"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.
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 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.
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"...
Do you really think
more thinking is
needed right now?
Especially when what
we're dealing with is a
sickness of the mind!
With sad eyes
the soul whispers
“Stop” (as it always has)
Did Saint Paul not say
the same to the good folks
With a humble heart
(admitting the -ism
existing in yourself)
sit in Silence
Without mistaking such
Silence for absence
or worse, indifference!
The soul knows
how to wait
for salvation from
And do you remember
Jesus speaking to his disciples--
What does it take for some
demonic powers to leave?
Prayer and fasting.
then close your lips and listen.
Until clenched fists open
until anxiety and anger
slip through your fingers
Until you receive
in your now-ready head,
heart, and hands
that which you are to give
for the healing of this,
Driving my kids back to Tennessee from my rowdy and fun family's 65th reunion in Pennsylvania several weeks ago, I asked my kids to tell me about their favorite moments of our trip.
My shy 10-year-old daughter said, "Well, my favorite thing is that I surprised myself...I actually carried on conversations with people! I was even funny. AND, I surprised myself because I actually enjoyed it!"
Her surprise was met by my own, for I was not only overjoyed but completely caught off-guard, not expecting to hear this out of my quiet, catlike girl, especially not as her favorite part of the trip! It was a good reminder of how we often pigeonhole ourselves and others.
The term "pigeonhole" was first used in 1864 to describe placing a person or thing in a narrow or confined category that resembles a literal hole a pigeon roosts in. As you can imagine and see from the picture, the borders of the pigeonholes tend to be pretty rigid so it's up to the one roosting to leave the safety of the confined space.
Speaking from experience, we often let our expectations keep us from discovering and entering into the "new thing" the Spirit of God is inviting us to discover, whether it be within or without. Instead we keep rehearsing (& posting) old stories and viewpoints. A look over our social media posts or reflecting on recent conversations inside our heads or with others can reveal a pigeonhole or two we roost in.
But might our continued pigeonholing be fear in disguise? For once we venture outside a particular pigeonhole we can no longer dwell within that hole again. After my daughter said she surprised herself by enjoying a conversation, she can no longer claim she's too shy to carry on a conversation (or enjoy doing so)!
Bursting out of the pigeonhole takes courage...what a beautiful spiritual practice she invited me (and now you) into! Let's try it:
* Take a moment and look at the above pigeonholes. Maybe even sketch them out and put a word in each box that you would use to describe yourself (begin with yourself then branch out to another person or situation).
* Now let the below words from Isaiah 43 or II Corinthians 5 blow through your pigeonholes.
“Forget about what’s happened;
don’t keep going over old history.
Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something brand-new.
It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it?"
"...we don’t evaluate people by what they have or how they look. We looked at the Messiah that way once and got it all wrong, as you know. We certainly don’t look at him that way anymore. Now we look inside, and what we see is that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life burgeons! Look at it!"
* Whether experienced as a gentle breeze or wild wind, stay with it for a few moments. Notice which words are being ruffled. You may experience this as a feeling of resistance or fear around a particular word, you may have immediate knowledge as to which word is being blown forward, or you may be more visual and imagine how the words are affected.
* Is there a particular pigeonhole you're being invited to step out of? Write it down, pray, and tell someone! This will help you spread your wings and fly, carried by the currents of the Ruach, the Holy Wind. And, you may even find, much to your surprise, you enjoy it!
Over the years, the simplest and best prayer practice I've found for healing our image of God and teaching kids how God loves them is based on a prayer found in Matt, Dennis & Sheila Linn's book, Simple Ways to Pray for Healing.
In that book and in a previous book, Healing Our Image of God, they reiterate how we become like the God we adore! So if the God we worship is critical, judgmental and condemning, guess what? We're going to be critical, judgmental and condemning! If the God we picture is stoic and distant...you got it...we're going to be stoic and distant. And this can be passed along from generation to generation.
One way to heal our image of God is to realize that God loves us at least as much as the person who has loved us most.
Take a moment to consider your image of God. What words or images would you use to describe your view or understanding of God? Would you like others to describe you in these ways? If not, your image of God may be in need of healing.
Or perhaps parts of you have a healthy view of God and parts of you do not. This prayer has been instrumental in the on-going healing of my own image of God. My inner critic can often have a very sanctimonious sounding voice and when I'm vulnerable I can easily mistake it as God's until I bring to mind a person who has loved me most. This immediately exposes the false god and I am able to not only receive God's love but let God join me in my vulnerable place (which is transforming).
