This past weekend, instead of a sermon, our student pastor led us in an Ignatian Examen prayer practice where we reflected on the day prior, examining our emotions, our failures, our desires, and God’s calling on our lives. It was such a simple gift–those fifteen music-filled moments during which I shut my eyes and reflected on all that God is doing.
But I’m often missing it.
Like so many of us, I’m a do-er, a thinker, and in my eagerness to use my time wisely, I forget that listening to God is time that is never wasted. I’ve been doing a spiritual discipline during Lent where instead of jumping into tasks when I arrive in the office, I put on music and write for just one minute, reflecting on my fears, worries, and where God is in the midst of my life.
And God is there.
Beneath all of those very present needs and fears, God is always there–working and patiently waiting for me to quiet myself and connect. In my own Ignatian Examen last weekend, I realized I’m missing valuable moments of connection with others and with God in my life. In this week, I haven’t made great strides, but I’m thankful to God for making me aware of this connection that exists even when I fight or ignore it.
What’s so powerful about the Ignatian Examen is that while our moments of reflection are but fleeting, God’s call and action on and in our lives is omnipresent. I realize how, not just during Lent, but everyday, I need to commit to turning off my mind and using my heart to listen to what God is doing.
What about you? How do you connect with God? How do you listen and find meaning in the everyday?
I remember vividly that my love affair with centering prayer began in my senior year of college.
I was pursuing a call to ministry, poised to move first to Puerto Rico and then onto Washington, DC to serve the poor, and becoming exhausted with finding myself betwixt and between empty praise and worship and stodgy skepticism. I longed for a place where the presence of God, not our wanton human wisdom, was paramount.
Somehow I found my way to the little Catholic circle on my Presbyterian campus, a motley crew led by a renegade lady who didn’t seem to think it weird that everybody called her Pastor and who was convinced that service and contemplation went together. In the little workshop in which she roped me in, she taught us the ins and outs of lectio, the intentional listening for God while reading scripture (in contrast to the very real Bible school temptation to try to unravel the whole meaning of the verses in just a few minutes).
We were reading Ephesians 3:14-18, incidentally one of my favorite passages since youth, closing our eyes and earnestly seeking God, and then going around and sharing the words or the phrases that stuck out to us. When the Pastor got to me, I shared my word, “grasp,” only she revealed to me that that word wasn’t actually in the text for today.
“Don’t worry,” she said, “that happens frequently,” with a smirk and a chuckle, and I was awestruck by how nonchalant this Catholic woman could be about minor miracles in our midst.
It turns out that repeatedly hearing the NIV version of that scripture growing up probably put that word in my head, but maybe God wanted me to hear it, too. When I began to come to the Catholic circle with regularity, where they not only closed their eyes and listened to scripture with their hearts, but sat for thirty minute silent prayer sessions, I also began to use grasp as my prayer word, to which I could return my heart, as I did with my eyes to the candle burning in the center of the room, if my mind wandered.
Pastor Barb, despite her high energy and her electric personality, had this ease about her, this sense that prayer was about so much more than words, and that communion with God was meaningful even when it didn’t feel like anything, even when nothing happens.
As far as my own life is concerned, the mystery of centering prayer seems to be just as much about what happens outside of the prayer as in it. During nearly six years of practicing centering prayer in the barrios of Puerto Rico, in our nation’s capital, and on the campus of Princeton Theological Seminary, that word grasp took me on a journey from grasping for God, to realizing that God has been ever and always grasping for me.
“Maybe I am getting in best when nothing happens. Maybe I am on to something when there is no reward for me. Maybe the closest I can be to awareness of holy is just to be with the mysterious attraction that the Creator put in me. And, maybe when I don’t even sense that, still the transforming work of Christ goes on, unknown to me. Maybe that’s just the point: no effort on my part, only divine action.”
