Sunday, October 25, 2009

Reasons For Not Praying

Everyone who prays has to admit that we fail a lot in the task of praying. There are lots of times when we just don't pray. We don't do it.

Those of us who do spiritual direction know that we are not alone in this. "How is your prayer life?" is a question that often gets the answer "Oh, I feel so bad. I just haven't been doing it. I know I should, but I just haven't gotten around to it." (or, "I haven't made the time", or "I just can't seem to manage it" or whatever version we can find to describe our dilemma).

I admit it: this is definitely part of my life. I hear it a lot from other people, and I experience it in myself. More times than I would like to admit, my prayer life consists of not doing it.

There, I've said it.

Why? Well, that's the big question, isn't it? That's what I've been thinking about lately. What is the real reason here? I have a real urge to prayer. I'm a monk for God's sake! What are my excuses? What are the excuses that I hear from others? When I don't get around to it, what's going on?

There are a lot of different things here, but they fall in some definite categories. I could do this whole blog by listing reasons I've heard or said, but I don't feel like doing that. Instead, I'll give you three of my favorites, with some commentary.

I'm too busy.
This is a great one. It's very popular, and I hear it all the time. I even say it with some frequency. This is especially popular with Americans. Americans really love being too busy. We complain about it, sure, but we wouldn't be without it. It's part of our national character. I've heard it said that we are the only society that actively admires addiction to overworking. It may be killing us, but we love it. We derive a sense of importance from being too busy to pray. Being too busy indicates that "they" can't do without me and my work.

And there's the rub. There's a lot of emptiness underneath this one. We have to be too busy or we might not be important. Who are we if we aren't too busy? And prayer steps right in the middle of it here, because prayer involves sitting down and (gasp!) doing nothing. It deals with this excuse by facing it head-on. There's a sort of irresistible force meeting an unmovable object here. Being too busy is irresistible. Prayer is the unmovable occasion that puts itself directly in the way of this force. It forces us to examine just why we are too busy. And that is an examination that few of us want to make.

But it's an important examination. It may, in fact be crucial - even a matter of life and death. What are we doing to ourselves? That's what God asks us to face. What changes do we need to make? That's the big one.

I don't want to pray. or I don't feel like it.
Often this one isn't said directly, at least out loud. Usually there are other excuses offered. But when you get down to it, there is a lack of will or interest. We think we ought to have enough motivation to pray, but in fact, we don't. We may even think it's shameful to be this way, which is why we often don't say it to anyone, but there it is. It doesn't feel good, but we're stuck with it.

What to do? From my point of view the first thing to tackle is the sense of guilt. We're unlikely to get to the bottom of this one if it's feeding off our sense that we are "bad" or "wrong" because we feel this way. This is going to go around in circles, feeding on itself, until we can bring ourselves to just look at it. Forget the self-judgment. Can the guilt. This is just a fact. We're uninterested. Or we don't have the energy. Or whatever. It's just that. Not a judgment, just a reality. Once we get there we can look at it. What does it feel like? Where did it come from? Is there anything underneath here? The answers may not be evident right away. This is something that can take a good deal of patient observation. Don't worry. This is an examination that is a really good use of prayer time. Just take your lack of motivation and look at it, feel it, ask it a few questions. And then pause and see what the answer is. If it's silence, be patient. It may take some time for the situation to emerge.

Something is about to emerge.

This is often the result of the two situations discussed above. Being too busy and discovering that we just aren't going to pray can be important symptoms; symptoms that something is coming down the road to meet us. We often understand intuitively that something is coming up for us before we actually know what that agenda is. And our sense that something from down in our unconscious is about to rise makes us uneasy, jittery, unable to settle. No one likes to have their cage rattled and so we usually react by trying to keep things just as they are. So, prayer becomes more difficult. Sitting quietly and just letting God do as God wants to do with us is an open invitation for change; sometimes major change. And when we sense major change approaching we can do anything from getting nervous to shutting down altogether.

