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Images from a Contemplative Retreat

It was still dark as I walked to the guest cafeteria. The Rosemary bush was waiting:

Early morning walk                                                                                                                              Caressing the Rosemary                                                                                                                        The day’s first blessing

Later walking to the chapel to chant with the monks and praise God another blessing from Nature:

The path to worship                                                                                                                              Covered in Honeysuckle                                                                                                                      Aroma of God

I have always been blessed to experience the beauty and glory of God in Nature. It was no different at Mepkin Abbey whose beautiful grounds boarding on Cooper River afforded ample opportunities for silent meditation.

In blessed silence                                                                                                                                    I heard the presence of God–                                                                                                              Music of Nature

I came to the retreat hoping to grow in love for God and acquiring more of the compassion of Jesus. One day I walked in a labyrinth marked off by wildflowers.

In the labyrinth                                                                                                                                      Unbidden a song arose:                                                                                                                        More love to Thee

In those seven grace-filled days, I also meditated on Scripture. With the psalmist, I learned to sing my own song, “All my life I will sing to you, my Jesus.” Over and over again as I read in the Gospels, I experienced the glad-hearted kindness of Jesus.

Blessed are the kind                                                                                                                              For they are children of God                                                                                                              Kindness is divine

I was loved by God on this retreat and I returned home with more love and compassion for others–at least for a time. The ordinary world often makes compassion difficult, doesn’t it? So, my growth in love and compassion is far from complete. But in that wonderful retreat perhaps I sprouted a new blossom or two.

Trust in God’s slow work                                                                                                                      Transformation takes ages                                                                                                                    For each one of us

Addendum:

  1. As always, as you are moved, you may share this with others.
  2. If you are interested in retreats you may check out this web site: http://www.theanchorage.org.

The Mystic Path: Dark Night of the Soul

Dark night of the soul

Waiting for the veil to lift

And new lights to see

Along this mystic path we have looked at four stages: awakening, purification, illumination, and union. In this format it looks like a fairly straightforward process. It is anything but! In actuality it looks more like a spiral, however, even that image may be misleading. In talking about the spiritual life, our language by necessity must include metaphor.

A spiritual experience that many who travel this path have undergone was called by John of the Cross, the dark night of the soul. Stated simply, in this experience, God is helping us to grow in love. We are learning to love God for God’s sake and not simply for the God’s blessings.

The dark night affects us in various ways. We may feel a loss of the presence of God. We may have an acute sense of our own imperfections. We may experience a kind of spiritual lassitude. Even our will power may seem diminished.

In the book of Job, Satan asserts that Job only serves God because God has blessed him. Take away those blessings, and he will turn away, so says Satan. (An aside: I believe the Book of Job is more parable than literal. After all, have you ever known anyone who argued back and forth in poetry!) In the end, Job endured, though not without a monumental struggle. And the light returned.

One of my favorite passages in the Hebrew scriptures is Habakkuk 3:17-18: “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation.”

In the dark night, our desires are being cleansed. It is not pleasant. It is not easy to

endure. But endure it we must, if we are to grow in love for God.

The Mystic Path: Union with God

We have noted the experience of awakening that often is the first step along the path. This can be followed by purification or purgation in which we acknowledge our sins and attempt, with God’s grace, to overcome the dark traits of our personalities. Next can come illumination in which we experience the presence of God such that we begin to understand more and more about who God is and what God desires for us. The final stop along the mystic path is called union.

On sweet occasions

Goal of Christian devotion

Union with our God

As might be expected, this stage can only be described by metaphor and symbol. Some mystics compare it to a transformation, e.g. wood becoming flame in fire, or a drop of water becoming wine when immersed in a great sea of wine. And, St. Paul wrote about being conformed to the image of Christ–becoming like Christ. Deification is a word the Eastern Orthodox Church has used for centuries. We do not become equal with God, but they affirm that we acquire the divine nature. In 2nd Peter, we discover that we can “become participants of the divine nature” (1:4).

Another favorite image among the mystics is spiritual marriage. It is a union characterized by love. The Song of Solomon is a favorite book for these mystics. Human love becomes a metaphor for the loving union of a person and God.

However it was characterized, the mystics all have had a burning desire to experience the fullness of God. They desire this more than life itself. So, they seek after God, and by God’s grace, they can have moments of true union. Only in the life to come, can the union become more permanent.

Union with God in this life and the life to come is characterized by 5 qualities.

