We have just celebrated the great feast of Thanksgiving and I have heard so many expressions of gratitude this week for family, for friends, for living here in Canada, for the freedoms we enjoy and so much more. Voicing our gratitude is positive and a good thing. And as people of faith, we acknowledge the source of our gratitude, blessings and insights. The readings for this contemplative Sunday point towards this wisdom - that everything flows from God and is the grace of God. The contemplative path is most certainly an inner journey of prayer and reflection that leads to a greater awareness of God’s love and grace.
I begin with words from Amos “Seek the Lord and live...Seek good and not evil that you may live.” The key word here is “Seek.” Are we seeking God each and every day? The first step in contemplative prayer is our intention to show up to be present with God in the quiet. We pause. We sit in the stillness and open our hearts, with no petitions or words or demands of God. This is our intention to seek God.
American contemplative Joyce Rupp writes in her book “Prayer,” about intention. She says, “Intention means that right here, right now, before beginning to pray, we deliberately set as our purpose that of being in relationship with God. Intention implies a conscious choice of remembering this beloved Presence.” Our guest preacher from VST last year called this “mystical attentiveness.”
In the reading from Psalm 90, the Psalmist expresses that time is of the essence, “So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.” This wisdom is not knowledge or facts, but the deep wisdom of the Presence that comes through a daily contemplative prayer practice and our experiences in life that bring insight. This is called the Wisdom Way. A regular daily practice opens our hearts and brings about greater awareness through discernment, of God’s holy presence. The wisdom we receive on this path are the seeds for our spiritual transformation, one step at a time. The contemplative journey brings forth awareness, first and foremost. Psalm 90 says, ...Satisfy us by your loving- kindness in the morning so shall we rejoice and be glad all the days of our life...” This is gratitude that flows from the wisdom journey. The Psalm concludes with, “May the graciousness of the Lord our God be upon us.” This is the flow of grace that we experience when we apply our hearts to wisdom.
The reading from Hebrews underscores this process of discernment and the challenges we may face. The reading begins with strongly worded metaphors, “The Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” While I like to emphasize to those on the
contemplative journey in our Monday night Sounds of Silence group that we embrace gentleness, self-respect and non-judgment, the journey of spiritual awareness is a living and active process of peeling away the layers that hold us back spiritually and it is not always an easy process. Sometimes the journey inside ourselves is deep and challenging. It may bring forth awareness of emotional scars that we have buried, societal programming or self-centredness. and we must always remember to be gentle. The contemplative path is a process of discernment in the Spirit that reaches deep inside and teases out long-buried wounds that bubble up for gentle healing. It is a pilgrimage and the journey in which the Christian mystics over the ages have engaged. We often like to point to external reasons to explain the way we are or the choices we make. In so doing, we avoid looking inside ourselves at the intention of our heart.
The reading goes on to say that Jesus sympathizes with our weaknesses so “let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace.” We show up for God just as we are, where we are at, with our complex relationships, and as one of my friends says, with all our “crazy mashed up fam jam.” And it is in the quiet, in those contemplative moments, day by day, that we are able to calm the noise and open ourselves to receive mercy, wisdom and grace.
Father Thomas Keating is a wonderful Christian contemplative of our time. He is a Cistercian monk and instrumental in the Centering Prayer movement. In his book The Human Condition: Contemplation and Transformation, he tells a Sufi tale from the mystical arm of Islam that reveals core truths for a contemplative journey.
A Sufi master had lost the key to his house and was looking for it in the grass outside. He got down on his hands and knees and started running his fingers through every blade of grass. Along came eight or ten of his disciples. They said, “Master, what is wrong?”
He said, “I have lost the key to my house.”
They said, “Can we help you find it?”
He said, “I’d be delighted.”
So they all got down on their hands and knees and started running their fingers through the grass.
As the sun grew hotter, one of the more intelligent disciples said, “Master, have you any idea where you might have lost the key?”
