Echoes of Advent in the New Year

Despite my best plans it’s not until now, when we’re on the quiet side of the holidays, that I can fully appreciate Advent. I meant to spend those weeks leading up to Christmas with Kathleen Wiley’s wonderful book, New Life: Symbolic Meditations on the Birth of Christ Within. A good idea, but Christmas gains speed in December and my contemplative intentions scattered.

Ideally, Advent is a season of quiet waiting, preparing for the birth of God into the world and the birth of our highest self into being. The four weeks leading up to Christmas focus on hope, love, joy, and peace as we invite the divine child to be born in our hearts and in our midst. But it’s only now, in the silent nights following the holidays, that there’s time to reflect on how to claim those gifts and live them out in the new year.

Hope, love, joy, and peace speak to the deepest needs of our soul. We need them so much that we’re almost afraid to ask for them, much less trust that our longing will be fulfilled. Yet the message of Christmas is that our hearts’ desires will be met if we allow it. Grace truly abounds, if we can let ourselves be open to it. This is what we are trying to show our children through the gifts we place under the tree. But we forget that grace is ours as well. The tree itself is there to remind us of life’s evergreen gifts and the light of hope, love, joy, and peace.

Back in December, as the solar calendar wound down toward the longest night and the social calendar filled up with holiday festivities, the church calendar brought us through four weeks of meditation on these gifts of the Spirit. Now as the days slowly grow longer and the sun begins its return from the far point on the horizon, I’m ready to retrace the steps through those four weeks. We’ve turned from the innermost point of the spiral, and as we wind outward again into a new year, those mediations await like a trail of breadcrumbs. The challenge is to stay in touch with how these gifts are manifest in our lives, and to find a way to give them expression.

Hope, love, joy, and peace are ours. We don’t have to create them or earn them. We don’t have to craft them or bake them or buy them. They aren’t the result for a perfectly executed holiday, they are the gifts that make our imperfect celebrations beautiful. They aren’t a reward for a perfectly lived life, they are the compass that orients us in how to live. For the next few weeks, I hope to rewind my way through the lessons of Advent and consider how to carry its gifts forward into a year in which we desperately need them. I’ll be listening for the echo of those longings shouted into the canyon of Advent, as they reverberate through these quiet days and carry us into the new year.

Hope as a Practice

“Hope is a choice that becomes a practice that becomes a spiritual muscle memory.”

Becoming Wise by Krista Tippett

Krista Tippett offers these words of wisdom as she introduces the final, soaring section entitled “Hope,” in her new book, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living. I see three aspects of her conversations with others about hope that apply directly to the cultural climate of our nation: resiliency, relationship, and how we go about looking at the world.

Tippett talks about resiliency as she considers where hope comes from and what fosters an attitude of hopefulness. Resilience contains the expectation of adversity. People who are resilient have been through difficulties, and know from experience that hardship will not defeat them. Their resilience is a fundamental aspect of their hope. It provides perspective and helps guard against cynicism and despair.

One of Tippett’s conversation partners is Brené Brown, whose research into the values and practices of people who live wholeheartedly are reshaping our ideas about strength and relationship. There is nothing mushy about how Brown understands hope. “Hope is a cognitive, behavioral process we learn when we experience adversity, when we have relationships that are trustworthy, when people have faith in our ability to get out of a jam.” In other words, resilience learned from experience, combined with a sense of community and the power of co-operative effort, give rise to hope.

Maria Popova is the force behind Brain Pickings, a wise and enlivening presence on the web. Her conversation with Tippett brings another key aspect to considering the source of hopefulness. Popova recalls William James saying “My experience is what I agree to attend to, and only those things which I notice shape my mind.” James’s observation has everything to do with how we see the world. We see what we are prepared to see. Popova goes on to say, “And so in choosing how we are in the world, we shape our experience of that world, our contribution to it. We shape our world…”

With this election season upon us, our nation has a specific context in which the commitment to hope matters. Resiliency, working together, and the ability to see clearly are needed for the future of our democracy.