After facilitating this prayer with countless people, I've tweaked it from how it appears in the Linn's book, like adding the love of a pet because some people cannot recall a person who has loved them in a healthy way. Or sometimes a pet is how God wants to best communicate love to us at a given time.
Here's the prayer for you to try:
Receiving God's Love through the Person or Pet Who Loves You Most
I hope you'll try this prayer for a week and see what happens! A bonus is that it makes us even more grateful for the person or pet who has loved us so well...and what happens then? We cannot help but love them back! It becomes a love circle of giving and receiving (which is exactly what the Trinity is)!! Now that's a beautiful image of God!
Remember those moments of synchronicity I spoke about last week?
Well I had another string of "meaningful coincidences" I want to pay attention to and share. At the end of the class on the heart of Jewish spirituality at Congregation Ohabai Sholom, Rabbi Rami Shapiro was asked what practice he would suggest for all of us.
His answer was to enter more deeply into the "Sh-ma Yisrael," also known as the Shema, the prayerful recitation of Deuteronomy 6:4-9. Remember, another Rabbi's answer was the same...Jesus told others to live into the Shema, calling it the greatest and most important commandment of all. Here is the Complete Jewish Bible's translation:
4 “Sh’ma, Yisra’el! Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad [Hear, Isra’el! Adonai our God, Adonai is one]; 5 and you are to love Adonai your God with all your heart, all your being and all your resources. 6 These words, which I am ordering you today, are to be on your heart; 7 and you are to teach them carefully to your children. You are to talk about them when you sit at home, when you are traveling on the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them on your hand as a sign, put them at the front of a headband around your forehead, 9 and write them on the door-frames of your house and on your gates.
Two ways of entering more deeply into the Shema that Rabbi Rami mentioned were the mezuzah and breath prayer.
While I plan on getting a mezuzah, I began that night to breathe in and out each word of the Shema. The next day my family ate at a local restaurant and two Jewish women came up to our table out of the blue to offer encouragement to me. Why? I have no idea. Curious. I joked with Russ that they could sense I had been praying the Shema!
Afterwards I went home, read a message from a friend who had asked me to recommend a Frederick Beuchner book. After recommending a few, I walked upstairs to my bookcase and spotted the first Beuchner book I had ever read, A Room Called Remember. The last time I read it had been well over a decade. Randomly I opened it up and what did I see? Staring back at me was Deuteronomy 6:4-7...the Shema! Under the Scripture, Buechner writes,
"'Hear, O Israel!' says the great text in Deuteronomy where Moses calls out to his people in the wilderness. Hear, O Israel! Hear! Listen! And not just O Israel, hear, but O World, O Everybody, O Thou, O every last man and woman of us because we are all of us called to become Israel by hearing..."
As I mentioned last week, synchronicity beckons us to pay attention! The word "Shema" means "Hear!" and this isn't just the gathering of sounds which can go in one ear and out the other. Watch the short animation below for a fantastic word study on "Shema" by The Bible Project. Given the meaning of the word and how it keeps coming up, clearly I'm to hear something! Perhaps there's something here for you, too.
You may have read Adonai translated as LORD, but it can also be translated as The NAME, or Ineffable. Why? Watch the second short animation for a great explanation of the word's background. In addition, not only was the Divine Name so sacred that it was not to be pronounced, but some Jewish scholars taught that YHWH was ineffable because it was not a pronounceable word at all...it was the sound of breathing! This would go along with the name's etymology, God's Name does not indicate a being but Being itself. And this is beyond words! You might muse over God's Name, breathing and existence for a little while...
Now for the breath prayer. If you've never heard the words of the Shema spoken in Hebrew, you can listen to them being read and sung here. Practice silently saying the words with a slow, relaxed inhale and exhale.
In breath- Shema (pronounced Sheh-MA)
Out breath- Yisrael (Yis-rah-EL)
In breath- Adonai (Ah-do-NAI)
Out breath- Eloheinu (Eh-lo-HEY-noo)
In breath- Adonai
Out breath- Echad (Eh-KHAD)
As we regularly breathe the prayer, the hope as Rabbi Rami points out is to help one's consciousness to shift so one sees God in, with, and as all reality and one's interactions with others are marked with compassion. May it be so.
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.