Tag Archives: contemplation

Rx for a Crisis

The man, unemployed for two years now, leans his elbows on the kitchen table, puts his face in his hands and weeps.
Be still and know that I am God.

The family, numb with shock and grief, stare into the abyss the sudden death of their child has opened before them.

Be still and know that I am God.

The couple – run ragged with work, child care, and keeping up with the Joneses – gaze across the room at each other and wonder how their love turned to resentment and anger.

Be still and know that I am God.

All the while the nation’s public discourse rages on with the clamor and clang of opinions, self righteous indignation, and attack.
Be still and know that I am God.
So much of our lives seems to be fueled by fear and hyperbole, or hype, as the word has morphed into. The fear and anxiety tend to compress our perception into narrow tunnel vision and demand that we act immediately, often at the expense of reasoned consideration, and gathering all the facts. Hyperbole, the fetching sister of fear, exaggerates, escalates, and glamorizes her brother. We feed on sensationalism, scandal, and worst case scenarios.
In the context of this culture of fear and hype, when we encounter the pain and loss of being human, in whatever form it shows up in our life, we may feel overwhelmed, isolated, or ashamed.
Our times are difficult. We face as individuals, as a nation, and as global citizens immense challenges. People are suffering. The planet is suffering. We must act and act wisely. Will our action, our response to the crises we face, rise from our faith or our fear? Will the choices we make be fueled by hysteria, anger, discouragement, or the wisdom and grace of something greater and mightier than we?
Be still and know that I am God. Well, what good will that do? Is that going to improve the job opportunities in my town? Is that going to bring back our son from the grave? Is that going to bring back the love and joy we used to know as a couple?
No. It may or may not change the crisis you are facing. However, it will change you. Absolutely. Being still and knowing that God is God and you are God’s creation will shift how you perceive yourself in the midst of your crisis, and how you perceive the crisis itself.
Being still and knowing that God is God will establish you in the depths of God’s Being within you. Here you will discover a strange peace that doesn’t make sense, that passes all understanding as St. Paul wrote (Philippians 4:7). You will begin to live and act and make decisions from that deep well of peace, rather than your fear and anxiety.
The New English Bible translates this verse from Psalm 46 in this way: Let be then: learn that I am God. Let things be as they are, stop strategizing, blaming, figuring out solutions, or how to get even. Stop your action and thinking. Be in that energetic stillness that is God’s presence within you.
In doing this you will learn that God dwells within you, speaks within you, and is moving in your life and world. You are not in charge, never have been. You do not have to figure this all out and get it right somehow. Relax. Trust.
God is our shelter and our refuge,
a timely help in trouble;
so we are not afraid when the earth heaves
and the mountains are hurled into the sea,
when its waters seethe in tumult
and the mountains quake before his majesty.
There is a river whose streams gladden the city of God
which the Most High has made his holy dwelling;
God is in that city; she will not be overthrown,
And he will help her at the break of day.
The Lord of hosts is with us,
the God of Jacob is our refuge.    from Psalm 46

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My Own Devices

You don’t have time for this. Who can afford to dally about in the woods and meadows at the start of a busy day? So much to do, tasks to complete, bills to pay. The little dimwitted tyrant in the basement of your soul has already been up for hours, pacing and shoveling coal on your furnace of anxiety.
Here, right now, is the crux, the moment on which everything turns. Here is your choice.
That quiet place within is always there – the woods, the mountains, the meadow, the shore – where the waters of life perpetually flow and splash.
Likewise, the summons never ends. Each day is an engraved invitation, each moment, an extended hand.
Here is what I want you to do: find a quiet secluded place so that you won’t be tempted to role play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace. Matthew 6:6 (The Message)
Will you calm the little bully in the basement, who doesn’t know much more than how to push, grab, worry, and pout? Will you find that place where you can be fully yourself and just be there simply and honestly?
Can you feel yourself relaxing, your tunnel vision widening, and grace softening your rough edges? Do you notice how your perception changes, how something is reordered or realigned within?
It’s your choice. You are endowed with an immense and crucial freedom. You can leave peace and beauty on the mountain, in the woods, or up in the attic in a box next to the Christmas decorations, or you can take the hand of Love in this moment and be led into delight.
As you offer yourself to God and enter into communion, this interpenetration of your being and the being of God heals, transforms, and mutually satisfies you and Holiness. Here is what amazes me. God desires, even longs to be with us in conscious relationship.
Ours is a God who, yearning for our companionship, plaintively asks his people,
Why was there no one when I came? Why did no one answer when I called? … I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, “Here I am, here I am,” to a nation that did not call on my name. I held out my hands all day long to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices… Isaiah 50: 2; 65: 1-2
Up at dawn, checking my calendar on my hand held device, I am stopped in my tracks by these words of Isaiah.
St. Therese of Liseaux put it like this:

God has no need of our works. God has need of our love.