Hope is not naïve optimism or myopic quietism. As Tippett states, in “the deaths of what we thought we knew” there is a possibility of rebirth. We can get to a better place together if we can remain courageous and “let our truest, hardest questions rise up in our midst.” Asking the hard questions that arise during hard times, with the humility that allows us “a readiness to see goodness and to be surprised,” is a way to move forward.

We must vote for our nation in this coming election. We must vote for the opportunity to work on problems together. We cannot allow despair to overthrow our ideals of shared government in favor of despotic anger and cynicism. We cannot fall for the dark illusion that “they,” whomever “they” may be, are responsible for all that is wrong. We must ask for clear-eyed vision, and work on the truest, hardest questions together.

There is only one responsible candidate for president in this election. If you can’t vote for Hillary, then consider it a vote against Donald Trump. Vote for the constitution, for our nation, and for the chance to work out our problems in a responsible way. Consider the practice of cultivating hope, not hate, and then vote with your heart.

And in case you missed it, consider this powerful message from Disciples minister, Rev. William Barber.

 

What Happens When We Pray

I’ve recently spent time wandering through some of Ireland’s ancient monastic sites, and I continue to think of those monasteries and the beautiful settings where they were built. The buildings are in ruins now, emptied by war and worldly powers. Yet for a time these sites were a refuge for books and learning, and a place where Christianity met Celtic culture in a way that strengthened both.

Who could have anticipated the value of these sanctuaries to the centuries that would follow? The books copied by the monks in their scriptoriums salvaged Western learning after the fall of the Roman empire. Today, the religious impulse that gave rise to them permeates the walls that remain standing.

Clonmacnoise Ruins, Ireland

The stone structures with roofs open to the sky are beautiful remnants, the outward form of an encounter with God. Even more, the sense of divine presence in places like Clonmacnoise and Glendalough invites the pilgrim to seek his or her own encounter with the Source.

I happen to also be reading an exploration of prayer by Ann Belford Ulanov and Barry Ulanov, called Primary Speech: A Psychology of Prayer. It’s an encouraging and inspiring description of what prayer can be. The divine intersection of my travels and of reading this book is something the Ulanovs would see as an answer to prayer, with God’s response often found in the small events of our lives.

In Primary Speech, Ann and Barry Ulanov offer insight into what happens when we bring our full selves to prayer—all our thoughts and feelings, our dreams and regrets, our best selves and our worst. Through prayer, whatever we bring to God is transformed. In bringing everything to prayer we open ourselves, and our lives, to being shaped by the divine—not in a way that denies our individuality but in a way that brings out the brilliance of the gems we were created to be. Prayer opens us to be healed and strengthened, our lives made larger and more joyful.

Primary Speech by Ann and Barry Ulanov

 

We can’t transform ourselves, but we can allow God to continue creating us. When we act on our deep impulse to pray, we experience the God who is always at work in our lives and who responds to our prayer in a variety of ways, which we will notice if we pay attention. Prayer opens a window to the stuffy room of our limited mind, and God is the fresh breeze that enters.

Paul Prather’s recent column on prayer in the Lexington Herald-Leader underscores this lesson for me. In his eloquently straightforward way, he says that even pastors are subject to forgetting to pray when life gets busy. But his recent recommitment to spend quiet time with God every day, even for just a few minutes, has brought him refreshment in the midst of a stressful life.

Prayer changes things. It changes me and it seems to affect the world around me. I’m a novice at prayer and may always be so, but beginner’s mind is not a bad thing. Who knows what might be possible?

 

The Artist’s Way as Spiritual Exercises for All of Us

Over the past few weeks I’ve been immersed in The Artist’s Way, leading a group in the shared experience of reconnecting with our creative lives. Each week brings a different focus, but in general we practice making space in our days for things that bring true joy and delight. We learn, or relearn, to trust those sparks of life. They are the source of divine encouragement and inspiration.

