Sunday, September 27, 2009

Short and (hopefully) Sweet

Some days there just isn't any time. Some weeks are like that, too. This week I've been away for two days. On one of them I went to Newark Airport to collect Br Bernard on his return home from a long visit with his family in Belgium, and yesterday I spent the day with friends and their extended families in New York City - mostly in Central Park. In the meantime there have been all the meetings, conferences, letters, emails and all the other stuff that make up the week, to be gotten into a week with two fewer days than usual. Today several of us had another meeting this morning, this afternoon we have the first of the Bach Vespers of the season and this evening we have a community social time.

So the amount of time available for writing spiritual reflections is very small, and I'm just going to bite the bullet and do the sensible thing: since I have a small bit of time, I'm going to write a small amount.

The experience of the past week that is now floating on the top of my mind is that a 2-hour train ride is a perfect time for meditation and spiritual reading. The beauty helps, in this case. The train trip between Poughkeepsie and New York City follows the Hudson River all the way, and in some places the separation between the rails and the water is a matter of a very few feet. It's one of the most beautiful train journeys on earth. Just looking at the view is enough to alter your consciousness.

And of course, you are a prisoner of the coach while you're on the way. There's not much in the way of alternatives, nor of distraction. You can't go to the dining car because there isn't one. I suppose you could have your computer with you, and all that goes with that, but I don't have a laptop, and that's deliberate. You're right there in your steel-enclosed chapel, with breathtaking scenery flashing by and nowhere to go but where the train is going. So what else are you going to do?

Thanks to my habit of wearing wrist beads, they are always at hand. They do their usual job of facilitating meditation whether your eyes are open or closed. The car was pretty quiet, and it usually is. The sound of the wheels on the rails is rhythmic, and that helps. If you want the time and the space for some inward adventuring, it's a pretty good opportunity. The Jesus Prayer, some more formless silent prayer and then some reading to let my mind refresh and ponder - not bad for someone who really needs to pray.

There was resistance, of course. There's always resistance. The mind doesn't give up its reign easily or willingly. It's good to recognize that for what it is, and the limitations of being on a train help in that process. Some planning helps, too. I only brought one book, and it was my current spiritual book, so I hadn't allowed for reading distractions. I had my beads. I deliberately didn't have anything else.

It worked. It was good. It was what I needed.

And I also have a belief that this isn't just about me. Everyone has places and times like this in their life. Maybe it's a church you go by on your way to work or home. Maybe it's a park that beckons as you go by. Maybe it's some place that I haven't thought about and wouldn't think about in my wildest dreams, but it happens to be your perfect spot, or your perfect time. Whatever, wherever, it waits for you to answer its call.

So yesterday I had 4 hours to pray and read. It's more than I get almost ever. It was really good.

So where's your place?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Like You Can

St Teresa of Avila had a lot of memorable sayings. One that was quoted to me very early in my spiritual journey was "Pray like you can, not like you can't". That must have been at least 50 years ago. It caught me then and it still does.

I suppose one of the chief reasons that it still is in my mind is that I have not yet gotten over my stubborn tendencies to try to pray like I can't. Like so many people with an intentional spiritual life, I have an interior vision of what my prayer could be - "should" be. I'm embarrassed at how much of it is composed of things I can't do. That is, I'm embarrassed part of the time. The rest of the time I'm trying to do it.

That's why last week I mentioned the whole business of spiritual practice when you're sick. The issue with illness is that you're removed from your usual world and deprived of your usual energy. Now who on earth would expect that you could pray in the same way as you do ordinarily? Well, among others, there's me. I really do believe, in my heart of hearts, that if I was being faithful I would do exactly the same things in exactly the same way that I do if I was well. I can't, of course, and this leads to all kinds of incrimination and dissatisfaction.

My short-hand description of how I dealt with this particular plight last week was "Lying Meditation", but that doesn't really cover the whole range of things. How do you pray with less energy? Well, clearly you use less energy. You have a low-energy prayer. Then my over-developed idealism comes into play. Is a low-energy prayer worth praying? Is it "really" prayer?

Luckily I can say that for last week at least it really is. Ok, just do it. Here we are. There's the window and the sun. There's the sound of the little fountain on my table. There's my icon. Here's my fever, my headache. Here's how weakness feels. Here's my nice soft blanket. Here's my dissatisfaction with this kind of prayer. I just touch each thing, each sight, each sound, each feeling, let it be there, and pass on to the next. That's all, except that sometimes one of the things that I touch is the sense that I am doing all this in God's presence. I'm just being sick with God.

