As I look forward to finishing my MBSR course soon, I have been thinking about contemplative prayer practices to explore. I have listened to works by James Finley and Thomas Keating, both of whom are Trappist monks, and I have tried to develop an understanding of centering prayer and praying the Rosary, and begun what seems to be a lengthy exploration of Ignatian spiritual exercises.
So far, I have learned that doing the steps of centering prayer is simple. Learning to enter into prayerful meditation requires a lot of practice, but I am happy to realize that mindfulness meditation is very similar mentally and is good preparation. The significant difference is the foundational goals and internal posture. Mindfulness meditation is about personal and interpersonal health. Centering prayer is about orienting your will toward Christ so that your spirit, mind, and emotions, given by God, can be renewed and uninhibited in its quest for relationship with God. I plan to refocus my meditation practice on this when my MBSR course is completed.
One of the more interesting side effects of developing a meditation practice and contemplative prayer discipline is the lines of thought I have been inspired to follow. One has been a breakthrough in my understanding of biblical wisdom literature. I have understood for many years that wisdom literature is not intended to be read as commands, and it is meant to stimulate the thoughts of the reader. However, it is only now that I have realized that Proverbs is not intended to be practical advice either. It is meant to be prompts for meditation.
The point is to make the reader have to stop and question the assumptions he or she started with or the text or both and have to spend time pondering how to reconcile what was previously believed with this new wisdom that has been presented. I plan to explore that more deeply and create a discipline of meditation on proverbs and other wisdom literature (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Job, Psalms, Ruth, Lamentations, Esther, and Daniel are all considered wisdom literature in the Hebraic tradition).
While I thought about all of this, Ecclesiastes in particular suddenly was illuminated for me. I felt like I had been trying to read in the dark all this time, and someone came in and turned on the lights. I was able to see it for the first time. Ecclesiastes is not the nihilistic angst of a tortured genius like it has always been presented to me and how I have always read it. With that reading, you might as well skip the whole thing and just glance at the last half of the last chapter and move on. It’s the only part that would have any value. Why would it even be Scripture if that were the case?
No. What I have now seen so clearly that I wonder why I’ve missed it all these years is that it doesn’t discount the things in this life, the things that make up daily experience. It venerates an honest appraisal of everyday existence. Food and drink and relationships, effort and beauty are all valuable. What is discounted is undue attachment to achievement and possessions and anything else that is transient and fleeting. It is not experience that is meaningless; it is the inability to experience the present moment and recognize the supreme value of the things God has valued that is meaningless. These are all values emphasized and revealed through meditation and prayer. They are lived out in daily awareness of the world around you and responsiveness to whatever comes your way.
It is well worth reading—I can see that now—and I look forward to exploring it not only in my own disciplines but also with my worshiping community.
In another post, I described a faith crisis I experienced recently. I believe my meditation practice led to my faith crisis. I don’t believe it is because I was allowing evil influences into my mind. I think an image Thomas Keating used to describe what happens in the mind during centering prayer best depicts what was going on. There is more to it, but I’ll highlight the relevant parts here.
During centering prayer, one’s core self is refreshed. Keating uses the imagery of a businessperson in an office to represent the mind. At the door to the office, a long line of people (issues, problems, ideas, etc.) is formed, but the receptionist has strict instructions to keep them out. After centering prayer, the mind is strengthened so as to be able to handle a few of the unwanted or uncomfortable items waiting at the door, and the receptionist lets in the ones that can be handled.
I think that is also true as a result of mindfulness meditation, and I think that is what happened with my doubts and the idea that God doesn’t exist. It was already lurking in my mind, but I wasn’t equipped to deal with it. My strengthened mind felt more confident and allowed the thought to surface. Then I was able to process it, deal with it, and integrate the experience into who I am in a stable way instead of just pretending it wasn’t there.
Coming out the other side of that experience left me with an insight I believe to be a result of relationship with God and God’s people, not merely the product of my own wisdom. I have not experienced nearly enough suffering or life of any kind to be able to claim the ideas were purely mine. I was surprised by the amount and intensity of response I received to my post, particularly around the ideas regarding the futility of logic to justify suffering and Christ’s empathic response being of real value.
These are the kinds of things prayer produces in us, that if we remain in a place of personal striving and achievement, we will miss them as they arise. There are many types of prayer, meditation, and contemplation. Some are helpful for some people, and others are helpful for other people. While centering prayer or mindfulness may be valuable, some people simply can’t connect with them. Something more mentally active, like visualizations, contemplating particular ideas like love or joy, or even something as structured and active as praying the Rosary can be helpful for many people instead.
Praying the Rosary, I have begun to discover, is less than simple, especially for a complete novice and non-Catholic. I bought a book and a rosary and started figuring it all out. I have had to start memorizing sections, like the Apostles’ Creed, and after reading the book on the Rosary, I discovered that portions of it are just more than I can live with. The issue mostly is with Mary. While I appreciate greatly the incorporation of valuing the feminine contribution to spirituality, the theology around Mary that is, frankly put, just made up out of nowhere is more than I care to adopt. While I know Catholics will not approve, I hope to stay as true to the spirit of the practice as I can while making my own changes to the ritual and the prayers involved.
I am looking forward to forging some unique prayer and meditation routines in addition to participating in others with more history behind them. I have recently put one together to share with my small group that I have called a “Genesis meditation” involving a few verses from the first two chapters of Genesis and some guidance to focus the direction of ideas before the meditation begins. I plan to begin sharing more of what I come up with, both in the form of guided meditations and scriptural applications, as well as an exploration into what I mentioned earlier in the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, which is a large—but rumored to be powerful and valuable—world of prayer to discover.
In the meantime, what insights or encouragements or stories do you have to offer in your experience of prayer or meditation?