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The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron is presented as a program for people blocked in their creative work, but it is actually a spiritual practice that enhances the life and the work of anyone who wants to live more fully.  It offers a way of recovering the “something more” that we long for, which empowers us to bring creativity to our lives in all kinds of ways. It helps us open to new possibilities rather than remain in the constricted space that we long ago decided was safe.

In the sixteenth century Ignatius of Loyola developed The Spiritual Exercises, which the Jesuits (the order to which Pope Francis belongs) have used since then as a guide for spiritual formation. The exercises are grounded in the gospel stories, and are undertaken by those seeking a meaningful and even transformative spiritual experience. They can be the focus of an intense thirty-day retreat, or worked through by setting aside regular time in everyday life for a few weeks. If you’re interested in a simple version of the exercises, an excellent book is Moment by Moment: A Retreat in Everyday Life by Carol Ann Smith, SHCJ and Eugene FR. Merz, SJ.

I have come to see The Artist’s Way as a practice of comparable value. It marks the trail of an authentic spiritual journey, tailored for the culture in which we live. It is not a specifically Christian path, though it makes reference to ideas and occasionally quotations from the gospels. It is very much a God-centered path, inviting us to think of God and to find God in new ways. Working through the twelve weeks of The Artist’s Way is a transformative experience for many people, both within and outside of the church.

The readings and practices create an opening for the Spirit. The discipline of The Artist’s Way helps clear away the debris that covers over the clear spring of our creativity. We open ourselves to the flow of life, of energy, of creativity, of delight, of hope, of optimism, of generosity, of abundance, through taking on some simple practices. We gain a better sense of the spiritual path and the creative work that we are uniquely called to.  We allow what is most essential, most alive, most truly ourselves, to find an outlet in our lives.

But don’t take my word for it. Try it. Write out your answers to the questions this book poses. Take on the practices of morning pages and artist dates. See what happens. You don’t have to buy into new beliefs or set aside old ones—although you might find yourself considering new ideas. For an investment of thirty minutes to an hour a day to work through a chapter a week, you might find your life infused with new energy.

In my experience, and that of many others, The Artist’s Way can be an opening to the creative Spirit that hovers over the waters of Genesis. Its practices blow gently on the ember of the divine in each of us, and helps rekindle the creative fire at the heart of a life fully lived. Right now our group is finishing up Week 6, and I’m excited to see what emerges in the second half of the journey.

 

 

Where is God Hiding Out?

Over the weekend I attended a talk by Ann Belford Ulanov, sponsored by the Greater Cincinnati Friends of Jung. I’m still absorbing and processing the ideas she shared in her presentation, which shared the same title as her latest book, Madness and Creativity. She also drew from a previous book, The Unshuttered Heart: Opening Aliveness/Deadness in the Self, as well as unpublished work in progress. I can’t begin to summarize what she had to say, but following are some of the points she made, and some of the questions she asked, that remain with me.

Spring is Coming

Spring is Coming

Ulanov spoke about the difficulty and the rewards of being fully alive, when we risk “living with openness and engagement, bringing a sense of expectancy to our days, paying attention to our lives, and appreciating the ways we are touched by kindness.” A Buddhist might call this a state of being awake. “Our living fully alive makes oxygen for other people,” Ulanov said. “We make something of our experiences and let them make something of us.”

In this state of wakefulness we find the clarity to engage with the important questions. “To what do we all belong?” is the question of our century in Ulanov’s view. Perhaps by this she meant the question of what we truly share in common, or what is most important about human life and identity, or what is the nature of this universe in which we find ourselves. Neither the church nor the state can answer it for us, and the question permeates our lives at different levels.

It occurs to me that during this tournament season we answer it at one level by wearing the colors of our favorite teams, enjoying a sense of identity with a school or a region. The passion of sports fans shows how relevant the question of belonging is. But when we consider what we might all belong to, the inquiry is more difficult.