And then, every now and then there it is - that opening, widening. What descended is the knowledge that I'm in a wider, broader, deeper (whatever any of that means) place. It means freedom, I guess: the sense of being released from the prison my my own expectations and delivered into a realm where I'm free to just be me, here and now, with God.

Is that really prayer? I'm just not going to go through all the things one could say about that. All I'll say is that I tried it. I got an answering experience. God was there. That's enough.

Only you know how you can pray. And that's the scary part about this journey. The responsibility is squarely in your own hands. Other people can help, of course, so can books. But the most helpful thing they can do is to help evoke what is in you, the gift of prayer that the Holy Spirit has placed in your heart. And the only way to get there is to go to your heart.

Easy to say..............

One of the great spiritual worthies whose books I have read is a Buddhist monk of Thailand. He says that at one point in his journey, when it came time to meditate each day all he could do is lie on the floor and cry. For a couple of years that's all he could do. Fortunately he had a wise teacher who didn't urge him to do anything else for a long time. He just sat with him while he did what he could do.

An Eastern Ordthodox priest who conducted a retreat for us some years ago talked about a parishioner whose mother had what we would call today some advanced mental dysfunction - Alzheimer's? Maybe, or one of the others. In any case she sat in the living room of their home all day long and mumbled the Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." Over and over. All day long. It drove the family bonkers. They were ready to scream. What should they do? "Well, said our retreat leader, you might try tuning in." And for me, that answer has been foundational. There it was, a real answer. Whatever else that situation might call for, it was at least an invitation to step into the possibility that I will be able to pray when my mind is gone. We so often identify prayer with the mind, but much, much more is involved. It's a promise and a hope that gives real joy to me. Tune in to the part of you that wants to pray, not the part that can't pray.

My own adventures in this realm have not been few. There were the times when all I could do was get up in the morning, have a shower, and then make a cup of tea and get back in bed. That's the only prayer I had. It was a great relief to have spiritual friends who understood and didn't chastise. There was also the time that I discovered a chapter in a book by Evelyn Underhill on darkness and depression in prayer that touched me so deeply that I cried. Someone else had been this way - I wasn't lost. I was just doing what I could do.

And of course it isn't all difficulty and pain. There are the moments of unexpected joy, the lightening of a burden, the forgotten song that erupts in your heart. These are times when what I can do expands. It isn't just "the only thing I can do", prayer then becomes so many wonderful things I can do.

But in the end, the only one who really knows how I should pray is me. I've taught meditation for enough years now to have discovered that everyone really has their own way of doing it. Everybody departs from the instructions one way or another, sooner or later. We find our way. The Spirit guides us, and sometimes pushes and shoves us. Books will help. Spiritual guides can be crucial. Friends are irreplaceable. In the end, though, Teresa was right. All we can do is pray like we can, not like we can't.

It's either that or spend our whole lives fighting ourselves.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Up To Date Monk

I'm quite up to date - I have the flu. Whether it's Swine or not, who knows? Probably is, since that's what's around, but we'll never know.

Not bad - I've had worse. Some fever - it was about 100 for a while, but has begun to abate. There's also a headache, which feels like someone is taking a hammer to my skull. I think that is also going now, and I hope so, because the ordinary pain killers don't help much.

What I have,of course, is plenty of time. My ordinary pleasures and distractions - reading, listening to good music - aren't much available because they take energy and I don't have much energy, and of course there's the headache. I can't practice Sitting Meditation because the sitting asks too much. So I practice Lying Meditation and that makes the space around me and in me seem vast. I have more of a sense of the day, and how much there is of it than I usually do, and I want to take that with me back to my usual life when it resumes in a day or two. I want to feel the texture of each day and each part of it and do my work, my play and my prayer in that context. So there's a gift here, too. Each part of the day has as much personality and "climate" as each part of the year. If it took the flu to get me to notice that, I won't complain.

I've always wondered why I didn't meditate for hours on end when I was sick, since I had the time. My teacher says that it's because it requires strengyh that I don't have at that point. True. But little bursts are possible, and that's enough to take me one more step. How much more do I need?

Hopefully I'll be better put together by next week. But right now it feels like I do have what I need to be where I need to be.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Portal to Another Place

Using a term sometimes found in Celtic spiritual writings, people talk about "thin places". A thin place is found intuitively. The philosophy behind it is that we usually live in the material world, but behind, or around, or surrounding that world is a realm of spiritual reality; a place when the Divine presence is deeply present. A thin place is a spot where the usual separation between these two 'worlds' is much less opaque and where it is easy to see through the material to the spiritual.

