Gospel Reading

In my last blog I talked about there being many spiritual practices or exercises that can help us experience the presence of God or the Divine. Most of the religions in the world seek to find and follow a path or paths to God. I have found spiritual treasures in careful readings of the Tao Te Ching, the Upanishads, the Dhammapada, Zen writings, the Songs of Kabir, a host of poets, and, of course, the Bible. In the Hebrew scriptures, I have been especially drawn to the Psalms, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs.

However, most significant to me has been reading the four gospels in the Christian scriptures. Some 25 years ago, a spiritual adviser encouraged me to focus my scripture reading solely on the four gospels–at least for a time. Of course, as a Christian since childhood, I had read in the gospels off and on for many years, along with all the other books in the Bible.

However, as I began to focus primarily on the life and teachings of Jesus, I was changed. Jesus became more than just the one who died on a cross and rose from the dead for the sake of our ‘salvation’. Jesus became the paradigm for how I was to interpret everything else. Jesus became the model or example for how I was to live and think. In this eye-opening understanding of Christ, my own connection with God deepened.

Of course, I read many things these days, but my pattern always includes a portion of a gospel reading. I read and then reflect and/or pray in my journals. (Unless I am determined to write a few lines in a journal, my reading can become shallow and meaningless.)

In the next few blogs I will write about other practices that connect me to God through Jesus Christ. However, if you want to try this practice, I suggest that you begin with a journal to write in and begin reading the Gospel of Luke, and next on through Mark, Matthew, and John. Then repeat and repeat and repeat. For 25 years it has not gotten old!

Retreat Reflection on Silence

It has been a while since I last wrote, but time is now my own again! Yesterday, I was copying some retreat notes into another book and remembered an experience I wanted to share.

At a retreat last year, I was meditating on Zephaniah 3:14-20. One line in verse 17 was translated as “He will renew you in his love.” This translation is based, not on the Hebrew, but later translations. The Hebrew text reads, “He will be silent in his love.” While “renew you” fits the context better, “be silent” resonated with me. I was, after all on a largely silent retreat. This was my reflection:

“Pat and I have loved each other for well over fifty years. That love has often been expressed in laughter and exuberance. But it has also been expressed in silence–holding hands on the beach, sitting together on the porch in the mountains. Sometimes God’s love is like that. Or better, our love is like that–God and me. I can sit in silence and know the silence of God with me as a love that words fail to express. I like exuberance and singing, but I also enjoy just sitting in silence with my loving God.”

Where love is present
Silence can be beautiful:
Calm moon-lit waters



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.

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.

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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.

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.

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Glimpses of God

I’m not really sure where the idea came from, but in the last couple of weeks I have been thinking that we can be the answer to the question “what is God like?”. I am not suggesting that any one of us or all of us taken together–even in our best moments–are crystal clear images of God. But I do believe we can catch glimpses of God in many of us more often than we might think.

For example, I am something like God when I do some of the following. Feed our cat, Jinx. Pet our little dog, Trixie. Water our plants. Hold my wife Pat’s hand. Encourage our grandchildren. Promote peace instead of war. Encourage forgiveness instead of insult, hatred, and violence.

The name of my blog site is “Pathways to God”. Some of what I write connects to that theme directly. Other pieces don’t seem to touch it at all. But I think this one does.

How would our lives be different if we began consciously to look for simple or not so simple actions in the lives of the people around us that could remind us of God. When we see two people holding hands, we can think, “God is like that.” When we see someone repairing a house, we can think, “God is like that.” When we see someone carrying a little baby, we can think, “God is like that.” When we see someone protecting another from a bully, we can think, “God is like that.” And on and on and on.

I wonder if taking this perspective daily would actually change us. Would we become more positive persons? Would we begin to do these kinds of things ourselves? Would we discover that we seem closer to God than before? I’m going to try it in the days to come.

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God is Like a Mother

Sometimes a pathway to God can be opened up by how we think about God or how we imagine God. One image that I have found helpful is to understand that God is like a mother.

This is not unique with me. Julian of Norwich wrote, “As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother.”  In Scripture, the prophet Isaiah used this image as well. “You will nurse and be carried on the hip and bounced on the knee. As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.”¹

Isaiah pictures God as nursing us like a new mother. This is a reminder that God feeds us with food and drink. Every meal we consume comes from the bounty of God’s creation. Additionally, our hearts and minds are fed on the Word of God. We also have ‘vitamin enriched’ (for lack of a better phrase!) spiritual food in Holy Communion. And instead of being drunk on wine, we are encouraged to be filled with the Spirit.

Next, Isaiah imagines us as being carried on the hip by God. God never casts us away. God always holds us. Like a mother, God will always carry us through the twists and turns of life.

Then, in a wonderful picture, Isaiah, perhaps remembering his own mother’s actions, thinks of God as bouncing us on God’s knees! The word translated ‘bounce’ is only used three other times in the Hebrew Scripture. There it is translated as ‘play’, ‘cheer’, and ‘delight’. As a mother brings a smile to the face of her child, so can God fill our mouths with laughter and our hearts with joy.

Lastly, Isaiah writes that like a mother, God will comfort us. The Hebrew word translated ‘comfort’ is used in reference to God 9 times in the Book of Isaiah. It is the image of someone sighing over the pain of another. So like a good mother, God notices our pain, takes some of it away, and helps us to live with the rest.

I am thankful that God is as much like a mother as a father.

¹Isaiah 66:12b-13a (Common English Bible). Several translations in verse 12b use ‘her’ instead of ‘the’ which makes the phrases refer back to Mother Zion. The CEB is more literal (there is no ‘her’ in the Hebrew) which allows for the interpretation that I have given.

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God of the Wildflowers

Pat and I love to go to the Gatlinburg area of the Smokies. Every season is a beautiful season in those mountains. But I especially like to go in the Spring to view the wildflowers. A line from Edna St. Vincent Millay describes my experiences each time I go, “I am waylaid by Beauty.”

Some years ago on a contemplative retreat I was asked (if I remember correctly) what kind of plant I would like to be, if I were a plant. Without hesitation I answered, “a wildflower.” Of all the flora in the world, I love wildflowers the most.

I believe that wildflowers can teach is some things about God. R.S. Thomas thought so as well:

It was easier to come out with you                                                                                       into the fields, where birds made no claim                                                                       on my poor knowledge and flowers grow                                                                         with no thought but to declare God.

What do they declare about God? One thing is obvious. God loves beauty. God’s love for beauty is manifest in the stunning profusion of wildflowers. In North America alone there are around 10,000 different types of wildflowers!

Another thing that wildflowers teach about God is that size really does not matter. We humans are more often impressed with bigness. Not so with God. To speak of God in human terms, God is as moved by a little stand of white Trillium trillium

as by a majestic mountain or a deep blue sea.

 

On a recent hike, I found a Mayapple wildflower in bloom. You have to really look carefully for it because when God created this wildflower, the flower was made to appear under the leaves.

mayapple Only by bending down can one see this beauty. Perhaps wildflowers are intended in part to teach us about the beauty of humility.

April 22 is Earth Day. It is a good day to be thankful for the beautiful world created by God–the great Lover of Beauty. It is also a good day to renew our commitment to encouraging those in authority to protect our fragile environment.