As we look around at the world in which we live, and look within to wonder at what we are and what our lives mean, we often find more questions than answers. Ulanov condenses those questions to “What are we living for, and what is worth dying for?” “What is the something more?”

Perhaps an alternate way of considering where we might find the “something more” is in yet another question posed by Ulanov: “Where is God hiding out?”

She suggests that our answer to where we might find God comes through the clues that the psyche offers. If we pay attention to what’s happening in both our inner and outer life, we find instances of resonance and meaning. From beyond the borders of the small version of our lives come new ways of seeing the world and ourselves. Growing beyond our old habits of thought we experience the renewing of our minds, and a renewal of life in accord with what really matters. The spark of life we sense in a conversation, in the spirit of a particular group of people, in the power of a certain image, or in the energy surrounding a certain kind of work, can be an arrow pointing us in the right direction.

We are looking for where we can “plug in,” Ulanov said. How can we access the energy of engagement with life? We miss living with a sense of aliveness and wonder. When we feel exhausted, deadened, cut off from our creativity, we know life can be more than this. “Where is the ignition switch?”

Ulanov posits that we find aliveness, and find God, “in the tiny scintilla that appear in the darkness; the dots of light, bright and hopeful; in the scraps, in the small.”

In this way the deadness, or even the “madness,” that burdens our lives has a positive side. It drives us to find and cling to those scraps of aliveness, to connect the tiny points of light. Even the bleak times come to us in service to the fullness of life and point us toward wholeness. Deadness can point to aliveness, and madness can burst into creativity. The desolation that spurs us to investigate and address its cause takes us to a place Ulanov likens “to the edge of the map of the known world, looking for a connection to the monsters beyond. Crossing this bridge between the known and the unknown is aliveness.” At its best, religion can serve to stabilize this bridge.

Following our own path as wholeheartedly as we can, noticing the places where we feel most alive, is how we find the “something more”—the small places of encouragement where, for us, God may be hiding out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Challenge to Become Wise

“Where shall wisdom be found?” is an ancient question that remains as relevant as this week’s New York Times. An interesting article in Sunday’s paper provides a glimpse of how some researchers in our time understand wisdom. The attributes they discuss bolster quality of life in any circumstance. But in particular this article looks at how traits of wisdom foster positive, meaningful lives as people get older, and help in coping with serious physical decline.

Job 28 12

One aspect of wisdom has to do with the ability to accept change, including changes in ourselves. Psychotherapist Isabella S. Bick points out that if we reject our current selves for not remaining the same as we were in the past, we cut off our ability to grow wise. Yet in different ways, and at different levels, this is exactly what we do. We spend a lot of energy trying to argue with what is.

One inevitable change, of course, is aging. In a culture that reveres youth as much as ours does, it’s hard not to feel diminished by age. But deep change happens in many ways, pushing us out of our comfortable places. Activities and relationships that gave life meaning go away. Involvements and priorities that once mattered no longer seem important. We are dealt new challenges.

Theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965)* calls this “the shaken and devastated surface of [our] former lives and thoughts,” and says that facing it is how we grow. We are meant for a life of greater depth, and greater joy, but “the road runs contrary to the way we formerly lived and thought.” It’s a dismaying thought—all those miles in one direction just to turn around and go the other way.  And who wants to disrupt a life, or a world view, when we’ve worked so hard to get where we are?

Tillich answers by reminding us that too much of the time “we talk and talk and never listen to the voices speaking to our depth and from our depth. We accept ourselves as we appear to ourselves, and do not care what we really are. . . We miss, therefore, our depth and our true life.”

People who have looked beneath the surface and “found that they were not what they believed themselves to be” know something of the depth of things. No one wants to endure a painful disruption, but it moves us toward wisdom, something most of us do hope to have in some measure at the end of our lives.

Tillich clarifies what we’re looking for. He says, “the name of this infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being is God. That depth is what the word God means. And if that word has not much meaning for you, translate it, and speak of the depths of your life, of the source of your being, of your ultimate concern, or what you take seriously without any reservation.”

