Cats should be the mascot of contemplation.
They have resting awareness down.
Some people think contemplation is laziness, but this is far from the truth. “Doing nothing so God can do everything” is hard work!
It takes an active, yet relaxed, vigilance to stay present rather than follow the mind into the past or future where regret and worry reign. But like a good Zen master, the cat can teach us.
"Every single creature is full of God and is a book about God. Every creature is a word of God," Meister Eckhart proclaimed in the late 13th century. I find this to be true as I spend time with my cat. Listening and watching with the ears and eyes of my soul, I discover she has a lot to teach me. Here's some advice she offers...
5 feline tips for contemplation (also known as "contemplative catnaps"):
Cats make contemplation look simple. While simple, it can be challenging. Surrender and serenity are daily exercises that may look different each day! A routine-loving cat still changes nap spots, so how do surrender and serenity look for you today?
Watch a cat for a while and allow the Spirit of God, which enlivens both you and the cat, to speak to you through this furry part of Creation.
We all experience the "voice" of the Sacred Presence. Whether or not we pay attention or correctly identify it requires ongoing discernment. One thing is for certain, it's hard when you're hangry (hungry + angry)!
On Sunday mornings, my family spends a little time in guided prayer. We often get ideas from Imaginative Prayer for Youth Ministry: A Guide to Transforming Your Students' Spiritual Lives into Journey, Adventure, and Encounter by Jeannie Oestreicher and Larry Warner (I'd use this resource even if I didn't have kids!).
The past two weeks, we were "present" in the desert with the exhausted Elijah who needed to rest and eat. Then we were with Elijah again as he experienced God's voice. We, too, received God's invitation to rest and eat in the desert as well as recognized God's voice as we stood beside Elijah on the mountain.
After some time in silent reflection, we share what we experienced. I'll share mine.
"What are you doing here?" is the question Elijah hears God say to him in I Kings 19:13, twice.
As I stood at the mouth of the cave on the mountain in my mind's eye, I realized the power of gentleness through that question. It took me a while, though. The first time, I felt criticized.
Tone matters. How we hear God's question to us reveals our current condition, our image of God, and how we interpret and then respond to the question.
When I am exhausted, I can hear things in a particular way that perhaps the speaker never intended. I can also miss things the person intended me to hear. My response often reflects my tone deafness. My husband and kids can attest to this!
Only after resting and eating, did Elijah have the strength and ability to look, listen, and recognize God's response to his complaint.
In Chapter 19 of the book of I Kings in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament of the Bible), we're told that God had Elijah go stand on the mountain and watch for the Lord. A whirlwind, earthquake, and fire came and Elijah did not recognize God in them. It was in what followed the fire...a gentle whisper (the sound of sheer silence some translations say)...that Elijah recognized the voice of God. And God asked Elijah for the second time, "What are you doing here?"
The second time, I became curious as to how we were all hearing it in our imaginations. I had my family try something after the time in silence. You can try it, too:
For me, the question changed completely! It went from a judgmental, accusing, you-should-be-doing-more tone, to one of care and concern. The voice in the whisper reminded me of the caring words and actions of the angel of the Lord who had offered much needed rest and food to Elijah forty days earlier.
And this reminded me of how the gentle whisper of God never fails to silence my inner critic and relax my body. I no longer feel the urgent need to run and hide (or get compulsively busy). When I listen to the still, small voice, I am ready to hear more-- even if that more is something that in a hangry moment I would not be open to hearing. Like, "What are you doing here?" which could be literal (in this physical place) or metaphorical (in this place in your life).
God (& my family) knows that after food and rest, I am ready for an honest conversation!
“Are you afraid of leaving your congregation alone in the dark with God?” I asked a pastor who simply could not understand why I would blow out all candles during a Longest Night Service.
He’s not alone. We tend to rush to bring light into darkness in the same way we rush to fill silence with sound.
Pastors, especially so.
They feel the weight of proclaiming and reminding. Wanting to make sure people know there is hope and “Jesus is the Light,” they constantly talk about hope, repeat Jesus’ name, and keep the lights on, candles burning.
Honestly, they’re just as afraid of the dark as most.
As a Spiritual Director, I’ve had plenty of pastors on silent retreats and plenty who don’t want to come at all because silence is scary. It seems unproductive and too revealing…which is more frightening?! Given my years as a church staff member and years working with church staff members, both are equally so. So much so, some never dare to come or they walk away from the discomfort never to return to a silent retreat.
But discomfort is a doorway to deep transformation. And pastors can be like helicopter parents trying to shield those in their charge from the awkward and uncomfortable feelings that come with silence and darkness.
But, have you ever experienced God in silence? In darkness? I have. I’ve also watched and listened to stories of how others have experienced God in silence and darkness. And guess what naturally arises? Hope. And guess where people discover the Light of Christ? Arising in their midst, even from within their very selves!
After all, God is everywhere--within and without.
The Psalmist proclaims in Psalm 139:12, “Darkness and light are alike to You.” Then he goes on to talk about God forming him in his mother’s womb (another place of darkness where God is present and at work). No lights needed. God is there. And are we not born from our mother’s womb and continue in the womb of the God in whom we live, and move, and have our being?
Light and dark are part of every life and God is with us equally in both.
Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God is in our midst, even within our very being (Luke 17:21). So we do not have to be afraid of the dark, the inner light never goes out. It just may take some time (& discomfort) to become aware of it.
14th century Persian poet, Hafiz of Shiraz, echoes this reality when saying, “I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your own being.”
