Letter and Spirit: Thoughts and Silence?

SilentVoiceIn his sermon On Conversion, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux quotes Acts 26:24, only he paraphrases it like this: “Too much thinking has made you mad!”

Whenever I see a verse like this rendered in an unusual or thought-provoking way, I like to check out the original Greek or Hebrew, even though I’m strictly an amateur when it comes to Biblical languages.

These words were spoken by Festus, who is criticizing Paul when the saint is addressing Agrippa. Festus says, in Greek, πολλα σε γραμματα εις μανιαν περιτρεπει, or “Much learning turns you to madness.” The word for learning, γραμματα (grammata), is the word from which we get “grammar,” while the word for madness, μανιαν (manian) comes into English as, well, mania.

So I decided to get to know γραμματα a little bit better. Here are some other verses where it appears in the writings of Paul himself:

  • “God has qualified us as ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit, for the letter brings death, but the Spirit gives life.” (II Corinthians 3:6)
  • “Circumcision (for Christians) is of the heart, in the spirit, not the letter.” (Romans 2:29)
  • “Now we are released from the law, dead to what held us captive, so that we may serve in the newness of the spirit and not under the obsolete letter.” (Romans 7:6)

In each of these verses Paul is suggesting that life as a follower of Christ means turning away from the letter (gramma) and toward the Spirit (pneuma, which means not only “spirit” but also “breath”). In the freedom of the Spirit, we turn away from the letter which is dead, obsolete, unfree. In the freedom of our breath, we are liberated from the shackles of grammar, of language, of thought.

Do you see where I’m going?

Paul understood that the written word — the letter — is anchored in grammar, in thought, in that which by its very nature limits and divides. As great a gift as the Jewish law was, it also could be oppressive (we could say the same thing about any legal code or thought-system, including much of our contemporary religious language). Language is not evil, per se, but neither does it give life the way the Spirit does. Language is limiting. Thought is limiting. Propositional argument, as powerful as it can be, ultimately is limiting, when compared to the vast, open, free movement of the Spirit — the giver of life, of breath — in our lives.

Clearly, Paul is not arguing that Christians should do away with all language. After all, he is using grammar to convey his critique of grammar. I think his point is very simple: there comes a point when words fail us, when they cannot contain the fullness of the Spirit, the freedom of the breath, the possibilities of love and life. When we reach that point, we are called out of the prison of grammar and into the freedom of the Spirit.

And that is the point when contemplation begins.

Contemplation, at least speaking as a Christian, is a form of prayer: of making ourselves available to the Spirit. We do this by attending to our spirit, our pneuma, our breath. We do this by setting grammar aside, letting go of the letter, being present to the silence. Breath is silent. Thought is grammar. In silence we make ourselves available to the Spirit. In silence, we turn from the letter of our thoughts to the breath of the Spirit.

I don’t know if that’s how Paul would have understood all this or not. But I suspect that we moderns/postmoderns have a tendency to think of “letter” and “Spirit” as abstract principles, which is to say, as something outside of ourselves. Paul, being a first century Jew, may have had a much more embodied and interior understanding of letter and Spirit. And if he did, his understanding may not have been that far off from how contemplatives distinguish between thought and silence.

Because too much thought, after all, can lead to mania. Whereas the breath — the wordless Spirit — simply leads to life.


The Rule, the Discipline, and Spiritual Growth

Saint Benedict, author of the mostly widely used rule in western Christianity
Saint Benedict, author of the most widely used rule in western Christianity

I bet if I took a poll, almost everyone who reads my blog would agree with this statement: “I want to grow spiritually.”

Readers of spiritual blogs want to grow in their faith and practice the way that readers of marketing blogs want to expand their business, or the readers of investment blogs want to make more money. It’s part of the nobility of being human: we see areas in our lives where we want improvement, and we try to gain more knowledge, more skill, more discipline in order to reach our goals and make those dreams come true.

We see this dynamic at work in scripture, where people who encounter Jesus say things like “I believe, help my unbelief!” or “Lord, teach us to pray.” We turn to God, hoping for help or a blessing when it comes to, well, turning to God.

