Feb 292012
 

Many Christians began Lent last week with Ash Wednesday, but today is the beginning of Lent on the Julian or Orthodox calendar.  Traditionally, it is a 40-day period of more intense prayer, penitence, abstinence, fasting, and alms before celebrating the resurrection of Christ at Easter.  It is a fitting time to remember our communion with every child of God, many of whom suffer and sacrifice much more than others. Please join me in this prayer.


Sophia, Divine Wisdom, our Holy Mother,
when we crave comforts and luxuries,
help us remember all those
whose craving is for health, peace, and liberty.

Christ, Divine Word, our Holy Shepherd,
when we give of our wealth in alms,
help us remember all those
whose alms are their own flesh and blood.

Abba, Divine Will, our Holy Father,
when we hunger for food we do not need,
help us remember all those
whose hunger is not chosen.

Almighty God, Divine Trinity, our Holy Unity,
when in prayer we sit alone with You,
help us remember all those
whose prayer is to not be alone. Amen.

Agape

Jan 282012
 

Holy Sophia,
……You who silently moves
………upon the primordial deep,
…………Who communes with the One
……………in every moment of creation,
………………Whom Solomon the Wise
…………………praises as the grace most desired,
……………………O Paraclete and Pentecostal Fire
………………………I open myself to You.

Precious mystical Spirit,
a mere puff of Your hallowed breath
clears away the clouds and dust
from my unsettled mind
so that the dark shining stillness
ever possessing my soul
may better reflect You,
the Unspotted Mirror,
the Peace that Passes Understanding,
the Eternally Virgin Womb
upon Whom the Will casts Itself,
and within Whom the Word
is ever born anew.

Jan 202012
 

As part of my current religious practices, I am charged with praying a daily office, consisting of morning and evening prayer periods with specified scriptures, prayers, chants, etc.  The Psalms are central to most traditional offices, and obviously almost all of Christianity makes use of the Psalms in some way.  While many parts of the Psalms are quite beautiful, inspiring, and comforting, there are others that I have long found disturbing and even contradictory to the biblical warmessages of Jesus as I currently understand them.  Of course, this is true not only of my reading of the Psalms but also of other writings in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament; I am nevertheless most frequently presented with this challenge by this particular book attributed to King David.   I explicitly refer to King David because he was a warrior king who clearly saw bloodshed as a legitimate way to serve God.  As I dig into these issues, please keep in mind that nothing I say here is meant to denigrate the Jewish people or their scriptures or traditions, but merely to reflect upon how I am challenged by those scriptures as a member of a faith that preserves its historical connections with them.

Here is an example of such passages:

In your unfailing love, silence my enemies; destroy all my foes, for I am your servant. Psalm 143:12

So I ask myself, how can I reconcile with such a prayer, let alone actually speak it, when I have received this teaching from Jesus?

But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. Luke 6:27-29

I could simply refuse to speak such words as in Psalms 143:12, and at times I have done so.  There are Christians who essentially ignore the Old Testament because they regard too much of it as incompatible with their understanding of Jesus.  The rejection of scriptures that beg for or seem to command hatred and violence toward others is, to me, a completely understandable response to the teachings of Jesus about agape.  However, that approach also concerns me because I sense in it the slippery slope of denial about who we are as the Church, which includes where we came from and how we got to where we are.  For me to deny that violence and ill-will toward our fellow human beings is part of the Church’s past would be just as misguided as me trying to deny the racist, sexist, and homophobic attitudes of my youth simply because I want to be free of them now and in the future.  For this reason alone I can find value in frequently revisiting these scriptures, and so when I speak them it is not to voice their literal meanings but to acknowledge them as part of our history and thus part of our present and our future.   That kind of mindfulness is meaningful to me because I’ve found truth in this adage from George Santayana:  Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.

Thankfully there are other benefits to maintaining my connection with even the most disturbing of scriptures.  At times I have found it a meaningful connection with the fact that I do sometimes feel anger and fear toward others and then, despite my best intentions, perhaps even fantasize about a violent intervention that would forever end the threat. On other occasions it has seemed helpful to think of these scriptures as speaking about the enemies I perceive in my own soul, vices that lead me to do things I regret, and about which I grow impatient and angry with myself.  Yet whether the perceived threat is external or internal, I believe that hatred and violence is not the answer. In those moments, scriptures like these can help me accept and integrate those dark thoughts and feelings and more carefully ponder the perceived threat and discern a more loving response.

Harsh scriptures also help me to empathize with those Christians, Jews, and Muslims who feel compelled by scripture to take a more dogmatic, legalistic, or militant approach in their religion.  I am further reminded of how the Bible and other spiritual writings, such as creeds and liturgies, are very much human texts, and how even the most illuminated prophets cannot help but respond to Divine inspiration in ways that are more or less affected by countless cultural and personal factors.  I strive to remember that this must also be true of my own understanding of life and the Divine, and so I try to not allow myself the conceit of feeling superior to those who “just don’t get it” the way I think I do.

