Have We Given Up on “Happily Ever After”?

First, an admission: I have a guilty pleasure in costume dramas, especially the kind that show up on PBS. From Downton Abbey to Lark Rise to Candleford to Victoria to the endless adaptations of Jane Austen novels, I love to let my feminine side come out to play whenever a show set in the past comes along.

Like many PBS fans, I’ve enjoyed the recent series Sanditon, based on an unfinished novel by Jane Austen. And — apparently like many other fans — I was bitterly disappointed by the show’s decidedly tragic ending.

If you keep reading, there will be spoilers — and not only for Sanditon. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

A Soap Opera by the Sea

Sanditon tells the story of a farmer’s daughter, Charlotte, who visits the seaside village of Sanditon where an enterprising man named Tom Parker is hard at work transforming the town into a resort, hoping to lure the aristocracy and other posh Londoners to make Sanditon their favorite beach getaway. Naturally, we meet an assortment of characters, with a variety of storylines all revolving around either love and romance (this is Jane Austen, after all), or the financial and social challenges of creating a truly world-class resort.

The first episode pretty much exhausts Austen’s unfinished manuscript, so the remainder of the eight-episode series features the story as envisioned by writer Andrew Davies. This pairing of a nineteenth century literary master with a twenty-first century screenwriter makes for some interesting bedfellows — incest, human trafficking, and racism are among the topics explored with a frankness that seems more common to our age than to Austen’s (not that such things didn’t exist, mind you, but that they weren’t discussed in polite company).

Against this backdrop, several romantic relationships and possible-relationships get explored. Will Charlotte end up with the moody and mysterious Sidney Parker, or the humble yet kindhearted foreman, James Stringer? Will the Caribbean heiress Georgiana Lambe ever escape the clutches of her overprotective guardian to find happiness with her spendthrift beaux Otis? And what about poor Lord Babington, who keeps pursuing the narcissistic Lady Denham who only has eyes for her rakish stepbrother? And will Tom and Sidney’s jovial brother Arthur finally shake off his clinging hypochondriac sister and just come out of the closet, for heaven’s sake?

So that’s the setup. And pretty much for everyone involved, it ends badly.

Okay, Arthur made the pragmatic choice of staying an eternal bachelor, which was probably pretty realistic for the time. And Denham finally says yes to Babington after he assures her that he just wants the chance to make her happy — a case of a male savior complex if there ever was one, but that seems doomed to failure since there’s no indication that Denham would be anything but beastly once she got bored with him.

From there it just gets worse. Georgiana, stung into submission when it is revealed that Otis had a gambling addiction, is left at the end of the series bitter and lonely. As for Sidney, he enters into an unhappy engagement in order to raise money for his brother after a disastrous fire threatens to bankrupt Sanditon. And since that fire also claimed the life of Stringer’s abusive father, it left him nobly sacrificing an opportunity to better himself in London, just so he can rebuild what his father destroyed. As for Charlotte? After most of the series artfully played off her flirtatious friendship with Stringer against a tempestuous interaction with Sidney, she decides late in the game that Sidney is the one, but once he dashes her hopes because he’d rather marry for money than for love, she leaves town sobbing — after barely bothering to say goodbye to the self-martyring Stringer.

The whole thing is just a big fat downer.

The Question is, “Why?”

Now, I suppose one could argue that Davies was leaving everything open for a possible second season, which apparently won’t happen thanks the cruel calculus of low ratings. And I think some critics and viewers have appreciated the fact that it doesn’t end all neatly tied up in a bow — with, presumably, Charlotte left tied down in a marriage that will eventually grow stale. There’s a bit of gender-swapping here, in that it’s the boy, not the girl, who gets stuck in a loveless marriage (or should I say boys, if my prediction about Babington is correct). But I think if the author is just trying to be postmodern in how he tells his story, he’s done a poor job compared to other films or shows (Educating Rita leaps to mind as a great story that ends without a kiss, and that’s 40 years old).

But I think what’s really going on is that there is a trend that maybe started with the critically acclaimed 2016 musical La La Land: that it’s just not cool to believe in “happily ever after” any more. Such is the cynicism of our age.

If you haven’t seen La La Land, it’s the story of two aspiring young professionals in Los Angeles: Jazz pianist Sebastian and actress Mia, who meet, and fall in love against the beauty and romance of Los Angeles — and who fall out of love, just on the verge of their careers taking off. Mia eventually makes it as an A-list actress, and the movie ends with her and her husband sneaking into a Jazz nightclub to hear Sebastian perform. The ex-lovers’ eyes momentarily lock, but then she slips away.

At least La La Land suggests that if love won’t work out, you can always find your joy in your career (or, presumably for Mia, with your next romance). But that movie bugged me for the simple reason that if I’m going to suspend disbelief enough to groove with dozens of aspiring dancers shutting down a freeway to do their choreographed flash mob, then I know this is a fantasy — a mythic story rather than an attempt at verisimilitude. And myth does more than just entertain — it charts out our hopes and dreams and aspirations. And the myth of La La Land seems to be that two high-functioning creative types cannot sustainably love one another.

Stories are Myths — They Show Us Who We Are

We love our fairytales to end with “they lived happily after” not because we are all sexist or heteronormative or classist. We want happy endings because we all want to create happy lives for ourselves and our loved ones. Myths are not cages that lock us into a patriarchal prison; they are stages that help us to envision all that is possible and to make it real.

And movies like La La Land or television shows like Sanditon, with their carefully crafted endings that undermine, rather than aspire to, any message of “happily ever after,” seem to be saying that it’s no longer possible to have happy endings.

If happy endings are embedded in sexism or classism or homophobia, then sure, I think that needs to deconstructed. But dismantling how social privilege gets enforced through our myths and stories does not require us to abandon our aspiration for happiness, for joy, for love.

I think this also points to why Star Wars: The Last Jedi was so controversial among fans, even though the critics loved it. Fans rightly understood that this is mythic entertainment, not “great literature” (whatever that is). And watching two hours of the bad guys killing more and more of the good guys, while the main hero of the entire story arc is stuck having a self-pity tantrum, is not good myth (I don’t think it made for good cinema or literature, either).

Everyone knows that not every story ends happily (that’s why there’s such a thing as tragedy in literature). But tragedy still has a mythic function in that it offers us a sense of meaning in what might have been. La La Land is hardly a tragedy; it just chooses a poignant longing over  happiness, as it obeys our secular dogma that career matters more than relationships. As for Sanditon, it’s more nihilistic in its mythic messaging. It ends with a marriage that seems doomed and an engagement that most certainly is doomed, while all the various other characters represent an assortment of unhappy or unfulfilled souls. This isn’t tragedy, it’s a sneak peak into hell.

Call me old fashioned or naive, but I think our myths reveal our soul, and in today’s world, the most impactful myths come to us through television or the cinema. Whether it’s the endless conflict where every-fight-gets-bigger-than-the-last-one of superhero movies, the subtle (or not-so-subtle) put-down humor of shows like Friends or The Big Bang Theory, or the can’t-trust-anybody angst of shows like Riverdale or Star Trek: Discovery, it seems that too many of our cultural myths just keep getting darker and more chaotic.

To each his own. But this is why I like watching old movies and old TV shows — not to mention exploring the great myths of the ancient Celts or the mythic consciousness embodied in the teachings of the mystics.. I’ll take my myths — and my entertainment — with equal measures hope and meaning, thank you very much.

Featured photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash.

What’s the Best Church for Contemplative Christians?