You get through this with the same attitude that gets you through so much else in the spiritual life: no judgment, no recrimination. If you can't, you can't. If you look carefully enough you can tell the difference between "I can't" and "I won't". "I can't" needs to be honored. I had a period of several months some time ago when the only way I could meditate at all was to get up in the morning, have my shower, make a cup of tea and then crawl back into bed with some spiritual reading. The tea, the gentle book, and some slow rumination was all I could manage, and then only if I was lying down. Honoring that managed to keep things moving forward gently until the time finally came that I could do something more focused. It turned out to be some old stuff - memories emerging from the far distant past, stuff I no longer need and that was ready to come out and go on its way, leaving me lighter and freer within. But I had to let it have its way before I got there.

Times when prayer and meditation are difficult or impossible can be very important transitional times. But for us to get the message that they always contain we have to approach them as though they were teachers; teachers who have come from far away or deep within to let us know what is coming next. It's really easy to get impatient or angry with ourselves when we fall into these behaviors, but treating them as enemies or sins is usually unprofitable. I try to remember the watchwords of my meditation teacher - no judgment, no recrimination. Difficult times can be wonderful teachers if they are welcomed as situations that just may be full of possibilities. Quietly facing them with questions such as "What's here for me?" or "What am I to learn here?" or just "What's this?" keep us facing in the right direction and keep us open. That's what's needed - an open heart. That will take us into the mystery that is unfolding.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

To Have Peace.....

Yesterday was our monthly Peace Vigil. I don't know whether I've mentioned this part of our life before, but I know I haven't talked about it lately.

It all started during Lent several years ago. We decided that we wanted to do something about praying for peace. We organized a day of prayer for peace and we advertised it in the area and among local religious communities. We had one of the monks in the church all day long and other people came and went, and we finished with a service of peace in the evening. It attracted a substantial crowd and the church was pretty packed for the evening service and a number of friends and clergy and sisters and brothers from other Orders took part.

Then during Lent we continued our vigil on Saturdays and invited our guests and people from the neighborhood to join us. By the end of Lent it had become part of us. We knew that we wanted to continue it, but doing it weekly seemed more than we were able to sustain, so we decided to do it on one Saturday a month. We still advertise to people in the neighborhood and those who are in the Guesthouse to join us. Sometimes people do come and pray with us. Sometimes they don't. But several years later, we are still at it, keeping vigil for peace.

We begin at Matins in the morning. Before the service begins we light a candle and I pray a prayer for peace as a way of dedicating the vigil and this place to the quest for a more peaceful world. Then at the end of Matins the vigil begins. One of the brothers takes a seat close to the altar and is there for a half hour, praying for peace. We take turns, a half hour at a time through the morning. At noon we have a special Liturgy of Peace in place of our usual Office. There is a hymn ("Peace Within Us, Peace Over Us, Peace Under our Feet....") a reading from Scripture, some silence and then we stand and read the names of all of our troops who have been killed in Iraq and in Afghanistan during the past month. Then we remember all of the citizens of Iraq and Afghanistan who have been killed (though we don't have their names), and the families and friends of all of them. There's another reading, this time by one of the more famous figures in the Peace Movement (yesterday it was Oscar Romero), some more silence and a closing prayer.

It's quite deep, and sometimes pretty intense. It was particularly difficult yesterday because the list of names from Afghanistan was very long and the longer the names were read, the more difficult it became to stay with it without breaking down. Nearly all morning there were people from the Guesthouse and from the local area who were praying with us, and that is a bit unusual. People said, as they often have, how moving it was to see one brother get up at the end of each half hour and give his space to the next monk, because it made the sense of unceasing prayer more real.

And, of course, all of this brings up the issues of what it's for. Is this worth doing? Does sitting quietly in a church once a month change anything?