In discussing this matter with a friend, it was further suggested to me that Judaism’s own awareness and struggle with such scriptures has been invaluable to the development of their culture’s social justice movements.  The spirit behind the warrior-like words of Psalms can be taken as  a combination of pleas to God and zealous determination to right wrongs, protect the weak, defend the innocent, free the oppressed, and support the righteous.  We Christians inherited that spirit from our Jewish forebears. There is a parallel to this transformation of historical messages within Christianity as well, where once hateful and bloodthirsty orders of Christian knighthood have been reconstructed as peaceful orders of service to all humanity.  I am fully aware that their existence is offensive to many people, especially those whose ancestors suffered the Crusades.  Yet, in what I personally consider to be the best examples of such orders, rather than deny or celebrate the heinous parts of their history, they acknowledged them with humility and remorse. The sword that was once an instrument of conquest and oppression has become a symbol for courageous commitment to Truth and a reminder that intolerance and violence too often only beget more intolerance and violence.

In terms of what most people typically think of as mystical experience, the practice of reciting such scriptures doesn’t seem to do much for me.   For that sort of thing, I’ll take the Rosary, the Jesus Prayer, chanting Maranatha, or sitting in centering prayer over reciting the Psalms any day.  This practice has, however, obviously helped me to become more aware of my place in the family of the Church, the “Mystical Body of Christ,” and to feel more compassion for and communion with all Christians, Jews, and Muslims.  And since I believe any awareness of love is an awareness of the Divine, then in that sense I must acknowledge that this practice, even with all its operational and discursive distractions, is mystical in its own way.

Maranatha

Agape

Aug 242011
 

With this post I want to draw attention to the work of healing prayer, often called “intercessory prayer.” This is something that I personally feel is a very important kind of service, and I also think it is a spiritual practice of the highest order. There are a lot of metaphysical and esoteric teachings about healing prayer, and it is central to a number of organizations, like the Order of St. Luke, the Guild of St. Raphael, and the Church of Christ Scientist. The Unity Church also has specific teachings on healing prayer. With this post I want to briefly highlight some of the elements of effective prayer that are common to such teachings.

First and foremost, it’s a common element of belief that our power is limited to serving as instruments or catalysts for healing, and that all healing is ultimately accomplished by Divine Grace. In this view, no matter what practices we employ we are fooling ourselves if we attribute the results solely to our own personal power. This is not to say that one’s own personal energies are unimportant. Rather, the challenge is to allow the Divine Will to manifest in us as a zealous hopefulness for healing and fervent faithfulness that the Divine works through us for that purpose. Few of us can ever know exactly how the Divine Will works in our own lives, let alone another human soul. Our best wisdom is therefore in giving such energy freely as an act of love, without making our hopes into specific expectations. Maintaining this realistic humility is sometimes no small feat, and the relationship and differentiation of hope and expectation is a matter well worth pondering.

In the act of prayer or meditation on the healing of someone, there are other important attitudes that tradition, metaphysical theory, and good old common sense urge us to practice. Certainly close to, if not on the same level as humility, is positivity, which relates to the earlier phrases, “zealous hopefulness” and “fervent faithfulness.” In practical terms, we are talking about the emotions, images and other thoughts we have with regard to the people for whom we are praying. While a certain amount of sorrowful sympathy may be natural and even helpful, in the moment of healing prayer we want to fill our hearts and minds with the most positive energies of love and health. We do not dwell on images of injury, disease and suffering, or wallow in feelings of pity, sadness, anxiety or despair. Rather, we imagine the subject of our prayer as receiving our own feelings of affection, courage and hope, while bathing in the light of Divine Grace, her or him smiling in happiness and health. For many mystics, our faith if not actual knowledge is that, no matter how much an individual may be suffering in body and soul, at the very deepest levels of spirit he or she is already and always in harmony with the Divine Will. We abide in the trust that whatever happens is ultimately an opportunity for that soul to learn and grow toward greater and more complete harmony.

As for methods of healing prayer, they are many and diverse. One method is the “Heart of Love” meditation I have previously provided, working specifically through the first two phases with the intention of sharing love especially for healing.  It is also traditional for many Christians to address their healing prayers not only to Christ, but also to our Holy Mother Mary, to St. Luke the Physician, and/or St. Raphael the Archangel, whose name roughly means “God’s healing,” or “God’s healer.”  There are many traditional prayers to these saints available online.

 

 

Aug 192011
 

Dear friends, I hope you will join me in this prayer from time to time.

O Great Mystery,
O Divine Lover we seek without understanding,
O Love that transcends all sense and reason,
we open our hearts and minds to You now,
here in this moment, as though little chicks
opening their mouths for nourishment
delivered to them by a good mother and father.

We don’t really know how or why You feed us,
but we know that we live and we long for this;
and whether it is fear, faith, hope, or joy that moves us,
here we are crying out for You before all things,
You who is at once the food and the One who feeds.