A reader writes:

Carl, do you think the Catholic Church has more scope to welcome contemplative Christians?  I attend an Anglican church and I’m very high Anglican in my thinking. A friend calls me a secret Catholic.  I’m growing weary of the evangelical fundamentalist direction of the church… I’m a bit lost to be honest.

I’m sorry you feel lost, and I think it’s not unusual, especially when someone discovers contemplative spirituality, to feel a bit out of place if your local church does not have a contemplative culture. And unfortunately, that’s true of most churches.

There are several ways to respond to your question. First, the question of which expression of Christianity is the most “welcoming” to contemplatives. Related to that, you are specifically asking about Catholicism. But then you also bring up the question of fundamentalism, and how fundamentalists in your church leave you feeling weary and lost.

So let’s look at each of these in turn.

Is Catholicism the Most Contemplative-friendly type of Christianity?

First, a disclaimer. I myself am a Catholic Christian, having converted to Catholicism from Protestantism about fifteen years ago. So my answer to your question may be a bit biased. But I’ll try to be honest with you, and in all honesty, I think when it comes to contemplation, there are both pros and cons to being a Catholic (as opposed to other forms of Christianity).

First, the pros. Since Catholicism celebrates the entire 2000 year history of Christian spirituality, many Catholics are comfortable turning to the great saints of the past (like St. Teresa of Ávila or St. John of the Cross) to learn more about the spiritual life. By contrast, many Protestant churches have a much narrower approach to tradition: basically, they only teach out of the Bible. Now, the Bible does have a contemplative dimension, but much of the truly deep wisdom of Christian contemplation comes from centuries after the last books of the Bible were written. Generally speaking, Catholics are more open to applying the wisdom of the saints to their spiritual lives today.

Likewise, most Protestant churches do not have monasteries, and may even be biased against monasteries as an expression of Christian discipleship. Since for many centuries the contemplative tradition of spirituality was passed down by monks in the cloister, it’s harder for Protestants to relate to the wisdom of monasteries since it is not part of their culture. That’s not true across the board, of course — as you know, there is a monastic tradition in Anglicanism. But many other Protestant and Evangelical churches might regard contemplation as “too Catholic” because of its roots in the monastic world.

Finally, it’s significant to note how many contemporary teachers of contemplative Christianity are Catholic. Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, M. Basil Pennington, Richard Rohr, John Main, Laurence Freeman, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Mary Margaret Funk, Bede Griffiths, Sarah Grant, Wayne Teasdale, Caryll Houselander, Ruth Burrows, Bernadette Roberts… these are just some of the many Catholic spiritual teachers of our time or the recent past. Clearly, there seems to be a deep affinity between Catholicism and contemplation.

But now for the cons. Unfortunately, many Catholics regard contemplation as something only monks and nuns do. Often the local parishes are much more focused on simple devotional practices like the Rosary or Holy Hours, with very little emphasis on contemplation at all. In fact, some Catholics, basing their idea that contemplation can only be a grace — a gift from God — regard it as presumptuous for ordinary people to try to cultivate contemplation on their own. So it’s important to remember that the bias against contemplation that you can find in some Protestant churches, unfortunately, can be present in Catholic Churches as well.

I’ve lived in Atlanta, Georgia for going on 30 years now, and I’ve never been to the Atlanta zoo. I’ve been to zoos in other cities, but not the one here! My point is, sometimes we take for granted what’s in our own back yard — and I think Catholics can sometimes have that attitude toward contemplation. Since it is very much part of Catholic culture, ironically that makes it less appealing for many Catholics! They are more likely to want to visit “the zoo in another city” — i.e, practice charismatic prayer or zen or something like that — than to really get to know the treasure in their own back yard.

For me, becoming a Catholic was a great way to integrate my love for contemplation with my conviction that spirituality ought to be sacramental in nature. So I think that would be final word of advice about Catholicism: don’t join the Catholic church just because you have a romantic idea that it might be “more” contemplative; I’m afraid you’ll find in some ways it is, in other ways it isn’t. But if you are drawn to Catholicism for other reasons in addition to your love of contemplation, then I would encourage you to explore it further. At the end of the day, there’s only one reason to join a church: because you believe that church will help you to follow Jesus better. If that’s not your conviction, then all the other reasons for joining the church probably are not that important. Ask yourself, “Where do I believe Jesus wants me to be?” and let that be your guide.

If Not Catholicism, What Then?

So maybe like me, you’ll find becoming a Catholic truly makes your soul sing. But if you really don’t feel drawn to becoming a Catholic, trust your intuition. Remember, God loves everybody, not just Catholics!

But what should someone do, who wants a more contemplative-friendly church? I think there’s two answers to this question. First, we have to accept that the perfect church (including the perfect contemplative church) simply doesn’t exist. Then it’s a question of finding the best church for you — and your family, if you have one.

When I was thinking about becoming a Catholic, more than one person told me to visit different parishes. Each one has its own personality, its own focus on this or that aspect of faith and practice. Some parishes are more devotional, some are more activist, some are mostly focused on education, others have a strong interest in evangelization (what Protestants call “mission”). And yes, once in a while you find a parish that has a truly prayerful, contemplative personality.

This is true, whether or not the church is Catholic. In fact, if you exchange the word “congregation” for “parish” in the above paragraph, you’ll see that it just as much applies to Protestant and Evangelical churches as to Catholic ones.

There are some truly contemplative-focussed churches here and there. I know of at least two here in Georgia, where I live. One is Catholic, the other is Episcopalian (Anglican). But they tend to be only a fraction of the overall number of churches, and if you don’t happen to live close to one, you are more likely going to have to make do with the local church, no matter what its “personality” is like.

So here’s what I would say: visit nearby churches — regardless of their denominational affiliation. When you visit, read their bulletins. Check out their websites. Check to see if the church sponsors a Centering Prayer or Christian Meditation group. See if they have upcoming retreats planned at a nearby monastery or Jesuit Retreat House. You may not find the perfect church, but it’s still possible you can find the “good enough” church.

Then, no matter how good (or bad) your local congregation or parish is at welcoming contemplatives, take responsibility for finding contemplatives outside your local community. Make retreats at a monastery. Take a course online. Join a contemplative Facebook group. Get involved with an organization like Contemplative Outreach or the World Community for Christian Meditation. It’s easier to find your “home” as a contemplative if you don’t expect the local parish/congregation to meet all your needs.

But this leads to your third, and perhaps most important question.

What About the Fundamentalists?

Somebody once said, “Mysticism is the antidote to fundamentalism.” Unfortunately, I think that works the other way around: when there are too many fundamentalists gathered together, the mystics (and contemplatives) have a tendency to go elsewhere.

Once again, bad news and good news. First, the bad news: fundamentalism is everywhere. Yes, there is even such a thing as fundamentalist Catholics. In fact, the book Catholics and Fundamentalists: Understanding the Difference has a chapter in it about fundamentalist Catholics. So it’s possible to find, in every church, people who have an authoritarian, legalistic, narrow/rigid understanding of faith, one that sees God as angry and demanding rather than loving and kind. Some human beings just tend to be authoritarian, rigid, and legalistic — it’s a personality type. So they will show up anywhere.

You talked about “the fundamentalist direction” your church is taking. That makes it sound like the leadership of your church tends towards fundamentalism. If that’s the case, it may be time to find a new church, whether or not you change denominations. But remember, fundamentalism is everywhere, so wherever you go, you’ll have to deal with it.