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Solving Problems Elijah’s Way

Elijah and leaseI took my puppy, Elijah, for a walk to chew over something I had read by Nicolas Berdyaev. “There is something morally repulsive about modern activistic theories which deny contemplation and recognize nothing but struggle. For them, not a single moment has value in itself, but is only a means for what follows.”

Berdyaev was a Russian Christian philosopher who spent a lot of time in exile, first for criticizing the institutional church (Russian Orthodox), and then for not accepting the  Bolshevik government.

Contemplation as a “legitimate,” widely recognized means for understanding and finding resolution for the issues we face is largely denied or relegated to something one might do for a few minutes in the shower, or before drifting off to sleep. The prevailing images for our corporate approach to problems include struggle, battle, war, and exertion of power, control, or persuasion. Such approaches assume winners and losers, victories, and defeat. The struggle approach both creates and thrives on resistance.

Elijah, I am discovering, is a dog with a contemplative bent. He stops still in the middle of the quiet street, sits down, and looks at the house on our right. He looks at the roof, the yellow flag waving in the breeze, the rows of orange, magenta, white, and yellow mums. He looks at the front door with the flowered wreath. He watches a flock of starlings rise out of the oak tree and scatter across the blue sky.

I tug on the leash. “Elijah, come. Let’s go.” He, intent on his reflection, will not budge. He gazes at the windows. He tiElijah contemplatinglts his head and looks at the shrubs. He sniffs the air. “Elijah, come!” I have to write a blog, do bookkeeping, and clean off my desk. I want to cross off “take dog for walk” on my list and get on with things. He looks at me calmly, sighs, rises, and trots along.

Contemplation begins and ends with surrender, with saying I do not know the answer and with recognizing the truth that we all see truth from different perspectives – “through a glass darkly.”  It is sitting down in the middle of things and looking long and hard and sniffing the air. It is refusing to be dragged along by someone else’s agenda. Contemplation is the willingness to walk around an issue, nose, nudge it, and tilt one’s head in order to view reality deeply and truly.

Contemplation requires one to divest oneself from a particular outcome, to detach, let go and trust the Spirit working in the spaces we create by our self-emptying. Contemplation is not about being efficient and productive, nor does it promise quick resolution. Contemplation cannot be made to be a means to anybody’s end. Instead contemplation asks us to see ourselves and whatever dilemmas we face as subjects of the ends and purposes of One who is greater than we.

Pink zinniaBerdyaev makes another point about the denial of contemplation: “Not a single moment has value in itself, but only as a means for what follows.” When we seek to respond to the difficulties and problems we face from a contemplative stance we have a different perspective on time. A moment is not just the means to some greater end. A moment and all it contains has value in itself, for itself: A dog sitting in the street watching the man mow his lawn.  The gray cat sunning herself on the flowered bedspread. The hot pink zinnia licking up the light.  Such are some of the moments in this day free for the seeing and appreciating, each whole and holy in itself. Time is not given so we may accomplish our agendas, so that we can plow through the moments of our day gouging out what we figure we will need for the next moment. We are not given time in order to be ruthless strip miners of the ground of our being, carting off what we can sell or store up in barns or banks.

Elijah stops again. He gazes at the swings in the park, the slide and merry go round. He looks up at the tall pine trees with their thick drooping branches. I follow his gaze and see the branches riddled with slender yellow pods of young pine cones.

A shift occurs in us as we begin to comprehend and appreciate the infinite worth and endless wonder inherent in each moment of our existence. The pragmatic, narcissistic, restlessness which ruthlessly turns everything and everyone into a cog in its agenda of efficiency and accomplishment sits down on its haunches in the middle of everything and looks at what is so. At last it is quieted and stilled by the fullness of a larger Reality than itself.seal sunning

What riches we miss, when our heads are full of our own answers and solutions. What truth remains hidden in those unseen, unsavored moments, when the dog pauses, when the cat yawns, and when the yearning of your heart stops you in your tracks to feast on the beauty of your own precious life.

Elijah sends his love and is available for walks at the drop of a hat.

Elijah lease 2

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I Want It and I Want It Now!

Speeding trafficFeeling overwhelmed by the speed of life? M. Rex Miller, (The Millennium Matrix – Reclaiming the Past, Reframing the Future of the Church) identifies seven qualities to describe the dynamics of our present world. He lists the qualities, which are inherent in digital age media, as interconnection, complexity, acceleration, intangibility, convergence, immediacy, and unpredictability. These seven qualities, largely absent from the Biblical world, are directly affecting the life of our churches and the life of our souls.

