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.
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.
Part of the instructions for the practice of Centering Prayer is to find a sacred word that signals a consent for the action and presence of God within. Some practitioners use “love” or “grace” or “light.”
The anonymous author of the 13th century classic The Cloud of Unknowing simply uses the word God.
In Jim Jarmusch’s movie Dead Man, the native American character Nobody or “He Who Talk Loud, Say Nothing,” quotes from William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence in a moving scene:
Every night and every morn,
Some to misery are born.
Every morn and every night,
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight,
And some are born to endless night.
Most contemplatives, especially in the Christian tradition, are familiar by now with the basics of Centering Prayer. It’s a daily practice, ideally at least 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes at night, during which we open ourselves to the divine presence in the silence.
It’s a time to set aside the din and cacophony of everyday life and the workings of our monkey mind. That’s constantly looking for shiny new things to grab hold of.