Well, just what is changed is always problematical and the "results" aren't always immediately evident. "Results" aren't a very good way to measure prayer. A better measure would be whether this is something we feel called to. And there does seem to be an imperative about it: for a community dedicated to prayer it really does seem like we have to pray for peace quite independently of whether we can see anything happening. We just must do it.

Then there is the fact that things are changing. Slowly, gradually, things are changing. War is no longer celebrated in the way it used to be. It no longer is regarded as a glorious adventure. It is more often seen as a failure - the last refuge when we can't manage anything else. And that is progress. Changing the world by prayer is often a matter of centuries rather than weeks, and it certainly does wonders for a sense of humility about one's place in the whole scheme of change.

Of course, there is the one change that I simply can't deny. One of the things that is changed by this Vigil is me. If you want to have peace, first you have to be peace. That's the way it works. And I see it working.

My approach to the whole issue of peace, has changed and deepened. My sense of a need to be involved grows steadily. My intuition that God is involved in this great sweep of history that is moving us towards reconciliation has also gotten more compelling. I am not the same Bede who started this vigil-keeping. God is at work here.

In the end we do this simply because we must. We make sense of it as we go along, as we can. God summons; we see how we can answer. Given our life and what we have been called to, this response makes sense to us. And it's growing deeper - to that I can testify. It is good to be part of this growing mystery of the road to peace.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Being Summoned

Sometimes things happen very unexpectedly. This is hardly news, but I think that often we have a tendency to think that it shouldn't be that way in the spiritual part of our lives. This week I came up against a completely unlooked-for moment when I was least prepared for it. Maybe that's exactly why it happened.

I'm getting over a cold. Right now I'm in that state that sometimes comes after a viral illness when my strength is very hard to get back. I feel great otherwise, but I haven't yet got any stamina. I'm in a good place, but very weak. I feel like I don't have the energy for even the simplest task.

Last night I was even more wrung out. A group of our Associates were here this weekend, so that has meant a lot of socializing and quite a few conversations in addition to everything else the day held. All of that took energy that I felt like I really didn't have. After Supper we had planned a reception for everyone. But when Supper was finished I went first to my room to lie down for a while, because I couldn't manage any other way. When I had a little rest I joined the reception for a time and then when it had begun to wind down I helped with the clean-up.

We finished all of that about 20 minutes before Compline. As I headed down the hall from the Guesthouse I was really feeling done in and I knew I was going to need some more rest. I decided to get to my room and lie down again, and I wasn't at all sure that I'd get back up for the Office when the bell rang. Where I really needed to be was on my mattress.

I went past the Church and glanced in as I went by. Someone had put on the lamps that we use for Compline and the light was low and the Church looked warm and welcoming. I love our Church at night and sometimes seek it out just to be there for a while because I find it so comforting. For me it's one of those Thin Places that I talked about a couple of weeks ago. But last night as I went by it got more explicit. It said: "Come in".

I hasten to make clear that I wasn't hearing voices. It was an entirely intuitive experience. But it was quite clear. An invitation was being issued and I heard it. I thought: "That would be lovely, but I can't manage it. I don't have any energy to put out. Just the amount of strength that it would take to get a bit centered is more than I have. This is an invitation I will have to politely refuse. As much as I love being in our Church at night, I'm not doing it this time."

The Church was having none of it. "Come in" it said.

"No!" I replied.

"Come in." it said. And all of the time I walked along the passageway that leads around the outside wall of the building it said: "Come in".

"Well," I thought, "it would appear that this isn't your usual thing. Looks like something 1s being offered. Maybe I can find a way to accept even with no energy." So when I got around to the other side of the Church as far as the north door I turned aside, put on my cowl and went in.

The light was soft and it felt good to be there. I took a seat in the gallery at the back. I was by myself for a few seconds and then one of the brothers came in and then one of the guests. The 3 of us sat there for some time in the silence that bathed the place.

