Search for Meditative Prayer

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My Search for Meditative Prayer – June, 2011

In the late 90’s I searched for a way to feel the presence of God. My traditional faith was about words and works, sacraments and sermons. I prayed as though God were absent from all creation. Although good in themselves, these faith characteristics were not feeding me in my search for the God that I sensed was close and waiting to be discovered. My spiritual director, a Benedictine sister, introduced me to contemplative prayer practices as a way to go deeper and discover the God waiting to be found. I was introduced to Centering Prayer, a meditative practice that uses a sacred word to stay focused on the intention of the meditation. This intention is simply to drop all distractions during meditation so you can give yourself totally to the presence of God; allowing God to transform you and heal the wounds of your lifetime. The main premise of this prayer is that the Divine lives within you and desires to transform you so that union will occur between you and God. This prayer should be practiced twice a day for 20 minutes. This prayer became my primary prayer practice for over 10 years and the transformative fruits were noticed not only by me but by my friends and loved ones. My prayer word was “Abba Father” during this period. During this phase of prayer, I saw God as a loving Father, Daddy.

In about 2005 I was introduced to another contemplative practice called Christian Meditation. The intentions of this prayer are identical to those of Centering Prayer – to pray in silence, be still and wait for God’s gift of transformative contemplation. However, the practice differs slightly. Instead of using a prayer word that you use when thoughts or distractions arise when meditating, one uses a mantra that is to be silently repeated during the meditation period. Christian Meditation seemed to have more rhythm as the sacred word becomes harmonic with the breathing of a body sitting in silence. It was suggested that one use a mantra like “Maranatha” which means ‘Come Lord Jesus’. This prayer practice also should be done twice a day. This practice made me realize the need for integration between my intentions, my mantra, my breathing and my body rhythms.

I next investigated a practice called Mindfulness Meditation. The purpose of this meditation is to achieve a mind that is stable and calm. Through this practice I began to realize that this calmness or harmony is a natural condition of the mind. Through mindfulness meditation we are just developing and strengthening our mind’s condition, and eventually we are able to remain peacefully in our mind without struggling. Usually instead of a prayer word or mantra, the meditator simply focuses on the breath, flowing in and out during the meditation period. As you start the practice, you have a sense of your body and a sense of where you are, and then you begin to notice your breath. The breath is going in and out, in and out. With each breath you become relaxed. Mindfulness Meditation seems to be more about attention than intention. Unlike the previous meditations discussed, this practice is about training the mind instead of any spiritual objectives like opening yourself to the presence of God. The traits of compassion and love are the fruits of this practice.

Over the years my meditation practice has evolved while my primary intentions remain the same – to be open to God’s gift of contemplation. Now I rarely use my prayer word once I sit for meditation. My intention to be silent and totally present to God seems to take over. My mental operating system seems to be united with my breathing body and distractions seem to melt away. I still am looking for a way to unite my focus, my breath and my intentions in a way that recognizes that that the Creator of the Universe and the God that dwells within me is continually loving and recreating me. I recently heard Richard Rohr speak about the name of God as being sacred and unspoken by the ancient Hebrews. The name YAHWEH was never spoken and appeared without consonants in ancient times – YHWH. This name was ‘breathed’ as such with a whisper: breath in – ya, breath out – way. Furthermore, early Christians believed that God’s very breath was the source of all human life. Breath had become a metaphor for this intimacy between the Divine and humanity. The use of breath in a meditative prayer as a way to experience this intimacy will enhance one’s realization that God is as close to us as our very breath. The use of a prayer word like ‘YHWH’ which can only be breathed and not spoken will deepen our contemplative prayer practice further.