1) It is marked by a union of minds. The mystic begins to share God’s values, ideas, and wisdom. Because of this union, they often understand intuitively what God would have them do different situations.

2) It is marked by a union of hearts. The mystic begins to love what God loves. The true mystic, united with God, has compassion for all that God has made.

3) The third mark should go without saying, but it is often not clearly understood. If we share God’s values and love what God loves, we will desire union with one another. To be united with God, one must in one way or another, be immersed in the life of the people of God.

4) The fourth mark is joy. One of my favorite mystics, Richard Rolle compared the person united with God to a music pipe always playing joyful songs of love to Christ.

5) The fifth mark is peace. One of my favorite hymns expresses this well. It is “Like a River Glorious” by Frances Havergal:

Life a river glorious, is God’s perfect peace,

Over all victorious in its bright increase;

Perfect, yet it floweth fuller every day;

Perfect, yet it groweth deeper all the way.

Hidden in the hollow of God’s blessed hand,

Never foe can follow, never traitor stand.

Not a surge of worry, not a shade of care,

Nor a blast of hurry touch the spirit there.

Stayed upon Jehovah, hearts are fully blest;

Finding as God promised, perfect peace and rest.

This is not the last thing I want to say about this beautiful mystic path, but perhaps that is enough for today. As always, if you find what I have written helpful, feel free to share it with others.

The Mystic Path: Illumination

Illumination:

Seeing God in all things

Desire is answered

Perhaps unsurprisingly the last post on “Purification” was the least read post of all that I have posted! Hopefully the title of “Illumination” will attract more readers. However, without the desire to be a better person reflected in the step of purification, the next rung of the ladder leading to illumination can hardly be climbed. One spiritual writer noted that a person cannot reach the top of the ladder without stepping on the first rung.

Perhaps to understand what the mystics meant by illumination we need to go back to the ground level where awakening occurs. Because of our awakening, a desire to draw near and unite with God is born within us. As the desire grows, more and more is revealed to us. The more that is revealed to us, the greater the desire grows. However, it is not as automatic as that makes it sound. I find that I often must pray for an increase in my flagging desire.

In this stage of mystic growth, we concentrate our will, intellect and feeling on God.  Good works or virtues are performed almost spontaneously. St. Paul might call this growing in the image of Christ. St. Peter named it acquiring the divine nature.

Evelyn Underhill noted that in this stage of illumination three elements may be found. The first, is a joyous apprehension of the Divine or God. The nearness of God is enjoyed. The second is experiencing an added significance and reality to all natural things. The Divine is seen in nature and/or in other persons. And third, a kind of spiritual energy is released that may result in visions, voices, etc.

One word of warning about the last one: visions and voices are never to be sought. If they come, they come. And if they come but do not increase a person’s humility and love, they do not come from God.

As always, if you find this post helpful, feel free to share it with others and encourage them, if they like it, to sign up to follow.

May God be more real to all of us this day.

 

 

 

The Mystic Path: Purification

Last time we considered the occurrence of awakening in the mystic path–that happening in our lives when we become awake to the divine or God’s presence all around us. Today’s topic is not as exciting, but I hope not to lose any readers!

According to the mystics once we are awakened to the glory of God, we can become aware of our own imperfections. The path to ultimate union with God leads through a period (or probably periods) of purification.

Some of our imperfections are caused by our environment. Another way to say that is that we are impacted by sin. On the other hand, some of our imperfections are the result of our own bad choices. Or, we commit sin, e.g. we nurture wrong desires or do wrong things.

Our imperfections may appear in a variety of forms. Not being able to distinguish right from wrong is an imperfection in our intellect. When we can’t seem to make a decision or stick to those resolutions we do make, this is an imperfection in our will. Regularly struggling with unhealthy feelings points to an imperfection in our emotional center.

I have largely avoided talking about ‘sin’ because the word has been wildly misused over the years. When I was a young person growing up in rural Alabama in the 50s and 60s, dancing was considered a sin in some circles! And going to the movies on a Sunday was a definite taboo.

Nevertheless, the word sin still has value when we consider the imperfections in our moral center. Jesus taught us to love one another, which means seeking the other person’s welbeing. When we fail to do that, we are imperfect or we are sinners.

Mystics have suggested a threefold way of purification that can help us along the path to union with God. First is contrition–a sense of sorrow for our imperfections or sins. Second is a full confession–acknowledging, at least to ourselves, that we are not perfect. Third is the resolve to change. Of course, for Christian mystics, all of this is done in the presence of God who is ready to forgive and to help us grow into the divine nature.

