Thursday, September 29, 2011

Is Contemplation for the weak?

Scripture: Genesis 32:22-32
When I used to think of the words "retreat," "monks," and "contemplation" I imagined people far removed from my world filled with the stress of daily living and the anxiety that is so pervasive in our world. My image included an escape from real life and challenging encounters. Especially with the word contemplation, I presumed it was for people with too much time and not enough to do. The monks at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit and the book we read from challenged my assumptions.
So is Contemplation really a retreat from all that is anxiety producing and challenging? Merton contests such assumption us with a strong word of "no."   "On the contrary, the deep, inexpressible certitude of the contemplative experience awakens a tragic anguish and opens many question in the depth of the heart like wounds that cannot stop bleeding." I liken Merton's thoughts to C. S. Lewis' notion found in the Chronicles of Narnia book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when Lucy asks about the mysterious figure of the Lion, Aslan (the Christ figure). "His he safe?" she asks fearful and innocently. "Well of course he isn't safe," responds Mr. Beaver.
If Contemplation is about encountering the God who is holy, then in contemplation God will reveal to us and break down the idols we incessantly create, challenge us from mere good thoughts and intentions toward right attitudes and actions, break us out of our self justifications toward self emptying and these conversions come at no little fight and struggle from us. Contemplation isn't for the weak, but for the brave!
How does the idea of contemplation change if it happens in the presence of a loving and holy God that desires we be transformed into the likeness of Christ?
The Life with God Bible asks “Could one reason [we are afraid of being alone] be an unhealthy reliance on other people instead of on God for our well-being and happiness?” Is this true for you? How can you become more comfortable with silence?
What wounds does God desire to heal within you? Might you end up with a limp like Jacob? In what ways would you be stronger because it?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Benedict’s Rule of Listening

Scripture: Psalm 81 “Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of you heart.” That is how the Prologue to The Rule of Saint Benedict begins. “Listen.” What a needed virtue. Not just within our relationships with others, but also to God.
Last time we discussed Contemplation as a gift and awareness. Contemplation is much more than a technique for creative brainstorming that leads to new ideas and exciting connections. Though contemplation might lead to something like that, contemplation "is not the fruit of our own efforts" Merton advised. Beyond mere thoughts, contemplation is ultimately an experience with the one named, "I AM." As opposed to receiving some new insight about God or carried away in psychological fantasies, contemplation moves us toward the mystery and freedom of the God who cannot be contained by our attempts to control Him or use Him for our own feelings or benefits. The gift in this case is its own reward, the Triune God who exists eternally as Father, Son, and Spirit, communal and one, self-emptying and sacrificial love. Merton reminds us that God is not a "what" or a "thing" but a pure "Who." (13) Beyond our own agendas and uses, however noble they may be, may we take intentional time to listen with our inner ears that we might hear and be drawn to the One who is in constant search of us and desires to give of His very self.
Why are we so quick to speak and so slow to listen?
Try one of the following exercises: Spend one day soon trying only to speak when you have to, so that you might focus on listening to other’s needs. Spend a meal in silence focusing on gratitude for God’s provisions.
What do you think God is trying to say to us?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

What contemplation is and is not

Scripture: Psalms 62
I had many false assumptions about contemplation going into my retreat at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit. From Thomas Merton's New Seeds of Contemplation to the time spent in silence and in worship, I learned that contemplation is exciting and invigorating.  Contemplation is no isolated, introspective navel gazing selfish aloneness. Merton speaks a whole lot about what Contemplation is not. Appropriately so since it is much maligned in our culture of pseudo-community that really only desires to avoid loneliness and noisiness at all cost. Among the words Merton uses to describe Contemplation include: awake, active, aware, alive, awe, and gratitude. I believe Merton accurate to describe contemplation as "a kind of spiritual vision." He writes, "Contemplation is a sudden gift of awareness, an awakening to the Real within all that is real." (3)
Our vision is often too low and too narrow. We are usually busier than worker bees and more distracted than the most hyperactive feline. The result is we become like a ship in a storm without an anchor being tossed about here and there. Beginning with a place and time of silence, contemplation can anchor us to the God who is fully present in this world seen in the microsphere to beyond our atmosphere, from the internet to the cityscape. But in our distraction we not only miss the wonder and greatness of the world around us, we fail to hear from the God speaking within. We miss the awe of the God of the universe and compassion of the one who cares for and feeds the birds of the air. Contemplation, then, far from navel gazing, might go on to produce the compassion and aliveness for which we have been longing.
What are your assumptions about contemplation?
How might contemplation lead to awareness of the Real?
How often do you feel distracted? How might contemplation bring focus and attention to what is real among us?

Monday, September 19, 2011

"Why can't I buy a monk robe in the Abbey gift shop?"

Scripture: Psalm 62
"Why can't I buy a monk robe in the Abbey gift shop?" I confess I asked this question to myself just before the ringing of the bell to signify we stand for the beginning of the evening Vesper service at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit. This is home to a Roman Catholic community of contemplative monks that belong to the Order of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance. This question came into my mind despite being on a retreat at this Cistercian Monastery for 48 hours to this point. This question was the very antithesis of what I had been learning on my retreat. Living some of the contemplative way on our retreat included 4am Vigils (with a 30 minute silent mediation in the dark!), 7am Lauds & Mass Service, 12:15pm Midday Prayer service, 5:20 Vespers or Evening Prayer, and 7:30 Compline or Night service. That is not to mention the Great Silence from 8pm to 8am and that all our meals were to be in silence. In addition to this, the purpose of my retreat was to learn more about Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk himself (the monastery he was apart of in Kentucky, helped found this one) through lectures on his book New Seeds of Contemplation.
A small bit of wisdom from this retreat noted how we often attempt to use God for our purpose or imagine Christ in our image. Yet here I was, 48 hours in my experience, and still like a pilgrim at Disney World, I was desiring to purchase or consume that which has taken monks at least two years just to begin and a life that will never be complete. The words of the lecturer I had for the week puts my crazy question in proper perspective: one doesn't become a saint overnight. In fact, after decades of living a consumerist, rat-race lifestyle, even a few days in a monastery and hours of contemplation wouldn't be enough to radically change me. However, I could tell the seeds of contemplation were beginning and felt like water to parched land.  
As Merton notes in the Preface of his book, the problem with the word contemplation is it "it sounds like 'something,'...a spiritual commodity that one can procure…[that if] possessed, liberates one from problems and from unhappiness." (xvi)
Rather than a possession or commodity or hobby, contemplation can provide a space for us to hear God and God to find us. "For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation." Psalm 62:1, 5
How does silence make you feel?
How do you make a place for God to find you?
How might intentional times of silence be rewarding even if you hear nothing?