Cynthia Bourgeault and Practicing Presence

When Cynthia Bourgeault introduced the contemplative practice of centering prayer at the Festival of Faiths in Louisville last week, she spoke of different practices and traditions as being like colors of the rainbow. Each color is part of the one light, a unique and beautiful aspect that informs our understanding of the light.

I was eager to attend Bourgeault’s talks because her book, The Wisdom Jesus, has been so important in opening my reading of scripture. She is tiny, a package of concentrated energy. Calm and unassuming, with a delightful sense of humor, she bristles with life as she teaches.

Meditation is like putting a stick into the spokes of the monkey mind, she said. It’s all about noticing our thoughts, seeing our patterns of thinking, and letting them go.

Whether we call this practice meditation, centering prayer, or something else, it’s a practice of making ourselves available to a higher mind. It’s an intention to move beyond the machinations of our calculating ego.  As Bourgeault puts it, centering prayer is a practice of returning to God whenever we notice a thought arising. How does one let go of a thought? She demonstrated by standing onstage with her arms outstretched, holding a stick in one hand. She opened her hand and allowed the stick to fall to the floor. Just like that. Let go.

This inner action of letting go becomes the outer action of letting be, she told the audience. It’s hard to value this spiritual practice at first. What can it possibly accomplish? What’s the point when there are so many other things that need doing?

But in this practice of gently releasing the mind’s tyranny, we open ourselves to another way of perceiving. We practice another way of being. For a brief time we allow a higher wisdom to move through us, and slowly learn to permit that flow in more and more aspects of life. We get beyond how the ego thinks things should be, and learn to be present to what is.

Bourgeault describes this as putting the mind in the heart, yielding a new way of perceiving. She calls it the key to practicing compassion. This deep sense of compassion, beyond what she terms ego and activism and do-goodism, is putting on the mind of Christ. From this place true transformation happens.

As we practice this way of being, we place ourselves in the presence of God. As we get out of the way we allow God to flow through us. As we let go of our ego’s agenda we become available to the flow of our authentic life and experience our connection to others.

The energy in the room was palpable as Bourgeault led us in a silent session of centering prayer. I understood for the first time where the phrase “tugged at my heartstring” comes from as I experienced just such a tangible sensation.

Sitting in meditation it looks like nothing is happening. But there’s more to our lives than what meets the eye.

 

The Better Part

I have long wrestled with the story of Mary and Martha* in the gospel of Luke. In my reading, Martha is a worker; Mary is a listener. Martha is active; Mary is contemplative. As the two sisters host Jesus in their home, Martha is busy with the tasks of running a household while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet absorbing his teaching. Martha is angry about doing all the work herself, and insists that Jesus have Mary help out with the chores.

Mary and Martha with Jesus, St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin

I understand Martha. It takes work to keep a household or anything else running smoothly. Martha wants to offer the finest hospitality to this amazing teacher. Perhaps she would have liked to sit and listen, but it takes work to provide a clean bed and a good meal.

Jesus responds by speaking kindly to her, noticing that she is worried by many things, and offering a different perspective. He points out that the work she thinks is necessary is actually distracting her from what is most important. Whatever standard Martha is trying to meet, it isn’t set by Jesus. He wants her to know that she is made for more than the treadmill she has put herself on. Jesus didn’t show up just to add to her chores.

I understand Mary. She is drawn to the wisdom of this new teacher and the power of his presence. She sets aside her normal activities, recognizing that this is no ordinary guest, and gives him her full attention. Yet following her heart means not living up to others’ expectations for what she should be doing. It’s not easy to disappoint Martha, who doesn’t share Mary’s priorities, and lets Mary know that she’s not doing her part.

Mary and Martha in stained glass, St. Patrick's, Dublin

I have long wished the story would show Jesus inviting Martha to sit down and listen, then have everyone pitch in with the chores.

We all have mundane tasks to do. But it’s important to recognize what merits setting them aside. Jesus refuses to send Mary back to her usual tasks just as she is beginning to hear his life-changing teaching. Mary has chosen the better part, he tells Martha. Jesus doesn’t want us doing more chores, he wants us to be transformed.

