Sunday, April 26, 2009

Away From Home

Wednesday night, I went to do a program on the Jesus Prayer in a parish west of here, and I've been thinking that this is a part of our life that I haven't said much about in these columns - mostly because I haven't done a lot of this work in recent years, because of a long illness, and then because I was doing other work.

But I did for a long time - for more than 25 years, in fact. I can remember a conversation with Fr Baldwin when I was a novice about his unease that many of the novices didn't seem to want to be mission preachers (which we called it in those days) and I said: "Father, I am glad that there are people in the order who want to do retreat and mission work. And I hope they do a lot of it. But I'm not interested." That was followed, of course, by more than 2 decades when I did more retreat and conference work than nearly anyone in the Order. (How do you make God laugh? Tell him your plans).

At one point in the Order's history it's what we were known for - members of the Order covered the United States (and Canada and various other countries) doing retreats and conferences and quiet days and parish missions. It is said that Fr Whittemore, when he became Superior in the 1940's, tried to institute a policy that every member of the Order had to spend at least 2 weeks a year at home - and he was unsuccessful in getting it done! We were everywhere (except the monastery). It's what we did.

These days we are more interested in being home, and with the Guesthouse at its current state of occupancy, there is certainly plenty of work here to keep us going. But the things we do away from home are still a very important part of our life, even if they are less frequent. Br Bernard works with the staff of a parish in Florida, helping them to develop their own spiritual lives and the spirituality of the parish, Br James recently did a Sunday morning program at St James Church in Manhattan, and Adam, Randy, Scott, Robert and others have done their share of this ministry in recent months.

Parishes ask less frequently, but when they do we always try to respond, and it's sometimes surprising to me to notice how many places we've been in the course of a year. And my beloved Diocese of Kansas is showing some signs of being interested in reviving my teaching mission there, and that does make my heart sing!

So there I was, at the Church of Christ the King in Stone Ridge with some parishioners from that parish and a few from St Andrew's Church in New Paltz - about 15 of us in all, which isn't a bad number - exploring the place of meditation and meditative prayer in their lives.

The Jesus Prayer, in case you haven't encountered it, is simply the phrase "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy." Some people make various adjustments to it: some shorten it, sometimes all the way down to just the word "Jesus". Some substitute "Word of God" for "Son of God" and some make other changes.

But however it's used, it is usually repeated over and over, used as what is commonly called a "mantra" - though strictly speaking it's not really a mantra. It's used to focus the mind and to open the heart, so that we can be available for the encounter with Christ, who lives at the center of each of us.

We did a session of meditation together in the traditional way: relaxed posture, feet on the floor, straight spine, eyes closed. Then we spent a few moments settling in, getting quiet, letting the noises around just be there and breathing slowly. Then we began the recitation of the prayer, slowly, with attention. When you find your mind has drifted away, the instruction is just to bring it back - gently but firmly, and without blaming yourself ("without recrimination" as my teacher would say). And this last part is crucial.

Meditation is so often regarded as a task of conquering the mind, and in my experience that is entirely counter-productive. Minds wander. Distractions happen. That's how our brains are structured. True, meditation can have a calming effect on the mind, but it seldom results in the elimination of distractions - nor is is supposed to. Meditation is really the process of coming back, over and over, with gentleness: "a thousand opportunities to turn back to God" as Fr. Thomas Keating is supposed to have said. Being accepting and gentle with ourselves in this process really does aid the process of centering and helps to promote a spirit of interior openness.

For 20 minutes we did that. The noises from people gradually decreased, nervous movement settled, the silence deepened. For a good deal of the time the silence was deep enough that you could sense the "texture" of it - it had its own 'weight' and 'feel'. Fifteen people were praying, but also in some ways there was only one prayer - the meditation that we were making together.

Then we gradually ended our prayer and came back to things as usual. And we had some sharing. It was good to know of the experience, and the struggles, of people in the group. One woman has used the Jesus Prayer most days since she read 'Franny and Zoey' many years ago, and finds it a center of calm and quiet in her morning prayers.

Some others use it as they do repetitive tasks during the day or when they wake at night. The Jesus Prayer, which came to this country with Russian immigrants after the Revolution, has worked its way into the consciousness of a lot of people who, I think, would be surprised to regard themselves as contemplatives, but who have gradually carved out a space within themselves where they can be quiet and search for God.

I finished with some suggestions about other uses of the Prayer - to accompany people through the day and through the night, and in praying for others, especially when you don't know what to pray for. Just putting a person in your consciousness and praying over them: "Lord Jesus Christ, Word of God, have mercy" is a wonderful way to intercede, and helps us to turn loose of the manipulative approach to God that troubles many of us when we pray.

And then we went our ways, around the mountains that surround Stone Ridge, or back down the hill to New Paltz. I loved the evening and came back both relaxed and energized. I'm grateful for the opportunity to share something of what 50 years of meditating have taught me, and to learn from others who quietly and without any notice pursue this way of prayer. I think there's a lot more of this out there than we sometimes are willing to believe.

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