Sunday, March 28, 2010

A New Initiative

We're beginning a new project, or undertaking a new initiative, or whatever words are appropriate to the beginning of a new ministry. Yesterday (Saturday) we had the first of a series of events that we hope will enable Holy Cross to spread the knowledge and practice of contemplative prayer to people who live around us. Contemplative prayer is the foundation of the monastic life, so it's something that we have to offer and there is a good deal of interest in this kind of prayer at the present time, so we're hoping to find an enthusiastic audience.

As a vehicle for this project we're going to be using Centering Prayer, one of the most well-known forms of meditation in Christianity. Yesterday we had the introductory workshop, and it was a great success.

We advertised the event among the local Episcopal parishes and in other places that we know about, and we didn't know what kind of success we would meet with. This is a rural and small-town area and the immediate neighborhood is pretty poor. We didn't know how much interest there was going to be in an introductory workshop in Centering Prayer, so we thought that maybe if we got between 5 and 10 people, that would be an encouraging beginning. We actually had just over 30 people come, which both surprised and delighted us.

We are working with Contemplative Outreach, an organization that oversees how Centering Prayer is promoted and taught, and they provided us with a presenter named Bruce Gardiner from the Albany area, and they couldn't have done better for us in our first effort. He was superb. He is obviously easy on his feet and confident in his abilities as a speaker. But much, much more than that, he has a thorough knowledge of the contemplative tradition, and an ability to present it so that people can grasp what he is talking about. This is not a common combination.

Centering Prayer is a nearly formless approach to meditation and that makes it hard to describe. It has as one of its central focuses the use of a "Sacred Word" - a one or two syllable word like 'peace', 'Jesus', 'open' etc., which you use to draw yourself back into silence when you get carried off by thoughts. Exactly what the sacred word is, what it's for, and how you choose one is one of the most important parts of Centering Prayer and it turns out not to be easy to grasp. Our need for control is so great that it's tempting to use the word as a sort of mantra to center the mind, or even as a club to beat down distractions with.

The real purpose of the sacred word is to help you to consent to just being in silence and to waiting for whatever transformation God has to offer you. It needs to be used gently and delicately and if you don't, the result can be something far distant from what Centering Prayer is intended to be. Bruce did the best job of presenting this part of the discipline that I have ever heard, and over the years I've heard quite a number of presentations.

With a deft touch and a solid confidence in his presentation, Bruce guided our little group through the introductory material and led us in two sessions of practice. The silence was deep and it felt like the prayer was on target. I could not have asked for more for the day, and I've been teaching meditation for about 40 years, so I'm intending that to be high praise.

At the end of the day, 14 of the participants indicated interest in the six follow-up sessions that lead on from here. If those sessions go well (and maybe even if they don't) we want them to lead into the formation of a meditation group that will meet here one night a week, and can be an on-going resource for people in our area and for those who come to our Guesthouse.

We are also beginning a series of Centering Prayer retreats which will provide a more intensive experience in the use of this form of meditation, and can serve as an opportunity for deepening the spiritual practice of those who live further from the monastery and who can't get here frequently.

So this effort joins our other recent initiatives in beginning St Rafael's Place - our work with people with AIDS - and the work we are doing with the homeless in Kingston and Newburgh. We've been very successful in attracting people from around the Northeast to our Guesthouse, and from much further away as well. Now we're concentrating on those in our immediate neighborhood, to see how the prayer that sustains the life of this place can also sustain the lives of those who are our neighbors.

This also happened in a small way this morning. We've been working on our celebration of Palm Sunday for several years now, and putting some effort into seeing whether we could create a procession that was truly joyful. What kind of music could be used, what sort of instruments would get Episcopalians to actually break out into joy? This year it seems like we have succeeded. For the first time in my many years of Palm Sunday processions, I felt like I actually wanted to dance during the procession - so I did. (I was also beating a large drum and holding Palms and Pussy Willows, so it was quite a project!). It was joyful, it was fun, it was holy. It was, in short, an excellent way to dive into Holy Week, and wonderful to share with people from our area who came to celebrate with us.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Bow

Spring has come. The Snowdrops, the Crocuses and the first few Daffodils are blooming. The weather is warm and gentle. And the two varieties of the flu that have afflicted me, (and most of the rest of us) seem to be on their way out.

