For a long time, I’ve been aware that my habits with the internet and media are not always entirely healthy for me. For the last few years, when Lent comes around, what arises as a practice is almost always related to use of electronic media of varied sorts (the internet and social media, video games, etc.) And I have learned that regular breaks, sabbaths, as it were, are really important to my spiritual health, even though they can be uncomfortable sometimes. Now, every week, on Friday late afternoon, I turn off all my devices (because my kindle is most of my library, it gets a pass) for about 30 hours.
I just finished reading a very interesting work. It’s called the Philokalia, which is Greek for “Love of the good” (or the beautiful.) It is a compilation of writings of Eastern Orthodox monks and abbots, from the 4th and 5th century, written primarily for other monks about the monastic life. Many of the writings speak clearly about what the path to achieve stillness might involve. For example:
“Be like an astute business [person]: make stillness your criterion for testing the value of everything, and choose always what contributes to it.” (Evagrios the Solitary)
Many of these writers were not only monastics – they were ascetics, and advocated such things as fasts, vigils (not sleeping,) and sleeping on the floor and such. As an advocate of the middle way, I think that’s going too far, but I do think that we need to find those things in our life that get in the way. Like St. John Cassian said in the Philokalia:
“What was it, then, that made them stray from the straight path? In my opinion it was simply that they did not possess the grace of discrimination; for it is this virtue that teaches a [person] to walk along the royal road, swerving neither to the right through immoderate self-control, nor to the left through indifference and laxity.”
I am not a monk (and I could write a long essay about why that is) but a life of stillness, awareness, and openness to God in my every moment is the desire of my life. I don’t think its impossible to do for those of us that don’t get to just sit in our cells and pray all day, but like choosing a monastic life, it does require renunciation. It means we have to give up some things.
And what I give up may well be very different than what you need to give up. The most important question to ask is: “what keeps you from God?” What activity or habit do you use to escape from what you are feeling? What do you use to comfort yourself – not in an aware way, but in a way that just simply muffles the feelings under the soft blanket you’ve placed on them by doing a certain thing?
Those are the things to look at, to see what you could do to maybe give those a break for a while, and let yourself feel what’s happening, let yourself be still, and hear God’s still, small voice in your heart.
I was thinking about current events, and how it is so clear that some people have a hard time hearing other people’s fears and pain. It is easy to not hear the pain felt by those we consider “others.” But what if you are willing to cross that gap, and hear what other people have to say, but they can’t, or won’t even meet halfway?
This is when we need the practice of love. It’s what Jesus taught and many other traditions hold this to be important. The practice of love means that you show love for everyone, even for those who hate you. And usually, that means you get nothing in return. Sometimes all you get in return is more hatred.
The practice of love is not easy. I find myself often in dismay at the way some people think about people who are like me. And it is so easy to return the derision and hatred–that’s almost what feels appropriate. It certainly feels natural. But that’s not the Way. The Way is to love, no matter what. The way is to express love and compassion, to act out of love and compassion, no matter what we are facing in the moment. For me, the Way of love is more important that anything else. And the Way of love is the only thing that will change the world.
And just like when we sit in silent prayer or meditation, and our minds are running amok, and we have to keep coming back to our awareness or surrender, the practice of love means that we have to keep coming back, over and over again to the knowledge that Love is Divine, and being love is our path. It’s OK if we falter. That’s human. But just like in practice, have no self-judgement, allow mistakes, forgive ourselves (and others) and come back to love.
Shame is such a common feature of many of our emotional landscapes. It can lay hidden for a long time, and it can stop us in myriad ways from expressing our true natures. I imagine you heard this as a child: “You should be ashamed of yourself!” Many of us grow up learning to be ashamed, and we keep that shame with us even when we’ve know as adults that the childhood shaming wasn’t about us – children truly have nothing to be ashamed about. Many of us grew up learning to be ashamed of our bodies–whether it was that they were too big, or too small, or just perceived as somehow not right. We learned to be ashamed when we made mistakes. Maybe we’re ashamed of our financial situation, what we do for a living, who we love, or failed relationships. We can hold on to shame for a long time.
But shame has no usefulness. It does us no good to live in that place of shame – it only keeps us back, hinders us from growing, and keeps us from joy. This is not about not acknowledging when we’ve made mistakes, whether they be small or big, or hurt only ourselves, or others. Taking responsibility for what we have done is not at all the same as being ashamed.
Like many difficult emotions, shame can be hard to accept. But accept it we must, just like any other difficult emotion. It is only by accepting it that we can release it, and let it stop hindering us.
There is a practice I’ve recently learned that can be helpful with shame, as well as other difficult feelings. It’s called the “Welcoming Prayer.” It is a practice that is related to Centering Prayer, and comes from Contemplative Outreach. The practice is pretty simple, and quite powerful.
Welcoming prayer is: “a method of consenting to God’s presence and action in our physical and emotional reactions to events and situations in daily life.” It’s purpose is to “deepen our relationship with God through consenting in ordinary activities. The Welcoming Prayer helps to … heal the wounds of a lifetime by addressing them where they are stored — in the body.”