Mary and Martha both live inside me. There’s nothing wrong with Martha wanting to get the job done. The world is in need of a great deal of work. But the world needs Martha to lend her strength and skill to the most important tasks. In a world of “shoulds,” how to discern what truly is the better part is a question always before us. We need Mary and her ability to recognize what is genuinely life-giving.

Carl Jung offers an insight regarding his patients’ growth that applies to the tension between Mary and Martha:

All the greatest and most important problems of life are fundamentally insoluble . . . They can never be solved, but only outgrown. This “outgrowing” proved on further investigation to require a new level of consciousness. Some higher or wider interest appeared on the patient’s horizon, and through this broadening of his or her outlook the insoluble problem lost its urgency. It was not solved logically in its own terms but faded when confronted with a new and stronger life urge. (as quoted by Matthew Fox in Original Blessing)

We need both Mary and Martha, not in opposition but in a complementary partnership. We need a higher level of awareness that incorporates them both. I like to think of Martha spinning a cocoon, Mary yielding to the transformation that happens within it, and through the work of the Spirit, a new creation emerging into the world.

 

*The text of the story is brief, found in Luke 10:38-42. Here it is, in its entirety:

Now as they went on their way, [Jesus] entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

 

The Wisdom of Gratitude

At the site of a friend’s silent retreat this fall, a ginkgo tree happened to shed its leaves on the same weekend. She was drawn to the gentle drama unfolding over the course of a day, the air so thick with fluttering yellow fans they sounded like rain as they pooled on the ground. Had the retreat not offered the kind of presence that happens through silence, she might have seen them drop but missed the sound, the music, of falling leaves.

Loretto Retreat, et al 071

It’s a mystery how life can hold such beauty at the same time it holds so much pain. The world is hurting. Each of us is injured from violence inflicted far and near. Wrenching scenes repeat on our screens as we attempt to grapple with unfolding events and respond to the world we live in. As the news cycle continues, fear and hate seem quickest to find their voice, filling the world with noise and making it harder to listen for wisdom.

Yet reminders of wisdom rise up like seedlings through concrete. Teachings on compassion become part of the conversation as people share those scriptures that serve as compass points for their lives. Discussions of the values that shape the identity of our nation are held in earnest. People are sharing and responding to heartbreak in a way that compels action for the sake of justice.

I am grateful for those giving voice to generous and searching hearts. I am grateful for models of resolve shaped by wisdom, strength, and love. They remind us of what is good in this world, and help show us the way forward.

Into this milieu, with perfect timing, comes Thanksgiving.

It is literally good for the heart to be thankful. A daily practice of naming two or three things for which we are thankful actually improves our physical health—this report on those findings is not only fascinating, but encouraging. In a previous post I talked about making space in our lives, giving ourselves breathing room by easing up on our expectations and allowing something new. Gratitude helps to do that.

In remembering to be thankful we make space for something more than the worries that beset us. We open ourselves to other possibilities, and perhaps to seeing new ways to meet the concerns and challenges of our world.

Centuries ago the Sufi poet Rumi wrote:

But listen to me. For one moment
quit being sad. Hear blessings
dropping their blossoms
around you.

May this Thanksgiving be an invitation to wisdom. May we listen from the quiet center of the heart, and rest for a moment in gratitude.

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?

 

A Sense of Order and Sacred Space

Lately I’ve been learning about creating sacred space and leading worship for young children. Familiar rituals, an unhurried presence and clear focus, quiet voices, a space arranged in an orderly way, and a tranquil and consistent way of doing things—all of these are part of infusing the space with a sense of sacredness. The insight of thoughtful people who understand both children and worship has me thinking about the connection between a sense of order and sacred space, not only for children but for adults as well.

 

Sanctuary

 

Our world is messy and the days bring disorder of various kinds. Interactions between people go awry; the systems that should facilitate our lives often put up roadblocks instead. Our bodies, our plans, and the myriad details we juggle are all subject to breaking down. In ways both large and small, we are continually reminded that life is out of our control.