O Unfathomable Truth,
moved by You we pour out our faith, hope and love
for our brothers and sisters, Your children,
who thirst and hunger for You.
Bless us all by accepting this offering
and delivering it to their hearts and minds
so that we may all feel Your mysterious presence,
so that we may all more fully know You,
our Light and Life, Love Itself,
the very Spirit of our souls,
the essential Mind of our minds,
the central passion that stirs all our desires.

Here our words fail us, O Ineffable One;
there are no images, no sounds we can cling to,
no emotions or sensations that capture You,
and so we simply relax and let them all go,
sitting right here, right now, attuned to the silence
in which all our words arise and depart,
attuned to the stillness in which all our feelings move,
attuned to the darkness in which all our images
flash into and out of being,
attuned to the mysterious realm within us
that gives birth to all, and is the nest and parent of all,
attuned to You.

Let us simply rest in this for a while
without expectation,
simply open and willing to receive
whatever may come as a sign of Your love,
even if it seems to be nothing at all
but this silence, this stillness, this darkness itself,
this seeming emptiness that is nonetheless
the source and the home of all that is.
Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

 

Also posted at:  http://chuckdunning.blog.com/2011/11/30/a-prayer-for-spiritual-nourishment/
Apr 062011
 

In part 2, we considered the possibility that Satan – the voice of selfishness and the temptation to take the east way out – led Jesus to confront his own sense of existential emptiness and spiritual hunger.  In doing so, it was suggested that Jesus experienced compassion for all others who suffer not only with physical hunger but with these deeper issues, and that he also realized such challenges are not best answered through temporary acquisitions the way physical hunger is by physical food. To attempt satisfying our spiritual needs in such ways would be to put economic power above faith.   It was further suggested that Jesus realized our emptiness and spiritual hunger are not wrongs to be righted, not lackings to be eliminated, but are instead natural symptoms of our freedom and the will to live it.  There is liberation in welcoming and embracing them.

For the second and third temptations, I will offer an expanded hypothetical dialogue between Jesus and Satan.

The Second Temptation

The Adversary’s next pitch, this time for political power, amounts to something like this:

Okay, Jesus, you’ve realized your freedom and your will to do something meaningful with it.  You care deeply about all of humanity, and you realize economic power isn’t the ultimate answer.  After all, a full belly doesn’t solve all the world’s problems, does it?  So think about this:  You could fulfill the prophecies of the Messiah and rule all the nations of this world, and in doing so you could command things to be whatever you wish.  You could end all wars, stop oppression of the weak and the righteous, put an end to hunger for everyone, and make the world a utopia.  Just imagine!  The New Jerusalem!  Heaven on earth!  Now that’s something the Son of God should do, right?

This proposition has got to sound pretty good to Jesus, and we can imagine it would be an even bigger temptation than pursuing economic power alone.  But then Jesus hears something to this effect:

Of course, the rub is that all these ignorant human beings were created with free will, which means not everyone is going to want to get on board with your plans.  Unless you want rebels and insurgents undermining everything you do, you’re going to have to make everyone want to get on board.  And, to be blunt, the only way that’s going to happen is if you acknowledge the fact that it’s my spirit running the show down here.  I mean, Jesus, just look around!  Distrust, selfishness, temptation, manipulation, violence – these are things that really move people!  Embrace these principles and, with your powers, you’ll have the whole world eating out of your hand, and the rebels and insurgents be damned! Literally! Hahahahahaha!

Jesus doesn’t fall for it.  Tyranny isn’t the way to peace and love, and so  he responds:

It is written: “Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.”

Jesus has realized the wisdom that a 20th century bard would express in this way:

There is no political solution to our troubled evolution. Have no faith in constitution. There is no bloody revolution. We are spirits in the material world.  (“Spirits in the Material World”, by the Police, written by Sting)

The Third Temptation

The voice of Satan doesn’t miss a beat:

Okay, okay, so it’s a religious solution you are here to provide. I can dig it!  So come with me.

Whether in a vision or in actuality, Jesus finds himself atop the temple in Jerusalem.

Look at all those people down there, thirsty for God’s grace,  hoping and praying for miracles, and making sacrifices because they believe they have to appease a jealous, angry, vengeful Father.  And no wonder!  This living hell is a long way from the Garden of Eden, and there isn’t a soul down there who doesn’t know guilt and shame.  I’ve got to hand it to you – you’re right that no amount of money and no king is going to cure those diseases.  What people need is to actually see that God really is with them right now, loving them just as they are, and that they can welcome that love and let it live through them. But what is it going to take to wake them up, Jesus?  If preaching, prophecy and rituals were enough, then things clearly wouldn’t be in such a mess, would they?

No.  What they need is just what they are praying for – a miraculous sign that makes it obvious God is among them.  If you could pull off a great miracle like that, one that would prove beyond any doubt you are the Son of God, then surely everyone will listen to you.  They’ll know how divine you are and that you speak the truth.  All believers will recognize you as the Great Shepherd, and you’ll have the kind of power to change lives that priests and preachers only dream about or pretend to have.  You could show everyone the way to peace and harmony, and they will listen because they will have seen for themselves that you and your Father are one.

