“The church in a quite special way is the place where large dreams are entertained, songs are sung, boundaries are crossed, hurt is noticed, and the weak are honoured. The church has no monopoly on these matters. Its oddity, however, is that it takes this agenda as its peculiar and primary business. In all sorts of unnoticed places, it is the church that raises the human questions.” Walter Brueggemann from ‘The Counterworld of Evangelical Imagination’ 1993.
The quote captures something of why I think the Church is involved in many areas of life, including Higher Education. It is the Church’s “peculiar and primary business” to raise “the human questions.”
It might not be obvious which questions the religious practices are raising. I was thinking about the Wednesday Eucharist we hold in the parish church that sits between the university buildings. We are a group of about 10-15 drawn from the staff from the Colleges and local workplaces, students, one regular alumni, some parish members, me and the parish clergy.
The service involves the sharing of bread and wine. The Bruggemann quote reminded me of the continual exploration week by week of basic questions. These are just a few.
What is broken and what is whole?
How is one person related to the many?
What do we need to let go of in order to receive?
What might be worth a sacrifice?
What do I need to know and admit to myself and about myself?
Can these strangers be a gift to me?
the place where large dreams are entertained, songs are sung, boundaries are crossed, hurt is noticed, and the weak are honoured.
“Prayers are tools not for doing or getting, but for being and becoming.” These are words of the legendary biblical interpreter, teacher, and pastor Eugene Peterson. Frustrated with the unimaginative way he found his congregants treating their Bibles, he translated it himself, and that translation has sold millions of copies around the world. Eugene Peterson’s down-to-earth faith hinges on a love of metaphor and a commitment to the Bible’s poetry as what keeps it alive to the world.
This is Krista Tippett’s introduction to her “On Being” conversation with Eugene Peterson. The audio and transcript of the conversation can be found here.
I like Peterson’s insistence on bringing out the poetry of the Bible to let it work imaginatively in our minds and bodies.
I also like the idea of ‘prayers as tools’. In my context, everyone is using tools in their practice of science, engineering, medicine, and art and design. So I also like the idea that ‘prayers are tools’ – focused, applied, and with a process.
Yet because prayers lead us through silence, imagination, and the unconscious towards God they will only ever be ‘tools for being and becoming’.
Note on Practice: Lectio Divina
I guess this imaginative process prayer that lets scripture engaging our mind and body is why many students and staff in our Christian Meditation group respond so positively to Lectio Divina.
Lectio is a method of slow reading meditation. The method starts with reading the passage slowly three or four times while asking the question ‘What am I most drawn to in this passage today – what word or phrase attracts me most?’
We then ‘sit with the phrase’ turning it over and over and noticing what arises as we do this. After a while, we move to silent conversational prayer. Finally we drop all pondering and reflecting and simply sit quietly. Contemplation.
Different people are drawn to different ways of praying. I keep being reminded of this in one to one conversations and offering workshops.
There is no point forcing ourselves into a model and method of prayer that does not work for us.
So here is a list of some of the main traditions of Christian silent prayer and meditation.
As you read it try to notice if one of them catches your attention more than others. This might give some idea of the direction you might want to go next. This paying attention is also a key element of many of the methods themselves.
A period of silence, using a word said silently as a focus to lead us into deeper silence and stillness.
A slow reading of scripture passage several times, while watching to see where our attention is drawn.Then sitting for a period of silence with the word or phrase to which we were drawn.
A way of using the imagination to picture, hear, feel and even smell the scene of scripture.The asking ‘where am I in this passage?’ and sitting quietly with what comes to mind.
A way of looking back on the day to notice and sit with moments when we had energy and/or felt close to God and able to love, as well as those times when we felt drained of energy and felt far away from God and unable to love.
Prayer of the heart.
Placing the attention in the body, particularly the heart, and holding situations and people there so that they are both ‘in mind and in the body’.
Mantra or repeating phrase.
The Jesus Prayer is a good example of this where a phrase is used in formal prayer and during activities as a way of maintaining awareness and praying constantly.