I want it. I want it now. And by gum, I’m gonna get it!
Let’s look at one of Miller’s qualities, immediacy.  “The time it takes us to absorb and adjust to digitally paced activities grows ever shorter. As the interval between question and answer, request and fulfillment, grows narrower, we are asked to respond to the world with an immediacy similar to that required by fighter pilots in combat… where high speeds require the F16 fighter to master a different set of rules for decision making.” Miller quotes Colonel John Boyd as he asks the question, “How do we function in an environment where reality leaves us little or no time for reflection but ‘changes ceaselessly, unfolding in an irregular, disorderly, unpredictable manner,’ despite our vain attempts to ensure the contrary?”

The disembodied voice at the drive-through chirps, “Which of our twenty four different topping combinations for your pizza would you like today? If you order in the next five seconds you may get your choice of a quart sized cooler, air freshener, or five dollars off your drink order. What would you like for dessert today? We have eight new shake flavors and are offering a special on our smoothies. If you buy two you get one free. Would you like to try our hot apple pie? Oh, sorry we know longer carry hamburgers.”

The quality of immediacy precludes a contemplative, thoughtful approach to our experience and our desires. The lapse between awareness of a desire and its fulfillment is potentially much briefer. Does twenty four hour access to the global market begin to render delayed gratification and patience obsolete? If I want or need something- a conversation, some information, a consumer good or service, a  relationship, something to eat – I want it fast. I want it now. And very often I can get it.

Digital immediacy leaves little or no breathing space between desire and fulfillment, event and response. We do not have time to absorb, savor and reflect upon our experience. To consider broader implications and what God might be saying to us will only hold up the line and irritate the person waiting behind us. We  find ourselves continually reacting to, being manipulated by, or attempting to protect and shelter ourselves from the immediacy of our environment.

Are we to mindlessly adjust to this reality, as a lobster in a slowly warming pot of water, and hence be transformed by it into somebody’s supper? Do we need to learn like the fighter pilot how to respond with greater precision and accuracy to ceaseless rapid change? Or do we have something to bring to the immediate digital age from the tradition of reflection, thoughtful consideration, and listening? Might people of faith draw on a different resource than a fighter pilot’s highly tuned nervous system and hyper responsive physical abilities?

An Antidote for Immediacy
An ancient spiritual practice can restore your balance and perspective. Wisdom from a deeper, truer source than the twenty four news cycle can shape our lives. The examen was developed and taught by St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuit order. In recent years the examen has found popularity among people of many faiths. In its simplest form it consists of a daily examination of your experience, asking the Holy Spirit to reveal God’s presence and activity in your day.  The examen is based on the assumption that God speaks to us through our deepest feelings and yearnings, or consolations and desolations. Consolations are things that satisfy and unite us with others, God, and creation in love, hope, and peace. Desolations are negative feelings – anxiety, fear, despair, anger, which tend to isolate us from ourselves, others, and God.

Here are some questions for your examen as presented in my favorite book on the subject, Sleeping with Bread – Holding What Gives You Life, by Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn, Michael Linn.

For what moment today am I most grateful?CB022113
For what moment today am I least grateful?

There are many other ways to ask the same questions:
When did I give and receive the most love today?
When did I give and receive the least love today?

When did I feel most alive today?
When did I most feel life draining out of me?

When was I happiest today?
When was I saddest?

What was today’s high point?
What was today’s low point?

This exercise pulls us out of the sucking vortex of immediacy to notice and name our internal reality. What is giving me life and joy? What is diminishing my peace and serenity?  Instead of knee jerk reactions to the demands of immediacy, we stop to consider what is moving us closer to  the way of God, and what seems to be drawing us away from the qualities of holiness. We begin to see a thread, a direction for our lives, and a sense of God’s activity and call to us.

The Immediacy of God
The digital age did not invent immediacy. That rapid connection between thought and fulfillment, need and satisfaction is a quality of the divine. Scripture describes God as accessible, present, alive, and more immediate than the air we breathe. Wisdom 7:24 captures this immediacy of God with the words: Wisdom is quicker to move than any motion; she is so pure, she pervades and permeates all things.
Mulberry Tree
The examen, practiced over time, connects us with a Divine Immediacy more compelling, and satisfying than the life sucking immediacy of our digital age. It gives us direction for our life choices and gentles us into conforming with the will of God. In Divine Immediacy we discover the spacious and timeless grace of the present moment, in which we receive all we need. Right here. Right now.  