The heart of things lies beneath the potholed surface of our lives. But life’s challenges are real, and we need more than social research to help meet them. We need insight from beyond our current time and culture to help us become wise. Interpreting the spiritual wisdom of the ages is part of what we need from religion, and we stand in great need of theologians like Tillich who could bring a rich intellectual and spiritual life to his ministry.

He challenged his flock from all walks of life to deepen their existence. He told them, “the mark of real depth is its simplicity. If you should say, ‘This is too profound for me; I cannot grasp it’, you are self-deceptive. For you ought to know that nothing of real importance is too profound for anyone. It is not because it is too profound, but rather because it is too uncomfortable, that you shy away from the truth.”

The quality of our existence, individually and collectively, depends on meeting that challenge.

 

*The quotes from Paul Tillich are from “The Depth of Existence,” in his book entitled The Shaking of the Foundations.

Does Prayer Make a Difference?

A few weeks ago, on the recommendation of friends who found it meaningful, I read Eben Alexander’s Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife. It describes his extended near-death experience, a story he would have viewed with skepticism before slipping into the coma in which his view of reality changed.

Believing that near-death experiences could be explained by certain types of brain activity, Alexander had long dismissed such experiences as hallucinations with no correlation to external reality. But with his rare illness, all activity was shut down in the part of the brain where such stimuli could occur. The kind of brain activity to which Alexander had attributed classic near-death experiences was simply not possible in his brain during this time.

I don’t share the skeptical view of the soul held by Alexander before his experience, but I would not have picked up this book without my friends insisting it was worthwhile. I’m glad they convinced me. I won’t try to describe the experiences he relates, but his compelling story has remained with me since I finished reading it. One aspect to which I keep returning has to do with prayer.

During his sojourn, the time came when he could no longer gain access to the divine realm. Alexander found himself sent back, descending into a physical world that he did not remember. But he was drawn to his destination in this life by faces and voices that emerged from the chaos and became clear to him. Later he realized that those whom he saw and heard were the loved ones gathered in a circle around his hospital bed, praying for him. The single additional person he saw was the minister’s wife, who was not at his bedside but prayed for him at home. He became aware of a young boy pleading fervently for his life, then realized with a shock that it was his young son. At that point, remembering his life on earth and people he loved, he re-entered the physical world. The prayers of others had oriented him as he moved between realms and led him back to his life.

It’s not hard to see the value of prayer in terms of naming our concerns and laying down our burdens. We draw strength from our sense of connection with others, and prayer brings us closer to God and to those for whom we pray. The affirmation of being heard helps empower us to cope with difficulties. Prayer also focuses our attention, helping us to recognize guidance from the divine. But to speculate about where our prayers go, or what it means that God hears our prayers, or how prayers work, is more difficult. How can we speak about any realm but this one, or any reality beyond our personal experience of prayer?

I had Alexander’s story on my mind when I learned that someone I care about had a sudden, debilitating stroke. His condition sounded dire. I was afraid for him and his family. I didn’t know what to ask for. But I prayed. I prayed for health and healing. I prayed for strength—for him and for his family. I thought about all of them continually. And I kept praying, as did his large family, a network of friends, and his church. Within a few days he came back in a way that seems miraculous, with a determined effort in physical therapy that allowed him to go home far sooner and in better shape than anyone could have hoped for.

What allowed this to happen? Did all of those fervent prayers change his outcome? Could they have affected his ability to recover? It’s impossible to know for sure, but it looks that way to me. The prayers didn’t make things smooth or easy, but in a time of extreme crisis they seem to have made a difference.

Yet on the dark side of answered prayers are those that seem to go unanswered, pleas for health and healing that do not come to fruition. Why would God intervene for some requests and not for others?

I have no good answer to that question. But the fact that miracles don’t occur every time doesn’t mean they never do. The world is more than we can fathom. And the messages all around seem to keep urging that we pray.