Nothing would prove who you are and open the way for the one true religion better than beating death itself!  Jump off of here and let what is written in the scriptures be fulfilled. Let the angels do their duty and catch you in front of all these witnesses!  Go on! It will be a glorious and awe-inspiring event that all of humanity will remember for all time!

Then, slowly and softly, almost in a whisper, the Accuser adds:

And, if you’re not the Son of God…? Well, then you’ll die quickly in a supreme leap of faith and be freed from all of this mess anyway.

So, what do you say?

Jesus answers:

The Scriptures also say, “You must not test the Lord your God.”

This statement may seem fairly simple, but it communicates more than may be apparent at first glance.   Let’s not forget that a temptation is not tempting if one does not feel tempted.  So how is it that Jesus feels tempted?  If, as so many in the Church believe, Jesus knows beyond any doubt he is the one and only incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity, if he knows he is possessed with the most miraculous of divine powers, if he knows his path is to offer himself as the Paschal Lamb for all of humanity, then wouldn’t he know that he would survive to complete his mission?  If all of that were true, then how would throwing himself off the temple be a temptation to him and a testing of God?  This act would be tempting to Jesus because Jesus himself is very aware of his humanness and uncertain of the extent to which he is specially divine.  The voice of temptation keeps digging at him, “If you are the Son of God….”  It would be a test of God to prove, once and for all, who Jesus is, and perhaps not only to prove it to everyone else, but also to Jesus himself.    If this is not Jesus’ experience, then there would be little to no temptation or test of God in this moment atop the temple.  In the end, it seems Jesus decides to heed the laws of nature, gravity in this case, and trust God will work through him in other ways.

But what if this line of reasoning is off target and Jesus is quite certain the angels would catch him?  Why wouldn’t he add that miracle to the list of others he’s going to accomplish?  Perhaps Jesus knows such an act would only reinforce the perception that God is most with those who are born special rather than with everyone, including the poorest, the meekest, the sickest, the least of humanity.  Maybe he knows it would only make him seem more an object of worship than a teacher to emulate.  Maybe he knows that kind of confusion is already destined to become a bigger distraction from his message than he would prefer.  Perhaps he knows that even people who might witness such a miracle wouldn’t believe it, and that some of those who at first believed would in time doubt their own experience.  Maybe he knows it would very soon become another point of religious argument and division rather than one of faith and kinship.  It seems reasonable that Jesus could have foreseen all these things and, whether or not it would be a test of God, the temptation to prove God’s love through some grand miraculous event just will not send the messages he wants to send.  In the end, it seems Jesus finds the promise of religious power to also be more of a distraction than an aid to helping people welcome and live with Divine peace and love.

Mar 202011
 

The First Temptation

The first temptation centers on Jesus’ hunger, and at the very least it is the physical hunger he feels due to his fasting. Consider that fasting is a spiritual discipline, a practice taken on in order to cleanse and strengthen one’s soul, and we have a better idea of why the Spirit led him into the wilderness.  Anyone who has taken up such a practice knows the inner voice that offers excuses to take the easy way out, to give in to our desires for immediate gratification and temporary comforts rather than persevere in our devotion to greater principles.  That’s the first role in which the character of Satan makes his appearance, but what could Jesus possibly want that would give Satan an avenue to tempt him this way?  Is it merely physical hunger? As we saw in part 1, it’s not too hard to imagine that Jesus is concerned about the risks he knows await him if he follows through with challenging the authority of religious, political and economic powers to come between us and God’s peace.  So it is that I think his encounter with hunger leads Jesus to specifically face the challenges of the economic powers in his own psyche.

In both societal and personal terms, economic powers are concerned with acquiring wealth not merely for the basic needs and comforts of wellbeing, but for protecting oneself and one’s acquisitions, for the power to help and influence others, and also for indulgence in luxuries.  In his own hunger, Jesus must sympathize with the hunger of others.  It surely occurs to him that he can turn his energies, whether miraculous or not, to the development of economic power, all with the very noble intention of improving the lives of the poor and hungry.  Such a temptation would likely be amplified by knowing that his life and the lives of his loved ones can be made much more comfortable by taking a nice percentage all to themselves.  Perhaps in these thoughts he is not unlike many of us who aspire to make a living through philanthropy and humanitarian service.  Yet Jesus holds fast, reminding himself that “Man shall not live by bread alone.” After all, it was not in a shower of coins that God’s love descended upon him after baptism, but as a dove of  spiritual peace.

None of this is to say that economic power is in itself evil, or that we must all follow a path of poverty like Jesus, although arguments have sometimes been made for both ideas.  To me it seems a simple fact that we all need and want things economic power enables us to more easily acquire, while most of us would also agree that we can pursue such things to excess, and that to do so usually, if not always, becomes destructive in some way.  Despite the universal nature of such temptations, in the most immediate sense we are each alone in feeling them, alone in deciding how we will respond, and alone in our accountability for our decisions.  This does not mean that no empathy, understanding or support is available from anybody else, but simply that nobody else can step into our skin, into our souls, to directly encounter and manage what we’re facing.  The desire to escape the reality of that aloneness and responsibility is often what fuels a pursuit for physical and emotional pleasures to excess and even addiction.  Thus we see that vices of economic power have at their root an anxious sense of inadequacy, an existential emptiness, and an often unacknowledged spiritual hunger, all of which we try to soothe with things like drugs, food, possessions, and experiences of all sorts, including personal relationships and the acquiring of knowledge.