Especially when life feels chaotic, we need to find a sense of order somewhere. Within ourselves, if nowhere else, we need a sense of stillness and peace to move through the day with any grace at all. Nature can be a refuge, but we also need beautiful and tranquil spaces indoors, sheltered from the elements. From the most exalted to the most humble, the sanctuaries we create offer a place apart from the disordered world. We hope they will be infused with meaning, order, and beauty. When done well they embody sacredness beyond any particular beliefs associated with them.

A sanctuary with meaningful rituals offers a place and time for finding order in the midst of confusion. It creates a clearing where we can regain perspective, remember our priorities, and pull ourselves together to face whatever comes next. Sometimes we encounter the divine, other times the reassurance of a familiar practice is enough.

But in either case our impulse to seek order and ritual, and to find in it a connection to a higher order, puts us in touch with the holy. Our instinct to create sacred space is itself a divine gift. Whether or not we feel we’ve encountered God, the sense of finding order and tranquility is restorative. It helps us to act more effectively, live more compassionately, and appreciate life more fully.

Of course order alone doesn’t make a space sacred. A shallow kind of order can be imposed on all kinds of spaces, and preoccupation with order can crowd out vitality and creativity. There’s nothing sacred about oppression or stagnation. Faith communities and their places of worship can be a rich source of ordering one’s life and clearing the way for growth, or they can impose world views that are stifling and limiting.

Jesus said, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light,” but so many oppressive claims are made in the name of Christian religion that many folks have given up on Christianity and on religion in general. That’s unfortunate, not only because many Christian communities are loving and inclusive, but because few other places are prepared to offer the sacred spaces and rituals that human beings need. People at all stages of life need somewhere to find order and tranquility. Are there places outside of religious communities to offer it?

Where do you find sacred space? What helps you to sort things out and find a sense of order and peace?

Memento from a Retreat

Something within us knows the value of a new perspective. It comes through when we get the sense that it’s time to get away. One person’s restorative weekend might be another’s tedium, but whether it’s a shopping excursion, a sports event, a hike in the woods, a visit to a gallery, a hobby convention, a mission trip, or simply being any place but here, sometimes a change of scenery is exactly what we need.

A retreat is another kind of getaway. It isn’t about activities or entertainment, but comes from the desire both to find rest and to be awakened through quiet time in peaceful surroundings away from everyday life.

Recently a friend and I spent a couple of days on retreat at the Sisters of Loretto campus near Bardstown, Kentucky. On my own, I probably wouldn’t have made it happen. Unlike so many other events and commitments, a retreat doesn’t clamor for its place on the calendar. But once we started talking about the idea, we created enough momentum to make a plan and see it through. I’m glad about that, because the effort resulted in a lovely experience that is all too rare.

The tricky part of going on retreat is that the mindset that puts it in place—the planning and packing and logistics of getting there—is exactly what needs to be set aside once we arrive. A to-do list pretty much defeats the purpose of relaxing and spending time away from our schedules. So I tried to go without an agenda, and with the idea of listening for whatever it was I needed to hear. But I also tried to be ready for anything. I took books and writing paper, my computer and journal, good walking shoes and my camera, along with the scarf I was knitting. Maybe someday I’ll master the art of traveling light.

The sisters have a library available to guests, where I found a book by Richard Rohr that turned out to be perfect for reading during my time there. Everything Belongs is a meditation on God’s presence. (Below is a note that one of the sisters left about the rearrangement of their shelves.)

But the ideas I encountered in Rohr’s book found their most eloquent expression after a storm on the first night. Through hours of darkness I had heard the wind tearing through trees and battering the brick and old wood outside my window. Yet the next morning broke chilly and clear. The night seemed almost a bad dream, except that the wind had brought down thousands of pecans from trees all across the grounds. Along the walkway to the guest house, on the path to the pond, among the stations of the cross, around the cemetery, they were everywhere.