Here’s what I think is important to keep in mind: fundamentalists follow a spirituality of fear, rather than of compassion. Because they see the world through fear-tinted glasses, they tend to be fearful (suspicious) of people who are different from them. It’s hard to not to feel judged when someone views you with suspicion. But I think it’s really important that we try to remain grounded in the love of God. Our job, as followers of the compassionate Christ, is to meet their suspicion with kindness, their fear with compassion, and their judgment with non-judgment.

This doesn’t mean we have to acquiesce to their way of seeing things. We can disagree, and we can remain true to our own conscience. But we don’t have to be unpleasant to others in the meantime.

As for me, I try really hard not to get into debates or fights with fundamentalists. I just tell them, “We see things differently, and I don’t want to discuss it.” Sooner or later, they get tired of hearing that and they walk away. Some of the more toxic ones might get belligerent and threatening (“If you don’t repent, you’re going to hell!”) but once again, the best response is, “I’m sorry, but I see things differently. And I don’t want to discuss it.”

The main thing that I do to keep fundamentalists from bugging me is this: I am proactive about finding friends who share my spiritual and theological views and I turn to them for spiritual and emotional support. I can worship with people with whom I disagree, I can do volunteer work with them, and serve on committees with them. But when it comes to who I socialize with, that’s when I am more choosy about who I send time with. And it’s okay to set boundaries like this.

So the best way to deal with fundamentalists is to find a church (again, it could be any denomination) where there is an emphasis on kindness, compassion, a scholarly approach to scripture and theology, and a recognition that we don’t all have to think alike in order to worship together. Such churches do exist, although they’re probably easier to find in big cities. If that’s just not possible (no such church exists near you), then the ideas I shared above, about learning how to get along with fundamentalists (a mixture of being kind and setting good boundaries) may be your only strategy.

A Final Thought

It’s not easy to find a truly nurturing church home. It’s like finding a husband or wife: sometimes we have to kiss a lot of toads in order to find that prince (or princess). And it’s not easy to deal with people whose way of being Christian is narrow-minded, mean-spirited, legalistic, or excessively authoritarian. But in both these scenarios, having a commitment to contemplative practice — daily silent prayer — can be a huge help. Taking time to rest in the love of God is an excellent way to cultivate your own spirit of kindness and compassion; and it’s a great way to fortify yourself for the perseverance necessary to find, and become connected to, the church that is right for you. But good luck! Trust that God has a place just for you. And prayerfully give yourself to the adventure of finding that place.

Contemplation and Emotional Intensity

One of this blog’s readers wrote to me this past Saturday (February 15, 2020) to ask a question about Richard Rohr’s daily meditation for that day.

Here’s the quote (emphasis added):

Contemplative prayer always requires hospitality to your deep self, to the deep parts of your self. It demands the openness to receive whatever might arise in you and then gently release it into God’s hands. But in prayer you are not alone as you open yourself to whatever might emerge. You do so in a relationship that provides a safety and support in holding whatever emerges. That which arises might come with a flood of emotional intensity. Sometimes, being still before self and God releases a torrent of emotions. Tears may be intermixed with joy. . . .1https://cac.org/ways-of-knowing-weekly-summary-2020-02-15/

My reader’s question:

I was surprised to read the underlined part.  I thought that in contemplation you were supposed to mistrust an emotional reaction and move away from it by returning to your prayer word, as you’re supposed to move away from everything.  No?  Yes? Both?

I don’t want to presume to speak for Richard, but it appears that he is describing what Thomas Keating calls “the unloading of the unconscious.” The idea is simple: as we progress in the practice of silent prayer, we create a sense of safety in our hearts and minds. Silent prayer practices like Centering Prayer or Christian Meditation are exercises in cultivating a gentle, non-judgmental way of being present to our own awareness. A thought emerges, and we gently let it rise and fall. Same thing with images, daydreams, memories, and even emotions.

But when we do this for a while, what happens is the mind and heart begin to “unload” — which is to say, dredge up old memories, old feelings, old beliefs, even old traumas. Not that these have necessarily been repressed, but they typically are stored away outside of the normal sphere of everyday consciousness, almost like a file cabinet marked “To be dealt with later.” And, if my experience is any guide, I would say that “old” can be from childhood — or from earlier today. It’s not just about suddenly recalling what’s been deeply buried, so much as it is about paying attention to what needs to be healed.

Trust, Welcome, Let Go

I would not say the instructions of silent prayer practices (like Centering Prayer) are to “mistrust” our emotional reactions. Indeed, I’ve never used that word in all the times I’ve presented or taught the Centering Prayer method or other forms of silent prayer. In fact, I would say the part of the beauty of contemplative practice is that it gently encourages us to trust our minds and hearts — but to trust what arises, welcome it, and then let it go.

Why trust — rather than mistrust? It’s the same principle that a smile takes less effort than a frown. To mistrust our thoughts and feelings is to necessarily become enmeshed in them. That’s an act of judgment, which Jesus counseled us against (Matthew 7:1). To trust whatever arises is to simply accept that the mind and heart is what it is, no matter how wise or ignorant, how virtuous or sinful, how healthy or dysfunctional we might be. After all, most of us are a glorious mix of all the above.

So we gently trust whatever arises, whether it’s the garden-variety distractions that annoy us most of the time in silence — or suddenly some wave of primal emotion like anger or rage or sadness or fear washes over us. But trusting what emerges is not the same thing as getting enmeshed in it. The posture of trust simply enables us to watch without judgment. What arises, arises. In silence, we let it arise, and we let it dissipate. And we always rely on a prayer word, a sacred word, following the breath, or the Jesus Prayer as a way to keep ourselves gently focused on the intention of the prayer.

What if it’s too much?

The reality of having powerful emotions, painful memories, half-forgotten traumas, or other intense thoughts/feelings emerging during silent prayer is that sometimes it can be overwhelming. As Richard points out, it can be a “torrent of emotions” where “tears may be intermixed with joy.” What are we to do when something so intense emerges? It’s like a huge wave that threatens to capsize the boat. How do we remain focused on the intention of the prayer at times like that?

Well, sometimes we don’t, or at least, not very well. And this is why Contemplative Outreach teaches a method called “the Welcoming Prayer” which was developed by an early leader of the Centering Prayer movement, Mary Mrozowski. Cynthia Bourgeault has a wonderful chapter in her book Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening that explains this method of prayer, and so I would commend this book to anyone serious about learning how to respond to powerful/overwhelming emotions or thoughts that emerge during silent prayer.

In a blog post I can only offer the barest summary of the three-step process of Welcoming Prayer:

  1. Focus and Sink In
  2. Welcome
  3. Let Go

The first step is to receive the powerful feeling, just as it is, present in the body. Focus on it: don’t fight it (this is what I mean by “trusting” it). As Cynthia says, “Don’t try to change anything. Just stay present.” But it’s not about trying to analyze or understand what’s going on (if you need to do that, save it for a therapy session). Remember, in this moment you are praying. So by focussing and sinking in to the powerful emotion, you are in effect inviting God to notice with you what you are currently experiencing/embodying.

The second step is to welcome the feeling. The instructions for Welcoming Prayer involve actually welcoming the emotion by name but not by trying to label whatever thoughts or memories are swirling around it. So for example, let’s say you are overwhelmed by sadness because you remember being bullied as a child. Silently in your prayer you can welcome this by saying “Welcome sadness.” You are welcoming the feeling — not the memory, and most certainly not the trauma! So you wouldn’t say, “Welcome bullying” or “Welcoming getting picked on” or anything like that. You focus on the feeling and so you welcome the emotion, nothing more.