A friend who is also a physician talked to me about Post Viral Exhaustion. Somehow it's comforting to know that it has a title and Capital Letters. She says it probably is my body's reaction to a virus that it has not encountered before. The prescription? Notice what your body can do and what it's asking for and do as much of that as you can. Keep your life a simple as you can. I feel a bit abashed to have a disease with a spiritual treatment. Shouldn't I be doing that already?

Well, it's a good reminder.

Another doctor I know of said to a friend who asked him how to deal with this virus: "All you can do is live longer than it does."

And as if the Holy Spirit was proving a point, this goes right back to my post of a couple of weeks ago about illness and the reluctance, or inability, to engage in spiritual practice while I'm sick.

So where have I gotten to? Did I learn anything as a result of my musings a couple of weeks ago?

It turns out, to my delight, that I did. This is fairly rare, in my experience. I have to agonize about some dilemma for quite a while before anything actually changes. Probably this is a self-protective mechanism, but whatever it is, change seems to usually come in slow steps.

What struck me this time is an illustration that the Buddha is said to have used himself, though it's a common enough story with a pretty evident point. It's about the skill of archery. If you're going to hit your target you have to attend to your bow. You have to stretch the string just right. If you use too much pressure, you will damage the bow or break the string. If you too little, you ruin your aim and don't have enough power to hit your target.

So because that image was in my mind I used it very deliberately. Lying on my bed at one point I thought: "Just how much effort would it take to focus just enough to turn to God within my heart? Not a big effort. Not a major labor. Just enough to bring me to center. What's the right amount of pressure on the bow?"

So I tried just a little effort. Then a little more. I did a deliberate experiment to see where the line was. How much of my precious little energy would it take to produce enough focus to be aware of the prayer that always prays itself at my center?

To my surprise and my complete delight, the answer turned out to be that it took very little. Hardly any. Just a bit of willingness did it. As it often is at this point in my life, prayer was there waiting for me to make some kind - any kind - of movement in its direction, and when I did, it came running to meet me.

What a really cool discovery. I wasn't being called to heroic self-denial. I wasn't being asked to summon up energy that wasn't there. All I needed to do - on that particular day at least - was just to want to pray enough to make a little effort, and I was welcomed. I could hardly believe it. How long have I struggled with this issue? Years and years. And there was the gift, right before me.

I won't say that this resulted in great amounts of prayer. For one thing, this particular virus had as one of its symptoms the need for nearly constant sleep. I simply wasn't awake very much for several days. So long hours of praying - or even long minutes - weren't the picture. But I could turn in the direction of prayer and know that it waited for me.

I also discovered as the week went on that the amount of energy applied to the bow differed every day, sometimes more and sometimes less. I needed to watch and see what it was like with my body, find out how much energy I had to employ and how I could summon a little of it. This time the gracious Spirit did the rest.

A fail-proof recipe for spiritual success? I think not. I expect that there will be more wrestling and more pondering as my strength returns, and more dilemmas to be sorted through. It was just the gift for this time. And it was a really nice one!

Meanwhile, the depression that is part of the after-illness stuff has partially lifted and my strength shows preliminary signs of reasserting itself. Mostly it happens in having ideas of what I'd like to do. The reality isn't there yet, but at least having some ideas about wanting to do stuff is an improvement.

So for now, watch my body, and keep my life as simple as I can. And respect the Post Viral Exhaustion.

And stop writing when I come to the end.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Slammed Again!

A case of the stomach flu has intervened. I'm toast. No post this week. I'll be back as soon as decently possible.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

How To Make the Effort Without Making the Effort

Viruses moved in here in a big way this week. An especially virulent chest cold and a quite spectacular stomach flu both arrived at the same time, and some of us got one and some the other, and a few lucky souls had both.