So many people find prayer to be challenging. Either we never manage to find the time to do it, or when we do finally open up twenty minutes in our busy schedule, we try to pray only to find our minds besieged by an army of distracting thoughts. Worse yet, we feel so scattered or distracted that even simple practices like praying the Divine Office seem to be meaningless or just a rote exercise.

We all want to pray. And we want to pray better.

But here’s the thing. Prayer is not a contest or a performance review. It’s not like going out on a date where we feel the need to be fun and interesting, or else the person we’re with will not want to go out again. Spirituality is not a test. God’s love is unconditional. There really is no “goal” or “objective” in the spiritual life.

Nevertheless, those of us who read (or write) spirituality blogs often feel some sort of tug for “something more.” If we pray once or twice a week, we yearn to do it daily. If we manage ten minutes for silent contemplation, we realize that we’d love to give twenty. If we succumb to the screeches of the monkey mind, we know that we wish for the monkey to take a nap, so we can taste God’s loving silence more deeply.

Previously I have written about writing and keeping a personal rule of life, which is a great tool for fostering a more disciplined approach to daily spirituality. If you haven’t read that post, please check it out. But today I’d like to focus on the relationship between spirituality and discipline.

Discipline is the practice of orienting (and re-orienting) our life toward what we most truly want. We want to lose weight more than eat lots of candy bars. We want to save for retirement more than going out drinking with friends every night. We want to pray every day more than just watching endless cute cat videos on Youtube.

The point behind fostering a disciplined approach to spirituality — which may include keeping a personal rule of life — is that we acknowledge both where we are and where we would like to be. It is natural that our reach will exceed our grasp. That’s okay. God loves us unconditionally, where we are today, and also loves the “future you” who will have grown to a more regular, more in-depth, more undistracted life of prayer. Discipline means living in the creative tension between accepting where we are today, and nurturing growth toward where we hope to be tomorrow.

Once again, let me repeat myself: we seek to grow in our spiritual practice not because we have a goal to reach or a test to pass. God loves us unconditionally, right here and right now. We seek to grow, to become more disciplined, to lovingly give more of our time and attention to God, simply as a joyful way of responding to God’s unconditional love. It’s the ultimate win-win: We have already won, through Christ’s passion, God’s unconditional love. And God invites us through the Holy Spirit to grow in grace, so that we will “win” tomorrow by responding even more fully to God’s love and God’s invitation into silence.

Disciplined prayer is never perfect. We will have “bad” days or even weeks or months when our discipline seems to be in shambles, our efforts to respond to God either messy or non-existent. That’s okay too — the point behind having a rule, or a discipline, is that when we fall down we allow the Holy Spirit to pick us back up, so we can keep going.

Do you have a particular way in which you would like your spiritual practice to grow? If so, pray about it, asking God to bless you with that deeper, richer, longer, more frequent, or more attentive prayer. If you’d like, leave a comment here or on Facebook, describing the way you hope for your prayer life to grow.

Better to Light a Candle (of Silence) than to Curse the Darkness (of Language)

If a picture is worth 1000 words, how many words is silence worth?
If a picture is worth 1000 words, how many words is silence worth?

Does language always limit the way we talk about, think about, or even pray to, God?

This question has been on my mind for the past few days.

This past weekend I attended a service at a nearby Episcopal Church. The liturgy came from Enriching Our Worship, a contemporary, inclusive language resource approved for use in Episcopal Churches. For the most part it was poetic and lovely. However, one phrase during the Eucharistic prayer startled me — and not in a good way.

Glory and honor are yours, Creator of all,
your Word has never been silent;
you call a people to yourself, as a light to the nations…

“Your Word has never been silent.”

I was stunned. It felt like a slap in the face to the practice of contemplative prayer.

Is this prayer implying that God lacks the power to speak to us through silence, or values silence so little that it is always overrun by the noise of the “Word”? Or perhaps it is implying that God’s Word (i.e., Christ) never prayed in silence?

Because on the surface, it appears to be saying one if not both of these things.

