"Look deep into nature, and then you
will understand everything better."
This may very well be one of the reasons Jesus prayed outside so much!
Whether on a mountain or on the side of one, in the wilderness, desert, or garden, Jesus found quiet places in creation to be alone with God the Father. He also encouraged people to observe nature to discover the deeper messages and invitations of God, instructing them to "notice how the lilies grow" or "look at the birds in the sky." (Matthew 6:25-34)
All of nature is speaking! Whether individual parts or the rhythms and cycles of creation, if we observe using all of our senses and spend some time reflecting, we can discover what nature knows.
With notebook or journal in hand, you might try the following prayer exercise and see what the Spirit of God has to say to you about your particular worries, stresses and concerns. What wisdom for your life is to be discovered in a single acorn or the falling leaves? Find out!
How would you describe your November and December?
Now shift your attention from your own experience of November and December to nature's experience.
Give thanks for God's gift of (and the wisdom found in) nature! If there's a way to bless and care for creation, do it!
Imagine walking into a doctor's exam room, telling the doctor your symptoms, showing the doctor what you're concerned about and then... turning around and leaving without letting the doctor respond!
It may sound far-fetched to you but we do it all the time in prayer.
Soren Kierkegaard the 19th century Danish philosopher, theologian and poet once said,
"If I were a physician, and if I were allowed to prescribe just one remedy for all the ills of the modern world, I would prescribe silence. For even if the Word of God were proclaimed in the modern world, how could one hear it with so much noise? Therefore, create silence."
How often do we turn to the Great Physician with our concerns, yet offer no opportunity for a response? With no response, how are we to know what we really are to say or do, especially in the face of tragedy and difficult circumstances?
Oh, we may think we know what to say or do.
Our ego self or what the Apostle Paul called "the flesh" always has an answer! This part of us likes to self-diagnose (and diagnose others!). It's usually quite sure of itself, quick to demonize those who do not agree, and usually lacks creativity, like choosing apathy. Apathy is quite different than active waiting, for the latter keeps vigilance while the former has "fallen asleep," sure to miss God's invitation to action when it does come!
If we read I Corinthians 3:4-5 and simply turn each phrase of what love is to what it isn't, we get a quick and easy way to recognize when the ego is trying to take charge!
The ego often...
is not patient.
is not kind.
is easily angry.
keeps a record of wrongs.
It's hard to stop talking, look inside, and give up all of these ego-driven things in order to create space to listen to the One who truly knows the next word or action needed.
Don't think it's difficult?
Words often arise from those very places when it comes to the difficult person or situation. BUT, if you can allow that part of the ego (the part that is impatient, for instance) to step aside or tone down, this creates space for silence where there's room for the Physician to speak.
In the doctor's office, the doctor gives you instructions on what to do (or not to do) and the kind of medicine to take. Do you let the words go in one ear and out the other or go home and leave the prescription on your kitchen counter? No! Not if you trust the doctor. There is action involved beyond rehearsing your symptoms and having a prescription in hand.
In prayer, not only is the word spoken to you by the Physician powerful, but the word given to you to speak (or do) carries that same healing power forward.
Says, Henri Nouwen in The Way of the Heart,
"A word with power is a word that comes out of silence. A word that bears fruit is a word that emerges from the silence and returns to it...A word that is not rooted in silence is a weak, powerless word that sounds like a "clashing cymbal or a booming gong." (I Corinthians 13:1)
Our world is in desperate need of wisdom and healing. So many of us say, "I'm praying." What if we said, "I'm listening in prayer." Then, let's actually stop talking, go to a quiet place (like Jesus did), and find out what the Physician has to say.
Today is Halloween and my daughter is dressing up like a crazy cat lady.
In the 13th century she would have been killed.
Sounds ridiculous doesn't it?
It's amazing what fear can do especially when its conduit is religion. Fear and superstition can be passed down for centuries!
How many times have you or another remarked on the black cat that just crossed your path?!
In graduate school, a man studying to be a therapist told me, in all seriousness, that demons took possession of cats so to be wary of them. Years later a woman told me that black cats were associated with witchcraft and satanism so she would never own one. A couple of years ago I told a friend how interesting it was that shortly after being trained in Reiki I noticed how our neighbor's 12-year-old cat began spending oodles of time at our house wanting to be petted. She said, "Well, you know what they say about cats and evil." Clearly she did not trust cats or Reiki!
All of these people are sincere, intelligent people, but their belief (or what they may even call truth) arose out of fear and superstition from around the year 1232.