In summary, the intention of one’s contemplative prayer practice is most important! However, the seeker’s practice is helpful in the realization that God is not separate but available to us as the Indwelling Spirit. A meditation practice that unites the use of a most sacred prayer word like ‘YHWH’ with our gift of breath that incorporates intention, silence and stillness will make a contribution of great value to finding the Divine that dwells deep within our core – a place where we are mysteriously one with the God of all creation. Somehow I think that one’s search for the perfect prayer practice never ends. My new focus on integrating breath the sacred name of God with give my Centering Prayer practice new life! My prayer intention remains clear as I seek more clarity about how my God lives within, loves and transforms me. My practices will evolve and grow as I gently dismantle my old beliefs and dissolutions that God was separate from creation. Intellectually I know that my practices are about me, not God. Over time all these practices fade away as we experience the peace of total surrender. The Holy One continually reads the intentions of the heart and as Thomas Merton says “But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.” My new prayer word represents my evolving feelings about God – The Divine Breath that breathes life, love, compassion and the seeds of transformation within me at all times.

Wisdom School with Cynthia Bourgeault

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The prophet Isaiah announces, “Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near.”

Cynthia Bourgeault’s Wisdom School was held in the suburbs of Charles Town, WV, at the Claymont Society in November, 2010. There were 57 seekers in attendance on different paths but drawn together in their common search to go deeper with Cynthia as their spiritual leader. Each day had a special rhythm in the Benedictine tradition: prayer, meditation, chanting, work, rest and learning. Periods of silence were woven into the pattern of the day.

Cynthia’s teachings were centered on how to go deeper (Wisdom) to know God and be transformed. Some of the topics that resonated with me included:

– Gurdjieff’s 3 centered presence which allows you to journey deeper: mind, body and heart presence.
– The wisdom journey incorporating the Rule of Benedict.
– The Gospel of Thomas: newly discovered truths about our early Christian contemplative heritage.
– Centering and Welcoming Prayer: Tools for transformation.
– The heart as an organ of spiritual perception.
– Metaphysical realms: “we are all part of the heart of God expressing itself…Each one of us are part of an invisible matrix of the God web.”
– Books used: The Wisdom Way of Knowing: Reclaiming an Ancient Tradition to Awaken the Heart and The Luminous Gospels.

So what did I learn at Wisdom School? I have always sensed that Jesus came as a teacher of wisdom and this school was a confirmation that there is still much to learn about the real mission of Christ. In the Gospel of Thomas Jesus provides new insights into the realm of Wisdom that can be understood not only with the mind, but with the heart. These sayings, called Logia, invite us to learn from the inside out, using our three centered presence as a tool for understanding. I also validated that my practice of Centering and Welcoming Prayer are tools for spiritual transformation embraced by the Wisdom tradition.

I understand a little better God’s purpose in creation. According to an ancient Islamic saying, “I was a hidden treasure and longed to be known and so I created the world.” The Gospel of Thomas (Logia 5) states: “Yeshua says…Come to know the One in the presence before you, and everything hidden will be revealed…” God desires to be in love union with his creation and be found. The Wisdom journey is an expansive, deep, mystical and heart centered experience that allows the traveler to know that “we are an instant of God loving to be known.” The Wisdom path incorporates new teachings with contemplative practices to understand the One present within you at all times. The heart, an organ of spiritual perception, helps us to incorporate stillness and presence into our lives and be transformed. I am grateful that I have found this new path – to seek and find the hidden treasure.

A Gift for the Giver

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Lynne Larson

Recently at a centering prayer meeting, the lectio divina, or sacred reading, before our twenty minutes of silence was from James, 1:17, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”  Centering groups choose their own meeting format and our time of silence is followed by another 30 minutes of quiet that may also include listening to chants or sharing with the others a word or image that has come to us during the reading.  What surprised me while listening to the words of James was that the word “food” echoed in my mind during the reading—slowly, oozing out, fooood for the soul, fooood for the spirit.  Food. Not a very exalted thought.

Later as I thought about this mundane connection, I was reminded that James is revealing the foundation of what God wants us to know about himself and his generosity.  He is the exclusive source of all that is good.  And all that is good, any good that exists, is gift.  Not rewards or divine tidbits, but all the courses and we have only to show up at his table.  Gift.