Christianity’s Next Stage

This week of Pentecost, celebrating the coming of the Holy Spirit that launched the church, seems to me an especially appropriate time to consider new possibilities for what the practice of Christianity can be. An insightful book that helps in doing exactly that is Paul R. Smith’s Integral Christianity: The Spirit’s Call to Evolve.

Sometimes the right book crosses our path at the right time, and for me this is just such a book—one that articulates a vision of a more inclusive and spiritually oriented church, at a time when I’m asking how church can be better at fostering spiritual growth, and what might help it in moving forward. It is written by a pastor who cares deeply about his own congregation and about the church at large.

Smith begins by looking at the stages of religious understanding, recognizing the gifts and strengths of each stage while noting the limitations to be overcome. Each level builds on and incorporates some of those previous understandings about God and faith, while moving toward greater spiritual insight. His description of these stages is available in a series of articles here.

He then looks at the ways in which we can experience the Divine—as God around us encompassing all of creation, as God beside us in close relationship, and God as a divine spark within. He then explores ways of seeking connection with the Divine, an experience available at every stage of spiritual development.

He sees Jesus as a model of what human life can be, exhibiting the divinity at the heart of human beings, and revealing how we can live when we transcend ego, connect with God, and live according to our true Christlike self. The Bible shows faithful people moving through various stages, being led by those with greater understanding and experience. The kingdom of God is a term for a higher stage yet, when we are better able to move beyond ordinary, everyday awareness and into the spiritual reality in which we are one with Christ and with each other.

Smith sees the church as a place to deepen our thinking about God, to heighten our experience of God, and to be transformed by how we see ourselves in connection with God. He takes seriously the mystical experiences described in the New Testament, which mainline churches such as mine tend to overlook. Thinking people are suspicious of such visions and visitations, associating manifestations of the spirit with distasteful public spectacles and primitive theology. Smith points out that experiences of God or visitations of the Holy Spirit can take many forms, some dramatic and some more subtle. What’s more, we interpret those experiences according to our various stages of understanding. Experience of God is not something that we outgrow, nor is it relegated only to religion that denies the value of reason. He quotes Karl Rahner as saying, “The Christian of tomorrow will be a mystic, or not a Christian at all.”

He sees the role of the church as helping and encouraging people to grow spiritually, both in understanding and experience of God. In a healthy church, the members are encouraged to grow into the next spiritual stage of understanding, and to experience increasing closeness to God. It is from this transformation that good works will emanate.

We are best able to love and serve others when we operate in a climate of health and wholeness within ourselves. We need the loving, healing presence of God, and the world needs the love and healing we can offer out of that experience. These are the most valuable things that the church can offer, the source of all good gifts that the church and its members can share with the world.

 

 

 

Jesus and Jerusalem

During Lent this year I’m thinking a lot about Jerusalem in the year 30 or so. I’m meeting once a week with a small group to talk about the last week of Jesus’ life and the events leading up to the crucifixion, and it turns out you can hardly make sense of the stories without knowing something about Jerusalem and the practice of Judaism. A good map and some background information on the city’s history and politics helps. A book by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan called The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem is also a good resource.

 

Jesus went to Jerusalem for Passover. Everyone did. The city of 80,000 swelled to a population three times its size during the festival. But why was Passover so important?

Some of us learned the story as children, but as an isolated and fantastical tale. To appreciate it we need to see the story within the bible’s overall narrative. In brief, God insisted that Moses lead the Hebrews out of their enslavement in Egypt. As Moses confronted Pharaoh, he brought down plagues on Egypt, demonstrating God’s power over Pharaoh and making the point that God’s people must be allowed to leave. There were frogs and locusts, boils and flies, and water turned to blood—ten plagues in all. Yet none convinced Pharaoh to allow the Hebrew slaves their freedom until God sent the final and most horrible plague.

