Saturday, June 22, 2013

Contemplative prayer

I attended three evening speeches given by James Finley at the Oblate School of Theology during their Summer Institute this past week. The topic of the institute was the currently trending theme, Mysticism. Finley was a novitiate (I believe that is the right term) under the Trappist monk and prolific writer (and defender of the contemplative spiritual path), Thomas Merton -- Merton, the great -- in the early 1960s. Merton, at the end of his life, was exploring Buddhism and Eastern spirituality, and finding much common ground with a certain, mystical flavor of Christianity. (By the way, yes, even people going to these great spiritual workshops were watching the Spurs Tuesday as soon as the talk ended at 8:30!)

I was deeply touched by the experience of attending these sessions (with more than 400 others present each night), particularly night 2, which reached deeply into suffering (an apropos topic for me, always). But also, night 3, when Finley's final words addressed the ongoing suffering of the world around us, and that we are called to end it. A monumental task, yet what's that saying? All things are possible with God.

I felt like I made a new best friend in a sense, this James Finley, and through him, was re-introduced to my great friend Merton, and we will meet again in some mysterious way that I cannot explain. Have met, are meeting, will meet; it's an eternal get-together in the ever present Kingdom, that amazing and mysterious Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus constantly speaks of. "Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done," notice all present tense, happening even as I write this in the here and now.

A couple of weeks before these talks, a friend from my Companions in Christ group loaned me a book by Merton, "Contemplative Prayer." I love the synchronicity of it.

I am still plodding along with contemplative prayer. This is the stage I've reached: not sure which of the seven mansions of Theresa of Avila this would be, but I got to the stage where I could relax deeply enough to drowse off during the 15-20 minute session. That's great and doubtless a deep spiritual accomplishment, except that the point of contemplative prayer is NOT to be sleeping, but to be in a deep communion with God, which I couldn't necessarily attest to when my head was bobbing down and jerking back up in that state of pre-sleep. (My son Andrew asked if anyone else in my contemplative prayer group noticed I was falling asleep. I said, no! Everyone else has their eyes closed, too, or they should have their eyes closed; I personally have never peeked around to check. The only one we notice is Victor, down at the end of the table, who snores.)

So I have decided to keep my eyes open but cast downward and not particularly focused on anything, and see how that goes for a while. This is not in strictest conformity with the rules of Father Keating, but you know the trouble I have following all the rules about anything.

I cannot speak for how anyone else can deepen their relationship with God through contemplative prayer, but I can describe my own experiences and what has helped me. I do like to discuss the experience of this form of prayer, though it's rather flying in the face of the whole non-intellectual approach, the call to abandon mind, thoughts, analysis, etc. The minute you open your mouth to speak, you are once again squarely in your rational, thinking mind. True enough. But even the rational mind has some useful observations about the practice, blind as it may be to the actual great hookup with the Big Guy.

So, I speak. Making gentle and progressive changes seems to be more effective than trying to force anything with this prayer. Also, I am trying to become gradually more remote from my thought processes, so I can watch the mind at work without becoming that thought process. Quite a delicate dance it is, as I endlessly captivate myself with another "devout" insight, only to have to let it go and withdraw back to my silent communion with God. As Father Keating says, we are not to follow our thoughts, even our most splendid, holy and enlightened thoughts, during this period of time. That's what we do through most of our day, so it is what we need not do during contemplative prayer.

The core of mysticism, as I grasp it, is that God cannot be completely known through the intellect, great as it is for other things. In fact, it is the mind itself that prevents a full immersion in the divine spirit. The mind, and the ego, are terrified of being overcome. Where would the self be without them? Lost, in empty space and nothingness -- yet in that new beginning, a fertile ground for God's work.

I've been feeling the conviction that my loved ones, in particular Dad (the most recent to pass), are not "gone" in the way our body feels the loss. Yes, we can no longer perceive of them in any of the usual ways, cannot see them at work in the world anymore, cannot speak with them or give them a hug. (Losing these small habitual acts grieved me so much with my Mom's death.)

But there is some imprint, there is something, that I notice with a sense deeper than my mere body. It's a Dad-ness in certain moments, or knowing what Dad would say, or how he would feel about something, or being aware of the lightest touch of his presence. This could be a mental trick, much the way many people say that God is a mental trick! To ease the suffering, we delude ourselves. Perhaps. I don't think I could prove to you either way where God or my Dad are, or whether they are, anymore. But I know what I know, and thank God I know it, and I wish you could as well.

I don't think our loved ones (who have passed) want us to grieve so deeply, to give ourselves scars with the depths of our mourning. I think they send so much love to us, and they want to send comfort too, but it is hard to cross the divide between the living and the dead. Even the word "dead" sounds wrong to my ears, a human convention for something we don't understand and cannot describe. Dead is not the right description. As usual, this human word is a perversion of the underlying reality of the situation.  Instead, what we call death is a transition, from this realm, to another that I am convinced is more real in many ways.

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