Both the Rosary and the Lutheran ‘Pearls of Life’ offer a structured physical way to pray, using repeated words to give focus and to get beyond the words.
Pilgrimage, labyrinths and walking meditation.
These are all ways to use the movement of the body as prayer.
Practice of the presence of God.
A way of being open to the full experience including God’s presence during daily life.
Did you notice which drew your attention more than others? If so this might indicate something to explore further. If nothing clicked today, keep watching and observing!
Of course, this is not an exhaustive list. Many of these ways overlap with each other. One favourite method might not last a whole lifetime.
This article was first circulated as part of our weekly mailing week about different aspects of meditation and contemplation in Christian tradition. If you would like to subscribe to the list please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Here is a very long read by Andrew Sullivan. He starts by describing how he detoxed from constant digital activity and distraction. Things had got serious (the full url for the article is “technology nearly killed me”).
Sullivan describes learning to meditate and use mindfulness. He gives a good description of the process of slowing down and moving away from his frenetic online life. I think this will resonate with many of us. It is something we have conversations about in chaplaincy work with students and staff.
What surprised me, coming after this description of Mindfulness, was his complaint about the lack of silence in contemporary Christian worship. Fair point. If you are interested in Christian mediation and contemplation keep going to the end!
This is a good long reflection on what silence, presence and connection could mean in the digital age.
The article first appeared in the New Yorker Magazine on 18th September 2016.
The Episcopal Church in Washington was criticised by Christians, and others, for hosting the traditional prayers before the inauguration of Donald Trump as president.
A response to the criticism of the Cathedral came in an open letter from Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church of America.The title of this post is a quote from the letter. Michael Curry is offering a reminder to Christians of the many connections between prayer and protest. Prayer can critique, lament, stir us to action, sustain protest, deepen hope and enrich longing.
The full text of the letter is below but, in an age of ‘fake news’, here is the original context.
January 12, 2017
The following is a statement from Presiding Bishop and Primate Michael B. Curry.
This past week, Barack H. Obama, the 44th President of the United States, in the tradition of Presidents dating back to George Washington, gave his farewell address to the nation. Next week Donald J. Trump, in the same tradition of this country, will take the oath of office and be inaugurated as the 45th President.
We recognize that this election has been contentious, and the Episcopal Church, like our nation, has expressed a diversity of views, some of which have been born in deep pain.
There has been much discussion, and some controversy, about the appropriateness of the Washington National Cathedral hosting the Inaugural Prayer Service this year, and of church choirs singing at inaugural events.
Underneath the variety of questions and concerns are some basic Christian questions about prayer: when I pray for our leaders, why am I doing so? Should I pray for a leader I disagree with? When I pray what do I think I am accomplishing?
On one level these questions seem inconsequential and innocuous. But real prayer is not innocuous. It is powerful. That question can become poignant and even painful as it is for many in this moment, given that some of the values that many of us heard expressed over the past year have seemed to be in contradiction to deeply-held Christian convictions of love, compassion, and human dignity.
So, should we pray for the President?
We can and, indeed, I believe we must pray for all who lead in our civic order, nationally and internationally. I pray for the President in part because Jesus Christ is my Savior and Lord. If Jesus is my Lord and the model and guide for my life, his way must be my way, however difficult. And the way prayer for others is a part of how I follow the way of Jesus.
This practice of praying for leaders is deep in our biblical and Anglican/Episcopalian traditions. Psalm 72 prays that the ancient Israelite king might rule in the ways of God’s justice, defending “the cause of the poor,” bringing “deliverance to the needy.” 1 Timothy 2:1-2 encourages followers of Jesus to pray earnestly for those in leadership, that they may lead in ways that serve the common good. Even in the most extreme case, Jesus himself said, while dying on the cross, “Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing,” was praying for Pontius Pilate, the Governor of Rome who ordered his execution, and for all who were complicit in it.