But what’s active in centering prayer is explicitly not the mind–the mind’s to be quieted to allow for the Spirit to grow, reside, and even meander. My discipline has changed as I’ve grown. Whereas earlier on, I was very conscious of clearing the mind and letting go of all thoughts, I’ve become less legalistic and more open to some of the lingering, nagging voices that exhibit themselves in that silence, more open to the myriad manifestations of God’s presence.
I’ve closed my eyes in just about every fabulous place I’ve ever had the privilege of traveling to. But I’ve never regretted those moments of silence, nor have I ever been really alone. You see, doing centering prayer in community way back in my college days always made sense to me. It’s not an easy thing to commit to those fifteen or thirty minutes on your own, but with safety in numbers, it’s somehow easier to open up to God fully and freely.
At Princeton Seminary, we’d sit in my crowded dorm room and attempt to block out the stress and the theology and the gods we often worshipped to welcome God in a very intentional way. And in China, my dear friend joined me over skype, across an ocean, and a twelve-hour time difference, and yet the practice couldn’t have been more fruitful. She says that after all these years, because we both still have a hard time with silence, it sometimes helps her to look up and see my peaceful face, the ups and downs of the breaths in and out of my chest, and my eyes closed, and and I feel the same way.
Believe it or not, silent prayer isn’t meant to be a solitary, distant practice. As Pastor Barb made clear back in the day with her penchant for social action, it’s meant to take us from detachment, to intention, to communion with God, and into community. I know it sounds impossible, bogus, even, that a practice of silence and contemplation would awaken Christians to community, to love and to justice. And I know it’s not for everyone, my own husband doesn’t take refuge in silence the way I do, and I think that just speaks even more clearly to God’s myriad of manifestations.
This one, this discipline, is not for everyone. But if you’ve ever struggled to hear God above all the other voices, if you’ve ever lost touch with your heart or your spirit, or wondered about the work of the Holy Spirit, you may want to start closing your eyes and listening to your breath, reading scripture with the eyes of your heart, seeking communion rather than answers, and being open to God’s presence not just in these times of silence but everywhere in the world.
Friends who are new to faith often ask me, “What happens if there’s no answer when you pray?”
Similarly, J. David Muyskens talks about the times when Centering Prayer is difficult and even dull, asking if these moments are all for nothing. The art of spiritual discipline, however, is created precisely for these moments, and the aim of such intentional prayer and meditation, is communion, harmony, or the relationship we desire with God, rather then the results or the expectations we ourselves seek in life.
As Muyskens puts it,
And, of course, it is not true that nothing happens. Nothing happens according to my agenda. Actually, in Centering Prayer I have consented to yield to God’s agenda. Perhaps in God’s agenda I am being given some rest. Perhaps in God’s agenda I am just to be. Perhaps God’s agenda is to love me. Maybe I am getting in best when nothing happens. Maybe I am on to something when there is no reward for me. Maybe the closest I can be to awareness of holy is just to be with the mysterious attraction that the Creator put in me. And, maybe when I don’t even sense that, still the transforming work of Christ goes on, unknown to me. Maybe that’s just the point: no effort on my part, only divine action.
—Sacred Breath, p. 87
It is my experience that we human beings rarely know what we feel or need, and so we wander toward God and we seek answers to our questions, our prayers, and our dilemmas. My own pleas usually begin with my circumstances, with ideas, people, and processes, but those thoughts that cloud my head are merely distractions from the communion God seeks with me. Those thoughts are even distractions from the harmony, I myself, seek with God.
The point is to trust God enough to leave God “the thoughts, the stuff,” and continue to enter into communion with God, simply because we desire to be in God’s presence. Now that act, then of practicing prayer in this way, is not “nothing,” but quite something.
It’s quite something because it begins with God and not with ourselves, and it keeps us coming back despite the challenges of life itself, our circumstances, and our questions.
I’m not saying the questions aren’t important, but they pale in comparison to what it means to know God and be known by God.