“Take some with you,” the sisters urged. And I did. Like a chipmunk stuffing its cheeks, I filled the pockets of my jacket until the fleece could stretch no further. Abundance. Enough for the woman I met, kneeling on the ground, filling her bag as she remembered the shelled pecans that were her grandfather’s gift of love and work at Christmastime. Enough for the two who filled the hood of a third friend’s sweatshirt, worn like a bulging backpack. Enough for others who would stroll the grounds after we left.

Now that I’m back home, the pecans I gathered remind me to breathe and remember that God is present. They remind me of abundance—gifts stumbled upon in the wake of the storm, a harvest to crack open and enjoy through winter days to come.

Art and Sanctuary

Last weekend I had the pleasure of hearing a folk music performance that happened to be given in a church sanctuary. The setting had me thinking about the idea of sanctuary and how it is created—or at least invited. Even more, as the evening progressed I was able to experience the mysterious arrival of that sense of sanctuary as it permeated the room.

I didn’t know the music of Iris Dement before I saw her perform, but I was immediately charmed by how she connected with her audience. She shared how vulnerable she felt coming out from behind her piano to face the crowd with only a microphone stand and a guitar to “hide” behind. And when she mused aloud about her songwriting prowess, asking “What is the opposite of prolific? Because whatever that word is, that’s me,” I was taken by both her understanding and her acceptance of herself.

The venue was the historic downtown First Presbyterian Church, where stained glass and ornate wood carvings spoke of the long traditions that shape Christian worship. “This pretty room,” Iris Dement called it, in a way that appreciated her surroundings even as she resisted their traditional gravity.

She spoke of her family, and the songs she shared about them honored those lives who so clearly informed her own. She alluded to her spiritual journey, remarking that in reading back through the stories in the Bible, “I found that I didn’t love them as I used to” except for the one she wrote about: the parable of the good Samaritan.

In sharing so much of herself as well as her music, she drew her audience close. She exuded both humility and strength, presenting herself simply as she is. I don’t know her story, but I know that kind of firmly rooted stance is hard-won.

The architecture and design of the space we were in brought forward the idea of sanctuary, a word that sets out the spiritual aspirations for the place. It’s meant to offer a respite from the clamoring world, a place where we can hear the still, small voice that reminds us who we are and where we can find the heart of life.

But on that evening, the experience of a sacred space apart from the world was ushered in by this talented musician whose maturity as a person as well as an artist enabled something rare and wonderful to happen in that setting.

Art at its best creates sanctuary. An artist who grapples with what matters most, then brings skill and dedication to expressing what she encounters, offers work that can elevate our lives. Art in all of its forms invites us into a space apart from the schedules we keep and the demands we meet, where we can be refreshed by the encounter with another soul. It brings the renewal of spirit we sorely need to live our lives the best we are able.

Worship at its best works this way, too. It’s an art form in itself, enriched by architecture, music, language, and dramatic ritual. Good worship depends on good art. Meaningful worship, like meaningful art, is soul work. The encounter that happens through that work, whatever the setting may be, is where we find sanctuary.

Sanctuary is a gift. We invite its presence by the deepest human work we do, but when the spirit of sanctuary descends, with the peace that passes understanding, it is a gift of grace. May we find those spaces in our lives that quiet our minds and soften our hearts. May we know sanctuary.

The Physicality of Prayer

We don’t just have a body, we are embodied. Christianity itself is centered on embodiment, with the incarnation of God into fully human form at its heart. Our bodies are central to who we are and how we experience this life. It makes sense that our physical selves would be part of how we pray.

It’s easy to get the idea that prayer is something we do in our heads, but sometimes what we need most is to get outside of our heads. Often when we place our bodies in an attitude of prayer, our hearts and minds will follow. Physical practices can help in getting out of our own way, in emptying ourselves enough to receive some spiritual nourishment.

There are many ways of cultivating a prayer life that incorporates the body. Singing, walking, dancing, gardening—practices that involve movement, the senses, or the breath can help us feel close to God when we enter prayer through them.

Praying in a different posture can bring about a fresh experience in prayer. The position of our bodies affects how we think and feel. Craig Dykstra, author of Education and Christian Practices said, “You can know things on your knees that you can’t know sitting in a chair.”