Now, I can do a kind of interpretive dance around this. It’s not meant to be anti-contemplative, it’s just an affirmation of God’s loving word spoken throughout all times and all places. God’s Word is Christ, and Christ is never silent, because Christ always calls us to reconciliation and renewal. 

In other words, blah blah blah.

This reminds me of how defenders of gendered language in liturgy make their case. When we call God “Father” this does not mean God is male, in a human biological sense. And when we call humans “mankind” that’s not meant to exclude women either. Yada yada yada.

Now, I doubt that the author(s) of the Enriching Our Worship Eucharistic prayer were setting out to write something that seems to attack contemplation. They were just trying to make a poetic statement abut the pervasive presence of God’s Word, Christ, in our lives. But by doing so, they inadvertently said something that sounds like bad theology (at least to me).

Maybe the idea that God’s Word is never silent is not a big deal to most people. But as someone who believes the problems in Christianity mostly stem from its rejection of its own contemplative heritage, language like that is stunning in its implication. Likewise, a lot of people don’t understand the importance of inclusive language, mainly because they enjoy and find comfort in traditional language, gender bias and all. But to others, such kind of language leaves them feeling excluded, or unhappy because it appears to exclude others.

My point is this: whether we’re talking about something as obvious as gender bias or even something as seemingly innocuous as “Your Word is never silent,” language — even the best, most traditional, most poetic language — always seems to fail us when it comes to talking about, or praying to, God. God is greater than language, so when we try to talk about (or to) God, we are trying to fit something infinite into the finite container of human speech and syntax. And the result is always messy.

So what should we do? Should we give up on talking about God? I don’t think so, although arguably that’s what atheism is all about. When an atheist says “I don’t believe in God” he or she is saying, by implication, “God is not worth talking about.”

A better approach, what I believe to be the more contemplative approach, is to continue to talk about God, since God is love, and justice, and mercy and forgiveness, and we live in a world that is starving for all these things. But we need to talk about God with great humility and non-attachment. Our language about God will sooner or later fail.

What we believe reveals God may inadvertently conceal God. Our human sin — our capacity to hurt one another, oppress one another, impinge on each other’s freedom — will creep into even the most mindful ways of talking about God. Knowing this can be an important step toward refusing to let our human language of God become an idol.

Remain Silent. Stay Calm.
Remain Silent. Stay Calm.

The essential key, of course, is silence. “Silence is praise” muses the Psalmist; and Elijah encountered God in “the sound of sheer silence.” Silence does not make language obsolete or unnecessary, but it does help us to hold our language lightly. This not only can keep us from turning our language into an idol, but can also help us to be forgiving when we hear God-talk that is limiting or exclusionary or oppressive.

In other words, I know that “Your Word is never silent” is a limiting way to talk about God. But when I pray in silence, I am reminded that I do not need to let that kind of language impact my own spirituality. As the Quakers say, “better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”

Perhaps this blog post has been a bit heavy on the cursing-the-darkness side — so I’ll be silent now. For silence — praying contemplatively — is a way of lighting a candle for God.

Is there language about God that you find limiting or exclusionary? Or language that you think is important to retain? Leave a comment to share your thoughts on this topic.

What Do Contemplatives Want?

Inspiration, right this way…

First a disclaimer about my headline. I’m answering this question (What do contemplatives want?) based on the results from my 2015 readers’ poll. If you aren’t interested in the survey results, scroll to the bottom of the post to see my conclusions.

All the blogging gurus suggest that professional bloggers should survey their readers once a year or so. My last poll was in late 2013. The questions in this year’s survey were partially demographic (so I could get a sense of who you, my readers, are), partially evaluative (do you think I’m doing a good job?), and partially idea-generating (how can my blog be helpful to you in the future?). So let’s took a look at what almost 300 of you had to say — about yourselves, about contemplation, and about how to make this blog better.