The event that finally changed the fate of the Hebrews occurred with the final plague, which was the Passover.  The Hebrews were instructed to kill a lamb and ritually mark their door frames—the doorposts and lintel—with its blood. They were to roast the meat over a fire and prepare a meal to eat in haste. With no time for the dough to rise they were to bake unleavened bread, and be dressed to leave at a moment’s notice.

While the Hebrews were making their preparations, the Angel of Death was passing over the land, claiming the lives of the first-born sons throughout Egypt. Only those homes marked with the blood of the lamb were spared. As the cries rose from Egyptian households during the night, Pharaoh demanded that the Hebrews be gone.

The exodus that ensued was when Israel became a people. As they wandered in the wilderness they threw off their identity as slaves and formed a new nation. The Passover was an act of power that marked the Hebrews as God’s own people, singled out from those around them, and destined for their own unique place in history.

The celebration of Passover became a remembrance of what it meant to be God’s people, the heart of their religious identity. It remains such to this day. Perhaps the violence of the story is why we don’t dwell on it. We don’t want to think of God as sending an Angel of Death to anyone. Another discussion is the evolution in our understanding of how God operates.

What we have to remember if we’re trying to understand Jesus’ last week on earth, is that he was a faithful Jew. The scriptures he studied were the Old Testament, or Hebrew Scriptures. The practices he followed were shaped by Jewish law and liturgy. The religion into which he tried to breathe new life was Judaism. He was called Rabbi—a teacher in the Jewish faith. His actions in Jerusalem in the days leading up to his death show his love of, identity with, and vision for God’s people.

If we care about the events leading up to Easter we need to understand that they are entwined with Passover and the practice of Judaism.

 

Time Suspended

Paging through the WSJ Magazine today, I happened upon this charming piece. It seems that the people at Hermès have been thinking about time and longing, expressed in a limited edition watch design celebrating the company’s 174th anniversary. Part of the Arceau collection, it’s called Le Temps Suspendu, or “Time Suspended.”

The slant of the numerals suggests the ceaseless motion of hours and minutes on the watch face, but these 174 specially made timepieces offer something to counter that momentum. They include a feature designed to evoke the sense of stepping outside of time. Press a button and the hands stop their motion to strike an impossible pose (from a timekeeping perspective), holding the “12” between them. Something like prayer position, perhaps. The date pointer hides away beneath a raised level of the face.

Voilá. If time hasn’t actually stopped, it has at least become irrelevant for the time being, which is much the same thing.

And since the time we can allow for not measuring time is limited, the wearer is reassured that a hidden timekeeper within continues to keep track. Press the button again and the watch returns to the correct time. There’s no mention of an alarm to remind you when to rejoin the scheduled world, but perhaps that would defeat the purpose.

I love the idea of a symbolic act that suspends time, shedding the schedule-driven concerns that clutter the mind and crowd the spirit. We’re at our best when we’re fully present, focusing all our skill and intuition on the thing that engages us. That timeless and exhilarating state is described beautifully by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. A ritual that invites that state of mind is invaluable.

When we reach it, time’s movement and measures fall away. The passing of time neither forces nor impedes; we move effortlessly through it. Later, once again inhabiting everyday consciousness, we look around blinking, wondering how long we spent in that heightened state. When was I last aware of the time? What time is it now? How long was time stopped? Only after the fact do we realize that we experienced an escape from time.

For those of us who don’t have $36,200 to spend on a not-watch, or who aren’t among the first 174 people in line to get one, there are more pictures and musings about the watch here. But we’ll need a different ritual for setting aside time.

Simply taking off a watch is one way to have such a ritual. It’s a sign of inhabiting a different mental space, outside of ordinary time. Another way might be to turn off the phones that claim so much of our attention. They’re a door to a wonderful world, but left open all the time they invite too much interruption.

Entering a ritualized process is another possibility: making a cup of tea, digging in a garden, participating in worship, engaging the imagination. We benefit from anything we can do to set aside time in a way that allows us to live well—to enjoy a meal or a conversation, to take a walk, to lose ourselves in something we enjoy, to create something new.

What kind of ritual helps you to suspend time?