So, through the discipline of fasting alone in the wilderness, Jesus has put himself on a collision course with an opportunity to realize the significance of emptiness.  When it arrives in full force, his key realization is that the greater issue is not his physical hunger, which could easily be satisfied with a piece of bread, but rather it is a deeper hunger that we all share and that no amount of “bread”, literally or figuratively, can ever satisfy.  But what could possibly satisfy such an emptiness and hunger?

In some versions of the New Testament, Jesus is reported as saying, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.”  This statement is a more complete reference to  Deuteronomy 8:3, which is found in the context of an admonishment to live according to the commandments of the Torah.  So a common interpretation of Jesus’ words is simply as a declaration of the importance of scripture, but there is more depth available to us.  Deuteronomy 8:3 draws a direct connection between the word of God and manna, which by the time of Jesus had long been used as a symbol of spiritual nourishment received through God’s grace.  This latter inference is most consistent with one of the central teachings of Jesus upon his return to civilization, which is essentially that the spirit of the law supersedes the letter.  In short, God’s love is our most essential spiritual nourishment.

It’s easy enough to give a religiously correct answer like “God”, or something with even broader appeal like “love”.  But if that’s all there is to it then there should be a lot less trouble in our world with angst about our emptiness and spiritual hunger and with the economic vices such angst can breed.  It seems clear that a faith based solely on doctrinal assertions isn’t enough, and here is where we find more relevance to the practice of mysticism.  While they have many differences, one thing agreed upon by existential therapies and the mystical traditions of many religions is that emptiness and spiritual hunger are facts of our being we all share, and they cannot be eliminated through any of the usual means of seeking security and comfort.  From this point, a further agreement is that, rather than trying to fill our emptiness and spiritual hunger, we must somehow accept them and come to some kind of peace with them.  By being still in meditation and mindfulness with our perceived lacking, and giving up the presumption that we can correct it, even giving up the idea that it is a wrong that needs to be corrected, we can begin to realize our emptiness and hunger not so much as a lacking, but as an openness to the countless possibilities of a wonderful mystery in which we all share.  The emptiness can thus be welcomed as our freedom, our liberation, and the hunger as our will to live it.  In learning to love our emptiness and hunger in this way, we find ourselves prepared to receive the contemplative realization of a more profound unity with the Transcendent Mystery we Christians call “God”, and this unity is Light, Life and Love itself.  The emptiness is realized as fullness.

We’ll examine the second and third temptations of Jesus in part 3.

Mar 152011
 

As often happens, another chain of synchronicities has brought a theme to the forefront.   The comments of friends and acquaintances, and my own recent experiences (including an Ignatian-type exercise related to the beginning of Lent) have highlighted the issue of aloneness for those who intend to follow a mystical path.  Over the coming weeks, I will address this theme in the context of Jesus’ own experiences of aloneness.

For just a few moments, imagine yourself as Jesus, being baptized in the Jordan by the charismatic preacher of repentance and righteousness, your cousin, John.  The water flows over you, and as you lift your eyes up to the sky you receive the Holy Spirit’s message that you are God’s beloved child.   In that moment you know you have a special mission to teach about rebirth to the peace of God’s infinite love, and to do so at all costs.  Somewhere deep inside you sense just how radical and threatening that mission will be to the powers of this world – political, religious, economic – and, at the base of it all, to the powers of the vices in the human psyche.  You have seen for yourself what such powers have done with people who were too radical, and what the final costs will likely be for you.

Retreating to Encounter Self

Is it any wonder that the Holy Spirit would lead you directly out into the wilderness to fast, meditate, and pray about this calling?  A thoughtful and cautious person might think: “Am I really up to this?  Do I really have what it takes?  I had better take some time to double-check myself, my motives, intentions, and desires, before I try to take on that kind of responsibility.”  I believe Jesus probably had such thoughts, that he walked off into the wilderness not only knowing he would be tempted, but to actually discover and deal with his temptations, allowing God’s prosecutor to put him on trial; in essence, Jesus was putting himself on trial.

Many of us have heard sermons making it seem as though Satan’s temptations were little more than formal confirmations of Jesus’ divine wisdom and commitment to his mission as the perfect Lamb of Atonement.  It is as if there were no true temptations, just staged opportunities for a barely human Jesus to prove a rebellious Satan’s foolishness.  Well, I don’t buy it.  Unless Satan is less insightful than the average con artist, he wouldn’t waste his time offering temptations that weren’t really temptations at all.  I see Jesus’ experience as parallel to the trials God allowed Satan to inflict upon Job, which were a real test of Job’s faith in the justice, mercy and love of God, a real test of his own commitment to actually hold fast to them even when it seemed God was being anything but just, merciful and loving.  As with Job, Satan’s job is to test Jesus where he is most vulnerable and, being a different man with a different life, he is tested in different ways.