For some reason this scares us, so we look to pastors to talk to us about the Kingdom rather than experience it for ourselves.
However, when a pastor (or anyone!) dares to sit in the discomfort of darkness and silence, allowing uncomfortable feelings to emerge and giving themselves permission to rest from all the doing, they begin to radiate trust.
This trust allows them to entrust those in their care to the discomfort of silence and darkness because they know God will meet each person in whatever way is needed.
Right before an overnight silent retreat a person came up to me after dinner and in all seriousness said, "I'm on the verge of a panic attack the closer we get to going into the silence, I don't know if I can do this." I replied, "I can see why it's scary to you. Know there is a nurse here if needed. And, you're free to leave, but I hope you'll give the silence a try." The person stayed and now they sign up for almost every silent retreat!
In befriending silence and darkness, the discovery is made that rather than be afraid of them, they in fact, can be a gift—an opportunity to be still and know that God is everywhere, in our mist, within our very being.
A few weeks after talking to the one pastor, another emailed me and asked if her Presbyterian Church in North Carolina, could use my liturgy for their Longest Night Service. Mine had been the first liturgy she had come across that included blowing out candles and letting people simply be with God in the dark. She thought it would be powerful, especially this year, to let her congregation experience God’s presence in the darkness.
I could not help but smile.
We've got magnetic, chocolate, and cheese Advent calendars and we've just started lighting our Advent candles, but something my daughter said stopped me in my Advent tracks.
"I hate taking down our fall decorations, I feel like I missed out on enjoying them as much as I could have."
To which I replied, "But you're in the house all day, everyday!" (She's doing virtual school the entire year.)
To which she replied with a smile, "But I'm worrying a lot, so am I REALLY here?"
We both laughed.
But I heard her longing and it got me thinking about how we often miss the gifts that are right in front of us like beauty, rest, fun...
She is often busy with virtual classes during the day and often does homework right before bed. We're often busy with work and household chores during the day and often are on our phones or falling asleep watching Netflix. Days and evenings can easily come and go in a whir of busyness and distraction.
So a few hours later, I said, "I have an idea. Every evening before bed beginning December 1st, let's put down phones and homework, shut off the television, and turn off all the lights except for Christmas lights and candles. Let's sit in silence together for the number of minutes matching the day it is, which means we begin with 1. You can sit or lie down, eyes open or closed, and just take in the surroundings. What do you think?"
My daughter and husband were on board immediately, my 10-year-old son nodded slowly but with some skepticism (which makes me particularly excited for him!). So I'll set my Centering Prayer timer for 1 minute tonight and we'll enter into the Silence.
A new Advent practice. Doing nothing. But present to everything.
Whether in the morning, during a lunch break, or before bed, whether the 1st or 14th, you might experiment with Silence as both a way of entering into and a companion during this Christmas season.
I was supposed to be traveling today to Saint Meinrad Archabbey for a yearly 4-day Silent Retreat.
It's one of my favorite places. I am always excited about facilitating this deep dive into the gift of Silence. Words don't do it justice.
BUT the pandemic threw a wrench in my (& everyone's) plans. So, I decided that even though I won't be facilitating a retreat, I can share with you the theme that I picked out for it last year and we can enter into it wherever we find ourselves.
We can still pray:
"Make me an instrument of your peace."
If there's ever been a time to pray this prayer that was written in the spirit of Saint Francis of Assisi, 700 years after his death by Father Esther Couqerel of France in 1912, it is now!
Lord, make me an instrument of your 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
And it is in pardoning that we are pardoned
And it's in dying that we are born to Eternal Life
"Blessed are the peacemakers," said Jesus, "for they will be called children of God."
To be a peacemaker does not mean:
To be a peacemaker means we not only pray and enjoy peace, but we actively work for peace. For everyone. Not just ourselves. However, receiving inner peace enables us to extend outer peace...hence, the silent retreats.
Silence offers an opportunity to slow down, to quiet the outer voices that we may look within and discover the inner voice of the God of Peace.
Will you join me in reflecting, meditating, walking, dancing, stretching, playing, singing, resting, and working with this prayer over the next 4 days?
Praying it first for yourself and your internal world:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace toward myself...
Then praying it for those outside of yourself. Praying it on behalf of not only your family and nation, but the whole world.
Praying to embody the words as you come in contact with the world--from those in your own house to the grocery store and social media.
Let's breathe in and out the words of the "Prayer of St. Francis" and in so doing, may we become instruments and children of the God of Peace.
My 13-year-old daughter started animating the morning after a tornado blew through our town of Mount Juliet, TN, leaving a path of heart-breaking destruction. At first, it was a way for her to express her feelings. It then became a way for her to speak to others affected by the storm and direct people to give to The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee. When she first showed me her completed animation, I was amazed by its heart and simplicity.
One scene in particular continues to stay with me. When the boy grabs hold of the extended hand, he bursts into tears. Rather than stifle them, the touch allows his tears to flow freely and the animation stops right there.
It doesn’t end on a sunny note (even though she wrote earlier in the video, “It’s going to be okay…We’re in this together.”). Having the promise of things inevitably being okay does not mean we are (or someone else is) okay in the moment. It does not mean we need to stop our tears or think there’s nothing to cry about (even if someone does have it worse).
There is a time to leap into action, to encourage each other that all will be okay, to gather in churches to sing praises and offer thanksgiving, to share Scriptures and words of hope to find strength for the road ahead.
There is also a time, especially as the shock wears off, to allow for tears, both individually and communally, and stop right there.
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!
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.