Demographics. If there is such a thing as “typical,” then the typical readers of my blog are:

  • Residents of the USA (79{b583bb596bb2c84984aee1f32e70a80b80285001a0226212b58cbda01f2115e7}) who live on the east coast (66{b583bb596bb2c84984aee1f32e70a80b80285001a0226212b58cbda01f2115e7} – I really must get out more);
  • Christian (71{b583bb596bb2c84984aee1f32e70a80b80285001a0226212b58cbda01f2115e7}); primarily Catholic but plenty of Anglicans and mainline Protestants as well;
  • Involved in a church with some sort of leadership role (51{b583bb596bb2c84984aee1f32e70a80b80285001a0226212b58cbda01f2115e7} are either clergy, spiritual directors, or lay leaders);
  • Your favorite prayer styles are contemplation (80{b583bb596bb2c84984aee1f32e70a80b80285001a0226212b58cbda01f2115e7}) or meditation (73{b583bb596bb2c84984aee1f32e70a80b80285001a0226212b58cbda01f2115e7});
  • Your favorite social media hangout is Facebook (61{b583bb596bb2c84984aee1f32e70a80b80285001a0226212b58cbda01f2115e7}), with Twitter running a distant second (21{b583bb596bb2c84984aee1f32e70a80b80285001a0226212b58cbda01f2115e7}). Almost a third of you don’t use social media at all;
  • You are probably either a Baby Boomer (47{b583bb596bb2c84984aee1f32e70a80b80285001a0226212b58cbda01f2115e7}) or a Gen X’er (24{b583bb596bb2c84984aee1f32e70a80b80285001a0226212b58cbda01f2115e7});
  • You’re well educated, too — have a college degree (83{b583bb596bb2c84984aee1f32e70a80b80285001a0226212b58cbda01f2115e7}), or perhaps an advanced degree (53{b583bb596bb2c84984aee1f32e70a80b80285001a0226212b58cbda01f2115e7});
  • You’re a balanced group, gender-wise, too, which is unusual for readers of spiritually-themed books and blogs (the guys usually take a pass; thanks for showing up here).

Your biggest frustrations when it comes to your spiritual life include:

  • Not having enough discipline (55{b583bb596bb2c84984aee1f32e70a80b80285001a0226212b58cbda01f2115e7}),
  • Dealing with too many distractions during prayer or meditation (41{b583bb596bb2c84984aee1f32e70a80b80285001a0226212b58cbda01f2115e7}),
  • Feeling like you don’t have enough time for your practice (30{b583bb596bb2c84984aee1f32e70a80b80285001a0226212b58cbda01f2115e7}).
  • A significant, percentage of readers feel out of step with your faith community (24{b583bb596bb2c84984aee1f32e70a80b80285001a0226212b58cbda01f2115e7});
  • Or are trying to find a creative and graceful way to balance an affinity with more than one faith tradition (15{b583bb596bb2c84984aee1f32e70a80b80285001a0226212b58cbda01f2115e7}).

Your two favorite topics to read about on my blog are Christian mysticism (81{b583bb596bb2c84984aee1f32e70a80b80285001a0226212b58cbda01f2115e7}) and contemplative prayer (79{b583bb596bb2c84984aee1f32e70a80b80285001a0226212b58cbda01f2115e7}). Good thing I like to write about those things.

Only 56{b583bb596bb2c84984aee1f32e70a80b80285001a0226212b58cbda01f2115e7} of you have recommended my blog to others. I take that as a challenge that I need to do better. My goal is to support the spiritual journey of my readers; hopefully in such a way that you’ll want to share it with your friends, your pastor, and anyone else who might be interested (I know that spirituality is such a private issue that many people choose not to talk about it, so that could also be keeping these numbers down. But remember, this is how I make my living, so if you like it, share it!).

Speaking of “doing better,” here are some of the suggestions you’ve offered for future topics:

  • How do I find a community of like-minded persons (contemplatives and students of the mystics)?
  • How do I fit in with a faith community where my values are in the minority?
  • How do I balance my affinity with, or attraction to, more than one religious tradition?
  • Why are Christian clergy, Bishops, the Pope, etc., not supportive of contemplative prayer?
  • What is the relationship between contemplation, mysticism, and esotericism?
  • What is a contemplative approach to:
    • Darkness
    • Disability
    • Poverty
    • Confession/Penance
    • Dementia/Alzheimer’s Disease
  • What is spiritual direction? How do I find a spiritual director?
  • How do I ground my prayer life in loving service?
  • How can I persevere in prayer, when it feels like no one is listening?
  • More about Protestant or Anglican mystics.