Finally, having focused on and welcomed the feeling — you simply let it go. Cynthia suggests that we do not need to rush to this third step. Depending on how overwhelming the feeling is, we may need to knead it like a charley-horse in your leg, to use her simile. But by focusing and welcoming the feeling, sooner or later it begins to lose its power to overwhelm us. As we sense that happening, we are reaching the point where we can simply let it go and return our awareness to the silence of the prayer.

As I hinted above, sometimes what emerges might be so powerful that we need to follow up with a therapist or counselor to truly heal what needs healing. Other times the prayer itself can be a healing process for us. And I should also mention that the Welcoming Prayer is not just for difficult or painful emotions — it’s an excellent method for “praying through” any kind of powerful emotion, even the happy ones like joy or exhilaration or the headiness of new love.

The Body Prays, The Body Feels

So many of us turn to silent prayer practices like Centering Prayer because we seek greater peace and serenity in our lives. So it can be a bit dispiriting to realize that even silent prayer can be turbulent and intense. But our interior lives are mirrors of our exterior circumstances, and since we all live in a society that is turbulent, conflict-ridden, and often traumatized, we need to gently acknowledge that any or all of this will show up in prayer, which of course is the forum for our intimacy with God. But by learning to trust, welcome, and gently release these powerful energies, we make it more possible to discover the silent beauty of peaceful presence within us.

Featured image photo by Josep Castells on Unsplash.

Mysticism is a Love Story: A Baker’s Dozen of Contemplative Books for Valentine’s Day (or Any Day)

Simply put, mysticism — at least, Christian mysticism — is all about love. To explore Christian mysticism basically means to explore love. It’s an invitation to join the noblest of human aspirations. Love has inspired poets and philosophers for as long as human beings have enjoyed telling a good story. Without love, we would have no Romeo and Juliet, no Tristan and Isolde, no Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, no Wandering Aengus and the Glimmering Girl and, for that matter, no Song of Songs, no Jacob and Rachel, no Ruth and Boaz. Whether the topic is love won or lost, love thwarted or misunderstood, comic romance or passionate tragedy, there is nothing so fundamentally human as a good story about love. And mysticism is just that. It is the greatest of love stories. And that’s why it matters.

The Big Book of Christian Mysticism

I wrote those words over a decade ago, but I still believe them with all my heart. So I want to celebrate Valentine’s Day by highlighting more than a dozen of my favorite mystical and contemplative books — because they’re all about love.

Maybe not the kind of love you normally associate with Valentine’s Day. But as I hinted in The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, you can’t have romantic love without the greatest love of all: the love that created all things. Mysticism is the story of our love affair with Love-with-a-Capital-L. And the human, earthly loves we enjoy — whether romantic, erotic, familial, or friendly — all begins with the love that comes from God, the love that “moves the sun and other stars.”

So this Valentine’s Day, give yourself — and your loved ones — the gift of mystical love. And if you’re reading this on any day other than February 14, well — Divine Love is something worth celebrating every single day of the year!

  1. Evelyn Underhill, An Anthology of the Love of God — this book is out of print but used copies are easy to find and not too expensive. It’s a wonderful introduction to the thought of one of the most lyrical of 20th century mystics — and, actually, a pretty good introduction to how mysticism is all about love. The book is arranged topically by how love is found in pretty much every aspect of the contemplative/mystical life.
  2. Henri Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love — many great contemplatives and mystics have been dedicated journal-keepers: St. Faustina, George Fox, and Thomas Merton all come to mind. So, too, was Henri Nouwen, and this book records entries from his journals as he struggled through how own dark night of the soul — and found a path from anguish to freedom in the voice of Love within.
  3. Thomas Keating, Invitation to Love — All of Thomas Keating’s books about contemplation and Centering Prayer are classics. This one, subtitled “The Way of Christian Contemplation,” connects the dots between the practice of silent prayer and the embodied encounter with Love at the heart of the contemplative journey. It’s more than just an introductory book — it’s an in-depth exploration of contemplation.
  4. Julian of Norwich, Revelations  of Divine Love — If any mystic is a poet of the love of God, it’s Julian of Norwich. Her writings, visionary and lyrical, offer us a rich insight into not only the love, but also the joy, at the heart of the Triune God, manifest in the overflowing compassion and care that Christ shows for all of us. Read Julian, and you’ll be forever cured of thinking of God as “wrathful.” All that’s there is love.
  5. Thomas Merton, Love and Living — “Love is the revelation of our deepest personal meaning, value, and identity.” So said Thomas Merton, one of the most beloved and influential of twentieth century mystics; this book is a collection of essays published after his death, exploring topics such as the good news of the nativity, the spirituality of Teilhard, the climate of mercy, and the universe as epiphany.
  6. Anthony deMello, The Way to Love — Subtitled “meditations for life,” this is the final collection of reflections by the popular Indian Jesuit, published shortly after his sudden death at age 55. deMello’s simple spiritual wisdom and accessible books were filled with parables and anecdotes all designed to foster spiritual awakening. Prayer, awareness, and authenticity form the way to love, and deMello is a sure guide.
  7. Mirabai Starr, God of Love — Mirabai weaves together the mystical beauty of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, showing how the heart of each tradition is a recognition of God as love. Integrating how each tradition combines contemplative mysticism with a mandate for justice and community, she gives voice to a visionary interspirituality for our time: a contemplative celebration of the divinity of love.
  8. Brendan Smith, The Silence of Divine Love — Smith, a British Benedictine monk,  dives deep into the paradoxes of the contemplative life in this meditative book. Drawing on poetry but (as the title implies) steeped in silence, this book is ultimately a celebration of the mystery at the heart of all things. “All words are inadequate, even the poet’s,” admits the author, but his visionary words help us to find the silence of love.
  9. St. John of the Cross, Living Flame of Love — One of the greatest of all mystics, St. John of the Cross was a renowned poet and theologian — best known for his awe-inspiring study of the dark night of the soul. Living Flame of Love shows his lesser known side: a true troubadour of divine felicity and intimacy. Based, like all his works, on his poetry, this book celebrates the intimacy of responding to God’s love for us.
  10. Ruth Burrows, Ascent to Love — Ruth Burrows is the pseudonym of the British Carmelite nun, whose down-to-earth writing celebrates the potential for authentic mystical union with God even here in our skeptical postmodern age. All of her books are worth reading, but this one, her commentary of the spirituality of John of the Cross, celebrates how the mystical life is for everyone, not just the “experts.”
  11. Jan van Ruusbroec, Love‘s Gradatory — Ruusbroec is a relatively obscure mystic, but was deeply admired by Evelyn Underhill; even a casual reading of his work reveals why. He was as daring as Meister Eckhart, but discerning enough to write in a manner that kept him from getting in trouble with church authorities. This book, like other mystical classics, offers an outline of spiritual growth as an unfolding of love.
  12. Gertrude of Helta, The Herald of Divine Love — Gertrude, a Benedictine nun of the thirteenth century, was known as “Gertrude the Great,” a clear indication of her reputation as a renowned mystic. The Herald of Divine Love recounts her visions, showing she was an early devotee to Christ’s sacred heart. Like so many mystics, her visions center on meeting Christ as the beloved, and seeking to be worthy of his love.
  13. Susan J. Stabile, Growing in Love and Wisdom — Ignatian spirituality meets Tibetan Buddhism in this creative and insightful collection of spiritual practices based on Tibetan sources. Stabile was a Buddhist nun for twenty years; after returning to Christianity she became a spiritual director. This is a wonderful book of meditations in its own right, but also a beautiful example of contemplative interspirituality.