In this spirit, the Prayer Books of the Anglican/Episcopal way have always included prayer for those “who bear the authority of government,” praying in a variety of ways that they may lead in the ways of God’s wisdom, justice and truth. When we pray for Donald, Barack, George, Bill, George, or Jimmy, Presidents of the United States, we pray for their well-being, for they too are children of God, but we also pray for their leadership in our society and world. We pray that they will lead in the ways of justice and truth. We pray that their leadership will truly serve not partisan interest but the common good. When we pray for them, we are actually praying for our nation, for our world, indeed we are praying for ourselves.
Prayer is not a simplistic cheer or declaration of support. Prayers of lament cry out in pain and cry for justice. Prayer can celebrate. Prayer can also ask God to intervene and change the course of history, to change someone’s mind, or his or her heart. When we pray for our enemies, we may find that we are simultaneously emboldened to stand for justice while we are also less able to demonize another human being.
Real prayer is both contemplative and active. It involves a contemplative conversation with and listening to God, and an active following of the way of Jesus, serving and witnessing in the world in his Name. For those who follow the way of Jesus, the active side of our life of prayer seeks to live out and help our society live out what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself.” So we work for a good and just, humane and loving society. We participate as followers of Jesus in the life of our government and society, caring for each other and others, and working for policies and laws that reflect the values and teachings of Jesus to “love your neighbor,” to “do unto others as you who have them do unto you,” to fashion a civic order that reflects the goodness, the justice, the compassion that we see in the face of Jesus, that we know to reflect the very heart and dream of God for all of God’s children and God’s creation.
I grew up in a historically black congregation in the Episcopal Church. We prayed for leaders who were often lukewarm or even opposed to our very civil rights. We got on our knees in church and prayed for them, and then we got up off our knees and we Marched on Washington. Following the way of Jesus, we prayed and protested at the same time. We prayed for our leaders who were fighting for our civil rights, we prayed for those with whom we disagreed, and we even prayed for those who hated us. And we did so following the Jesus, whose way is the way of unselfish, sacrificial love. And that way is the way that can set us all free.
As we celebrate the birth of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we may find guidance in his words, spoken during one of the most painful and difficult struggles in the Civil Rights Movement. He asked that all participants live by a set of principles. The first principle read: “As you prepare to march, meditate on the life and teachings of Jesus.”
As a team of Buddhist and Christian chaplains at Imperial we were really excited to hear Tom Beaudoin’s key-note talk at the Conference of European University Chaplains in the Netherlands last year.
Tom is Associate Professor of Religion at Fordham University. In his talk he was looking at life in a globalized world. He argued that there would be great advantages if we were all to learn to speak a second religious or secular language.
Language, as a metaphor for our worldview, suggests that we all have a religious or secular ‘first language’ for talking about how we see the world and what we believe, for example Christianity, Islam, Buddhism or atheism, humanism, agnosticism.
To learn a second ‘religious language’ does not mean giving up our first language, our ‘mother tongue’. In a world were we are constantly meeting people whose world view is very different from our own it is good to be able speak even a little of another language.
So, while Christianity is my first language, I can ‘speak’ a little Buddhism. I have learned this second language from working with colleagues, sharing silent meditation together and hearing about their traditions. I am not fluent and I am not a native speaker. But I know enough to be a good ‘house guest’ and (I hope!) to travel courteously with my second language. This way I learn more, and see a little from the Buddhist perspective.
The other gift of learning a new language is returning to our first language with new eyes, and a better ear for the language itself. I now have a better understanding of my mother tongue for having started learning a second language!
The start of our new academic year is just a week away at Imperial. I have been remembering my holidays in the summer and getting ready for the new start.
I really like the ‘process of return’ expressed in this French word I kept seeing on my holiday. “La rentrée” sums up the whole phenomena of ‘back to school and back to work’.
Supermarkets stockpile new school bags, pens and stationary required for “la rentrée”. The newspapers talk about politicians making their “rentrée” – with new policy announcements and campaigns. I am told it is also the excuse for late deliveries because well…people have been away and are just coming back to work… “c’est la rentrée!”