Here’s your advice for making this blog better:

  • Stronger conclusions (I’m assuming a request for more definitive statements about what I think/believe)
  • Create a series of posts on a particular theme
  • More pictures and cartoons
  • More practical advice about the “tools” for spirituality
  • Handouts (PDFs) for meditation and reflection
  • More videos
  • Shorter posts (today’s post obviously is not following that advice, sorry!)
  • Poetry

Thank you for your input. The suggestions for future content are especially helpful.

So… based on this admittedly very small and unscientific sampling, here are my thoughts about what Christian contemplatives in America today appear to want:

  1. We want to be more disciplined and to find the time to pray and meditate regularly. We don’t just pay lip-service to spirituality; we want it to be a regular part of our lives.
  2. We want to be integrated into a community of faith — but with the freedom to learn from other religious traditions. While some of us shy away from the traditional parish or congregation, most of us see the value in community — but we chafe at how the neighborhood church sometimes seems opposed to interfaith or interspiritual exploration.
  3. We want the leaders of our faith community to understand and support contemplative practice. Too many religious leaders are not only illiterate when it comes to classical Christian spirituality, but they are even hostile to it. On the other hand, many clergy who are drawn to contemplation feel frustrated by how few laity embrace the spiritual disciplines. We need to find ways to build contemplative communities that may look different from traditional congregational or parish models.
  4. We want to integrate contemplation with “real life” issues such as dealing with suffering, disease, or disability, and we want to integrate our spirituality with our social and political values. We’re not into navel-gazing: the time we devote to silence and prayer is meant to make a real difference in every area of our lives.

Okay, my friends — these principles will be front and center in my mind as I continue to create new content for my blog and the other websites where my work is published. Stay tuned — more to come.

Is there anything missing from this report? Have I left something important out? Are there any question you have of me, or suggestion for improving this blog, or a topic you’d like to see me cover? Please post your thoughts in the comments below (or on my Facebook or Twitter feeds). Thank you!

The Last Instructions of Christ to His Disciples

Gold mosaic from Neamt Monastery, Romania
The Ascension of Christ. Gold mosaic from Neamt Monastery, Romania

In the first chapter of The Acts of the Apostles, Jesus gives his disciples their last instructions before his ascension into heaven (Acts 1:6-12).

The first chapter of Acts is one of the easiest chapters in the New Testament to gloss over. After all, the real action of Acts begins with the second chapter, which recounts the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

If the Gospels tell the story of the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, then the Acts of the Apostles by contrast tells the story of the Holy Spirit and of the first dramatic years of the Church.

Jesus seems to have little more than a couple of cameo appearances, in chapter 1 and then during St. Paul’s mystical conversion on the Road to Damascus.

So given the overall story line of Acts, it’s all too easy to overlook the moment when Jesus gave his disciples what would be his final instructions. Just before the ascension, “he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This’, he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’” (Acts 1:4-5)

Wait for the promise of the father.

It’s all too easy — I’ve done it countless times — to focus on the Holy Spirit in this trinitarian quotation. Jesus seems to be saying, “In just a few days you’ll be baptized in the Holy Spirit.” But he doesn’t say “in just a few days” — all he says is wait. His final instructions — indeed, his final order, is open-ended: just to wait for the promise of the father.

Dare we speculate that at the end of his ministry, Jesus is telling his disciples to be contemplative?

I think it’s a reasonable interpretation. Contemplation, after all, is the prayer of waiting. Dumiyyah, the most evocatively contemplative word in the Hebrew language, means not only silence but waiting (see Psalm 62:1). And while Acts 1 does not record Jesus giving the disciples instructions about silence, or sitting in silence, or following your breath, anything like that, I think that just is evidence that Jesus was not one to bother with techniques or methods.

