Silence and the Way of Taize

A few years ago, the University of Virginia conducted an experiment. Each participant was given a mild electric shock. They all said that they didn’t like it and would pay money never to experience it again.  Then each of them were put into rooms alone for up to 15 minutes with all distractions, e.g. cellphones, music access, reading material, removed. They did have a shock button. Within those 15 minutes, 66% of the males pushed the button and 25% of the females! I will let you wonder what that might say in terms of spirituality and gender. My point is that many people in the modern world seem allergic of silence. Silence, however, is important in all spiritual traditions.

I don’t remember when I first became aware of the Taize form of worship, but I have been a fan for many years. True confession though: I have never been to the French town of Taize where Brother Roger and his small band of Protestant brothers formed a religious community after World War II.

Taize worship emphasizes Scripture reading, silence, and simple choruses. Brother Roger was not a fan of long sermons! Many of the choruses come from passages of Scripture, mostly of the Gospels or the Psalms. Brother Roger emphasized singing a simple chorus multiple times in order for the song to move from the lips to the heart.

Apart from the music, the service revolves around Scripture reading and silence. The silence is, for many, an opportunity to meditate on the reading or perhaps to pray as the reading has moved you.

I have only found one church in Birmingham that has an occasional Taize service. The music was wonderful and the Scripture readings were meaningful. However, the periods of silence were hardly long enough to get settled. Perhaps they knew their congregation might have started looking for some shock buttons!

I encourage you, if you are not already familiar with Taize, to find some of its music and listen to it. It can be easily found on the Web and, if you are an oldie like me, you can buy some music cds. (I own ten!) Perhaps listening to and singing some of these choruses will put you in the mood to spend a few minutes of silence alone with your God.

Here is an example with Bless the Lord.  Sing along with it–let the words move from your lips to your heart.

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.

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.

 

A More Peculiar Practice

I have recommended three practices that have helped me to grow spiritually. They are silence, journaling, and holy reading. These three can be found in many books on the spiritual life. Today’s practice is more peculiar to me.

Some 20 years or so ago I began to see a spiritual adviser. It was a time when I was considering a change of vocation and/or denominational affiliation. It was recommended that I begin seeing Rev. Steve Holzholb. One thing he advised changed my life. He suggested that I not read quite as much scripture in my morning devotions. At that time I was reading an Old Testament passage, a Psalm, a New Testament passage, and a Gospel passage. He said, “LaMon I want you to read only in the Gospels for awhile and nothing else.” 20 years later, I simply cannot omit reading in the Gospels everyday I do my devotions.

As a Protestant Christian, I had interpreted Scripture and life largely through the writings of Paul. This is the normal Protestant pattern. Paul’s writings become the grid by which we understand everything else.

Following my adviser’s suggestion, I began reading a passage from the Gospels daily. It took months, but eventually, my grid changed. No longer did I see everything through the eyes of Paul, but instead through the eyes of Jesus. I interpreted Paul by way of Jesus and not visa versa. If I am a better person now that I was 20 years ago, one of the reasons is that I immersed myself in the Gospel stories and teachings of Jesus.  I believe this Gospel reading has made me more compassionate, forgiving, and welcoming.

It can work for anyone. Simply determine that, except for some vocational necessity, e.g. teachers, preachers, etc., you will read only in the Gospels for awhile. Do not read whole chapters. Read shorter selections. Read slowly, listening for a word from God about which you might write and pray in your journal. As I said, I started doing it “for awhile” and continue to do it some 20 years later–though I do now add some other readings from time to time.

May Jesus himself be your teacher.

[As always, if you find what I have written helpful, you may share it with others. You might encourage them to ‘follow’ these blogs as well.]

Holy Reading

I am looking at practices that have helped me and countless others throughout history to make the divine spark within us glow more bright or, if you prefer, the divine image within us appear more clear. I am examining ways that have helped me to grow spiritually. We have considered the importance of silence and journaling as two such practices.

Today we look at the practice of Holy Reading. As you might expect, in the history of church it has a Latin name: lectio divina. Traditionally, it was a way to read scripture, but its steps can be applied to many different types of literature. It is reading for formation rather than information. The latter type of reading is important in many contexts, but it is not the focus of Holy Reading. In Holy Reading we are wanting to be formed more and more into the divine image.

Holy Reading has four steps.

The first step is to read. Traditionally the chosen passage is read twice–slowly. You are not reading the passage just to get to a check-off place, but to imbibe its spirit. Read it first, slowly. In the second reading, you may notice a word or phrase that attracts you. You can stop the reading there or continue to the end of the passage.

The second step is to meditate on that word or phrase. You don’t try to analyze it–that is the old desire for information creeping in. You chew on it. You turn it over in your mind. Perhaps you make a kind of mantra for it, reciting it silently or softly. As you do so, sometimes the phrase or word will change. That’s ok. Just go with it.

The third step is to pray. Begin to talk to God about whatever that word or phrase is leading you to. The prayer usually flows naturally from your meditation. You might say that the phrase has moved from your mind to your heart.

The final step is to contemplate. In this case, it simply means to rest in God’s presence after the prayer is finished. Some practitioners say that this is the goal–if we must have a goal–of Holy Reading.

Two other points. First, spiritual growth cannot be simply programmed. These four steps may not all happen each time or in the order I listed them. Sometimes, some of the steps will hardly be needed before one rests in God. I often use a truncated version of Holy Reading as I journal, i.e. I look for a word or phrase that attracts me, then I write about why it seems significant to me. Many times I will then write a short prayer.