It didn't take any time at all to know why I was there. The Church was full of a Presence. That's the only way I can describe it. Even saying the word "God" would be too limiting for what I found myself encountering. It was just a full, lively Presence. It was in motion, whatever that means. I guess it means that it didn't feel static. It was gigantic and it was The Divine, and it was also the sound of generations of monks who have chanted in that place and it was also the monks themselves. Maybe it was an angel or two - or two hundred. Who knows? It was the heavenly host. It was Life itself.

And it didn't require any energy to be there. I wasn't called in there to put out energy that I didn't have. I could just rest in what was being offered. I didn't have to take the energy to focus, because focusing wouldn't accomplish anything. All I had to do was be there, and let myself be filled with the Presence, the Life that had invited me in.

And as I did that, I realized that my exhaustion was vanishing. I was still tired - very tired. But that sense of having nothing left was slowly leaving. One kind of energy was being replaced with another. What a gift it was to be invited into that place, just when I was weak enough to actually perceive what was there.

Then more people came in and the bell rang and I went to my place in choir and Compline unfolded. Again I didn't focus - I hadn't the strength for that. What I did was just let the Office unfold and roll over me. And as it did all the familiar phrases penetrated my mind:

"that you will be our guardian and security",
"Hear my prayer, O God",
"for these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, whom you have prepared for all the world to see",
"as we sing your glory at the close of this day....."

And then I went peacefully off to bed and to sleep. I'm very glad I said yes to the invitation.

I will not haunt the Church at night looking for it to happen again. However tempting that might be I know by this time that it's futile. Whatever was offered was for last night. Period. Trying to recreate spiritual experiences is a waste of good prayer time and can be a serious delusion. Tonight's experience will be different and probably much less interesting. But it will be whatever is offered tonight, and tonight I need to be with tonight, not with last night.

But I will ask myself whether there is a point in not summoning up so much energy when I go to pray. Might it not be just as good, or even better, to just be in that space and let what is being offered wash over me? Is that why the invitation came, at precisely the time when I had no energy to resist what was being offered? Do I just need to be there? Am I being shown that the energy I use in focusing might be a block to deeper prayer? Some exploration is in order.

One more thing. I wonder if those of you who pray would offer a prayer or two for a very small child in Arkansas named Lynley. She has the H1N1 virus and when her dad called me Friday night her fever was over 104, her pulse was 181 and she was having trouble breathing. I don't have to tell you what her parents are going through. The fever is better controlled now and that has made the other problems recede, but it's still serious and there is still a chance of pneumonia. Her dad was one of "my" kids when I worked in the Youth Ministry of the Diocese of Kansas and he and I are still in touch now and then. He'll really appreciate it if people are praying. And, of course, there are a bunch of other kids in other places in this country in the same situation who could use prayer as well. Thanks.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

A New View

One of the chief ways I relate to the area in which I live is through its history. I love knowing things about what happened around us, I read books about the history of this area, and the smaller and more obscure their subject matter, the better. (We actually have a volume in our library, written by one of our neighbors, entitled "The History of West Park from 3,000 BC to the Present"). I have read books about individual neighborhoods in Kingston (the small city to our north), about the ruined churches of Ulster County and about the ferry that ran from Highland (to our south) to Poughkeepsie.

So I've joined in the local excitement of this weekend which marked the dedication of the newest State Park in the New York system of parks. It's what New York calls a "Linear Park", meaning it's essentially a trail, but this trail is quite unique: it's called The Walkway Over the Hudson.

It is, in fact, the old Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge, which spans the Hudson River from Highland to Poughkeepsie. The bridge was quite famous in its day. It was first proposed in 1855, but not completed until 1889 because, among other things, it went bankrupt 3 times in the process of its building. But when completed it was, for a short time, the longest and highest bridge in the world - and in fact is still one of the highest bridges ever to be built. It originally was for trains that carried passengers from Boston and New England to Washington, and it was a great improvement on the only other route, which was through New York City, and was very slow and tedious since none of the railroad bridges in and out of New York had yet been built so the journey had to be done partly by train and partly by ferry.