Featured image: The Song of Songs, from Volume I of Bible of Borso d’Este, illuminated by Taddeo Crivelli (1425-1479) and others, Latin manuscript 422-423, folio 284, recto, parchment, 1455-1461, Italy, 15th century (detail).

“For Darkness is as Light to You” — Why Mysticism Isn’t Afraid of the Dark

One of the most powerful images in the Bible is the distinction between light and dark. Light represents God, or Christ, or goodness; darkness, by contrast, represents ignorance, or evil, or sin.

Consider, for example, this passage from the first letter of John:

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.1I John 1:5-7

Jesus, of course, proclaims “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12); and elsewhere in the Gospel of John, we find this statement: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5).

So if the Bible rather consistently offers this image of light representing good and dark representing evil, why then do we find writings in the literature of mysticism with titles like The Dark Night of the Soul (St. John of the Cross), The Darkness of God (Denys Turner), and A Dazzling Darkness (an anthology of mystical wisdom)? In The Darkness of God, Turner points out that a long lineage of Christian mystics, from Pseudo-Dionysus the Areopagite, Augustine, Bonaventure, Meister Eckhart, and others, all have stressed darkness, negativity, or not-knowing as keys to the spiritual life.

So what gives here?

Dennis the Carthusian, Mystic of the Divine Dark.

Darkness is Not Dark to You

To explore this seeming paradox, let’s begin with this passage from the Psalms.

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.2Psalm 139:11-12

It’s natural for human beings to be afraid of the dark. In the wilderness, after sundown comes the time when humans feel vulnerable in the presence of animals that have better nighttime vision than we do. But the danger of the night isn’t just limited to nature: crime and violence both seem more likely under the cover of darkness. Every American city, after all, has neighborhoods where the locals will tell you, “don’t go there alone at night.”

But science reminds us that the line separating “light” from “dark” is created by the limitations of our own eyes. Infrared or ultraviolet light are both forms of light that can be measured — only not by the naked eye. So our fear of the dark is very much driven by our own humility. God does not need to fear the dark, for God’s “eyes” can see any form of light. “Darkness is not dark” to God, for since God is light, God cannot be constrained by any type of darkness (physical or spiritual).

The Gospel of John includes this hopeful thought: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”3The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. Darkness cannot overcome the light of God, for God’s light can shine into any darkness. Darkness, after all, is like silence: it is a bowl into which the light of God’s love can be poured, and is continually poured.

“Silence is God’s first language; everything else is a poor translation,” notes Thomas Keating, borrowing a concept from Rumi. I think the point is not that God speaks no language, but that God’s voice resonates at a level below/above what the human ear can comprehend. This is why silence is never purely silent: it always rings out with the music of the spheres, only we cannot hear it. But it does give us the space to be, to think, and to know (the hidden presence of God).

So darkness is to the eyes what silence is to the ears. God’s light fills every darkness, just as surely as God’s voice fills every silence. That we are shielded from directly perceiving this is a grace, given to us, for surely the mortal human body could not perceive the fullness of God’s glory and live.

So it’s important to draw this simple yet essential distinction. The Bible’s seeming dualism between light=good and dark=bad is operating on a strictly human level. But on a more truly divine level, all dualities fall away, and light is filled with the light of God, and so too is darkness filled with the (invisible) light of God. The mystics intuited this, so in their halting attempts to give voice to God’s beauty and wonder, they wrote of finding God even in the dark night, the cloud, the darkness filled with a light so radiant that it dazzled the eyes.

One Final Note

Above, I quoted John 8:12, where Jesus proclaims “I am the light of the world.” I always like to pair that verse with Matthew 5:14, part of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus tells his listeners, “You are the light of the world.” So is this just the idiosyncracies of two different Gospel writers, or is there an important message here?

I think there’s an important message. Christ is the Light of the World. And you and I are also the Light of the World. Any mystic worth his or her salt would agree. This is no paradox; it’s simply a reminder: We are Christ.

Featured Photo by Kaitlin Duffey on Unsplash.


Seven Mystical Affirmations

Currently I’m reading two classic self-help books, both for my personal edification and as research for a project I’m working on. The books are Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and John Bradshaw’s Healing the Shame that Binds You.

If you’re not familiar with these books, they have long been perennial bestsellers in the self-help market: Cameron’s book is a program for releasing inner obstacles to creativity through an exploration of the relationship between art and spirituality, while Bradshaw’s book offers hope particularly to those in recovery by exploring the causes of toxic shame — and steps we can take to release such shame, thereby freeing ourselves to live with integrity and authenticity.

What immediately struck me was how both authors use affirmations as a tool to encourage readers to literally “re-program” their minds away from limiting, self-defeating, and toxic ways of thinking. An affirmation is a positive statement that anyone can use to recalibrate their thoughts in such a way as to encourage healing, creativity, trust, or confidence. It follows the classic book from over a century ago, James Allen’s As a Man Thinketh, which affirms (pardon the pun) how our thoughts literally direct our lives and can impact our physical and psychological health as well as our creativity and our productivity.

Thinking about this got me to reflect on whether affirmations might have a place in the practice of contemplative spirituality.

On the surface that may seem counterintuitive. Isn’t contemplation about silence, after all? Why clog up silence with the noisy chatter of affirmations, never mind how positive and uplifting they might be? If the goal is to be still and know God, isn’t any use of language, no matter how “affirming,” somehow a retreat from the silence we so desire?

That does make kind of sense, but it also fails to consider that silence is never purely silent: just as the brain always thinks (even when we sleep, it generates dreams), so the reality is that we are always engaged with language on some level. This is why mantras and sacred words remain so essential in any meditative or contemplative practice. We choose a single word or a short prayer like the Jesus Prayer to entrain our heart and mind on, simply because of our all-too-human tendency to fill the silent chalice of the mind with something — and a sacred word or short prayer is better than the wandering, chaotic distractions the mind will come up with on its own.

So back to affirmations. If we think of affirmations as prayers, then perhaps they do have a place in the contemplative life. Now, self-help affirmations tend to be very “I” focused: “I effortlessly maintain my perfect weight” or “I create art with joy and gratitude” or some such statement. These are good statements for helping to reorient the human mind from fear to trust — but in terms of contemplation, we need to set our sights a bit higher than just on the self. So for the following affirmations, I’ve created three “I” affirmations and four “God” affirmations — acknowledging that God, ultimately, is the active agent in the contemplative life, and we affirm, prayerfully, God’s love for us and God’s desire to (re)form us in the Divine image and likeness.

So I offer these affirmations as a type of “holy experiment.” Consider taking one or a few or all of these statements and integrating it/them into your daily prayer practice. Particularly if you find you resist one of these statements, or even just find it hard to believe, that might be the one to work with. Just as self-help affirmations are designed to recalibrate the mind for the purpose of healing and creative growth, so these “mystical affirmations” are designed to form our hearts, minds, and souls into who God calls us to be. We can trust this call because it has been reported to us by so many of the mystics, down the ages all the way back to Biblical times. Now as we live and breathe, it is our turn to take these promises and make them real — by praying them, by trusting God, and by consenting to the action of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

If you choose to integrate one or more of these affirmations into your prayer life, let me know how it goes. Leave a comment here are reach out to me on social media.