Driving in my car the next day I was listening to some cassette tapes lent to me by a friend (of whom I will speak more of later), of Fr. Dennis O’Donnell’s retreat to a group of men.  O’Donnell, who is from the Malvern Retreat House in Pennsylvania and formerly served as their rector and spiritual director, now coordinates the Integrated Health Services for the Holy Redeemer Health System.   He also gives numerous retreats, co-founded an orphanage in Honduras and has more credentials that would impress an agnostic.  I’d never heard of him.

A business errand required some miles on the road, an ideal opportunity to listen to the tapes.  O’Donnell artfully sprinkles humor and personal experience into his meaningful insight of Jesus’ message.  And in addressing various types of prayer, he includes contemplative prayer as an experience where we give our time, being there for God alone, being there “for the Giver not the gift.”  He shares a story of sitting on the front porch with his dad, no talking, just being there together, having a sit unencumbered by words.  And so it is during centering prayer, when our intention is to have another sit.  We are present—we show up, distractions and all, for the Giver—and further, whatever gift he might so generously await to give us is irrelevant and would only be an interruption in this private meeting between the created and the Uncreated, as Julian of Norwich would call him.

The GiftDelighting in that wonderful phrase, “for the Giver not the gift,” it occurred to me that the previous day I had been relishing James’ wisdom about “every good and perfect gift.”  Was I listening to a holy paradox or going far afield from either message?  Or maybe this was one of those “and” rather than “either/or” answers.  If God is the unchangeable and inexhaustibly generous giver, then it is his gift that enables us to return to him without needing any other thing to wedge itself into our meeting.  During this time of companionship, we are present not for a gift but for him, the Giver—which at the same time is a gift to both of us.  Both of these, the receiving and the giving, are at the root of the relationship between God and us..  I can almost feel old words creeping in about a deity who “asks so little and gives so much.”  When did I absorb that notion so unlike my view today that it is not so little that he asks?  He is asking us for everything, for our total consent.  The deeper gift is that he will give us the means to do that, whether we are seasoned practitioners or newbies at the practice of the silent sit.  We are nurtured and fed.  It is the spiritual food as gift.

How different is this generous giver from the world of my childhood god, a deified accountant who kept score on good deeds and bad.  This giver is light years away from the cosmic Santa Claus ruling the domains of heaven and hell.  (I fault none of my early teachers–they taught what they understood and for all we know, might have been more enlightened than their own teachers.)  However, I also believe we come into this life to grow in faith and to let go of whatever hindrance that would keep us from the God “who is closer to us than we are to ourselves” as St. Augustine reminds us.  And for me, unlearning, the shedding of old perceptions, have been as important as hearing the good news, and at times more difficult.  We can be grateful for wise teachers and fellow practitioners who brighten our path of understanding and foster our spiritual maturity.

In the meantime I can be grateful for good friends who lend books and pass on tapes like Fr. O’Donnell’s.  I hope to discover who that friend is. I found the tape in my kitchen months ago and have yet to identify the giver of the gift.  Until that time when the mystery is solved, I offer a prayer of thanks.  Deo gratias.

The Contemplative Journey – Finding God Within

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For almost twenty years I have been traveling deeper in search for the God that is closer to me than my every breath. I am attracted to many aspects of this journey and will write a series of articles about what I have discovered. The focus of these articles will be about the idea that God dwells within all and is there for our taking. God is within, not out there somewhere.

