The Human Condition: Contemplation and TransformationT
The question now is, “Who are you?” “The presence of God is true security. There really isn’t any other. Divine love is the gift of God as we let go of our attachments and aversions, our “should” and the emotional programs of happiness that we bring with us from early childhood and that are totally impractical in adult life.” P.32
“The paradox is that we can never fully fulfill our role until we are ready to let it go. Whoever we think we are we are not. We have to find that out, and the best way to do so …. the most painless way, is through the process that we call the spiritual journey. This requires facing the dark side of our personality and the emotional investment we have made in false programs for happiness and in our particular cultural conditioning.” P.35 These are three lifelong tasks for us.
“The spiritual journey is not a career or a success story. It is a series of humiliations of the false self that become more and more profound. These make room inside us for the Holy Spirit to come and heal. What prevents us from being available to God is gradually evacuated. We keep getting closer and closer to our center. Every now and then God lifts a corner of the veil and enters into our awareness through various channels, as if to say, here I am. Where are you? Come and join me.” P 38
When God decides we are ready, he invites us to a new level of self-knowledge. P.39
(adapted from “The Human Condition: Contemplation and Transformation” by Thomas Keating, Paulist Press, New York, 1999)
Centering Prayer and The Prayer Word
Martin Laird, O.S.A.
The basic instruction in the practice of contemplation remains fundamentally the same throughout its seasons of practice: whenever we become aware that our attention has been stolen, we bring it back to the prayer word united with the breath. The practice is not to sit there trying to have no thoughts or only certain thoughts. As St. Theresa of Avila put it centuries ago, “by trying not to think we hopelessly stimulate the imagination…. The harder you try not to think of anything, the more aroused your mind will become and you will think even more.” Nor do we push away thoughts in an attempt to generate a dull blankness. Instead we simply bring our attention back to our practice whenever we find that our attention has been stolen. The challenge lies in its simplicity. The practice of bringing the attention back time and again creates what is called a habitus or habit, an interior momentum that gradually excavates the present moment, revealing more over time the stillness that is within us all like a buried treasure.
In early seasons of practice there is typically very little sense of our abiding immersion in Silence. Instead, when we try to be silent we find that there is anything but silence. This inner noise is generated by a deeply ingrained tendency, reinforced over a lifetime, to derive our sense of who we are and what our life is about from these thoughts and feelings. We look within and genuinely think that we are our thoughts and feelings.
Cf “A Sunlit Absence: Silence, Awareness and Contemplation” Martin Laird, O.S.A. (Oxford University Press 2011) pp16-17
Happiness, Prayer and Contemplation
“To desire God is the most fundamental of all human desires. It is the very root of all our quest for happiness.” (nsc186)
“Religion in the sense of something emanating from man’s nature and tending to God, does not really change man (sic) or save him (sic), but brings him into a false relationship with God: for a religion that starts in man is nothing but man’s wish for himself.” (cgb154)
It is in this sense that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom – and of true religion…This fear is what imposes silence.” (cgb154ff)
“Contemplative experience…is a pure gift of God and has to be a gift, for that is part of its very essence. It is a gift of which we can never, by any action of ours, make ourselves fully and strictly worthy. Indeed, contemplation itself is not necessarily a sign of worthiness or sanctity at all. It is a sign of the goodness of God…” (nsc188)
“Contemplation is precisely the awareness that this ‘I’ is really not ‘I’ and the awakening of the unknown ‘I’ that is beyond observation and reflection and is incapable of commenting upon itself” (nsc8)
“The best thing that beginners in the spiritual life can do…is to acquire the agility and freedom of mind that will help them to find light and warmth and ideas and love for God everywhere they go and in all that they do.” (nsc219)
“Learn how to meditate on paper. Drawing and writing are forms of meditation. Learn how to contemplate works of art. Learn how to pray in the streets or in the country. Know how to meditate not only when you have a book in your hand but when you are waiting for a bus or riding in a train. Above all, enter into the Church’s liturgy and make the liturgical cycle part of your life – let its rhythm work its way into your body and soul.” (nsc219)
“Strictly speaking I have a very simple way of prayer. It is centered entirely on attention to the presence of God and to His will and His love. That is to say it is centered on faith… My prayer is then a rising up out of the centre of Nothing and Silence. If I am still present ‘myself’ this I recognise as an obstacle about which I can do nothing unless He Himself removes the obstacle. If He wills He can then make the Nothingness into a total clarity.”
(From a letter to Aziz quoted by Robert H. King in “Thomas Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh, p143)
With Jesus the kingdom was present, the opportunity was there for life to be different. This was because Jesus was totally open to the reality of God in life. Jesus was at one with the Father and at one with suffering humanity. Jesus’ death was a willing sacrifice of love rather than payment of a debt owed to God to eradicate guilt. The incarnation is not a response to wrong doing. It is a further step in God’s outpouring of love and the continuing affirmation of his creation.
Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday as a humble king, a bringer of peace. He rejects the religious and political repression around him. He also rejects the temple’s rituals of exclusion along with its symbolism of violent national ambition. The priestly class are incensed and look to kill him. Jesus knows this and realises that his death is inevitable. All the gospels associate the death of Jesus with the great Jewish celebration of freedom, the feast of Passover. Jesus, the new Paschal lamb, provides us with food for the journey. However, if we are to embody God’s passion for humanity, we too must take up our cross, we too must be open to the fullness of the reality of God in our lives. The cross we have to take up is our readiness to replace old attitudes and be transformed by God. We have to be prepared to empty ourselves, as it were, if we are to be filled with God.
But, Jesus’ death is more than a challenge to the evils of his day. It breaks the power of evil for all ages. It establishes the kingdom, a new order of existence and spans the estrangement between the human and the divine acknowledged in the great myth of the Garden of Eden. It declares the truth of God as love and asserts that the truth of our humanity is found in openness to God. The resurrection of Jesus vindicates his vision of a world alive with the presence of God. His disciples now experience Jesus’ presence as a divine presence. His ascension confirms that the new creation straddles heaven and earth. Each Christian today must ask how they experience the presence of Jesus in life. We have to leave aside the illusion that we have a life separate from Christ.
For Jesus it was inconceivable not to be open to the reality of God in life and he could not but live to proclaim God’s kingdom. When this proclamation ran counter to the vested religious and civil interests of the day, a violent and bloody response could be anticipated. In his passion for God and the kingdom, Jesus was fully aware that he would, sooner or later, embrace an altogether different passion for he knew he could not compromise on who he was and what his message was.
(Gleeson, Denis, “Unbinding Christian Faith: Free to Be” Cluain Mhuire Press, Dublin 2015, pp 120-121)
Repentance Means a Change of Direction
The Catholic tradition has a rich teaching about the mystical life and its stages and difficulties. Contemporary psychology has reinforced the teaching about the dark side of humanity that some in psychological circles call the “shadow”, and which in theological language form the three consequences of original sin. These are illusion – not knowing what happiness is; concupiscence – looking for it in the wrong places; and weakness of will – the experience that we cannot change or heal our unmanageable lives without the grace of God. The fact that we cannot fix anybody, not even yourselves, is itself a precious insight. There are negative energies deep within us that we are not even aware of. The shadow side is extremely subtle and can even get into ministry in various ways. It can also insinuate itself into one’s prayer life; hence the urgent need of purification, or what John the Baptist called repentance….
The message that John the Baptist first articulated is one way to move from an exclusively self-centered life into the transformative destiny that God has prepared for us. The term “repentance” in scripture is primarily the willingness to change the direction in which we are looking for happiness. This calls upon us to surrender completely to the interior purification of our deep-seated selfishness, including our desire to feel God in prayer.
(“Consenting to God as God Is” by Thomas Keating; published by Lantern Books, 2016 cf pages 8-9)
We take the first steps in the spiritual journey when we come to some acceptance of ourselves as we really are, with our gifts, our limitations, our faults and our life story. We need, in addition, to attain some insight and understanding of the dynamics at play in our relationships, including our relationship with God. In other words, we need to accept the unadorned reality of ourselves, of the life that we have and of God as God is. There is certainly no shortage of raw material for the Holy Spirit to engage with during our Centering Prayer as She brings into clearer focus our core, true self, which is our potential in Christ.
The benefits (9) of our prayer are, then, to be seen in our daily life rather than during the prayer itself. Our core goodness begins to express itself in growing compassion for ourselves and for those around us. This is a core goodness that has been faithfully attested to by Christianity down through the ages despite much disturbing evidence to the contrary and tragic consequence interpretations of the garden story. Those we live with may be the first to notice subtle changes and nuances in temperament and behaviour. We may notice a greater appreciation of silence and an enhanced capacity to listen. We may become more comfortable with our own company and experience the slow and painful growth of self-knowledge. This will include an ability to let go, greater self- acceptance and greater acceptance of our given life circumstances. Finally, we may find ourselves reaching out to others in practical, non-judgmental and caring service reflecting the social justice message of the Gospel. Keating sums up the potential for us as follows:
“Contemplative prayer is the world in which God can do anything. To move into that realm is the greatest adventure. It is to be open to the infinite and hence to infinite possibilities. Our private self-made worlds come to an end; a new world appears within and without and around us and the impossible becomes an everyday experience.” (10)
Centering Prayer is not a retreat into silence and self-absorption. It is an ongoing encounter with the God of silence that radically transforms us, redefines our life stance and our relationship with God and ultimately places us at the service of others. Jesus announced the kingdom and our openness to contemplative prayer provides a means by which the kingdom can further take hold in our lives. Contemplative prayer and Centering Prayer, as a predisposition, are, indeed, an adventure. They are the means by which we can allow ourselves and our world to actually change for the better.
(Denis Gleeson, “Unbinding Christian Faith: Free to Be” Cluain Mhuire Press, Dublin 2015, pp 154-155. Quotation: “Open Mind, Open Heart” by Thomas Keating in “Foundations for Centering Prayer and the Contemplative Life” by Continuum Publishing 2002. Cf p15.)