Seven Mystical Affirmations

  1. God loves me (and all people) unconditionally, and fills our hearts with Divine Love, transforming us into living incarnations of that joyful love. (see Romans 5:5)
  2. I consent to God’s action in my heart and my life, trusting God’s work to heal me and to make me the serene, creative person I am called to be.
  3. Christ abides in me, and I abide in Christ. As Christ is one with God, so I am one with Christ. We are all One in Love. (see John 10:30; John 15:4)
  4. I take delight in God, and in so doing I receive the deepest desire of my heart — which is union with God. (see Psalm 37:4)
  5. God dwells in my heart, which is the temple of the Holy Spirit: therefore I keep silence in that sacred divine presence. (see Habbakuk 2:20, I Corinthians 6:19)
  6. I partake in God’s Divine Nature. (see II Peter 1:4)
  7. God teaches me to be silent; every day I find the silence within me deeper and less distracted. (see I Thessalonians 4:11, translated literally)

I have other ideas bubbling up, but I don’t want to overwhelm anyone, so I’ll leave it at this. Enjoy these affirmations — use them, repeat them, pray them. And if you come up with some of your own, let me know about them.

Less than 12% of the Catholic Catechism is devoted to spirituality. That, in a nutshell, is what’s wrong with the church today.

Over the years I have discovered that there are three types of people interested in Christian mysticism and contemplative spirituality:

  • Some are practicing Christians, active in their local parish or church but frustrated by what they see as the lack of spiritual nurture that takes place in such settings;
  • Others are people who may have been raised in the church, but really have no connection to institutional Christianity; they are interested in spirituality but not religion, and while they might see Christianity as the faith of their ancestors, they are no more loyal to it than to any other spiritual lineage or tradition;
  • And finally, there is a small percentage of people who want to understand Christian spirituality, but they are practitioners of other faith traditions; they have no desire to convert, they just want to learn.

The third group is, in my experience, the smallest. I am always honored when a Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist person approaches me with a desire to learn Christian spirituality just for the sake of their own personal growth and development. But since those persons are not actually interested in practicing Christian mysticism or contemplation, this particular blog post is not directed at them.

Today I want to write for the first two groups: people who really are interested in taking the wisdom of Christian mysticism and contemplative spirituality to heart, and want it to make a difference in their lives. Some of them are practicing, churchgoing Christians, and some are not.

It is pretty obvious to me that the church-goers and the “spiritually independent” folks have this in common: they both recognize that the church often does a poor job at promoting deep spirituality.

I wish I could say, “It’s not really that bad.” But I’m afraid it is.

So if you feel like your local Christian Church doesn’t support you spiritually — you are not alone.

For evidence to show that this is not just our imagination — that the churches really do have a bias against nurturing spirituality — you don’t have to go any further than the Catechism of the Catholic Church. While this is a Catholic source, I’d be willing to bet that the problem I see in it would be just as true of most Protestant or Evangelical Churches as well.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is a large book that gathers together the material that the Bishops and the authorities in Rome consider to be essential for teaching the faith. It’s the ultimate syllabus for how a church should teach the faith — not only to children, but to adults who are newcomers.

The Catholic Catechism is divided into four sections, based on the Apostles’ Creed, the Seven Sacraments, the Ten Commandments, and the Our Father (Lord’s Prayer). In other words, the four sections cover what the church believes (doctrine and dogma), how the church worships (liturgy), the church’s ethical teachings (morality), and the church’s spirituality (prayer).

All of those sections sound important, right? So shouldn’t the Catechism be divided more or less evenly between those four sections?

Alas, it’s not.

Here’s how it’s divided up:

  • The first section (doctrine and dogma) fills approximately 39% of the Catechism;
  • The next section (worship) is about 22%;
  • The section on morality takes up about 28%;
  • And so spirituality gets the leftovers — about 11% of the Catechism.

Looking at the Table of Contents of the Catechism, and seeing how little attention is paid to prayer and spirituality, it feels almost as if it were an afterthought.

The Catechism is an official document of the Catholic Church. So this represents the mainstream reality of church culture. Attend a Catholic Church and you can expect that the clergy and other church leaders will pay the most attention to doctrine (learning to believe “the right things”), followed by morality (how good Christians should behave), with some focus on the rituals and customs of public worship — but as for spirituality, it’s the least emphasized aspect of the faith.

And like I said: I don’t think the Protestant or Evangelical Churches get a free pass here. After all, they are rooted in the same religious tradition. They don’t have official teaching documents like the Catholic Catechism, but I am willing to bet that most of them have the same hierarchy of emphasis: believing the “right” things matters most, followed by behaving the “right” way, followed by worshiping in the “right” manner. But as for nurturing an intimate, lively relationship with God? Well, that seems to be not that important, at least to the institution.

Friends, I’m sure you will agree with me — that no one has ever rejected Christianity by saying:

  • “I’m dogmatic, but not religious.”
  • “I’m moral, but not religious.”
  • “I’m worshipful, but not religious.”

People are walking out of the churches because they are not getting fed spiritually. And the ones who hang on in the church find this lack of spirituality to be an ongoing source of frustration.

Young people, especially, leave Christianity because it doesn’t meet their spiritual needs — and yet the institutional church continues to focus on dogma and morality to the neglect of spirituality. No wonder church attendance continues to decline.

So What Do We Do About This?

The point behind this blog — and indeed, all the books I write and my public speaking work as well — is to make my own, modest, layperson’s contribution to redressing this problem.

I have been very fortunate in my life to have friends, mentors, and community resources to support me in finding the rich spiritual depth of Christianity. Yes, it really exists! But most people, because of the church’s obsession with doctrine and morality, never find those springs of living water. Is it any wonder that many people go elsewhere to quench their thirst?

I don’t judge people who leave, but as someone who has chosen to follow Christ and who finds joy in Christian spirituality, I want to make sure that everyone at least gets to know that Christian spirituality exists, it’s real, it’s mystical, it promises heightened and transfigured consciousness, it leads to happiness and joy (felicity and beatitude), and it’s as deep and beautiful as any other mystical path out there.

If someone raised as a Christian decides to identify as “spiritual but not religious” — again, no judgement — I just want to make sure they understand that they don’t have to abandon Christianity to find the treasure they are seeking.

If you are a churchgoer, try to advocate for more or better spiritual programming in your neighborhood parish or congregation. If none exists, try starting a centering prayer group, or a book group that reads the writings of folks like Cynthia Bourgeault or Richard Rohr, or a prayer ministry that works together to pray for the needs of the church and the world.

Try connecting with a local monastery or retreat center where you can make a retreat once or twice a year. If you are ready to go deeper in your spiritual life, consider meeting regularly with a spiritual director who can assist you in starting or maintaining a daily prayer and meditation practice.

As for those who do not go to church but remain interested in Christian spirituality, first I want to thank you for not giving up on the mystical heart of Christianity, even though you have needed to separate from the institution. I hope you will pray for the institution, and for those who remain within it. I hope you will take responsibility to continue to grow spirituality, which includes being challenged in very real and deep ways. Consider connecting with a monastery or retreat center where you can make retreats or take classes for spiritual nurture. Consider working with a spiritual director. And if it wouldn’t be too painful for you, consider participating in a centering prayer or other spiritually-focused group at your local church, even if you don’t participate in any other way. Your presence there will be a blessing to the other members of the group, and hopefully you will all teach and support each other in your shared spiritual journey.

Ten years ago when I wrote The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, I made a strong case for being part of a church community as an essential mystical practice. A decade later, I am less willing to insist on being part of the institution — I know too many people who have been hurt by it. I still believe community matters, though: so if you are serious about spiritual growth, find your tribe. It doesn’t have to be in a church building. But it does have to be a place where you are both nurtured and challenged to grow.