This journey has some characteristics that I am attracted to:

– The three S’s: Silence, Solitude and Simplicity
– Becoming aware of an Inner Presence
– Being spiritually energized by a balance of meditation, exercise and diet
– Meditative discernment
– Contemplative and silent retreats
– This spiritual path is inclusive of all faith traditions
– Prayer methods including meditation, chanting, labyrinth etc…
– Reading the contemplative mystics
– Going deeper to be with the God who is already there

TransformationI am personally drawn to this path as a way to sense the closeness of an inner presence which my tradition calls The Divine Indwelling. I plan to investigate various aspects of this holy concept. Where is this Presence specifically located (heart, brain, DNA, soul…)? How would your life change if you realized that God dwells within you and you are “one” with the creator of all? How do the many faith traditions recognize and name this Presence? Why is this kept a secret in many traditions? Why did so many of the great historical mystics have a clear understanding of the Divine Indwelling? I hope to investigate the holy literature (Bible, Torah, Koran, etc…) to locate truth about God’s home in the creation. And finally I invite readers of the coming articles to submit your thoughts and understanding on this concept.

Jan Phillips says it best:

“Strange as it sounds, there is only one of us, and each of us is a cell in that Great Holy One. Each of us is a carrier of sacred wisdom, a prophet announcing the world to come, a mystic bewildered by the God in our bed. We are part of an ongoing new creation that is unfolding through and in and with our bodies. Through our senses, we experience the miracle of the Divine Indwelling every day, in our own beings, and in everything that exists around us. The world is our altar, our communion table, our laboratory, our stage.

And these bodies of ours, these are our souls’ sacred vessels, the instruments through which the Great Beloved sings, laughs, labors, and loves. We are the eyes through which God sees, the Mind through which God ponders, the hands through which God touches. As we dwell as cells in the body of God, God dwells in us as our vital force, pushing outward, awaiting release, prompting communion, awareness, and joy. To love ourselves is an act of faith, a sacrament of acknowledgement, a gesture of solidarity with the Holy One within.”

Jan Phillips, http://www.janphillips.com/home.htm

Creative Meditation – Can trees speak?

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The contemplative journey includes hours of meditation to find one’s self and one’s God – and to discover where they meet. Meditation practices can involve focusing on one’s breath, using a mantra or prayer word, focusing on sacred words and focusing on God’s creation. My personal practices have revolved around using a sacred word to keep me silent and still while I recognize that I am in the presence of the Divine, who is everywhere but also dwells within.

I have recently experimented in my contemplative prayer practices by focusing on parts of God’s creation. I have always been attracted to trees and how holy and essential they are in man’s existence. Scripture speaks of the tree of life, the fig tree, the broom tree and good trees bearing good fruit. So I started my meditation on trees, sitting silently in awe of these wonderful creations.

Tree with leafTo my surprise I discovered that while meditating on trees, I realized that I was focusing on the space that holds or moves the trees. I was meditating on what could not be seen by the naked eye; breezes, the wind, stillness and no movement. I started to notice what I couldn’t see! The space that envelops the trees seemed to take form and have substance. The CO2 that the tree produces combines with the nitrogen and oxygen to form an invisible mold that supports the tree in its existence. I realized that the atmosphere was a vibrant sea of atoms and molecules that were providing energy to all of creation. It could not be seen with the naked eye, but you could see the impact of this composition of energy. This is the same way that I feel about the God that I can not see using my eyes.

The very air that I breathe unconsciously every day has become the mechanism for me to dream about the awe and daily creations of my unseen God. While meditating, I used my journal to note the thoughts that sprung forward about this invisible soup of energy and love. Our atmosphere is much more that the naked eye can perceive. Our atmosphere

  • Appears like the ocean with no water; full of life and energy
  • Is a cradle of energy given for man’s uses
  • Is a hidden highway for prayers to travel
  • Permits remote healing
  • Is a paper thin doorway to the spiritual realms
  • Allows international communication (Radio, TV, Telephone, Location…)
  • Exerts the power of Neptune and Katrina
  • Facilitates personal healing through the deep breathing of air
  • Is a Divine Web of spiritual communication

Our atmosphere is invisible, holy, life giving, and a gift from the Divine. We can not see air but we can see its footprints. Just like we can not see God, but we can see the footprints of God every day of our life. Just look! Just meditate!