At that time, Pope Gregory IX wanted unity in the Church so he looked to weed out heretics and heretical beliefs (people and beliefs not conforming to the Catholic faith [now remember there was no Protestant faith at this time]). He also wanted to stop local lords and their mobs from unjustly executing people for heresy before any kind of trial was held. So he initiated the Papal Inquisition thinking it would bring more order to the process and give heretics an opportunity to return to the Church before being killed. He issued the Vox in Rama to Germany's King Henry hoping he would stop the spread of the heretical Luciferian cult. In this papal bull he mentioned some of the cult's devil-worshiping practices, including how Satan took the form of a black cat. And with that document, the demonizing of black cats and their owners began.
Black cats were killed and any peasant woman who owned cats, especially black cats, was automatically suspect. Soon the killing spread to all cats as fear heightened with the Black Plague. Thinking that getting rid of evil cats would get rid of the evil disease, people unknowingly exterminated a needed predator of the rats that housed the fleas that later on many believed were to blame for the Plague.
Choosing the fear-based path can have far-reaching consequences. From generation to generation others follow the fear trail marked out for them.
Here in America, Europeans brought with them their fear-based beliefs about black cats and witches which fueled the Salem Witch Trials in the late 1600s. To this day, black cats' bad reputation continues to haunt them as shelters report that they are passed over for the brighter white and orange cats. And violence toward cats, in particular the black cat, escalates on Halloween.
So let's pause (no pun intended!) for a moment and let black cats beckon us away from the path of fear & superstition. Let every cat and their owner be a reminder that we all hold such beliefs whatever person, people group, or animal we may choose to fear, blame, and even (God-forbid!) exterminate.
In writing this post, I found I wanted to blame Pope Gregory IX but realized I needed to dig a little deeper into the story rather than automatically (and easily) demonizing him! Each time we catch a fear and/or superstition-based belief arising within us (who or what we blame may clue us in), let us become aware of the fork in the road.
We don't have to continue down the same path tread by our ancestors. Yes, it may be harder and take longer but as Deuteronomy and Proverbs urge, we can choose the path of life with discernment, wisdom, and kindness.
Black cats and crazy cat ladies will thank us. Future generations will, too.
You may not be ready to go on a silent retreat or sit in 20 minutes of meditation, but how about trying a taste? It's easy.
And since it's the season of pumpkin everything, let's try tasting silence through a slice of pumpkin pie!
If you're not a fan of pumpkin pie, think of another food or drink you really enjoy. Now if you have a real slice of pie, great! If not, imagine tasting that first bite. Notice the flavors, texture, and temperature on your tongue.
Allow yourself to savor the next few bites without rushing. What do you notice about the pie (or whatever you're savoring) that you may have missed if you had hurried through each forkful? Food and drink can rarely be savored when speed is involved, the same is true with silence. How do we taste and savor silence? With our ears.
Ready to give it a try?
What do you notice now that you did not notice before you stopped and listened?
Where did certain sounds come from, which ear did you hear them through?
What sound most grabbed your attention?
If in a quiet place, did you notice the sound of your own breathing?
What was it like to do nothing but listen?
How did your mind and the rest of your body respond?
This is being present. It's a meditation practice. And yes, it counts.
True, it's a great way to enter into a silent retreat or centering prayer meditation but if it happens to be the only spiritual practice you consistently engage this week or this month, that's fine! Just taste and see how pausing to listen and savor the sounds around you affect your soul.
You never know, the next time you stop and savor the silence, you, like the prophet Elijah, may hear God's voice in a gentle whisper!
A poem I wrote right after a time of listening prayer six years ago. It recently came to mind as I was thinking about meditation. Meditation can calm the mind. In doing so, perhaps it offers an opportunity for the soul to remind us of what it's known & trusted since we were ages five and one!
God, I pray that Lainey
and Alex come to know
They already do.
Okay God, then I pray they
come to trust
They already do.
help them not to
A poem written in 2013 about what led me to meditation & other contemplative practices years ago.
All my old ways of
finding God kept failing
And one rage-filled
day I stopped trying
Sat down wondering
if I was worth finding
Let go of seeking
and began trusting
Many are the ways
seeming right to a man
I started recalling
My ways kept putting
me in charge of
who the Psalmist
found futile escaping.
After a conversation with a man who said he was only interested in meditation if it led to levitation, I went home and wrote this short poem in the fall of 2013.
A man once asked me
Will meditation lead to levitation?
“I don't think so,” I said,
“I've been trying to rise above
my faults and weaknesses for years!”
One day in silent prayer
on my quest toward the clouds
to touch the face of God
I looked down.
