New Year’s Resolutions

resolutions-sI was never able to keep New Year’s Resolutions for more moments that it took to speak them.

Much more useful are the resolutions I’ve been making for the last few years, aimed at hopefully nurturing my spiritual life. At my age, I find that the simpler the better, so I limit the number of resolutions to three, and also prefer that they be in the form of ONE word only. Any more than that and I’d tend to forget them. Just three words can be easily remembered and repeated, very much like a mantra.

The three words I chose at the beginning of 2016 are:

  • Silence
  • Mindfulness
  • Trust.

I find these so important and so difficult that I’m keeping them for 2017. Also, as I meditate on these practices to write this Post, I discover how interrelated one is to the other.

Silence.
This doesn’t mean wearing earplugs or keeping the radio off. Actually, listening to music has the effect of shutting off other noise that might be keeping my mind and spirit spinning. By noise, I mean thoughts that whirl around in my head, most often having to do with relationships, such as conversations with others that haven’t gone very well. Or thoughts related to world events that I can’t do anything about – except to pray for the healing of the cruelty, greed and selfishness rampant in the world. I’d do much better to let those prayers enter my head, rather than to continue to want to fix all these problems or to stay angry that I can’t.

Silence also means letting the other person do the talking while I listen. I don’t mean simply nod my head now and then to give the illusion of listening. I mean really listening. I mean not butting in every two sentences to offer my opinion or advice. I mean listening in a supportive way, letting the other person vent, and letting myself be the ventee, rather than the ventor. This practice also serves the Benedictine principle of hospitality, since we are welcoming fully the person speaking to us.

As I practice this kind of Silence, I realize that it is related to No. 2 on the list: Mindfulness.

Mindfulness simply means paying attention to what we’re doing or saying. This includes paying attention to what you’re hearing while you’re being Silent (back to hospitality again). It also means paying full attention to what you’re doing, focusing on each step and not hurrying. Forget about multi-tasking. 

Oddly enough and contrary to what the word seems to say, Mindfulness doesn’t fill our minds. Because it requires focusing on one thing at a time, and that one thing is in the present moment, it results in an emptying of the mind, or at least the removal of mental clutter.

I tried mindfulness recently while I was baking. I had promised to bring two pies and a cake to a family gathering. In the past, I would have scrambled around, concocting all kinds of ways to be most efficient and to finish as quickly as possible. (And by the way, what was I going to do with all the time I saved?? Play computer games?) Scurrying around usually ended in dropping utensils and making a mess that took longer to clean up. This time, practicing mindfulness, I very deliberately completed each step in turn. Though it felt a little like being in a slow motion film, I was actually able  to complete the project in record time and with minimal if any gratuitous mess. Furthermore,  I had been able to remain calm and contented, enjoying the thought of the pleasure I’d be giving to the family.

What does mindful baking have to do with my spiritual life? And why, for heaven’s sake, do I think such tasks are different from my spiritual life? Focusing on the present moment, I am able to keep myself in the presence of God who is present everywhere and in every moment. Thus, even menial activities become prayer, that is, they unite us to God. (For more on this topic, look up the powerful little book by Jean-Pierre de Caussade: The Sacrament of the Present Moment, and Google the Carmelite monk Brother Lawrence whose mindfulness enabled him to remain in the presence of God while performing his kitchen duties. Here’s a link: http://thepracticeofthepresenceofgod.com/onlinetext/)

The practice of Mindfulness is similar to the practice of Silence. Both keep the mind and spirit uncluttered, focused, and more ready to approach everyday tasks in a spirit of prayer. All of us have menial tasks to perform just to get through our days in some kind of order and peacefulness. We frequently complain about them because they’re “boring” and keep us from “prayer time.” Mindfulness allows us not just to perform tasks, but to transform them from the worldly to the transcendent. It allows us to make a prayer of what we thought was just plain boring. Try it. You’ll see what I mean.

The last resolution is perhaps the most difficult: Trust.

Our whole life has been spent trying to increase our mastery over so many things. We work hard to acquire the skills that will give us mastery over an art form, over knowledge and maybe most often, over other people. We even work to gain an illusory  mastery over our prayer life, and try to “do it right,” as if it’s a job and we’re in charge of it.

Trusting in God bolsters our spiritual immune system. Trust is like a spiritual antibiotic: it cures debilitating ills such as fear, anxiety, helplessness, pride, depression, and a whole host of related bad habits. Trust is simply admitting to God that He’s the one in charge, and being thankful that this is so. He’s the only one who knows the true outcome of what we fret over, what we’re afraid might happen. 

It’s very easy to talk about how wonderful Trust is, but quite another thing to practice it continually. This is why I’m keeping Trust on my list for another year. In fact, I need to keep it until death do us part.

Resolutions, like our spiritual life, are unique to each of us. I suggest taking a few quiet moments with the Lord, asking him to help us select a few habits we might want his help in acquiring (or dropping). He loves us, and will love this request. I’m guessing we’ll be given what we need.

Happy New Year!

Lectio Divina: Holy Reading

What is there about reading Scripture that is so scary for some of us?

One reason, I suspect is because reading Scripture is like reading a foreign language whose vocabulary is unlike the words we use every day.

My first exposure to the Benedictine practice of Lectio Divina (Holy Reading) felt like this: foreign and perhaps somewhat regimented. What I was looking for was a way of approaching Scripture that would draw me to a greater intimacy with God in deeper love, understanding and trust.