The Ignatian Daily Examen

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Contemplation: Circling a Definition

Animal crackers


Captain Midnight ate a giraffe and an owl. I ate a camel and a lion. Crunch, crunch, crunch went Captain’s teeth on the owl. His dark nose worked back and forth and his whiskers twitched. We were eating animal crackers, a particularly satisfying meal for a rabbit. When you live your life running from fox and eagle, there is nothing quite so satisfying as sinking your teeth into a sweet crispy coyote.

There are turkeys in the trees.
There are turkeys in the trees.
Tell me if you please
why are there turkeys in the trees?

Captain was writing a poem, but he got stuck after this line. His problem was not rhyme. He had a whole list of possibilities: sneeze, sleeves, sweet peas. It was an ontological problem he was working on, as he chewed a rhinoceros. He was considering the nature of being. Why are there turkeys in the trees or fields or woods? Why are there turkeys anywhere? Why, for that matter, are there trees?

Captain finished off the rhino and sank into reverie. Turkeys, trees, he thought. Then something shifted. He, who was absorbed with his poem, began to be the subject of something else’s absorption. He felt lifted and held. He was no longer thinking, but was being thought by something larger than he.

 Captain Midnight was a rabbit with a contemplative nature. A lot of rabbits are like this. Maybe you have noticed. At dusk when rabbits feel safe and happy, you will see them on lawns and meadows at the edge of the woods, sitting in the grass still as stones. I like to think they are watching God rise from the cooling earth in a fine mist. Then while crickets throb and night descends, I think rabbits leave their bodies like empty locust husks on the lawns and become rapt by the God-mist gathering in soft folds in the valleys. The earth is blanketed with glad and tender rabbit spirit. And in kitchens, boardrooms, and on freeways, here and there, people lift their eyes, sigh and feel the hard bitterness of their hearts and the fear and worry ease a bit. Their shoulders soften. For a moment they are a little kinder and gentler. I believe rabbits do this to people.

The word contemplation comes from the Latin:  com (with) plus templum (temple, an open or consecrated space). It means to gaze attentively or think about intently. As a form of prayer, contemplation generally refers to an attitude of quiet open receptivity to God, a resting of mental activity and surrender into God’s gracious presence.

Originally contemplation meant to mark out an augural space, a place for divination. In ancient Rome the priest auger would mark off holy space by his staff and foretell events and interpret omens by considering the flights of birds, the location of lightening in the sky, and the arrangement of the entrails of animals. The priest’s interpretations guided affairs of state, including when the senate should meet, or a battle begin.

Russell StoverContemplation is the leisurely process of making sense of what is – the world as we know it – by circling around issues or ideas and considering them from varied vantage points. Contemplation implies spaciousness – a willingness not to succumb to anxious grasping after understanding. Contemplation requires some detachment, a divestment of the ownership of truth and letting go of one’s personal agendas and desires. A contemplative attitude suggests a poverty of spirit which is willing to say, “I do not know. Let us look at this together and see what we see.”       

When Captain Midnight is at his contemplative best, he spreads out with his stomach pressed into the earth, hind legs stretched out behind. And he vibrates. His body pulses in tiny rapid oscillations. He seems to tune into an extra high frequency energy source, receiving power, and converting it to rabbit voltage.

As a member of a prey species, Captain understands that contemplation and writing poems, or, for that matter, any creative endeavor, require courage in the face of death. Cramped narrow mindedness and fear close off contemplation. Contemplation flees in the face of anxiety which asserts that if I do not do something, say something, or control something – something really bad might happen to me or those I care about. You can’t get around it. Something I value has to die and it is often my notion of the way things ought to be. Many times a day smaller deaths to self are required in order to live with a contemplative spirit.

Feathers blowing in the breeze
Turkeys roosting in the trees.
A rabbit’s heart is free to seize
its Maker’s  joy on the wing
and behold the truth of any thing.

They began coming this summer. First one large turkey tentatively made its way out of the woods and across the clearing. It pecked at the corn under the bird feeder then lifted its head, swiveling on its long neck like a periscope.  Every few days he would be back. Then one day I lifted my head to count twenty turkeys ranging about the yard -four adults and sixteen chicks pecking, heads bobbing, clucking to each other softly. The cats, Captain Midnight, and I stared in astonishment.

So Captain knew why there were turkeys in the trees. He saw them fly when Chance, the golden retriever, happened to come around the side of the house and began barking at the critters who had taken over his territory. Amid flapping wings and a giddy barking dog, the gobbling ganders rose to balance precariously on the branches as the chicks scrambled into the woodsChance 1. Chance had never seen anything quite so wonderful, and neither had Captain.

 May something as marvelous set you to contemplating and writing poems. 

What practices help you contemplate? Tell me what astonishes and delights you and inspires your creativity.