There I saw Jesus
with rolled up shirt-sleeves,
mud up to his elbows
standing in the place I'd just left.
I don't know about levitation
but meditation led me back to the sod,
for in the place of fault and weakness
I saw the face of God.
If the image of traffic was too stressful for you last week, here's a gentler way of viewing the distractions that arise during our time of meditation. You'll especially like this image if you are a fan of fall (like I am)!
Picture each distraction, whether it's an external noise or an internal thought, feeling, memory, image, or bodily sensation, as leaves floating down your stream of consciousness.
As we close or lower our eyes in meditation, we turn our attention from engaging what is going on outside of ourselves to an awareness of what is going on inside of ourselves. And guess what? There's usually plenty going on! Should we be surprised?! Besides the movie reel of images, here's a peek at what floats down the stream of my consciousness:
This quiet is so nice!
Is that a leaf-blower?
I need to figure out how to...
I need to email ____, ____, and ____ as soon as I'm done with meditation.
I forgot to drop that card in the mail!
Yes, that's what I'm going to fix for dinner.
Oh, that's how I can do...
Am I breathing deeply?
Why do I feel anxiety right now?
I need to get that event on the calendar.
Should I scratch that itch on my face or wait until it goes away?
I am still angry about what happened last week!
I wonder what they thought about what I said.
He had such a great idea, I'd never thought of that before!
Here's an idea as to how to open that class...perfect.
Why didn't I think of that last week?
That author's theology is way off...
This theological issue is a tough one...
I need to get snacks for the baseball game tonight.
I need to use the restroom, should I just wait or pause the meditation timer?
I'm really enjoying the changing shadows and light from the sun through the trees.
She's really hurting, how can I help her more?
Why didn't she text me back?
My hands feel hot, wonder what that means.
I'm still laughing about what he said.
Why can't I be more peaceful today?
I'm not good at meditation at all!
I should be better at meditation given I'm a teacher of it!
I just felt completely calm for a minute there.
Why can't I have more than a minute of my mind at rest?
And that's just a peek at one 20-minute session of Centering Prayer!
Now some days I let those thoughts, feelings, images, and bodily sensations just float on down the stream of consciousness.
But other days I lean over and pick a leaf out of the stream and begin examining it! Pretty soon, I've left the present moment of calm awareness and am meditating on and mulling over whatever that particular thought or feeling presented.
In that moment, instead of consenting to God's presence and action in my life, I've picked up control again! I'm running back to the past or into the future. My ego mind does not believe I have time for meditation. It does not trust I can survive (or perhaps the deeper issue is it doesn't feel I will be loved) without doing, planning, figuring out, being hyper-vigilant about, actively seeking a solution to, or at least evaluating how I am doing with something...even if it's meditation!
When I become aware that I've left the time of calm awareness and consent (sometimes it takes a few moments before I notice), the noticing itself acts as a release. Setting that leaf back down in the stream, I often "come home" to being with God by gently saying a sacred word. This sacred word or phrase might be Love, Jesus, Peace, Breathe, Thank You, Be Still... For me, my sacred word happens to be Home. This word grew out of a year of reflecting on the Prodigal Son and my own mind's tendency to run away. Other times I "come home" by listening to the sounds in the room or even my own breathing.
My practice looks different every day. The stream may be pretty crowded with leaves while other times I am aware of just a few floating gently by. Some days I find myself leaning over and picking up leaf after leaf. Other days I find there are only a couple of leaves grabbing my attention.
No matter! The leaves and what I do or don't do with them don't represent success or failure (such evaluation is an ego/conceptual mind game!). This is just how my practice looked on a particular day. I may have had forty-seven opportunities to come home again...what a grace! Or, I may have received the gift of contemplation. Resting in front of the deep hearth within, gazing out the window at the beautiful fall leaves floating downstream.
Once you close or lower your eyes during your time of meditation, you're bound to deal with inner traffic! What are you to do?
Do you yell at it for existing?
Just as you wouldn't literally stand on a sidewalk and yell at traffic for existing (although sometimes it's tempting), there's no need to yell at the traffic within you for being there! It's simply doing what it normally does. Having inner noise with it's plethora of racing and honking is part of being human.
Do you run out into it?
We tell kids not to! However, sometimes in meditation it may indeed feel like we're caught up in a dizzying array of thoughts and feelings whizzing past us or we're trapped in the middle of a traffic jam with no way out!