So it is that by reflecting on the temptations Jesus faced alone in the wilderness, we get a deeper look into the psyche of a real human being, one with whom we can relate and feel a real sense of kinship and togetherness.  I believe that in doing so we can find his example far more inspiring and encouraging than that of a man’s body merely being used by the Creator like a sock puppet.  In part 2, we’ll consider the first temptation from this perspective.

Mar 062011
 

We are about to enter the season of Lent, traditionally a time of prayer, fasting, penitence and almsgiving that is in part meant to emulate the time of Jesus in the wilderness.  There is a significant connection for me between Jesus’ retreat and Franciscan spirituality.  St. Francis of Assisi was well know for the value he placed on retreating to and living in the countryside to commune with nature, and his rapport with animals is legendary.  He found the basic elements of nature serving as divine intermediaries, ministering God’s love to him, and providing him with avenues to praise and love God in return.  In some ways this seems to reflect the wilderness experience of Jesus, for Mark 1:13 says,  “He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.”

As part of a Lenten experience, it can be helpful to follow special disciplines of meditation and prayer, and of further help to integrate them with devotional rituals.  Below you will find a devotional ritual for your home chapel or place of meditation and prayer that can be used during Lent, or any time.  The ceremony is based upon the Canticle of the Creatures by St. Francis, which is perhaps the first known work of literature in the Italian language, composed around 1225.  Traditional Christian imagery and movements have been added to provide a more holistic experience in this ritual.  For example, the four Holy Creatures – ox, eagle, lion and man – are often associated with the four Apostles to whom we attribute the canonical gospels, respectively Luke, John, Mark and Matthew.  They also match with the four archangels – Uriel, Gabriel, Michael and Raphael – and the four elements of classical philosophy, which are earth, water, fire and air.

Your sacred space can be very simple and minimally appointed, or furnished more elaborately if you wish, and can vary from time to time.  You might want to set up an altar, in the east if possible, bearing such items as: a cross, a Bible, a candle or lamp, incense, or flowers.  It can also be quite nice to play soothing serene music.  I find Celtic harp with nature sounds in the background to be most fitting (click for my favorite), and Gregorian chant or adagios of just about any sort are usually very suitable.

For the actual words of the canticle you can use any translation you like.  What follows is a nice English translation I have slightly edited in places, and with further instructions added.  It can be helpful to print it out to read as you perform the ritual.

Begin by setting things up, and then sitting or standing quietly for a moment to center yourself.  Face your altar and cross yourself, then speak the following words with calm reverent intent.

Most high, all-powerful, all-good Lord.  All praise is Yours, all glory, all honor and all blessing.  To You alone, Most High, do they belong. No mortal lips are able to pronounce Your name.

Imagine a beautiful dawning on the horizon before you.

All praise be Yours, my Lord, through all that You have made, and first my Lord through Brother Sun, who brings the day, and the light You give to us through him. How beautiful is he, how radiant in all his splendor.  Of You, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Look up and imagine the stars and moon high above.

All praise be Yours, my Lord, through Sister Moon and Stars; in the heavens You have made them, bright and precious and fair.

Cross yourself, and imagine a winged angel before you, a breeze blowing through his hair and robes.

All praise be Yours, my Lord, through Brother Wind and Air, and all the weather’s moods, fair and stormy, by which You cherish all that You have made.

Turn clockwise 180 degrees, the altar now behind you, cross yourself and imagine a majestic eagle, soaring over a lake of still clear water.

All praise be Yours, my Lord, through Sister Water, so useful, humble, precious, and pure.

Turn clockwise 270 degrees, the altar now to your left, cross yourself and imagine a lion of flames.

All praise be Yours, my Lord, through Brother Fire, through whom you brighten up the night. How beautiful he is, how joyful, full of power and strength.

Turn clockwise 180 degrees, the altar now to your right, cross yourself and imagine an ox cow with a full udder, surrounded by flowers, vegetables, fruits, and herbs.

All praise be Yours, my Lord, through Sister Earth, our mother,
who feeds us in her sovereignty and produces various fruits and colored flowers and herbs.

Turn clockwise to face the altar, recalling all the imagery around you.

All praise be Yours, my Lord, through those who grant pardon
For love of You; through those who endure sickness and trial.
Happy those who endure in peace; by You, Most High, they will be crowned.

Imagine a golden aura or halo shining around your head, then look down, cross yourself and imagine your feet on the soft dirt of a freshly filled grave.

All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Death, from whose embrace no mortal can escape.  Woe to those who die in mortal sin.  Happy those she finds doing your will; the second death can do no harm to them.

Look up into the heavens.

Praise and bless my Lord, and give Him thanks, and serve Him with great humility.

In His name, and unto His service, this space is now consecrated. Amen.

Cross yourself and then sit in meditation and prayer (click for some possibilities).  End by rising, offering either a traditional or spontaneous prayer of benediction, and crossing yourself a final time.