Featured Photo by Brandon Morgan on Unsplash.

Magic and Miracles: What’s the Difference?

The other day I was having a conversation with an acquaintance who asked me to comment on the difference between “magic” and “miracles.”

It was an interesting conversation, especially given my history — that I spent a number of years explore magical spiritualities like Wicca and Celtic paganism, only to eventually forsake those paths in favor of returning to a more established mystical path: the contemplative expression of Christianity.

I don’t have a negative feeling about either magic or miracles, although I do have some concerns that magic can, in some circles, be a kind of code-word for a consumerist spirituality that I would not be comfortable endorsing.

But having said that, I think there are ways to understand magic as a positive thing, particularly in the light of an interspiritual understanding of contemplation and mysticism.

Here, then, is the gist of what I had to say about the difference — and similarity — between magic and miracles.

Magic and miracles have in common an invitation into mystery — into a realm beyond what we can easily explain or scientifically understand.

“Magic” and “Miracles” are both words that have been used to mean different things in different contexts. So for me, what they share in common is an invitation into mystery — into the realm of Spirit, beyond what we can easily explain or scientifically understand. The science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke is renowned for saying:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

So there’s a level on which magic is simply something we don’t yet fully understand. 

Another quote I find helpful comes from another 20th century writer, Dion Fortune:

Magic is the art of changing consciousness at will.

I like this quote because it emphasizes that magic is less about what happens in the world at large, and more about the kind of transformation that can happen in an interior way. For example: the practice of meditation, for the purpose of cultivating inner peace or a sense of Divine presence, could be understood as a type of magic, because it’s related to the intentional transformation of human consciousness. Magic is something we initiate, we create. That doesn’t make it opposed to the action of the Spirit. But it’s something we have a say in, even if in spiritual matters we never have complete control.

What, then, can we say about miracles? The word miracle comes from a Latin word that means “a wonder” or “a marvel,” and I think it’s most helpful to think of miracles in terms of Divine action in the world — in our lives or in the environment. If magic is initiated through human agency, a miracle is completely about grace: a spiritual gift over which we human beings have no control. It’s simply a kiss from eternity that we are invited to receive.


Now perhaps there is some overlap here. If I pray that a loved one’s cancer goes into remission, and this in fact comes to pass, is that a miracle or magic? You could argue that the prayer, as an act of human will, set into motion the sequence of events that culminated in the miraculous healing. But I think most people who pray intuitively understand “not my will but thine.” That’s why I really like Dion Fortune’s approach.

If I cultivate an expansion of my own consciousness, that’s magic — whether I do it through meditation, or Wicca, or simply positive thinking. But whenever I receive a blessing that is beyond my control, or my understanding — whether I asked for it, or willed it, or not — that’s a miracle. Because at the end of the day, it’s not anything that my own will had anything to do with.

Finally, I should mention that I believe both magic and miracles come in all shapes and sizes. I had a teacher once who instructed us to notice at least three miracles a day. And it worked! They weren’t all on the scale of walking on water or parting the Red Sea — most of the miracles I found were on the level of being able to see love in a baby’s eyes, that sort of thing.

But it was truly wondrous, a marvel, something beyond my control, and as best I can tell it was real evidence of Divine action. So in a way, miracles are like dreams: pay attention to them, and you’ll start to notice and remember them more vividly and accurately. And then your life really will shimmer with wonder.

What do you think is the difference between magic and miracles? What do you see is their commonality? I’d love to hear from you — as a comment on this page, or on one of my social media pages.


Silent Prayer Every Day: How Much Do We Need?

A reader writes,

I just finished reading the article about having everything you need for Divine union. I want to share it with my Carmelite spirituality group. However, I don’t understand one sentence. It’s this one: “ I would invite you to pray every day, with at least some of that prayer including contemplative silence.” What is the antecedent of “that prayer”?

Thanks for your question. First, the grammar: by “that prayer” I mean whatever prayer you “pray every day,” in other words, you engage in on a daily basis.

Many people pray in different ways: some people prefer the Rosary, others like to use Ignatian forms of imaginative prayer, or the Liturgy of the Hours, or simply a spontaneous form of charismatic or conversational prayer… we are blessed with many different ways to pray.

My question came from someone who is dedicated to Carmelite spirituality, and since I’m not a Lay Carmelite I might not be as familiar with Carmelite methods of prayer. But if Carmelites are anything like Cistercians, I suspect that different members of your community pray in different ways.

Fr. Anthony Delisi, my mentor and monastic advisor, used to say — quoting Abbot John Chapman — “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.” In other words, if you are the kind of person who loves to pray the Rosary but the Liturgy of the Hours leaves you uninspired, then by all means pray the Rosary! Or vice versa, or whatever. Because there are so many different ways to pray, it’s important to keep in mind that just as we all have different personality types, so too we all have different “prayer styles.” So — “that prayer” in my previous blog post just means “however you pray every day,” acknowledging that we all pray best when we pray in our own unique way.

But then, my advice is, make sure at least some of your prayer  is prayed in silence. So I’m suggesting that, even though there are many different ways to pray, each of us can benefit from cultivating silence into our prayer lives, hopefully on a daily basis.

Now, of course, some people are more comfortable with silence than others, and some people find silence as a way of praying more attractive than others. You can see this, if you ever go and spend time at an Adoration Chapel. Some people come in and sit very still before the Blessed Sacrament, lost in wonder and deeply silent as they pray. Others come in, and while they remain silent, they are constantly flipping through a breviary or a prayer book, or working their way through a Rosary or some other chaplet, or maybe even fidgeting as they prayer. I don’t mean to crtiicize such a person — I’m glad they’re there, praying! But it is my prayer that everyone can eventually learn to find that deep interior stillness and restfulness that marks a richly contemplative prayer practice.

So when I tell everyone “devote at least some of  your time each day to silence,” some people will take to that like a duck to water — settling in with a profound interior stillness, perhaps relying on a method like centering prayer or the Jesus Prayer, but certainly oriented toward resting in the silence. Others might find that the silence is unfamiliar to them, or maybe even feel slightly anxious in the silence. For them, relying on a more “verbal” method of prayer like the Rosary or the Liturgy of the Houses — prayed in silence, of course — is a helpful way to get more and more comfortable with the silence.

Once again, this is not about what’s the best or most advanced or mature way to pray. Each person needs to pray as they can, not as they can’t. But I think when someone embraces silence, even if they need to “fill it” with a practice like the Rosary, it is still a rich and nurturing (and scripturally sound) way to pray.

How Much Silence, Exactly?

So the next question someone might ask: “Okay, if I pray every day and devote at least some of my prayer time to silence, how much silence do I need?” I think the only truly useful answer is “it depends.”

Some people want an hour a day of silence. Others might follow the Centering Prayer guidelines, and seek to be in silent prayer for 20 minutes, twice each day. Others might find that the thought of spending that much time in silence is daunting, and they would be doing good to spend five or ten minutes in silence.

Each person is unique. Pray as you can, not as you can’t.

The Bible never tells us how much silence we need. When it says “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10), it doesn’t say “Be still for twenty minutes, twice a day.” Likewise there’s no benchmark or “best practices” in the Catechism, either.

So here’s a general rule of thumb I would recommend to everyone: we need enough silence each day so that we have the ability to notice the silence. Let’s be real: most of us, when given a few minutes of silence, usually begin to think about whatever issues or concerns are at hand. We often find that when we settle in to exterior silence, we immediately encounter interior noise!