And nearly everybody has been involved. At one point the only non-sick member of the community was Bernard. This is quite unusual. We don't often get each other's ailments quite like this, and often we don't get them at all - whoever has a cold just usually goes his way with it and the rest of us don't get it. This week was a very noticeable exception to that rule.

And what with several members of the community away in places like Ottawa and New London for Lenten ministries and a number of the rest of us either in bed or laid low in various ways, that has left us scraping for people to do the work of the Guesthouse which has been exceptionally full. Well, every household experiences this sort of time, and it came to us this week.

It also brings up for me an issue that I mention every once in a while, and that is the business of praying while you're ill. As I've said before (and before that, too) I have this theory that prayer and meditation should sail right through a period like this. After all, there I am in bed. I don't have anything else to do. Lots of free time has just been handed to me. It's a great gift. So if I'm faithful, I'll meditate, chest cold or not, right?

Wrong.

Not that I haven't talked to people about this. And talked, and talked. The majority opinion has always been that a lot of your energy isn't available when you're sick, and prayer and meditation require a lot of energy. Just focusing itself uses quite a bit. Well, that is more or less obvious to me, and while this explanation offers a reason, it's not one that I find satisfying. Prayer keeps calling out to me. I'm just not responding, more often than not.

Is this just guilt? The unhealed remnants of out of control perfectionism? Should I just ignore it and wait until I feel better?

That doesn't do it.

Oh I admit to some of the guilt and perfectionism. But I know what they feel like, and I can face them pretty well at this point. But when that's done, that inner imperative, that 'call' to come closer is still there. I don't seem to have the energy to do anything about it, but it doesn't go away. Making the effort is beyond me. What to do?

However, not all is the same this time. This time around, I think there may have been a shift. I'm not just rehearsing that same old familiar arguments. This time I'm thinking that framing this dilemma in terms of energy and effort is probably making the problem worse rather than better. After all, I'm being called to open the door, to let God in. Does that always need to require a lot of work - a huge effort?

What this comes down to, of course, is how much of this process I think depends on me. I have to pray. I have to make the effort. I have to force my prayer into line. I, I, I. But if the experience of generations of monks and mystics and just plain ordinary people who pray is to be taken seriously, there is an aspect of prayer that isn't dealt with that way at all. Prayer is something that is always going on in your heart. The connection between you and God is always there, always live, always reaching out. You were born with it. You didn't put it there and can't start it. Or stop it either, for that matter. But you can tune in from time to time.

I think that maybe these frustrating periods when I'm sick are trying to teach me something that will be of tremendous value at all times, not just in illness. I need to make an effort to stop with all the effort. I have to cease trying to create prayer. I just have to turn to what is already there and let it reach out like it's trying to do.

After all, there were moments this week when my strength was at its lowest and effort was beyond me when a word or a phrase from one of the Offices reached out and grabbed me. Maybe it was just for a moment. Maybe I couldn't even make the effort to remember what it was 5 seconds later. But who says that I have to remember it? It's the opening, the contact that is the central point of prayer. It will do what it needs to do, and if that means remembering it, well, I probably will. But it clearly doesn't always mean that. It means something more like giving up all this effort to create some prayer and just relaxing into the arms of what (Who) is calling me.

I will have to admit that when I sat with my beads in the Church last night after Compline it felt like nothing much was going on. But I had the sense to promise myself that I wasn't going to try to make something happen. I was just going to be there with the beads and the Jesus Prayer and as much focused attention as I could manage. That part of it was pretty dry and distracted. But when I stopped - and just looked at that deep and silent place, it was so good to be there. And the silence was alive. And the depth was more than I could ever measure.

I think the dry and distracted time was needed. It kind of prepared me. It introduced me to what I was doing that wouldn't be of much use, which was more effort. When I quit that, what was there waiting for me was free to emerge - that deep and silent Presence that lives in our Church, and in my heart. And that was my lesson.

Funny how you have to learn some things over and over and over again. No doubt this will rear its head again.

Meanwhile, I'm still hacking and sneezing and coughing, and my strength isn't all back, so there's a good opportunity staring me in the face.

Less effort, more openness. That might just be a helpful prescription for relationships other than prayer, too.