There’s an old story of a poor man who has a recurring dream of a treasure buried beneath a bridge in a distant city. He travels to the city, digs beneath the bridge and finds nothing. But an old man passing by says he too had a dream – of a treasure buried beneath a poor man’s bed in a distant village. By his description the man recognizes his own house and his own bed.
He returns home, digs beneath his bed, and finds the treasure.
I have a violence in me. It’s my vice. After some years of gracious self-observation – one of the methods we advocate on the contemplative path – I’ve noticed this usually emerges when there’s a third stressor.
So if something frustrates me, I can see it, accept it, and move on after a while. A second layer of stress means I have to intentionally stop and breathe. A third stressor layered on top? Then I just want to take a chain saw to a piece of furniture – any piece of furniture will do. If we factor in caffeine, these three stressors can even be fairly trivial, like dropped keys or misplaced sunglasses.
Contemplatives say we rest in the silent presence of God.
This is a little different, though, than what we usually mean by silence, which is just the absence of noise.
A friend asked recently if I got in fights with family about politics. Disagreements? Yes. Inner turmoil? Yes. Fights? No. But, oooooh, can it gall.
Given these times of extremely divisive political action and rhetoric, and the general breakdown in civil discourse, so often, where this hits the hardest is within. Even if we aren’t involved in shouting matches violence plays out in our inner field of vision, in inner tension, inner arguments, disbelief at someone else’s anger, hatred, xenophobia, support for policies that seem extremely damaging to the world. But of course, when the anger or resentment or resistance builds up internally, who is that harming, exactly?
When I was a kid I loved going to the movies. Now that I have a son I’m actually surprised at the amount of movies I had seen by the time I was five. Star Wars. Karate Kid. Never Ending Story. Breakin’(!). The Black Cauldron (don’t get me started).
There’s something magic about the childlike wonder sitting in front of the big screen with family and friends immersed in a different world.
The mystic Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee writes that we go through different stages in the contemplative life, through times of expansion and contraction. There are times when we experience God’s feminine side, of grace, forgiveness, and mercy, and there are times we experience his masculine side, his power and magnificence, and stand in awe.
Part of our task on this journey is to integrate these two aspects of our spirituality into a unified whole. Part of that is learning to become alert and responsive to the moment we find ourselves in.
There are moments when practicing Centering Prayer – maybe ten minutes in, maybe fifteen, maybe right when the bell rings to signal that time’s up – when we have a genuine moment of release.
Thoughts have been coming and going, usually multiple layers, multiple storylines. But this time when we introduce the sacred word, we can see the thoughts drift, like a cloud drifting away, or like zooming out from a whole planet of thoughts.
One of the surprising aspects of a contemplative life is the nature and impact of silence. And the trick is of course as soon as you start talking about it, you’re breaking the silence. It’s first and foremost experiential. That’s why Thomas Keating quotes Rumi: “Silence is God’s first language. Everything else is a poor translation.”
When mystics and contemplatives speak of the abiding mystery or the realization of oneness, these are usually somehow inextricably linked to a deep interior silence.
When I was in college I played Santa every year. My family lived overseas and sent me the Christmas list since US prices were a lot cheaper for consumer goods.
Once I got home as the only one who knew who was getting what, I’d wrap most of the presents, even dress up and hand out the presents Christmas morning. It was a family tradition.
I got an email this morning from a conservative magazine as part of a campaign asking me to help fight the establishment by donating to their organization. A couple emails later I got another email from a progressive group thanking me for helping to strike a decisive blow against the conservative establishment in recent East Coast elections.
So who is the establishment? It keeps changing depending on who’s talking. Fox News has the highest ratings, but everyone else is the mainstream media. We Christians are the majority faith in this country, but carry a narrative of oppression and persecution. The establishment is the liberal media, no it’s the deep state, no it’s the giant tech companies, no it’s the 1%, no it’s that best-selling Rob Bell and those liberal theologians, no it’s those megachurches, no it’s those heathens who want to corrode our Judeo-Christian values. We’ve all got a story in our heads.