So I would suggest we need enough silence to give us time to learn to relax into the silence and truly notice it, without having to fill it up with thoughts, interior commentary, or whatever other feelings, ideas, etc. might be rattling around in our heads.

The idea is that when we truly notice it’s silent, we also truly notice that we can be still in it, and when we are still, it’s easier to truly know (recognize) the presence of God, right there in the middle of our prayer.

Some of us might be able to do that with just a minute or two of prayer. I’m more the type who needs twenty minutes or so, just to get the stream of consciousness in my noggin to slow down a bit. The silence is always there, underneath my thoughts. But if I’m too busy listening to my thoughts that I never notice the silence, then I’m not really praying, I’m just thinking — or daydreaming.

So to summarize: I hope that everyone who is serious about prayer will, indeed, pray every day, in whatever method or form of prayer most easily helps you to respond to God’s love. And I hope that everyone, no matter how much a “beginner” you might be, I hope everyone takes enough time during your prayer time to simply be silent, that you notice the silence, and learn to relax into it: all in the interest of being still and knowing that God is present.

Of course, if you want to learn prayer methods that are specifically designed to help us become more comfortable praying in silence, look at Christian meditation, Centering Prayer, or the Jesus Prayer in particular. But a method is not required: what truly makes silent prayer is simply a willingness to be silent with the understand that this is prayer. The Holy Spirit will do the rest

Can Contemplation Change the World?

Four years ago I wrote a blog post titled Is Contemplation Dangerous? It was a review of a book called The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You? Written by two British psychologists, the book looks at a variety of meditation practices, such as Transcendental Meditation and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, the book offers a balanced assessment of what science has to say about how meditation can — and cannot — make a difference in terms of our physical and mental health.

Even beyond that the authors of The Buddha Pill look at the question of whether meditation, especially when practiced intensively and without adequate supervision, might even by dangerous or harmful to a person’s well-being. I think this is an important question, and it needs to be addressed, not only by the healthcare community, but by those who promote meditation even if only on a spiritual level.

I’m not a scientist, psychiatrist, or physician, so everything I say in this blog is only anecdotal in nature — and it goes without saying that this blog is not meant to be a source for medical or psychological advice. When in doubt consult a qualified healthcare provider. Speaking strictly as a writer and spiritual teacher, I think that meditative practices (like centering prayer, the Jesus Prayer, and other Christian forms of meditation) are very gentle and safe tools for cultivating spiritual wellness and that also can contribute to physical or psychological benefits such as relaxation, cultivating inner peacefulness, and perhaps even alleviating the symptoms of conditions like depression or  high blood pressure.

But I had an interesting conversation with a friend the other day. He teaches undergraduate religion courses, and he commented that some of his students criticize meditation practices as a kind of “religious painkiller” — an effective tool for helping religious people to feel better about themselves, but that actually undermine efforts to make needed changes both in religious communities and in society as a whole.

It’s the classic Marxist criticism of religion: the opiate of the people. For Marxists, religion is a problem because it undermines the efforts of ordinary people to struggle for better living conditions. Religion offers a pie in the sky in exchange for docile behavior here and now.

Could contemplative and meditative practices work in a similar way? They cultivate a shallow sense of inner peace and serenity, and by doing so lull their practitioners into a kind of sleepwalking state that prevents people from instituting the real reforms that religion — and society as a whole — desperately need?

Since I had the conversation with my friend, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Once again, I’m not a social scientist or a political theorist. So my thoughts on this question are strictly my own musing. But I think this is a question that anyone interested in spiritual practices needs to consider, so here I’m taking my own crack at it.

What it boils down to is this: the corollary to “Is contemplation dangerous?” is simply this: “Can contemplation change the world?” And I think the answer to both questions is, “Yes, depending on if we do it right.”

Contemplation Can Change the World — But Only if You Do it Right

Anyone who has more than a superficial experience with a sustained, daily practice of meditation, centering prayer, zen, etc., quickly learns that this is not a shortcut to inner peace.

Does meditation help us cultivate inner peacefulness? I believe it can. But it does so be relentlessly challenging us to face, and heal/transform, everything within us that undermines our own serenity.

In other words, meditation helps us to clean house, but by shining a big bright light on all the spots where the dirt is hiding. And then it’s up to us whether we actually want to do the hard work of cleaning.

In his video series on “The Spiritual Journey,” Father Thomas Keating, the most articulate and nuanced teacher of the centering prayer method, speaks about a process he calls “the unloading of the unconscious.” It’s a recognition that when we learn to tend to the silence within us by gently letting go of our attachment to our thoughts and feelings, what often can happen is a process of psychic catharsis — as our deeply buried painful memories, unresolved conflicts, feelings of rage or jealousy or envy, and other such “shadow” materials slowly come to awareness in the gentle process of contemplation. The mind and heart shines this light, not in the interest of causing inner distress, but in a process of facilitating inner healing. But just as housecleaning is a lot of hard work, so too the “unloading” process of contemplative practice can feel turbulent, uncomfortable, or even traumatic.

So back to the question of whether contemplative or meditative practices can actually make a real difference in our lives. I believe anyone who engages in this kind of practice with a sincere desire to grow spiritually, and supported by a properly-formed spiritual director or a caring community of faith, can be transformed in a very deep and powerful way. But this goes a lot deeper than just “finding inner peace.” So if anyone is engaging in silent practices as a way of avoiding the hard work that needs to be done in your personal life, or in your community, the practice itself will tend to undermine your efforts to avoid the hard work of transformation.

At the end of the day, getting a prescription to a sedative or a tranquilizer is probably a much more effective “opiate” than meditation or contemplation.

That’s not to say that these practices can’t be abused — I’m sure they can. But it would seem to me that anyone who is engaging in meditation or contemplation just to find inner peace or to avoid conflict will probably give it up sooner rather than later. Because the rewards of this kind of practice are only discerned over time — and in the meantime, if you are doing meditation right, you will find much more inner turmoil than inner peace — because you’re human, and that’s the human condition!

But still, the question remains: can meditative practices actually help to make the world a better place? I certainly believe so. But meditation moves slow like a tortoise, not fast like a hare. Those who insist on immediate results, whether in psychological self-improvement or in social engineering, will likely chafe at the long approach to history (and transformation) that meditation represents.

Every generation has injustices and systems of privilege and violence that need to be urgently addressed, now. And God bless those activists and revolutionaries who are willing to do the hard work necessary to agitate for immediate change. But I must say, I personally think they will all be more effective at what they do if they undergird their political activism with a sustainable daily spiritual practice.

But we have seen too much bloodshed in history, spilled in the interest of social or political revolutions — only to create new systems that are just as unjust as those they replaced. There is, in the end, only one real and sustainable revolution: the revolution of higher consciousness propelled by authentic love. Contemplative and meditative practices are in the business of cultivating both compassion and higher consciousness, so these are the necessary tools for the only real revolution that will last — and will not create more problems than it solves. But again: this is slow-moving and long-term. Many will chafe at that. Which is why I think all real efforts to cultivate real social or political change must combine the urgency activism for immediate change with a persevering commitment for lasting transformation, that begins with each of us taking responsibility for our own inner transformation.

So when you sit down to be silent before the Ultimate Mystery, be mindful that what you are doing is “dangerous” — not in the sense that it will hurt you, but in the sense that it really is powerful enough to change you from the inside out. But this “dangerous” tool is also powerful enough to change the world, as long we each commit to the essential first step: the long, slow, relentless process of first changing the world within each of us.

Featured image: Police Officers in Canada learn meditation at a Buddhist center.