Traditionally, Lectio consists of four steps: Reading, Pondering, Praying and Contemplation. Depending on the teacher, the number of steps may vary. Some of us (such as the author of this piece!) cringe at the merest suggestion of regimentation where prayer is concerned. However, like learning to play a musical instrument or to master a sport, a certain strictness or method is necessary at the beginning until a degree of comfort or mastery is achieved.

For an example of how to go about this fruitful kind of prayer, let’s study the first part of Psalm 84. I will refer to the writer of the Psalm as a poet, since indeed poetic language is used.

(1) Read (Lectio). We begin by simply reading the verses for their basic meaning.

How lovely your dwelling, O LORD of hosts!

My soul yearns and pines for the courts of the LORD.
My heart and flesh cry out for the living God.

As the sparrow finds a home and the swallow a nest to settle her young,
My home is by your altars, LORD of hosts, my king and my God!

Blessed are those who dwell in your house! 
They never cease to praise you.

Clearly, the poet is attracted by the beauty of God’s dwelling, and longs to be a part of it.

(2) Ponder (Meditatio).
To enter deeply and prayerfully into this text, we touch and savor each word and even pay attention to what is not said. Strong feelings are expressed in passionate words:  My soul yearns and pines.

Yet even these expressions are too tame for the depth of the poet’s emotions, so his language escalates: My heart and flesh cry out!

As we continue this thoughtful reading, we realize that the poet is not giving us a graphic picture or architectural rendering of the Lord’s house, but is giving us a passionate understanding of the Lord’s own home. The poet accomplishes this by omitting any mention regarding the physical aspects of the place: carved pillars, the luxuriant use of marble, gold,  precious stones and fabrics. Excluding outward descriptions creates a stronger impression that what draws us is not a material building, but God Himself as a place of refuge and love.

(3) Pray (Oratio). We ask God to reveal Himself to us.
How often in our prayer we are led beyond words to an almost desperate feeling of longing! We can’t think of words to say, our feeling is so overpowering. What we sense is an absence, a void that only God can fill, for it is in this emptiness that our prayer is intensified.

(4) Contemplation (Contemplatio). We bask in the insights God has granted us in this Scripture.
The poet’s intention is to describe God’s welcoming and tender nature. He is home to the humble, not a palace limited to the great or mighty who parade inside, laden with costly gifts. No, the poet uses the small and the vulnerable (the sparrow and the swallow with her young) to describe the kind of souls God desires to welcome. God invites us to live in the very shadow of his altars where holy offerings are made daily.

We are there to stay. We are permanent residents in this splendidly humble home of the Lord. Unimportant as we may wrongly think of ourselves, we are blessed and welcomed into the holy presence of God. We are safe, protected, loved, and never cease to thank and praise him for his great love.

Our final graced realization is that this beautiful dwelling where God abides is none other than our very soul, the temple of the Lord.

wild-rose
Photo courtesy of Joyce Medovich

 

How to Pray

 we do not know how to pray as we ought,
but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.
(Romans 8:26)

I was sure I didn’t know how to pray. Others described a “method” that I simply couldn’t grasp. This was dreadful! Prayer, after all, is the first essential in how to grow in intimacy with God, how to grow in knowledge of God.

Thank God, I had a spiritual director who rescued and calmed me. He told me how an elderly nun had described her prayer: simple, heartfelt, personal, loving and direct. It was something like this:

No, I don’t know how to pray:
How to sit at attention,
My senses in suspension.

One must not move,
One must not slouch.
Say politely, “I praise you!”

This is God, after all, and not
Your next door neighbor.
He won’t favor a lowly dot
of nothing.

No, I don’t know the words
To that hymn the angels sing
Everlastingly around the throne.

No, we have no words,
And none are even too many!
So we just look,

And smile at each other.

I carry Him,
And He carries me
All day,
All night.

No, I don’t know how to pray:
How to sit at attention,
My senses in suspension.
How to sit still and simply say:

“I love you.”

St. Benedict

Like us, Benedict needed to search and try out different ways of serving God.

Mt Saviour Sculpture
Wood sculpture at Mt. Saviour Monastery, Pine City, NY

I enjoyed hearing about St. Benedict in the homily given on his feast day, July 11.

Like us, Benedict needed to search and try out different ways of serving God. That he would be known as the Father of western monasticism – which he’s noted for – did not come to him in a single great flash of insight or experience.

No. First, he was an “ordinary” Christian like us, going to Mass, reading and pondering Scripture. Because he lived in a somewhat degenerate Rome, he soon realized that living as a hermit would allow him to make a greater space within, a quiet space for the Spirit to fill. He therefore withdrew to a cave near the town of Subiaco, mentored by a monk by the name of Romanus.

He must have lived an exemplary life, for soon a group of monks appealed to him to be their spiritual leader, according to the biography written by St. Gregory the Great. But life lived by the Gospel and as taught by Benedict turned out not to be to their liking, and they planned to get rid of him by poisoning his wine. As Benedict blessed the carafe, it suddenly shattered, saving Benedict’s life, and saving the irritable brothers from grave sin.

For more reading on Benedict, his Rule, and the proliferation of priests, religious and laity dedicated to his teachings, see the following:

  • The Order of St. Benedict
  • Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict, by Esther de Waal
  • Strangers to the City, by Michael Casey, OCSO