I hope you enjoy this ritual.  I have found it to evoke an atmosphere that is very gentle, harmonious, serene, nurturing and healing.   Please feel free to ask any questions or discuss your experience of it with me.   Maranatha!

Feb 272011
 

The Apostle Paul admonished his followers to “pray without ceasing,” which might seem like an impossible goal.  If we take the admonition literally, and also think of prayer in the most common sense of bowing our heads, closing our eyes and speaking to God, then it would be practically impossible.  On the other hand, we don’t have to take Paul literally, but we can understand him to be strongly encouraging us to pray as often as we might. That shift opens the door for attitudes about prayer that aren’t trapped by all-or-nothing thinking.  It is also not necessary for us to be limited by one method of prayer. Christianity actually offers a wide variety of methods we can adopt to enrich our prayer lives, but it isn’t the purpose of this essay to examine or even list all the different ways we can pray.  So it is that this post offers some ideas on how we can more frequently attend to our relationship with the Divine in the course of a typical day for most Westerners, and thereby more fully enter into the heart of God.

If there is more than one way to pray, then perhaps we ought to begin by considering the very nature of prayer.  In The Essentials of Mysticism, Evelyn Underhill says:

[prayer is] that part of our active and conscious life which is deliberately oriented towards, and exclusively responds to, spiritual reality. The being of God, who is that spiritual reality, we believe to be immanent in all things.

In other words, prayer is intentionally giving attention to our relationship with the Divine, here and now.

The Love Affair with God

While we cannot limit the Divine to being a single person in the human sense, it remains that the expression of personal affection and devotion is one of the most powerful ways we can relate to God.  In Vedic terminology this path is called “bhakti yoga” (literally “devotion/participation” + “uniting”).  This experience was clearly part of the life of Jesus, who repeatedly declares his oneness with God, which he addresses as “Abba”, the Hebrew equivalent of “Papa”.

One of the most touching and memorable ways humans share their love with each other is through words and actions that express our feelings of fondness, attraction, admiration and even passion.  We may even acknowledge a sense of attachment and interdependence, such that we cannot fully conceive of ourselves without referring in some way to the beloved.  While the great mystic sages are united in claiming that blind attachment to a human personality is misplaced, interpersonal devotion is nonetheless well founded if we acknowledge that the Spirit of the Living God is shining through each person’s life in a limited and yet wonderfully unique way.  As mystics on the Way of the Heart, we owe it to God, our fellow human beings, and to ourselves to express our love for God as directly as possible within our souls and through our love for other people.  Any attempt to engage that love affair consciously and intentionally is prayer, and the following methods are based upon awareness of that truth.

Ritualized Prayer

When we love others, we often make it a point to share certain times of our lives with them.  We share meals with them, make phone calls or send emails, and we meet with them on holidays and other routine events.  In effect, we demonstrate our commitment to them, and so communicate our love, by establishing and maintaining rituals of interconnection. We likewise ritualize our connections with God in many ways, such as going to church or meditating routinely, or learning and practicing specific prayers at various times.

Building upon this dynamic, one of the most common ways to more fully incorporate prayer into one’s life is through ritually reading or recalling prayers at specific times of the day and night, such as upon rising, at meals and before sleep.  Further steps can be taken by saying those prayers at the turn of specific hours, or setting a minimum number of repetitions to be completed each day.  Praying the Rosary is one of the most widely practiced methods of Christian ritualized prayer, as is the children’s bedtime prayer, “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.”

Perhaps the greatest challenge in ritualized prayer is not allowing the practice to become relatively spiritless, with some mechanical part of the mind simply replaying the words while the majority of one’s consciousness is occupied with anything but attention to the Divine.  Still there is hope that even in those cases the prayer is stimulating the soul in some beneficial way at an unconscious level.  Another challenge is that we may be in a setting where performing ritualized prayer aloud would be uncomfortable.  In these cases there is nothing wrong with performing them entirely within the imagination, making no external sounds or movements to betray the inner work.

There are many traditional prayers suitable for these practices. The Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm are familiar to most Christians.  Hail Mary and the Jesus Prayer are also traditional favorites among Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox Christians.

“Hail Mary” (Roman Catholic version)

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen. (“sinners” is omitted by some people)

“The Jesus Prayer” (according to the rule of St. John Chrysostom)

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us. Amen.

A number of doxologies, or short traditional hymns of praise, are also suitable. Here are two common examples:

“Gloria Patri” (an English version)

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. As it was in the beginning, it is now and ever shall be, world without end.  Amen.

“Praise God from Whom all Blessings Flow”

Praise God from Whom all blessings flow; praise Him, all creatures here below; praise Him above, ye heavenly host; praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.

Of course, many beautiful prayers have been composed by or attributed to Christian saints, and have become standards throughout the Christian community. Consider this one attributed to St. Francis of Assisi:

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life. Amen.

For the purposes of performing ritualized prayer from memory, it is perfectly acceptable to choose shorter excerpts or fragments of prayers. Here is an excerpt from a prayer by Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin:

May Thy life, which is one everywhere, transform my whole being in the unity of Thine image, my heart in the unity of Thy love, my activity in the unity of the works of justice, and my thought in the unity of all lights.  Amen.