We can’t avoid the end of the holiday. We do have to go back to school or work and all the stuff of daily life. So what I like is the way “la rentrée ” suggests that this is a process, and it can take some time, and we should probably all just bear with one another because it is going to take a while to get back to life as usual.
In one sense returning from holiday is straightforward. Just get home, get back in the office and start getting on with things. But like the space shuttle’s “re-entry” it can be a dramatic process returning to the familiar atmosphere and the gravity of work.
And in the course of the holiday and the return journey we may have changed a little. Maybe we are for the moment more relaxed, or returning with a new vision.
In daily life, and in the practices of spirituality that we weave through our daily lives, it can take time to pick up all the patterns and routines. It is good to do this slowly if possible. Maybe, after the break there might be some new things to try, some things to ditch and some re-ordering of the work.
I also found that “à la rentrée ” is a way of wishing someone a ‘good return to work’; blessing for the ‘process of return’.
Whether you’re getting back to work, about to start the annual academic cycle, or exploring new patterns of spirituality, ‘Bon courage!
I am back from summer holidays and getting into the workaday routines.
In university-land here in the UK we are preparing for the new academic year that begins in a few weeks.
It feels like a ‘new year’ is about to dawn. Soon the campus will be full of an extra 10,000 people. Each day will be full of new encounters and new relationships. The ‘buzz’ will be deafening. So, I am going to use September to look for the moments of silence in my everyday life.
It is a good way of preparing, because in my Christian tradition silence has many meanings. Silence is itself a form of prayer, and it can be cultivated in meditation. Silence is almost interchangeable with solitude. There is the idea of listening to the silence around us so we can notice the noise or silence within us. This kind of inner silence can be the place from which we meet and listen deeply to others. And silence is the very presence of God.
Today I had an unexpected gift of a free hour in the delightful RCA cafe down at the Battersea campus. A chance to finish my ‘Silence in September Blog Project’.
Looking back over the month, the first ten days of Silence in September was like being on a retreat in daily life. Silence allows a greater personal awareness and an intention to actions. Together this gives ordinary everyday actions, like washing up or walking down the street, a particular quality. I might call it being ‘present to oneself’.
Then, as expected, the family party and weekend guests changed the routines of daily life for over a week. So the third week was an experience of ‘restarting my prayer and meditation life’. The silence was there as an invitation – not as something I had created myself.
Then the move of the Chaplaincy Centre to new premises, followed by the start of term, demanded a complete shift into action and doing mode. There was packing, unpacking, and a long list of practical issues to do with our new building. We were working to get the new Chaplaincy Multi-Faith Centre open to welcome groups and individuals. At the same time doing all the start of year welcome events.
Amidst all this activity silence returned in a new form. It came from my new colleagues Karuna and Hogetsu. Both follow Buddhist meditation practices. From our different meditation (for me prayer) traditions we have a meeting place in silence. So began the habit of using ten minute silences during our working day. So, for me as a Christian, it feels like the monastic pattern of silence at the start of the day, at lunchtime and at the end of the working day. The daily tasks and irregular working patterns constantly disrupt the pattern – but that is OK, the silence is always there, always an invitation, always a gift. Silence is for life, not just September.
(The blog program wont let me use tabs and spacings to give the original line layout – which has some unusual gaps – hints at silence maybe?)
The Presence by RS Thomas
I pray and incur
silence.Some take that silence
I feel the power
by the sleeve,nudging
towards the long shelf
that has the book on it I will take down
and read and find the antidote
to an ailment.
I know its ways with me ;
how it enters my life,
is present rather
before I perceive it, sunlight quivering
on a bare wall.
Is it consciousness trying
to get through ?
Am I under
It takes me seconds
to focus, by which time
it has shifted its gaze,
looking a little to one
side, as though I were not here.
It has the universe
to be abroad in.
There is nothing I can do
but fill myself with my own
silence, hoping it will approach
like a wild creature to drink
there, or perhaps like Narcissus
to linger a moment over its transparent face.