  1. Find a tree that attracts you and sit quietly in front of it
  2. Take some deep breaths of the very air that you want to focus on
  3. Meditate on the air that envelopes the leaves
  4. Focus on how the invisible holds the visible
  5. Reflect, ponder on this interaction
  6. God is everywhere (“Spirit of God was hovering”) beyond your visual comprehension
  7. Let the Indwelling God come fuse with the Omnipresent God
  8. Rest in the knowledge that you are held in love by what you can not see

The contemplative path is one that invites you to use your creative powers to see with your heart what you can not see with your eyes in the material world. Allow the Divine to speak to you in a period of reflection and ponder how God is speaking to us through all creation. The space between the leaves is simply a metaphor for a God’s vibrant web of energy providing us love, knowledge and sustenance. What will we discover next? As the ancient monks said “God is closer to us than our very breath.” In closing, a poem of affirmation by Denise Levertov about God’s deep embrace:

“The Avowal” by Denise Levertov

“As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and waters bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so would I learn to attain
freefall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace”

The Path – Going Deeper at The Well

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The contemplative journey involves silence, solitude and simplicity. Much of the path is traveled alone but attendance at a retreat with like minded people and an energizing retreat leader can help the spiritual seeker go deeper and consent to Divine Presence that is available 24/7. Recently I attended a weekend retreat entitled “Letting Go – Centering Prayer Retreat” led by Fr. Bill Sheehan, OMI. The retreat was held at The Well Retreat Center in southern Virginia and sponsored by Lynne Larson of Retreats. Her website is www.thejoyofdreaming.com.

Centering Prayer Retreat

Letting Go Retreat at The Well

Father Bill Sheehan, OMI, leads retreats nationally on various topics concerning the contemplative prayer movement. He has been deeply committed to Contemplative Outreach since it was founded in 1983. The “Letting Go” retreat focused on how centering prayer plays an important role in the contemplative journey to assist the seeker in consenting to God’s eternal invitation to love and be loved. Father Bill uses scripture, theology, human psychology and pertinent books to explore the power of letting go and living in the present moment. Two books that I found particularly interesting were Into the Silent Land by Martin Laird, O.S.A. and Wisdom Jesus by Cynthia Bourgeault.

My personal journey has included the practice of Centering Prayer and Christian Meditation for more than 10 years. These practices help the seeker to simply let go of all earthly distractions and consent the Presence of the Divine that dwells within. These are transformational meditations where the seeker yields totally to the will of God. The intention of the meditation makes them prayer.

Father Bill emphasized that Christ was a great wisdom teacher of his time and was on his own path of surrender. The mission of Jesus was all about self emptying (Kenosis) and surrendering to the will of the Father – from the boy Jesus temple experience to the final surrender on the cross. Father Bill emphasized that a prayer method like centering prayer is in sync with the prayer Christ used to be one with the Father. The prayer is a non-conceptual and apophatic form of prayer used to quieten the egoic mind so that the person praying can be totally receptive to the love of God.

Father Bill used Mathew 6:6, a wisdom saying that Jesus used on the Sermon on the Mount, to metaphorically describe what happens to our soul in the inner room that Jesus speaks about in this verse. As we enter the room and close the door (or enter our heart consciousness and use our prayer word to prevent distractions from entering), we are allowing God to do what God does – love unconditionally. Over time our capacity to trust God grows and the hardness of the false-self system (ego based mind) begins to soften up. We become aware of God’s alluring love and aware of our longing to be oned (as Julian of Norwich describes union with God) with the Divine with increasing magnitude. At some point in the process we become aware that our own divine potential is activated and we are children of God. We go deeper and deeper.

Centering prayer simply places us in a posture of receiving all the gifts that our loving Creator has in store for us. We surrender, let go and consent both in the inner room and in the present moment. Jesus continually showed us how to do this while he traveled on his own contemplative path. The retreat at The Well reminds us that contemplative prayer practices are available to keep us rooted in the present moment where we are fully alive and available to the Divine presence that loves us 24/7.

2013 The Contemplative Path. Laptop computer.