Second, I believe that God is at work transforming us, so if a particular practice seems to fall flat on certain days or even over a longer period of time, don’t despair or give up. Let us be faithful to do our part and trust God to do the greater part.

My Most Valuable Practice

In writing about practices that have helped me grow spiritually, I began in the last post talking about the importance of silence. I would add one or two comments. Unless you live isolated from modern life, it is almost impossible to escape the roar of traffic or the sounds of neighbors. I have found a free app called Insight Timer that helps me block out most of that noise with quiet sounds like flowing rivers or tinkling bells. It also allows me to set the timer for 10 minutes (or more or less depending on my desire). If you think it might help you, give it a try.

Now on to practice #2. It is journaling. WAIT, don’t quit reading! I know that journaling may not help everyone, but it is the single most important practice that I do because it helps me with most of my other practices.

The value of a daily journal is at least three-fold. It helps us to know ourselves as we write about events in our lives, our thoughts, and our feelings. It can also help us to relate to God. I often find myself talking to God as I write. It also helps us to concentrate. More about that in a moment.

So, what do I write in my journal? I usually begin by writing some comments on my morning scripture reading. Knowing that I am going to write something, helps me to concentrate on the reading. I’m not just reading to check off a daily accomplishment. I am reading to find something meaningful for me in that moment. Journaling helps me to do that.

I also write about my life. Since most of my journaling is in the morning, I usually detail some of what happened the day before and what I plan for the coming day.

And I usually write some short one or two sentence prayers. Perhaps I will thank God for something that happened the day before or an insight I discover in scripture. Perhaps I will ask God to help me in general or specific ways as I reflect on scripture and my life. It’s sort of like sending a text message to God. (Sometimes, not often, I will write out a long prayer, usually of thanksgiving.)

I do a few other things from time to time, but these seem most important to me. I do not spend a lot of money on fancy journals. I often just buy a spiral bound note book.

I began journaling on December 16, 1977. I have written over 2000 pages, maybe closer to 3000. The goal is to write every day, but I don’t. In the past, I might miss several days in a row. Being retired, it is easier to write almost daily. The important thing to remember is that if you miss a week, don’t give up. Simply start up again on the day when you can.

If you are not already keeping a journal, I encourage you to give it a try in 2018.

(As always feel free share any of this with others you think might benefit. Thanks for reading!)

 

Silent Night, Holy Night

Last month I promised to share some practices that have been used to polish the divine image or fan the divine spark within us. My problem was where to start. Truthfully, I could begin with almost any of the practices, but the Season made the choice for me.

In the month of December the song Silent Night, Holy Night will be sung, played and listened to throughout America and indeed the world. So, I begin this series writing about silence as a spiritual practice.

“For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him.” Psalm 62:5 This is one of several passages of scripture that affirm silence, often as a sign of trust.

The value of silence is at least two-fold. It helps us to slow down; to recollect ourselves. It seems especially important now in the hectic Christmas Season, but also in the heated political atmosphere that we breathe everyday.

It also helps us to listen–to listen to God, to others, and to our own inner self. The one who talks much, listens little.

As a spiritual practice, silence refers to sitting in God’s presence in silence. If you’ve not done it before, try doing it for just 10 minutes. If your mind begins to wander, recollect yourself with a short prayer like, “I trust in you”.

In the Christmas carol, holiness is born in silence. If we are faithful to practice times of silence perhaps the light within will begin to burn more brightly.

[As always, feel free to share my blogs with anyone you think may profit and encourage them to become followers along with you.]

The Light Within

The medieval mystics called it a divine spark. The Quakers named it inner light. The Bible pictured it as the image of God. It is in all of us.

Some might want to argue this fact. How, they might say, can anyone believe this in a world dominated by hatred, violence, and darkness? Perhaps some, but surely not all, have something of God within them. Others might look at their own lives, shake their heads, and deny it could be true of them with all their insecurities and troubling doubts.

Still there are voices that continue to affirm the ancient truth. One is Pastor Steven Garnaas-Holmes who writes a regular piece under the internet tag “Unfolding Light”. Recently here is part of what he shared:

  • You are the living image
  • of the Lovely One.
  • God is the sun of love within you.
  • Vessel of divine light,
  • you bear this magnificence into the world.
  • This can’t be changed or diminished.
  • Let this be your confidence, your hope,
  • your courage

The problem most of us face is that the image is so faint or the spark so dim that we can hardly see it at all. And neither can those around us. So, the question arises: how can we polish the image or fan the spark? What can we do that will help the inner light or sun of love shine more brightly, not simply for ourselves, but for a world seemingly enveloped in darkness?

In the next few months, I hope to share about some practices or disciplines that I have found helpful in my own spiritual growth, but more importantly that have been affirmed by persons far more advanced than me in the spiritual life.

 

Why I Write

I enjoy writing. I have tried my hand at writing Sci Fi short stories, with zero success in getting any published. I have written one book and contributed to two others. I have written journal articles. I continue to write bad poetry. But most importantly for my ‘pathway to God’, I have been keeping a personal, devotional journal for over 40 years.

It is in the actual writing down of my thoughts about my experiences and my reading in scripture and elsewhere that helps me to see the path up which I have come and the path that lays before me. I am a serious introvert. I certainly don’t have to work at it! Perhaps that helps me to persevere in this discipline. I know that journaling doesn’t seem to be effective for everyone, but it has been vital to me.

Again, I enjoy writing. I have read a lot, written a lot, thought a lot, and experienced a lot. So, I am writing this blog with the hope that something I might write here will help someone else along their path.

I hope you enjoy reading it.