Internal Chant

Just as we frequently stir the memory of a beloved in our hearts and minds, we can redirect our awareness to the Divine through frequent, silent repetition of a few words, phrases or a short sentence that naturally evokes spiritual thoughts or opens the heart to God’s presence.  This practice is a sacrifice of some portion of one’s moment-to-moment consciousness, allowing internal space to be devoted to purposes more meaningful than the petty obsessions that too often waste our time and energy.  At first, it may be necessary to frequently remind oneself to return to the chant whenever the mind is not occupied by something of immediate importance.  In time the practice can become more like a constantly flowing stream that one joyfully hears again whenever other sounds have quieted.  Some people practice the Jesus Prayer this way, and you could also employ one of these options, among many others:

Be still and know that I am God.

Thou art with me.

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Love God and thy neighbor as thyself.

As you have done to the least of these, so have you done to me.

I and my Father are one.

Please note that for this form of chanting we have not included any sacred names or words, such as Adonai, Elohim, Emmanuel, Yeshua Xristos, or Maranatha.  The chanting of sacred words, either silently or aloud, is recommended for times dedicated specifically to that purpose, and is often done in conjunction with other rituals and meditations. These matters are important and deserve further attention, but are tangential to our consideration of prayer in the typical course of daily life.

Love Notes & Other Keepsakes

One of the most pleasant ways we express our thoughts and feelings for loved ones is through sharing written words, pictures and other mementos with each other.  Heartfelt letters, poetry, songs, and even greeting cards are tangible manifestations, actual documents, of love.  We can relate to the Divine in the same way, and that is precisely what has led so many people to write their own prayers, or compose spiritual music and poetry.  Many great paintings and sculptures have also been expressions of prayerful states of mind. Other people find it meaningful to keep a journal or diary in which they write entries addressed to God, just as they would write letters to a most trusted friend.

When we receive artistic gifts from others, or make them for ourselves, it is very common to set them out where they can easily be seen and revisited, or to preserve them in collections of keepsakes through which we occasionally reminisce.  People typically frame the most cherished pictures or writings, making them perpetually available.  Many of us also do these things with the spiritual writings and icons we find most inspiring.  Every time we lay our eyes on such artifacts, they provide an opportunity to remember our relationship with the Divine, and to attend to it in that very moment.  Sometimes, and often just when we most need it, these items catch the eye not so much as reminders to attend to God, but rather strike us as personal messages from the Divine, reawakening our hearts and minds to the immediate presence of infinite wisdom and love.

Laborare Est Orare

“To work is to pray.”  This motto summarizes the Rule of St. Benedict, a guide to Christian monks of many orders that places honest work on an equal footing with religious study and formal prayer.  This value is present in the teachings of many spiritual traditions, and so we do well to incorporate it into our own lives.  As noted in the previous section, spiritual works of art often come from a reverent or inspired state of mind, and this can be true for almost any kind of benevolent human activity.  While it may be difficult for some of us to see our occupations in terms of relating to the Divine, it helps to remember that each person we interact with is a child of God, a manifestation of the Logos and a vessel of the Holy Spirit, and that even the most isolated work may touch the lives of others in some way. So we can at least be prayerful in how we work, knowing that to work in the spirit of love for our fellow human beings is to serve God (Colossians 3:23)

Silence

Have you ever noticed the touching sense of peace and comfort communicated by lifelong partners or old friends as they quietly go about their business with awareness of each other?  We can relate with God in much the same way.

Conclusion: Deus Caritas Est

This Latin phrase translates to “God is love”, a timeless axiom reminding us that we can have no truer concept of God than all-knowing, all-powerful, limitless and perfect Love. With this view in mind, we recall that in the Acts of the Apostles it is said, “we live and move and have our being” in God. That statement brings us back full-circle to the initial reference from Underhill, which voices the mystical realization of God’s presence.  When these ideas connect, we cannot avoid considering all of existence as an expression of Divine Love, no matter how distorted or corrupted many of its particulars might seem to us.  Of course, the challenge is to be mindful of this reality, to wake up to it and see it as clearly and directly as possible.  This wisdom is beautifully composed in 1st Corinthians 13:8-13:

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

We are always and everywhere interacting with God, being loved by God, and we are prayerful to the extent that we are mindful of this truth.  All the methods of prayer we have been considering are meant to nurture such mindfulness, and each has its own value. But there is no substitute for the simple moment-to-moment remembrance and appreciation that the Divine is always right here, right now, both within us and without us, and this presence is Love.  Even in moments of the worst struggle and suffering, even in the hearts of people whose words and actions inflict pain, anger and despair, even when reason and understanding fail, and even in our own souls when we betray those closest to us and betray ourselves, Divine Love calls out and patiently waits to be rediscovered, embraced and shared, and this is a deep secret of acceptance and forgiveness.  To be loving is to midwife the Divine in giving birth to Itself, and there is no greater form of prayer than this.

Agape