Monday, September 12, 2016

Go Into The Stillness

Rowing a Boat by Emmanuel Zairis

"Be still, and know that I am God."

"Be still, and know that I am."

"Be still, and know."

"Be still."

"Be."

This is contemplation.

I have been practicing contemplative (or centering) prayer for almost a year now.  First I start by reading scripture (usually a Psalm) and meditating on it. Then I have a word (grace, mercy, compassion, holiness, awe) that helps me refocus when my thoughts begin to wander. As St. John of the Cross wrote, "Seek by reading and you will find by meditating. Knock by praying, and it will be opened to you in contemplation." Contemplative prayer is not an intellectual exercise. It is not an act of the mind, but of the heart for the heart is where it gets to.

It does not get easier. There are times when I go in to silence for thirty minutes and it feels as if no time at all has past. Then, there are yet other times, where it feels as if I am attempting to move a huge boulder. I push and I shove and I work against and exhaust myself.

There are those who would ask, "Why in silence? And for thirty minutes?"

Isaac the Syrian wrote, "The highest form of prayer is to stand silently in awe before God." He understood that to avidly seek God one had to do so in quiet and stillness. "We pray with words until the words are cut off," he said, "and are left in a state of wonder." Reaching the wonder first means walking through the wilderness of our pains. Stillness and silence dredges up all of that which we would prefer to ignore and we mostly do by our activity and our busyness and the noise and entertainments we fill our days with. But when we overcome the fear that we will face ourselves, only then will we come face to face with all of our unhealed hurts, unresolved resentments, our anger, judgments, disillusionment, and all of those things that have injured our egos. Yet you cannot heal what you will not recognize is really there.

During one of my recent times of contemplation, I found that there was a deep rooted anger within me that would not allow me to enter into the silence and stillness. Instead, the anger kept me agitated. No matter how much I tried to focus on God, this anger kept welling up within me. The longer I sat there in the silence, the more this anger gnawed away at me. The more time I sat there in silence, the closer I examined this anger and realized that the reason I could not focus on God was that I was angry at Him.

Then an image came to mind.  I was in a wooden boat in the middle of a body of water. Off in the distance was an island. I was trying to row out to the island. The harder I rowed, the further it seemed like I was getting from the island. Somehow, I knew this island was God. Why was He keeping Himself so far from me?

"The awful rowing toward God" as the poet Anne Sexton called it.

I was angry at this island God.

But then, in that silence, God spoke, gently to me.

"I am not the island," He said, "I am the water. And wherever I take you I am."

Upon hearing that, I stopped all of my rowing and put down my oars. At rest, I allowed the water to carry my boat along.

"For my yoke is easy and my burden is light," Jesus said and continues to repeat to me whenever I try to put the burden back on my own shoulders and try in my own effort.

Julian of Norwich wrote in Revelations of Divine Love that, ". . . the goodness of God is the highest object of prayer and it reaches down to our lowest need."

In those moments of silent contemplation, God did just that. He knew I had the anger there, but I wasn't so aware of it. Only by being still and being silent, could He, in his infinite and compassionate attention, show this to me. That hidden anger was keeping me from communion with Him.

If I had not allowed Him to show this to me, that anger would have manifested itself in being angry with those around me. Psychologists say that 90% of our desires are unconscious. Anytime we become angry, we are coming into contact with that unconscious and unmet desire. Maybe it's a desire to have authority over our children so that they would listen to us. Or maybe we become upset with our spouse or a friend over some slight or comment because of some deep-rooted insecurity. Fear is so often at the base of our reactions and is why there is so much anger in the culture and society around us.

But, after the wilderness, when we go into the silence and the stillness, we find a greater sense of peace, humility and charity that will then manifest itself in our daily lives.

"Truth sees God," Julian of Norwich wrote, "and wisdom contemplates God, and from these two comes a third, a holy and wonderful delight in God, who is love."

When we find ourselves resting in God, we no longer need to go about justifying or defending ourselves and getting upset with those who disagree with us. "Having come to deep interior silence," Thomas Keating said, "helps us to relate to others beyond superficial aspects of social status, race, nationality, religion and personal characteristics."

Why?

Scripture tells us that "Jesus often withdrew to lonely places to pray" (Luke 5;17).  Again and again and again, he sends his disciples away and goes off to a place that is quiet where he can be alone.
If he did this, why do we think we aren't supposed to?  This does not mean we go off to a desolate, lonely spot in the wilderness, but we do withdraw to somewhere that's quiet and we can have solitude and peace.

Like Christ, when we spend time with the Father, we can then be with others. We aren't arguing to be heard. We aren't pushing our opinions. We move past self. Too often we do not see others as they are but, instead, as we are. Contemplative prayer takes the focus off us and readjusts our inner selves to being in God, so that as we spend time with other people, we can truly hear what their needs are because we aren't centered on our own. Jesus understood that silence, stillness and solitude were necessary to be a part of community. You cannot have one without the other, but there must be a healthy balance. I am very good at solitude, but God is moving me out more into community.

In silence, we are surrendering ourselves, our whole beings, to Christ. Returning to Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich said, "Prayer is a new, gracious lasting will of the soul united and fast-bound to the will of God by the precious and mysterious working of the Holy Ghost." Only then will we stop rowing and allow ourselves to be guided by the living water.



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