Some people call Holy Cross a thin place. It's not unusual for us to have people tell us that the first time they turned off the highway into our driveway and started down the hill to the monastery they had a sense that they were entering a place that was 'deep' or 'spiritual' or just 'special'. This weekend several people spoke of our monastery church in these terms. We have a place here that seems to promote the experience of the divine - a place that is "thin".

But there are thin places all around. There are even thin moments - a bit of time that catches you up and carries you away and then deposits you gently back where you came from, leaving you wondering why you never saw things that way before.

I'm thinking about one particular moment when I was in New York City a couple of weeks ago. I've already written about the 2 museum exhibitions that Adam and I visited and the deep impact both of those made on me. But there was another place, one that I wasn't expecting.

We had decided to see a show one night, and went around to the discount ticket place and got a couple of seats to the musical "Chicago". Then we were looking for somewhere to have dinner - a place that would be good but wouldn't cost the earth. As we were walking along, pushing our way through throngs of busy (and loud) people we passed a little church. It was St Malachy's, the "Actors Chapel". I've heard of it in the past, and knew of its work with theater people, but I don't think I've ever been inside it. I'm not really sure I've ever even been past it.

It was a warm day, and the light was fading towards evening. It was pretty hot. The door to the church was open and the interior was dark, but you could see candles burning inside. Then we noticed a sign that said "Adoration this evening", and gave the hours. One or the other of us said: "Let's go in". So we climbed the stairs to the front door and went in.

The church was dark. Candles burned on a small altar in the center of pews that were turned partly inward to make a sort of semi-circle a facing it. Back behind this arrangement more candles burned on a larger altar. A few people knelt there - mostly women. On the smaller altar in the center was the gold monstrance that held the host (consecrated wafer). In the belief of most liturgical Christians, the bread from the Eucharist, or Mass, is a place of encounter with the actual presence of Christ, and in some places the bread is put out like this for adoration of the presence of Christ.

I haven't been to Adoration in a long time. It used to be a fairly popular service, at least in some circles, but it fell out of use for some years. Now it is enjoying something of a resurgence. I'm familiar with the arguments for and against it, many of which go back into the Middle Ages. I'm not a regular devotee of Adoration, but I have attended from time to time.

Old instincts took over. We genuflected, got into a pew and knelt. I found myself with my wrist beads in my hand. "Lord Jesus Christ, Word of God, have mercy." We knelt there for a while - I don't really know how long, but a while: long enough to get around 23 beads, and a while longer. It was very quiet and very focused in that church. People were there because God was very near.

After a while it felt like we were finished, so we went back out into the street. The same crowds, the same shoving and shouting, the same chaotic jumble, with people tired from the day trying to get somewhere. Adam and I resumed looking for a restaurant. But those few moments changed something in me. I'd entered into a thin place and it had touched me. I had settled and had been gentled down. I threaded my way through those streets with more gentleness and less impatience. There was peace in that church and it had entered my heart so that I could take it with me. The spiritual journey is often made up of transformational moments like this.

I've been looking for other moments since then, and I discover - rediscover - that they're there, if you just look:

- the day that the weather changed here from hot and humid to cool and crisp. Our first fall day. The sky was deep, clear blue from horizon to horizon. The kind of day on which the Tibetans use the sky for meditation, seeing in that clear expanse a reflection of the Presence that they seek in prayer. On the horizon was one tiny cloud, floating there all by itself. It stopped me in my tracks while I was walking from one building to another. It pulled and called to me for adoration, just like that church in New York. I had stumbled into a thin moment.

- one night last week I was sleepless and toward midnight I sat on our roof. The nearly full moon floated high above me and just at its feet was Jupiter, bright and steady. The two of them journeyed across the sky together. The river flowed along, gently ruffled by the wind. The world was mostly silent, with an occasional passing truck or car. And there a depth of peace. I love praying in the middle of the night, because at that time I find the access to that presence very easy. I once lived with a community that prayed every night at 2 am. I was with them for about 7 months, I think, and in the midst of it I had a conversation with the priest who was my spiritual director during those months. He said I looked quite good and I thanked him and said that I really was good. He said: "That must be because you are living a life according to nature." I wonder how many people would feel that getting up every morning at 2 was "a life according to nature", but that was, in fact, how it felt. God was very close.

The more often I look, the more often I find places and times that are thin. I find them in familiar and unfamiliar places. I find them in the eyes of friends or strangers. I find them in moments of relaxation and at times when I'm frantically busy. I think the truth is that God is always reaching out to us. I think all of the world and all of time is "thin". But we have to learn to see it.

That's why we pray - to learn how to be open to the God who is everywhere we go.