves to the skies. Trusting in their ancient faith they make their way.
In spite of all appearances to the contrary, I believe there is enough.
The Wild Geese
Abandon, as in love or sleep,
Holds them to their way
clear in the ancient faith:
what we need is here.
And we pray not for new earth or heaven,
but to be quiet in heart
and in eye clear.
What we need is here. Wendell Berry
I trust in you, O Lord. You are my God.
My times are in your hands. Psalm 30:1
What we need is here.
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“Do you want to ask
“No. If you do,
He went ahead:
his prayer dressed up
in Sunday clothes
rose a few feet
and dropped with a soft
If a lonely soul
did ever cry out
in company its true
outcry to God,
it would be as though
at a sedate party
a man suddenly
removed his clothes
and took his wife
passionately into his arms.
Wendell Berry – I love this Kentucky farmer and writer, with his deep affection for the land and generosity of spirit. I actually worry sometimes about his dying. He is getting older and I need him to keep going into his timber, where he observes Sabbath down by the creek. I need his passion for justice and goodness, which he keeps just under his worn jacket. I love it every time he tears off that jacket and strips down to show us the naked truth.
I used to say with the foolish assurance of someone newly in love with God, “If people knew how sexy God is, our churches would be filled.” Now I wonder if perhaps it is our churches themselves who don’t know how sexy God is, and that is why some are empty.
In the sedate worship circles I frequent, there are few passionate outbursts and everyone keeps his clothes on. If a God lover ever did rise up in some self-abandoned embarrassing expression of love, we would probably be appalled and call the police.
We have all heard those obligatory, studied prayers that rise a few feet and drop with a soft thump. I have prayed quite a few myself. I also confess I have been a perpetrator of prayers with an ax to grind: some pet notion or issue that wasn’t fully treated in the sermon or meeting, which the one praying attempts to correct. Perhaps, you have been assaulted with the prayer of someone, who is more concerned about setting you straight about some matter than entering into communion with the Lord of the Universe on your behalf. Then there are the quick and dirty nooners over lunch in a public restaurant, where you feel everyone is watching.
To the Holy One, I figure all our prayers are mostly childish babble, endearing scribbles in the sky. I trust God loves them all, just as I still keep a box of my daughters’ childhood drawings and writing. Tell me, what are we, caged in our mortality, to do with this divine love, if not to slop it around like infants in a high chair eating our first plate of spaghetti? We are bound to be messy. More of us ought to be caught red handed in flagrante delicto with spaghetti sauce all over our faces.
Some Sundays I have an impulse to throw myself in an unseemly prostration before the altar on behalf of the people and the God I love so much that I can’t stand it. I do not have the words to express the anguish, doubt, and fear I know some of the people carry. “Do something!” I want to scream at God. “Here take me, take my life, such as it is, ragged and tattered, and heal your people!”
Once, in a weak moment, overcome with love, I knelt in a Presbyterian church during worship. Presbyterians, as you may know, do not have kneelers in their churches or kneel as part of their worship. They express their passion by singing, something at which Roman Catholics, with their lovely genuflections and neat fold-down kneelers are generally less accomplished.
My embarrassment followed Holy Communion. After I received our Lord’s presence and love, I brazenly knelt right down in the First Presbyterian Church in Holton, Kansas. It was a little crowded between my seat and the back of my brother’s pew, but I just had to do it. Afterwards one of the elders of the church brought up my indiscretion at the session meeting, asking the pastor if what I did was “Presbyterian.” They haven ‘t kicked me out so far.
Saints, prophets, artists, and poets understand the passion of the human heart for the divine. These are persons, possessed and overcome with our Beloved, who often do and say things unseemly. Most people think they are a little kooky. Yet these same people, who hold mystics at arm’s length, regularly sing hymns with lyrics like:
Jesus, lover of my soul, let me
to thy bosom fly …
Come down, O love divine, seek thou this soul of mine,
and visit it with thine own ardor glowing…
Who do they think they are fooling? I know there are hearts aflame with God in more than one gentleman in the back row, not to mention the middle aged couple, or bored looking teenager pecking at his cell phone. Most us, including clergy, are well trained to keep our passion contained. Nobody wants to be embarrassed for heaven’s sake.
