Thursday, March 25, 2004

"Stopping the World," the Sixth Definition

After a few years of being active in the Church, the rector of our parish encouraged me to speak to the bishop about going to seminary. I was more than a bit hesitant. My impression of Episcopal clergy was that of Ivy League types; a rather exclusive club.

Eventually, I did visit the bishop, and was ushered through the ordination process. He insisted I attend Nashotah House, the Anglo-Catholic seminary of the Episcopal Church. His explanation was that I knew how to be an Evangelical, and it was time I learned how to be a Catholic.

The House was wonderful and awful. It offered an excellent theological education and a deep grounding in the discipline of daily corporate prayer. The awful part was the politics. Nashotah remains the only seminary of the Episcopal Church that does not allow women to perform sacerdotal functions on the grounds. They will accept women students, but not women priests.

I was oblivious to the issue of women's ordination prior to arriving at the House. The degree of outrage and mean-spiritedness surrounding the issue was shocking.

During my senior year, I was elected president of the Jackson Kemper Missionary Society, which is as close as the House gets to having a student body president. In this capacity, I was able to travel to other seminaries as a representative of the House. Through discussions with others in the larger Church, I felt prepared to lobby the Board, alumni and the student body of Nashotah to rescind the restrictions on women. The board chose to affirm their previous policy. I resigned my office, as I could no longer represent the House in good conscience.

When graduation came around, I found it ironic that only three of my class graduated with honors; the only two women in the class, and me. I was the "token male." Imagine that.

I've served the Church for fourteen years now. It continues to be a love/hate relationship. I've resigned from a couple of positions, and worked as the director of a homeless shelter, and as a counselor for adolescents in a chemical dependency center. But for some reason, I find myself continuously drawn back to the Church.

Today, I understand that I will probably always be a priest, because God doesn't trust me as a layman! Daily, I am pulled from the pit of destruction by the collar of my priestly vows.

I serve as a part-time interim priest now (which is why I have so much time for my latest addiction...blogs!). It is a specialized role, involving going into a parish and accomplishing specific tasks as you prepare them for the calling of a new spiritual leader. When the work is done, you quietly fade away. Usually, the agreement is for about a year. I am about halfway through my current assignment. The parish that I am working with right now is the best community in which I have ever served. Walking away from this one is going to be tough. At the same time, having no idea where I will be serving this time next year is also quite exciting.

That more or less brings the story up to date. I do want to touch on my current understanding of "stopping the world" before I end this series.

The final definition I want to give this concept is that a form of stopping the world would be what is traditionally called "contemplative prayer." Basil Pennington and Thomas Keating, among others, have written extensively on this topic.

I am hesitant to say too much about specific techniques for contemplative prayer. I think a person finds their own methods. I see most children as natural contemplatives. I think that learning how to do it is more a matter of remembering than learning something new.

At its root is the desire to "be still and know that I am God." It is a recognition of the places inbetween; a recognition that "God" is often discovered in places behind, beyond, or hidden within all sensory data or intellectual conceptualizations. It is similar to the way a musician recognizes the importance of rests inbetween notes. The places of no-sound are essential to the composition.

Christian spirituality, and theology, can be seen as flowing from two paths; the apophatic way, the negative way (less is best), and the kataphatic way, the positive way (the more the better). Usually, a healthy spirituality is a combination of the two. I love a well done solemn high mass, with smells and bells and chant. But I also enjoy times of quiet contemplation. Neither way is "right" or "wrong." But recognizing our own personal inclinations can help us to allow our spirituality to flow naturally from our relationship with God, instead of being something for which we strive, and often fail.

Regarding the setting, this ends up being much like Carlos Castaneda finding his place on the porch; you keep trying different things until eventually you find your "spot." Some people like complete silence, with no distractions. Others like candles, crosses, incense, and even music. Some like to incorporate a bit of yoga; others prefer to walk, maybe using a labyrinth. There is no "wrong" way; but there is a way that will suit you best where you are right now in your spiritual journey. So, explore.

What is the purpose of contemplative prayer? My purpose is to be still. To get that dang committee in my head to shut up. And then to begin to be aware that I am in the presence of God. To spend some time in that place, just being, just loving and being loved.

Usually, I have to begin by relaxing my body. This begins as I focus on my breathing. This technique is taught in Lamaze classes, btw. It is an excellent way to calm the mind and relax the body. Usually, I have to tune into each part of the body, and coax the muscles into letting go of their tension and relax.

The breathing and body relaxation exercises help the mind to become quiet. They act as a distraction. Usually, I then begin focusing on a phrase or a word, maybe a verse of scripture, allowing it to fall into the rhythm of my breathing. There is an old prayer, called the Jesus prayer, that I particularly find helpful; "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner." Over the years, this has become like a song that is always being played in the back of my mind. In times of crises, or before stepping into a hospital room, it suddenly is there, offering a focal point.

Thoughts will come floating through, of course. I find that the more I strive to chase them away, the more rigidly they remain. For me, the most effective way to deal with distractive thoughts has been to note them, and then let them float away. Sometimes, these thoughts can be of a person, or a situation, that are worth noting, but are best not allowed to become the primary focus of the quiet time.

Usually, there will be a point when there is no-thing, no separation, no time. Just be-ing, with God. Sometimes it is for just a moment; sometimes for a few minutes.

I try to balance daily contemplative prayer with study and action. The ideal cycle is that a time of silence before God offers the assurance of grace, which will then allow the study of the scriptures or other spiritual writings to be more focused, and less biased by underlying fears or emotional baggage. The study then leads naturally to a plan of action, an expression of our vocation, our calling, our form of service to the world. We, the Church, exist for the sake of the world. Each action will initiate a new cycle of prayer, study, and evolve into a new action.

In summation; Letting go of regrets of the past and frets of the future, using the tools of a disciplined spiritual life, can "stop the world" by helping us stay in the eternal now. In this present moment, if we expect to see manifestations of God "rolling through" all things, we will remain open to the new thing God may be doing, and can choose to actively participate in God's ongoing act of creation. Eternity is found in the now. It is only in this present moment that we encounter the living God.