It is related in nature to Metta and Karuna, the Buddhist lovingkindness/compassion meditations. It is also similar to awareness practices in that it cultivates our willingness to be present to whatever is, in the moment. It does have a uniquely Christian origin, however. It’s based on the writings of Jean-Pierre de Caussade, who wrote “Abandonment to Divine Providence.” (A book that has been on my reading list for a while now.)
The practice is as follows (here using shame as an example, but it can be used for anger, sadness, pain, etc.)
When shame comes up, feel the feeling in your body. Notice, and focus on that feeling.
Welcome the presence of the Spirit, the Divine indwelling in that feeling, say “Welcome shame.”
Then, let go of the shame, saying: “I let go of the desire to change this feeling/sensation. I let go of the desire for security, affection, control.”
It might be fine for you to do this only once. Or you might want to repeat any of that multiple times. You can do it briefly whenever the feeling comes up. It’s a powerful practice, one I am just getting to know. It’s a combination of being present with what is, and allowing God to help us let go of those things that are hindering us.
Here is a recent teaching I recorded on Welcoming Prayer:
One evening, at a party just a week or so before I was to leave the town I had lived in for 16 years, and move across the country to go to seminary, an acquaintance of mine asked me why I was going. I said that I felt called to go. Later in the evening, he said, “You feel called? By whom? Ma Bell?” I laughed, but not so heartily. Obviously, he couldn’t even relate to what a calling meant. A lot of people can’t, until they can.
As I have said before, I’m a panentheist. I don’t believe in a micro-managing God. I don’t think that God is “up there” looking at me directly, and sending me messages about what to do. That said, there are things I have felt called to do in my life. I have felt very clearly the pull of things that seemed unavoidable. Decisions that had to be made in the way they were made. Things I just had to do. I felt like I had no choice.
But that isn’t really true. I have always had the freedom to choose differently. But once I jumped into the stream, as it were, once I decided to align myself with the great flow of Spirit that can lead us all to our best nature, and follow the teachings of the man from Nazareth, I choose to follow that stream. I’m not getting out. And so the stream takes me where it will take me. I don’t always know where I will end up.
My favorite quote about God’s will is from Thomas Merton:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
From my perspective, God’s will is simply the pull of that stream that leads us where we can best fulfill the two greatest commandments: “Love God with all your heart, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” There are so many things that within those commandments. Of course, at its heart, it’s about love and compassion, and our ability to express that freely, not only to God, but to our neighbor, too. This is not only everyone we meet, but in these days of instantaneous communication with the world – literally every single person is our neighbor. And we are called to love each one as we love ourselves. Sometimes I can’t even get my mind around how hard this is. And how hard it is to fulfill in this time of alienation and separation.
Jesus didn’t choose the Samaritan for the parable randomly, of course. He chose someone of a group of people who were outcasts of the time. Considered unclean and unworthy. It is a commandment that we love those even we would consider unclean and unworthy as we would love ourselves.
The only way I know how to get to that place of love and compassion is by actively cultivating it. That cultivation allows us to see our fears, and reactions, and the things that get in the way of that love. Some would argue that idea is “corrupted” by eastern philosophical notions of meditative practice. But it’s not, not by a longshot. Way before the Buddha’s teaching made it to the west, mystics like Theresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and the author of the Cloud of Unknowing, as well as many Eastern Orthodox monks from a thousand years ago, have talked about the active cultivation of inner quiet – the quiet that allows us to listen to the still, small voice of God–that ever flowing stream.
The world is replete with people and groups that promise big. Whether it be promises of enlightenment, or of abundance if you just “believe” or pray for it, or promises that if you just think positively, good will come to you. If you’d just follow these steps, or say these affirmations, or pray these prayers, you will be enlightened, or rich, or have everything you want. There are, of course, nuggets of truth in all of these, but they don’t paint the full picture, nor can they deliver what they promise.
One of the things that I find most disturbing about these is that they make people feel as if it is their fault if their life is not going according to plan. These kinds of ideas, whether it be prosperity gospel, or new age enlightenment thinking, completely ignores the reality of people’s lives, and the hurdles they face through the situations they have been dealt with at birth. We each have a path to trod, some are much steeper than others, through no fault of their own.
Julian of Norwich, a 15th century mystic once said, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” The context is really important. She was thinking of evil and suffering, and asking God about it, and that was God’s answer. All will be well. It’s mysterious, isn’t it? We can’t always know what “all being well” might mean. I’m sure you remember a situation in which you thought things would turn out badly, only to find things turning out quite alright, even unexpectedly. And sometimes, that quite alright was just a willingness to really be with what is, and perhaps surrender.
No matter what the hand we are dealt with, we can find true joy in life. But it takes effort, and not everyone will get there in exactly the same way, because not everyone is the same. But there are some tried and true methodologies, paths laid down for us by the mystics of all time.
Theresa of Avila talks of the process of going deeper and deeper inside ourselves, to finally find God there, waiting. And we can only do that by cultivating quiet and compassion for ourselves and others. It’s hard work, it takes time, and it is magic only in the sense that the further we go, the more in touch with ourselves and the Holy Spirit we become.