As Wendell Berry writes, there is public prayer, which can easily slide down the slippery slope into performance prayer. Then there is the Jesus-recommended private, shut up in your closet prayer. (Matthew 6:6) I suppose the closet prayers are the best kind for taking off your clothes. The only problem with hiding our passion is that people may get the idea that God is boring and that being a person of faith is only a matter of learning some doctrine and following a moral code of behavior.
Not for the faint hearted, a life of prayer is a perilous enterprise. One can pray a prayer so lame it is an embarrassment, or one can simply embarrass oneself. I believe God receives all our prayers, both the self-conscious thumpers, and the self-forgotten soarers. God, being beyond shame, is not embarrassed by either. Would we could all toss away our fig leaves and go walking in the garden with our Lover without a stitch.
I hope there is a place, where you can strip down to your naked, vulnerable, cellulite- encased, pocked-marked self and open your arms to your Beloved in a rush of desire and groping hunger for holiness, truth, justice, and mercy.
We won’t peek. Just go for it. Lame or passionate, pray an embarrassing prayer today.
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They are all screaming at the top of their lungs. A gargantuan angel with bushy hair and a dark, cavernous throat bellows from a starry sky. A couple of space ships pass in the distance and a few screaming angels flit among the stars. Four other angels hover at the large angel’s feet, with neat rows of white teeth framing their gaping mouths. These angels are playing musical instruments: a violin, a harp, and one angel is hitting a cow bell with a drum stick.
The cartoon’s caption, printed on a scroll held by the big angel, reads:
PRAY. Everything else is ___! (expletive removed)
The cartoon is the irreverent work of Robert Therrien, aka Bad Bob, who made a name for himself in the 90’s drawing Screaming Man cartoons, which featured a fellow who had consumed five or six too many cups of coffee.
This framed cartoon has stood on my desk for over fifteen years. I loved its no-nonsense; just do it approach to prayer. Those ugly hysterical angels seemed to say, “Get over yourself, sweet cakes, and turn to God. Now!” I doubt if Bad Bob of Mad Magazine fame intended such a response. None the less, the cartoon neatly cut through my own (expletive removed) and shifted my focus from my almighty self to One greater and wiser and kinder than I.
A few weeks ago my Black Lab, Elijah, named for the Tishbite prophet who bested the prophets of Baal, and heard the still, small voice of God, chewed up Bad Bob’s profane angels. By the time I caught him gnawing on pieces of the wooden frame, he had already eaten one of the smaller angels. I don’t remember what instrument he was playing. I do not think Elijah had a quarrel with the angels or Bad Bob. The satisfying crunch and shred of the wooden frame was his delight. That angel he ate was just an after dinner mint.
Once in a while I have the urge to yell at someone, “Pray!” But usually the person already feels tormented, guilty, and vulnerable enough without me adding to his or her pain.
How does one enter into relationship with the most high God? We hesitate on the threshold, dilly dallying around reading books and blogs, talking about prayer, and about God, holding opinions about religion and other people’s expressions of faith, all the while avoiding that vulnerable exposure of our raw need to the Holy One, intolerably awesome and other than us.
Maybe we need a herd of fierce, raucous, over-caffeinated angels to descend and scare the wits out of us. If not such a rude kick in the seat of the pants, we may need at least someone to take us by the hand and say, “Okay, let’s do it like this. And then sit down with us and pray. Maybe we need someone who will stay with us, as we flail about. Maybe we need someone who will bang a cowbell with a stick, when we start to nod off. Maybe we need someone whose faith, at the moment, is larger than ours, whose belief is deeper, and whose hope is wider. Whether we find such support and compassion with one other person or a hundred, this is what I call church.
Bad Bob’s screaming angel appears to have no doubt in our ability to pray or in prayer’s power and effectiveness. Yet the heavenly being, along with the other hosts, has had it up to here with a people, who persist in looking for answers to their troubles only in solutions that amount to the manure of bulls.
Come to think of it, I have had it too. Pray!
Let me know if you need some help.
Read more about at www.fromholyground.org Tracking Holiness – Newsletter