The Mystic Way: Awakening

The name of this blog site is Pathways to God. Today I want us to begin thinking about the Mystic Way. In the Christian context, three movements are usually affirmed: purification, illumination and union. However, two additional steps are sometimes mentioned. One may occur between illumination and union. It is traditionally called the Dark Night of the Soul. The other is prior to purification. It is awakening. And it is awakening that I want to think about today.

The experience of awakening can happen in at least two different ways. One is to experience the glory of God externally. Nicholas Hermann (popularly known as Brother Lawrence) saw a dead tree in winter and thinking about how it would come back to life, he was awakened to the greatness of God. It was life-changing. Men as different as St. Paul and Rulman Merswin saw a great light and they were never the same. Even Jesus heard a divine voice at his baptism and a ‘normal’ life was no longer a possibility.

The other way is inward. Richard Rolle felt a heat or warming in his heart. (I don’t think it was heat that Tums could ‘fix’!) Catherine of Genoa was struggling in a loveless marriage and perhaps with depression. She went to a priest for her normal Lenten confession, but wasn’t able to say anything. As she knelt, her heart seemed pierced by the love of God. In one moment she saw her own miserable state, but more importantly God’s boundless love. Both Rolle and Catherine became great affirmers in word and deed of a divine love that fills and overflows our hearts.

Awakening comes in different ways, but when it comes the person is never the same. The Divine becomes the ever present reality of their lives. They live for God and God’s will. They affirm the beauty and the love of God.

So, what can we do to be awakened? Perhaps nothing. It comes to irreligious and religious persons alike. We can’t make it happen. All I can suggest is to pay attention to life within and without. All life comes from God and perhaps if we pay attention, we are more likely to experience a moment of awakening that will last a lifetime.

Born to Rock–Gently

My mother told me that when I was a baby, I would often get in a crawling position in the bed and rock myself to sleep. And I’ve been rocking ever since. My band director in high school poked good-natured fun at me as I rocked back and forth in my chair playing the trumpet. Whenever I go into a room where several chairs are available, I always gravitate toward any rocker I can find.

Rocking is a gentle movement. It’s a gentle activity. And it seems to me that gentleness is a quality our world needs more of.

Father John-Julian wrote a poem entitled “Psalm 23”. The first two lines are perfect: “The unhesitating gentleness / of pure divinity.”* Reading those lines, I realized anew how gentleness lies at the heart of that psalm in the Bible. It is also characteristic of Jesus as he gently touched the sick and patiently taught the multitudes.

One of the things he taught is usually translated as “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” I prefer to translate it as “Blessed are the gentle . . . ”

I think I have come to appreciate gentleness more and more over the years. I love to see gentle butterflies flitting from flower to flower. Yesterday I witnessed one bird gently feeding his mate. Sitting on my back deck (rocking in our swing, of course) I just enjoy watching the leaves on the trees move gently in the wind.

I am not naive. I know that there are violent images of God in the Bible and that Jesus too is pictured occasionally as responding in less than gentle ways. And violence is part of nature.

Nevertheless, I believe that if we are going to have an earth to inherit in the generations to come, we need now to begin practicing gentleness. And we can begin by simply noticing it all around us, affirming that it is announcing the presence of the divine. Such attention has the power change us; to make us more gentle.

Hopes truest measure:

The gentle kindness of God

Is more than enough

*Fr. John-Julian, “Psalm 23” in The Paraclete Poetry Anthology: Selected and New Poems, edited by Mark S. Burrows (Paraclete Press: Brewster, Massachusetts, 2016), 64.

As always, if this meandering blog moves you, please feel free to share it with others and encourage them to become followers too.

Just say ‘WOW’

Recently I have been reading in a book of excerpts from the writings of George McDonald. In one of them, he noted the importance of growing in child-likeness, not childishness. Child-likeness, he believed, involved a growth in simplicity. I agree, both about the inherent opposition of child-likeness to childishness and the importance of growing in simplicity.

In thinking further about how to grow in child-likeness, it seems possible to do so by learning to live in wonder and unfeigned generosity. It is the first option I want briefly to explore.

We can learn to live in wonder by practicing it. I love to go on retreats, especially to places where I can enjoy the beauties of nature. My wife also likes for me to go on retreats! She says I am always, at least for awhile, a kinder, more loving person when I return home.