For Jesus, being a contemplative was not about a practice of meditating 20 minutes twice a day (although I don’t think Jesus would object to such a discipline). Rather, contemplation meant waiting for God. And waiting happens best in a spirit of silent expectancy.

Wait for the promise of the father: for the Spirit who gives life. Not only was this the last word from Jesus to his direct followers on that day in Israel so long ago, but it also speaks to us today. When we observe silence, we are not just “emptying our mind” — we wait. For God.

What do you do, to ensure that you have time in your life for silence every day? If you have any thoughts to share on this topic, please leave a comment here, or on social media.

N.B. Special thanks to the Rev. Nancy Baxter, SSAP, whose sermon on Acts 1:15-26 at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta, GA on May 17, 2015, inspired this blog post.

Contemplation and the Ocean of Presence

Here’s a little video I filmed last month at the Gulf Coast. It’s only about 45 seconds long and consists of the sunset and the surf. I offer it to you as a little moment of serenity. Please enjoy.

[vimeo id=”124517341″ height=”150″ width=”200″]

I know some people might find a little video like this boring. Compared to Hollywood culture or Madison Avenue culture, something as simple as the ocean or the gulf crashing gently on the shore might very well seem, well, singularly unexciting.

And so it is.

I’m reminded of the title of a book by one of my favorite living authors, Fr. Michael Casey. It’s called An Unexciting Life: Reflections on Benedictine Spirituality. The spirituality of the cloister (whether Benedictine, Cistercian, Carthusian, or whatever) is indeed unexciting, because it stresses silence, contemplation, simple labor, peace, stability, and a gradual formation or conversion into love.

When you think about it, contemplative spirituality is actually rather subversive. It’s subversive of our hyper-pumped, flash-and-sizzle culture where the latest, the greatest, the loudest and the most explosive gets all the attention.

But isn’t that the joy of it?

I think so. I’m drawn to the gentle rhythms of the surf for the same reason that I’m drawn to the unhurried rhythms of monastic life. The surf may not be “silent” but it encourages me to find, and rest in, the silent place within me. The same holds true for time spent praying or on retreat in a monastery.

I think it’s easy to love the surf, with its soothing sound and endless rhythm, because it connects us, on the shore, with the vast openness of the ocean (or, in this case, the gulf). The water seems to have no limit, to go on forever. And yet here it is, crashing on the shore and available for us to stick our toes in or even to take a swim.

Isn’t that the way contemplation works, only with silent prayer the “ocean” is the presence of God, and the “surf” is the many subtle ways we discover or encounter God’s presence in our lives?

When you go to the beach, you don’t have to make the surf happen. You just go there and enjoy it. It’s already there, and it is always available. So it is with the ocean of God’s presence. We are always on the shore of the ocean of God’s mercy. We stand and listen to the surf of divine silence. We are invited into the water, whether to stick a toe in timidly or to joyfully dive in, all the way.

We stand on the shore where the water may seem shallow. But the ocean is vast, and very, very deep. God will not force us to dive in. But we are always invited to do so, each and every day.

If you haven’t already done so, take some time today to be silent and to pay attention to where the ocean of Divine Presence washes up on the shore of your very own life. Listen carefully. Relax. It’s always there for you. All there is to do is respond.

What do you do to connect, or reconnect, with the ocean of God’s love in your life, each and every day? Please share your thoughts, in the comments section of this blog or on social media. Thanks!

Advance Praise for "Befriending Silence"

Befriending Silence
Befriending Silence

What do Brian McLaren, Fr. Daniel Horan OFM, Fr. Michael Casey OCSO, Br. Patrick Hart OCSO, and Phyllis Tickle have in common? They’ve all endorsed Befriending Silence.

  • Brian McLaren praises Befriending Silence as “a great gift to all who hunger for meaning, mystery, peace, hope, and God.”
  • Fr. Daniel Horan calls the book “an accessible and enlightening introduction to the beauty of Cistercian spirituality.”
  • Fr. Michael Casey notes that “it will be found useful and stimulating by anyone who wishes to profit from the substantial wisdom of the Cistercian tradition.”
  • Br. Patrick Hart says Befriending Silence “manifests in a wonderful way the Cistercian charism.”
  • And Phyllis Tickle says it is “one of the gentlest, most conversational, and also humbly persuasive presentations of the joys and spiritual benefits for Christian lay folk of personal, vowed, and disciplined association and/or affiliation with monastic life and practice.” (whew, that’s a mouthful!)

