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!
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!
Like a blazing sun your light shines...
my fears flee from your sight,
your fire consumes them.
Yesterday was my daughter's birthday.
An eclipse-chasing friend of ours in Seattle has been reminding us of this epic birthday since we first announced we were moving to Tennessee.
He's most certainly an eclipse prophet, for it absolutely lived up to all the hype he continually forecasted for 9 1/2 years!
Given it's the day after, you've already proclaimed, heard, or read the descriptions like unbelievable, beautiful, incredible, amazing, epic...
And having a birthday fall on the eclipse was a once-in-a-life-time event. But the scene I want to recall isn't about my daughter's "totality" cool birthday, but my 7-year-old son's experience of totality.
During the partial eclipse we sat on our porch, watching my 11-year-old open some gifts and taking "moon bites" out of cucumber slices then checking the moon's progress to see who guessed correctly. We also read Psalm 21 in Nan Merrill's Psalms for Praying. We couldn't help but laugh as we read verse nine...perfect, even the Psalms were in alignment.
My son was super excited, describing how big of a bite the moon had taken out of the sun, checking NASA's website and announcing when we could see the sun's corona in Oregon. Then 7 minutes away from totality here in the Nashville-area, he melted down in absolute terror.
With the shift in temperature and light, overwhelming fear descended upon him as he became aware that he was about to experience for himself what he had only read or talked about or experienced through the stories of others.
Being in total darkness during the daytime and seeing the diamond ring effect in-person sank into his little mind. He was nearly inconsolable as we all laid down on a blanket in our front yard to look up into the sky through eclipse glasses. All of us were trying to pay attention to the moon while at the same time reassure him. Even as he was being held tightly by his daddy, he was still yelling, "I'm scared, I'm scared!" as the sun and moon approached perfect alignment.
Then totality happened.
We took off our glasses and gazed at a sight so other-worldly that we sat bolt upright. At that very instant, his fears fled just like the Psalmist said they would!
He then proceeded to melt down because after seeing it, he wanted more than a taste (just as the Psalmist said he would)!
As a spiritual director, I witness a similar scene with silent retreats.
People sign up for a silent retreat full of anticipation. It is something unique they have never done before and in this culture it's also very rare (even among Christians). They tell friends and family who laugh or scratch their heads not knowing why someone would pay to go be in silence!
Then the day comes. It's about to become real.
Some are nearly hyperventilating due to anxiety (that's no exaggeration). Getting ready to head into extended silence for the first time brings all kinds of fears to the surface.
Yet at some point, as they slowly sink into the Silence, they begin to align with the Spirit of God within them (who has been there the whole time, holding them even as they've inwardly screamed, "I'm scared! I'm scared!").
Then totality happens.
And this indescribable union with the Beloved sends their fears fleeing.
At the end of the retreat, the very people who were so full of panic at the beginning are now in tears because they want the experience to last longer. They find themselves fumbling to find the words to describe what their tears are already saying...that was epic.
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,
Or the imagination? How about touch?
Well the obvious answer is no one.
But many Christians act as though they are forbidden territory. If it's anything other than the Bible and words (and even those are under regulation) it's to be feared. When I mention Centering Prayer or Reiki there are those who say "Oh isn't that New Age or Eastern? I can't do that, it's dangerous, I could be opening myself up to the Devil."
I once heard a well-meaning pastor urge his congregation to trust God rather than the imagination thus setting the imagination in opposition to its Creator. It's not the imagination itself that is the problem, it's where we let it go. Saint Ignatius was transformed by God through his imagination in the 14th century and so developed spiritual practices to engage Scripture and prayer in this way.
Elijah did not hear the voice of God in the earthquake, wind or fire but in the sound of sheer silence. Jesus made seeking out a quiet place (to listen to the Father who spoke within him) a regular spiritual practice.
Jesus also touched people and they were healed (and the way he went about healing was different depending on the situation and person). He breathed on his disciples before telling them to receive the Holy Spirit (the name for Spirit in both the Hebrew and Greek can also mean "breath"). Much of his ministry looked more "Eastern" than "Western."
There are some religions and traditions that have done a better job incorporating things like silence and the body into their spiritual practices. Rather than allowing fear from keeping us from receiving a gift, we can learn from them. With discernment (sifting wheat from chaff), we can integrate, or more likely recapture, what's been missing in our own tradition. Questions arising from the Biblical narrative can help us with the sifting.
If we're to love God with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength, I think we need to humbly leave space for "holy envy." Theologian and scholar, Krister Stendahl coined this phrase, referring to the practice of recognizing and admiring elements in another religious tradition, even allowing those elements to enrich one's own faith tradition (or wishing it could).
As a United Methodist, I've experienced holy envy in denominations like Episcopalian, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Southern Baptist, and others. As a Protestant, I've experienced holy envy with Catholic, Orthodox, Celtic Christian and Saint Thomas Christian practices and beliefs. As a Christian, I've experienced holy envy in Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism (mystical Islam) and others. And without exception, the places of holy envy have invited me to a deeper awareness and experience of the love of God, neighbor and self.
No one owns breathing, imagination, silence, the body, or even truth (this is not to say that all religious truth claims are equal, but that truths are found in all religions). Rabbi Rami Shapiro closes his emails with "Alles iz Gott." He wants to remind me or whoever else emails him looking for wisdom that, "All is God" because God embraces, transcends and is the source of everything! And our Creator is amazingly generous (as Matthew 5:45 reminds us that the rain falls and sun shines on everyone).
So with your heart, mind, soul and strength listen and learn. Allow yourself to remain open to holy envy. Discern. Let go, discover anew, or integrate. And find yourself further on the path of Shalom, this already-not yet living into the Kingdom of God where individuals, communities and all of creation experience wholeness, peace and completeness...and a holy sigh of relief!
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.