Whether it feels like there's no way out or you've got internal vertigo, allow yourself to come back to center through your body. You might gently return your attention to your breath, listen to the sounds in the room, relax your eyes, or ever-so-lightly correct your posture by dropping your shoulders or straightening your slumped spine. Very simple body awareness can return us to a state of noticing the traffic rather than being one with it!
Do you try to jump in one of the cars or climb on the bus?
If it's moving, it can be especially dangerous! Whether parked or already in motion, during meditation this is what is called "finding yourself engaged in a thought or feeling". At this point you've not just noticed the cars moving across the highway of your consciousness, someone yelled out the window inviting you to hop on in and the next thing you know, you're in the passenger's seat! You may have even taken the wheel!
No worries, though. You're not being forced to go anywhere against your will! Simply return to your sacred word (if engaging Centering Prayer), your calming/meditative image, your breath, or what you hear in the room. You may find yourself doing this again and again, during your time of meditation, especially when traffic is heavy! That's okay. Each time you do, you freely choose the way of life by coming back to the present moment rather than speeding off into the future or heading back to the past.
When it comes to inner traffic, meditation invites us to simply be aware of it.
Let each taxi, moped, jeep, and minivan come and go. Know that some days or times of day you may be in the middle of rush hour. Other days may be lighter traffic. Some vehicles may take longer to drive by than others. No need to lose heart. God's love is boundless, encompassing you and every thought, feeling and bodily sensation that arises, endures, and passes away. And there is nowhere these cars, trucks, vans or buses can take you that God is not!
One day last week, I had just begun my twenty minutes of silent meditation, known as Centering Prayer, when I began to hear the sound of a synthesizer from 1986.
Not long after, I heard the voice of El DeBarge sing out, "Who's Johnny? she said and smiled in her special way..."
I was not smiling.
I couldn't even remember the last time I heard this song. Maybe you can't either. For a refresher, I've posted the video below so you can better imagine this scene with me...go ahead, have it playing while you continue to read. I certainly didn't expect to hear it during my time of Centering Prayer!
My husband had no idea I was downstairs in silent meditation. I had no idea why he was listening to El DeBarge in the room beside me (especially early in the morning)! I was just about to yell, "Hey, what in the world are you doing? I'm in the middle of centering prayer!" when suddenly I remembered some words from author and former Trappist monk, James Finley.
I had been reading his book, Christian Meditation: Experiencing the Presence of God and he repeatedly addresses external and internal distractions that occur during silent meditation. When they come (as they always have and always will because we're human), Finley advises that we:
Here was an excellent opportunity to enter more deeply into Finley's words and into my meditation practice! So I internally gave El DeBarge permission to endure and returned to an inner meditative awareness. What was I aware of inside? It certainly wasn't a peaceful calm! It was anger and annoyance!
I wanted to yell out, "Hey! Enough of El DeBarge already!" Perhaps a deeper, inner curiosity won out because rather than resist them, I decided to allow my feelings of anger and annoyance to arise, endure, and pass away. They endured a long time.
When the feelings did pass, a thought took their place. This thought pointed out how much I want (even demand) things to go my way...or else! I expected silence with no distractions for 20 minutes and the moment I did not get what I wanted, my anger surged to the surface!
I don't know about you, but when I have an expectation, I tend to expect it to turn out like I envisioned (perfectly). And if it doesn't, I just know it will be ruined (or at least that's how my thinking goes). Have you ever considered how much you internally (or externally) demand things go your way? One of the benefits of meditation is one becomes more aware of things like this!
Though insightful, this thought wanted me to cling to it and spend time mulling it over, perhaps devise a plan for transformation or soak in shame. Instead my time of meditation was inviting me to let ALL arise, endure, and pass away. In specific Centering Prayer language, the moment I notice I'm engaged with (clinging to) the thought, I gently return to my sacred word, the symbol of my intention to consent to God's presence and action within.
Entrusting all of my responses and reactions (and plans for transformation) into God's hands, I allowed myself to return to the deepest truth offered in the present moment--I am fully loved by God just as I am. The humbling thought about my expectations eventually passed away and there was a brief calm (but even that is not to be clung to!).
I would like to say I continued to neither cling to nor resist any distraction, that I allowed every external sound and internal feeling, thought, memory and bodily sensation to arise, endure, and pass away. BUT, half-way through Scritti Politti singing their 1985 hit, "Perfect Way"...
Kasey is a scarf, ball and club juggling spiritual director just outside of Nashville, TN. Play helps her Type-A, Enneagram 1 personality relax, creating space for poetry and other words to emerge. She also likes playing with theological ideas like perichoresis, and all the ways we're invited into this Triune dance.