Practicing wonder, however, does not depend on my going on retreats. I can practice it daily by looking for beauty and goodness that are all around me. I can look at bluebirds feeding in my backyard and say ‘wow’. I can see the wildflowers growing on the hillside and say ‘wow’. I can meditate on a night sky and say ‘wow’. I can watch a mother hold a baby and say ‘wow’. I can stand and look at a painting made for me by my daughter and say ‘wow’. I can remember wonderful years of life with my sweet wife Pat and say ‘wow’.

Children can and should live lives of amazement. It comes naturally for them. It is that child-likeness that we can achieve at least to some degree. All it takes is to practice wonder and just say ‘wow’.

As always, feel free to share this with others.

Peace, LaMon

 

Haiku Spirituality

This may be the last in this series of blogs on spiritual practices that can help us to sharpen the divine image within. All have been time-tested practices that have helped individuals grow spiritually. We have considered silence, journaling, holy reading (lectio divina), Gospel reading, and meditation. Today I want to affirm a newer practice that I have been doing for the past few years. It is composing haiku.

I write haiku for two reasons. First, it is fun. Yes, spiritual practices or disciplines do not have to be onerous. At least some of them can be fun and bring joy.

The second reason is that writing haiku helps me to be present. It helps me to be present to what I see and to what I read. For example, a day or two ago, I was walking around our neighborhood and noticed a tall weed on a hill-side. The ‘weed’ had a bushy head of yellow.  Almost immediately haiku began to work its way into my consciousness. Eventually I wrote:

Springtime on hill-side

A four-foot weedy plant grows

Topped by yellow blooms

Writing haiku about nature helps me to be present to God in God’s creation.

Writing haiku also helps me to be present to my devotional reading. I have composed at least one haiku for each of the 150 psalms and I am presently writing a haiku in connection with my Gospel reading of the day. After reading a resurrection story in Luke’s Gospel earlier this week, I wrote the following;

Disbelieving men

Wild words of foolish women

Jesus is risen

The haiku form in English is simple–lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables. But straining to make your experience of being present fit that pattern is not necessary. There are times when 4 syllables instead of 5 seem to work best. However, I do try not to have more syllables than the norm.

I heartily recommend Haiku–the Sacred Art: A Spiritual Practice in Three Lines by Margaret D. McGee. This book helped me to get started with writing haiku as a spiritual practice. It is a treasure.

Haiku devotions

Demanding one’s attention

Centering on truth

 

Meditation

I decided to be blunt even with the title!  We have been thinking about spiritual exercises that can help us to sharpen or brighten the image of God within us. We have looked at the value of silence, journaling, holy reading, and focusing on the Gospels. Today, I want to mention meditation.

Meditation can be done in a variety of ways. One may write a non-analytical ‘meditation’ on some spiritual reading; perhaps how it spoke to your current situation or how it opened up new understandings of spiritual realities. (Writing non-analytical is hard for some of us to do!)

One can look intently at an aspect of nature; a leaf, a flower, a gentle stream, a soaring mountain. It is possible to encounter the beauty and creative glory of God in such a sustained look.

A third form (and I am certain there are others) is to use one’s imagination; visualize the scene you have read about and then let it unfold in your imagination. Sometimes, important truths may be revealed.

Here is a short imaginative meditation I experienced some years ago. I focused on Ezekiel 36:26, “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”

This is what I wrote in my journal. “During a meditation on Ezekiel 36:26, I saw God remove from my chest a heart of stone. I thought he would throw it away and give me the promised heart of flesh. Instead he took my stone heart and placed it next to his chest. He held it there and it was transformed. Perhaps it was my original heart decalcified. Or maybe not. It was, at least, my old heart being given new life and pliability. And it was returned to me.”

Imaginative meditations rarely come easy for me, but occasionally they meet some need in my life. They may give me some spiritual insight or encouragement. Just as God can speak to us through our memory and through our reason, so can God speak to us through our imagination. None of these three are infallible, but each one can be useful. So, I encourage you to give meditation a try.

I suggest you might read Luke 9:28-36. Read the story a couple of times. Then close your eyes. Place yourself in the role of one of the disciples. Let the story unfold in your imagination. Be sure to visualize the surrounding environment. What did the hillside look like? What about the sky? The more details, the better. Additions and/or differences may appear from the original story. That is to be expected, since you are now a participant. When the story ends, take a moment to write it all down. You may continue to reflect on this for days to come.