But the passenger business didn't flourish for long because the necessary bridges in New York were soon built and robbed the Poughkeepsie Bridge of its purpose. It did serve for many decades, however, as one of the chief routes for getting freight in and out of New England. But as the rail industry declined in the 20th century so did the fortunes of the Poughkeepsie Bridge and it was less and less used, and even less maintained. Finally in 1974 (I think) the railroad ties on the bridge, soaked with creosote and badly maintained for a long time, caught fire and the surface of the bridge burned. The structure was subsequently abandoned, the rail lines torn up, and it has stood as a monument to the past ever since.

There have been numerous proposals for its use: some said it should be revived as a railroad bridge, some that it should be rebuilt as an automobile bridge to relieve the pressure on the Mid-Hudson bridge which is nearby. A variety of other proposals have been floated, one of the most fanciful of which was to make it a gigantic shopping mall, complete with Condos in the piers. The big attraction was to be the view - because of its height the bridge offers views that are spectacular - and plans were drawn up and widely publicized, but it never came to anything. Finally, just a few years ago, a group of local businessmen who were interested pursued the idea that it could be a walkway - a 1 1/2 mile long trail, if you will - and they raised the 38 million dollars necessary to make it a reality, organized the construction, and this weekend it was finally dedicated.

There were fireworks - quiet a display, to judge from the noise they were making - there were 1,000 lights on the bridge, a hot air balloon all lit up, boats new and old floating by and the usual speeches and celebrations. I had some thought of going, but Friday night is not a good night to get away because of our weekend schedule, and as the numbers expected to attend swelled into the thousands and tens of thousands, it seemed less attractive.

Still, the project is exciting to me, and I'm going to wait a few days until the excitement has settled a bit and then some nice fall afternoon I'm going to take a couple of hours off and walk across the Hudson River seeing, from a height of 212 feet, a view of "my" river that I have never seen. The first reports are very enthusiastic, and it should be quite an experience. Randy is planning to go to take pictures, so those of you who follow his Flickr site will have a visual report before long. And hopefully, many of you who come to be guests here will take a little time one morning or afternoon to visit the new wonder of the Hudson Valley.

I make no distinction between the Hudson River and my spiritual journey. It is one of my most constant companions, and it weaves in and out of my prayer. It is one of the first things I see every morning and one of the last at night and it is there as my prayer greets each day and as I pray for our neighbors just before I get into bed. Its beauty exalts my sense of what is lovely and gives me great joy. Its history expands my mind. Just knowing that it has been here for a couple of million years, flowing back and forth as the tides change, day after day for all those milenia, awakens my sense of awe. I have lived much of my life beside this river and it has helped give shape to my thoughts and to my thought-less meditations. It is truly deep in my soul. It is wonderful to think of having a new, and breathtaking, view of the Hudson River.

I just have to follow all this up with an incident from the weekend. There was a group of teenagers from Toronto here from Thursday through this morning, led by our friend and Associate Tay Moss (who is our present Web Master). He asked me to do some work with the group, which I was very glad to do, and I got acquainted with them and of course liked them a lot.

During the weekend one of the girls came to me one evening and said that she wanted to know if I write poetry. I said that I didn't and asked why she thought I might. She said she had just seen how I notice small things and how I describe them lovingly and said that she associates that with poetry. We talked about that for a while and we agreed that I do write "poetic prose". Then, of course, I needed to ask about her poetry and she told me a bit about it. It was a lovely exchange and it reminded me, just one more time, how closely adolescents notice the adults around them. They are watching all the time, especially when we don't think they are, and they notice everything. My realization of that, and my comfort with it, has been one of the foundations of my work with teens for many years. It's one more link with the meditative life, and it's been full of rewards for me.