The Master replied, “Of course. I lost it in the house.”
To which they all exclaimed, “Then why are we looking for it out here?”
He said, “Isn’t it obvious? There is more light here.”
What does this mean? Father Keating says, “We have all lost the key to our house, We don’t live there anymore. We don’t experience the divine indwelling...The house in the Sufi tale represents happiness, and happiness is intimacy with God, the experience of God’s loving presence...The key is not in the grass; it was not lost outside ourselves. It was lost inside ourselves. This is where we need to look for it...everybody is looking for the key in the wrong place: where there is more light, pleasure, security, power, acceptance by others.”
And this is where we get to Mark’s Gospel reading for today. I’ll be honest - this reading makes me squirm. Indeed, I have many possessions and most of us here do. And yet I think that Jesus is making the same point as the Sufi tale. He is pointing to the interior world of the young man who came and knelt before him. The man has followed all the commandments and yet he was not willing to give up his possessions. Jesus saw in this man his steadfast attachment to possessions, like an addiction. He couldn’t envision a life without them. He could not let go. He was defined by his possessions and his possessions had him. He reacted strongly to what Jesus said and turned away. In fact, like the Sufi tale, he was looking for the key in the wrong place. So let us reflect on this. What are our attachments that we cling to that are turning us away from God? What are our attachments that turn us into the camels trying to go through the eye of a needle? What is it that we are afraid to let go of? When do we not consent to God’s presence in our life and turn our back like the young man?
There is a wonderful contemplative prayer called The Welcoming Prayer by Mary Mrozovski, one of the founders of Contemplative Outreach in the US. I would like to lead you in The Welcoming Prayer, opening and closing with a chime. This prayer can be used at any time in your day. It is a method of consenting to God’s presence and action in our physical and emotional reactions to events or situations in our daily life. It can be used in a few seconds when we feel negative emotions like anger, envy, resentment or judgment arising in us. As Father Keating says, “It deliberately dismantles the emotional programs of the false self.” There are three parts to the Welcoming Prayer- Focus, Welcome and Letting Go. I invite you to put your feet flat on the floor, hands resting on your legs, close your eyes and breath deeply with your intention to be present. (chime)
Focus, feel and sink into what you are experiencing this moment in your body about attachments we have. (pause)
Welcome the energies rising. Welcome them gently and respectfully without clinging, resistance or negative commentary. Gently welcome what you are experiencing in this moment as an opportunity to consent to the Divine Indwelling, the Indwelling Holy Spirit. Offer your intention to consent to the Spirit’s presence and action within you. (pause)
Let go of the desire for control or success (pause)
Let go of the desire for affection or esteem (pause)
Let go of the desire for security and survival (pause)
Let go of the desire to change a situation or event (pause)
Now rest. Rest and release those attachments to God. (pause) (chime)
The good news is that Jesus says to the disciples, “for God all things are possible.” In all our lives, there have been moments of darkness and despair, and moments of enlightenment and awareness on our spiritual journey. This is why we are here today as we have a spiritual hunger. The moments of awareness along the way are the seeds of spiritual growth. “For God, all things are possible.”
Have you ever felt that you have an observer on your shoulder? It is as if a mirror has been held up so that we see with a new lens of awareness. So when we sit in the contemplative quiet, and open our hearts, with God’s help and grace, we welcome that which is troubling or blocking us, seek God’s wisdom, and seek the awareness that is ours and come home. Setting an intention for contemplative prayer is to journey back into the house to find the key. It is here that we express our thanks to the Holy One for the gift of wisdom and love that we take with us, and shapes our movements and actions in the world.
I invite you to pause and bring spaciousness into your life with a contemplative prayer practice. “Practice the pause, When in doubt, pause. When angry, pause. When tired, pause. When stressed, pause. And when you pause, pray.” (Mother’s Union, Families First, Sept/Oct 2018)
Let us pray:
In your Presence
Draw near to us
As we draw near to you Amen
By Alison Brookfield