Even a simple gesture can make a difference. Praying with hands extended, palms up, offering to God our problems and ourselves, is a physical manifestation of a spiritual attitude. It helps us remember what we want to do. Praying with hands extended, forming an empty cup, ready to receive what God intends for us, is another way to reinforce the spiritual openness we want to bring.

Solitary physical work can be another opening to prayer. Tending the yard, doing laundry, cooking, even filling the gas tank—all can be an opportunity for prayer. We can offer thanks for the strength to do the work, and ask for the ability to work generously. We can use it as a way of noticing the interconnectedness of our lives, praying for those who will benefit from the work we do as well as those whose work has allowed us to accomplish what we’re doing.

And finally, placing ourselves in a different setting can help us step away from the noise of our lives and enter into prayer. We don’t have to go into the woods, or to the beach, or to a quiet chapel to pray, but it can help. We are affected by our surroundings, and so is our prayer life.

What helps you to feel the presence of the divine?

A Box for Prayers

Thinking back over the week, it’s interesting to recall several conversations about prayer. Not a subject that typically recurs so often. With life moving quickly along from one thing to the next, I didn’t notice this thread weaving through the past few days until I stopped to reflect on what the week has brought.

This is a reason to write a blog, by the way. It helps me pay attention. The blog becomes a box for reflection, and its presence is a constant reminder to place something in it. A box for prayer can work the same way.

To one of these conversations from the week a friend brought a gift she had received—a beautiful handmade wooden box, shaped something like a medium-sized apple. The lid lifts off with a long stem-like handle to reveal a rounded interior, sanded smooth, the grain visible in the dark wood. It has just enough heft to feel solid in the palm of one’s hand.  After living with the gift for a few weeks, she realized that it would be a box for her prayers.

All sorts of prayers can be placed in such a box. Prayers for others can be held there, represented by a name written on a slip of paper. A gift that the day brings, a worry we can’t let go of, a feeling of fear or grief or longing—the concern and gratitude and pleas that color our spiritual life all have a place in a box for prayers.

To give our prayers a tangible expression is a comfort. A similar practice happens on a larger scale in Old Jerusalem where the Wailing Wall, or Western Wall, holds the prayers of visitors who tuck their written words into spaces between the ancient stones. The space is considered holy because of the Jewish tradition that the Divine Presence remains there. More than a million notes are placed there every year. Semi-annually the notes are collected and buried on the Mount of Olives.

Most of us can’t place our prayers in the Wailing Wall, but we can set aside a sacred space of our own. It might feel right to ask a blessing on that space, or it may be enough to let the blessing come from the prayers with which we fill it. They may be in the form of written words, or in a simple nonverbal prayer such as lighting a candle.

A box for prayer might be a metaphorical one as well. It can be a place to visit that feels set apart. It can be a time of day. It can be the experience of sacred writings, or music, or art. It can be a ritual that helps to place us in the presence of the divine. It can be anything that helps us see that we are standing on holy ground.

What have you found that serves as a box for prayer?

The Red River Gorge at Nightfall

I had a chance to visit the Red River Gorge over the holidays—a brief but beautiful drive with my family on the return trip from a Christmas visit.

We arrived at dusk, knowing our time was limited but wanting to see all we could before dark. The main road was snow-covered and a new snow had fallen, softening the landscape and offering up each bare tree and dark evergreen in clear contrast against the field of white.

It was immensely quiet there. The trees closed overhead and the light faded as we wound down to the river. As night began to fall, the snow reflected what little light remained. It held off the darkness, creating the sense of a moment outside of time in an otherworldly place.

Robert Frost’s words kept echoing through my mind: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep.” Gazing into awe, I was humbled by the power and mystery of this life.

The Gorge, a place of dramatic beauty, sits right off the highway. We usually drive by it on our way to somewhere else. But stopping by those woods on that snowy evening was a memory, and perhaps even a glimpse of eternity, to hold for a long time.

Have you had a glimpse of the eternal?