You might be wondering “what is this book about?” It’s an introduction to the spirituality of Cistercian monks and nuns, famous for their lives of silence and simplicity.

The Cistercians may not be as famous as the Franciscans or the Jesuits, but they have given us some of the richest spirituality of the western tradition. St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Aelred of Rievaulx, Thomas Merton, and Thomas Keating are among the great mystics and contemplatives of the Cistercian tradition. Trappist monks are all Cistercians. The centering prayer movement, one of the leading contemplative prayer movements in Christianity today, has its roots in Cistercian spirituality.

So Befriending Silence offers a  friendly introduction to this under-appreciated stream of contemplative Christianity, with an emphasis on how everyone — not just monks or nuns — can be blessed and transformed by this lovely and serene tradition.

  • Discover why monasteries are places of peace and serenity — and how to cultivate that same gentle spirit in your own life.
  • Learn why monks and nuns value silence, humility, and stability — and how these “old fashioned” values can enrich your life today.
  • Explore the many ways that monks and nuns pray — and learn how their spiritual disciplines can become part of your daily walk with God.

If you would like to see the book’s table of contents and/or see the complete endorsements, just click here. Or, if you want to pre-order the book, it’s already listed at Amazon.com (click here). B&N, Indiebook.org, and other retailers will have it soon. The publication date is November 2015.

Contemplative Leadership with Saints Benedict and Ignatius of Loyola

Saints Benedict and Ignatius of Loyola, Contemplative Leaders
Saints Benedict and Ignatius of Loyola, Contemplative Leaders

In recent months I have become very interested in the topic of leadership.

Which might seem silly, since I do not manage people, or lead a congregation, or hold a military command position. But I’ve come to recognize that “leadership” is a topic that has broad implications, broader than just our job descriptions. And for those of us who embrace contemplative spirituality, it’s a topic that I think we need to be paying close attention to.

In fact, let me make a couple of bold statements:

  • To be a contemplative means to be a leader.
  • And to be a good leader, one needs to be contemplative.

Why do I say these things? Well, to begin with, everyone has a foundational task in leading your own self. Call it discipline, self-control, good habits, time management — it all boils down to our ability to shape our own lives and missions in constructive and consistent ways. Nobody’s perfect: we all make mistakes. But learning to lead ourselves in a better and more effective way is an important part of contemplative living.

Good leaders do not dominate, but rather influence and inspire those they lead. Being a contemplative begins with allowing God to influence and inspire ourselves (there’s that self-leadership bit again), but that’s only the beginning. We receive God’s love, inspiration, and influence in order that we can then share it with others. The “others” we lead may or may not be people who we lead in an official capacity.

I know from my years as a corporate manager that sometimes the most effective leaders in an organization do not enjoy any official status as leaders or managers whatsoever. Saint Benedict insists that sometimes the youngest member of a monastery may be the one who speaks the will of God — in other words, who has something to say that will provide healthy and constructive leadership for the entire organization. This holds true for other organizations as well.

Since I’ve mentioned Saint Benedict already, maybe this is the place to say that I turn again and again to St. Benedict (found of western monasticism) and St. Ignatius of Loyola (founder of the Jesuits) for inspiration both in my spiritual life but also in my understanding of what it means to be an effective leader.

They both exemplify a term I learned from Tilden Edwards: “mind-in-heart leadership.” This means something different than just relying on feelings or emotions when we lead. Rather, a mind-in-heart leader is one who leads out of prayer and contemplation: who allows listening, not-knowing or unknowing, trust, and seeking the face of God to shape one’s leadership style.

I don’t think this model of leadership shows up in many business management textbooks! But it has guided the Benedictines and the Jesuits for centuries, and it can revolutionize our lives as well.

