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.
After some amount of contemplative practice, and maybe even a deeper awakening experience, we tend to notice how much of our energy is handed over to thoughts, to mind-stuff.
After a while, we notice all of it, everything outside of the pure silence is mind stuff, thought forms of one level of another.
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.
One definition of contemplation is simply resting in the presence of God. One of the first steps in the contemplative life is learning to cultivate the inner witness, the neutral, non-judgmental observational awareness of our inner state.
The affect this process has on us is an awareness of the way in which we (and everything else around us) is held in this kind of loving gaze. It’s as if, magically, detaching from the judgmental, evaluative tapes we usually have running allows a wellspring of gracious acceptance to bubble up.
In seminary, it was pretty common for students to come to a point of crisis at one time or another during their studies. The individual inflection points were different but the effect was largely the same.
What do you mean most scholars don’t think Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob actually existed? What, the timelines in the synoptic Gospels don’t line up with the Gospel of John? What do you mean there are two conflicting accounts of how Judas Iscariot died? So I guess God just lies to us then?
When we think of the great religious traditions of the world, we tend to think in terms of symbols, a history of regional conflicts, of doctrinal distinctives. We think of surface differences.
The common bumper sticker challenging us to “Coexist” spells this out graphically. A crescent moon, a star of David, a cross. To some, common sense, to others, a hopeless compromise.
Growing up in an Evangelical Christian context, there was a lot of emphasis on conquering, on winning. Christ had conquered the grave. God was to defeat Satan in the final battle. We were said to be a chosen nation and more than conquerers.
There was a general sense and celebration of victory, of triumph. In seminary study we examined this kind of triumphalism and concluded it needed to be counterbalanced by an authentic appreciation of our struggle and our suffering. As a culture in general and in the Christian subculture in particular, we needed to learn to embrace the shadow.