I know not everyone who embraces contemplation see themselves as “leaders,” but I’d like to challenge you to do so. Because you have answered a call to listen for God in silence and trust, you have something to share with others. Don’t bury your talent or hide your light under a bushel. Be willing to inspire and influence others with your trusting, seeking heart.

A question for you: Can you think of a practical way that contemplation and silent prayer influences you to be a better leader (even if the only person you’re leading is yourself)? If so, I’d like to know about it — please leave a comment and share your insight.

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Five Ways You Can Enjoy a Deeper Personal Prayer Life

Pastoral-Plan2“We need to deepen our own personal prayer lives.” — The Most Reverend Wilton D. Gregory, S.L.D., Archbishop of Atlanta

Recently the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta published a Pastoral Plan, the result of much prayer, conversation and discernment. In the words of the Archbishop, it’s a plan “that will guide our Archdiocese for the next five years.”

You can download a PDF of the plan here. It covers a variety of initiatives and needs, under three topics: “Knowing our faith,” “Living our faith,” and “Spreading/Keeping our faith.” When I read the plan, I was thrilled to see one of the initiatives is to “Encourage a deeper personal prayer life.”

Yes! That’s an initiative I fully support.

Now the Pastoral Plan doesn’t provide specifics for making this happen. In fact, it only has one sentence devoted to this topic: “We need to deepen our own personal prayer lives.”

The Archbishop writes, “This document focuses on ‘what’ we must do. There are many details that will be worked out regarding ‘how’ we will move forward.”

So my friends, in response to this call, which is not just for Atlanta but I believe relevant to Christians everywhere, to “deepen our personal prayer lives,” I’d like to offer five initial thoughts on the “how” — how we can begin to do just that.

Five Ways You Can Deepen  Your Personal Prayer Life:

  1. Read the Bible every day (Lectio Divina). Lectio Divina is different from “Bible Study” — it’s a slow, meditative way of reading the Bible, to allow the words to speak to your heart in a quiet and prayerful way. You can learn more about it here.
  2. Pray a Psalm every day. A long term goal for monastic oblates and other serious pray-ers is to pray all or part of the Daily Office. But for beginners that may seem daunting. A gentler way to start: pray one Psalm each day. Most can be prayed in about 2 minutes, so it’s not a huge time commitment — but it’s a great way to anchor your daily prayer life.
  3. Try to find (and serve) God through others, every day. Prayer is more than just saying prayers! The purpose of prayer is to foster intimacy with God, and scripture reminds us that when we serve others, we serve Christ. So whether it’s a work of mercy like feeding the homeless, or simply a good deed like helping an elderly lady carry her groceries to the bus stop, look for ways to be kind to others — and see such acts as embodied prayers.
  4. Take time to reflect on a spiritual truth, every time. Traditionally this is called “mental prayer” or “meditation” but you don’t need the fancy labels to enjoy this rich way of praying. St. Luke reminds us of how Mary would ponder things in her heart in regard to Jesus. We can do the same thing — and it’s prayer. So take some time to ponder a spiritual truth: God is love; God is merciful; God forgives; God wants us to love our neighbors, and so forth. But don’t just think pious thoughts — keep in mind that such times of reflection nourish us because God is always present.
  5. Spend some time in silence every day. Finally comes the crown of daily prayer: silent prayer, or contemplation. This, at heart, is simply a wordless gaze of love into the unseen face of God. Catholics love this kind of silence in an adoration chapel, but it can be just as prayerful (and meaningful) in your living room, or your garden, or any other quiet, undistracted place.

Of course, there are many other doorways into a deeper prayer life: the Rosary, the Mass, intercessory prayer, or confession, to name just a few. My five suggestions are not meant to be exhaustive, but rather I hope you will find them encouraging and inspirational. And for readers who aren’t Catholic, I hope you’ll still consider these prayer practices: they can be meaningful for all kinds of Christians.

Pray every day. That might be the single most important way to deepen our prayer life. If you only have ten minutes a day for prayer, then give it ten minutes. But do it every day. Prayer is a blessing that unfolds gently over time.