Deeper Water

Reginald Sommerset Ward was a priest and spiritual director in the Church of England in the early part of the last century.  He is regarded by some as one of the foundational persons of the spiritual life of the Church during that time.  Ward was a confidant and counselor to hundreds and hundreds of Christians – from Archbishops of Canterbury to laborers and janitors, his time and prayer with others spanned the entire spectrum of the country.  One of the questions that Ward would always ask those meeting with him was, “Is there any reality in your prayers?”

Another way of asking that question is, “Are you finding ground with God?  Is there sometimes someone near you as you pray?” 

I have found one of the obstacles that I face, and others face, is the sense that we are sometimes shadow boxing, or casting a posture before a psychic or spiritual mirror; perhaps left exhausted from pummeling the air, or mildly bored with gazing upon an image of our own fashioning.  Without finding this reality in prayer, without finding this ground with God, the entire project of religion in our lives can slip away, or be replaced by other pursuits that simply seem to take us out of ourselves for a space of time.  My hunch is that is why so many leisure activities, sports, hobbies, avocations, have such traction in modern life; we know deep in our bones that we are meant to be in communication with a deeper part of ourselves, and we have a need to forget ourselves occasionally.  We are looking for an experience in the proverbial “zone.”

Therefore, for many of us, prayer remains something read about, talked about, thought about, wished for, but sometimes rarely experienced as reality.

Speaking as a liturgical Christian, an Episcopalian, I find that when we are asked to pray in public, as well as talk about our prayer lives, we want to reach for a book; not unlike Adam and Eve reaching for the fig leaves when they realized that they were naked.  Spiritually disrobing in our circles, in our milieu, among “our people,” is expected of our men and women in black robes, but still consider a faux pas, a gently kind of trespass, an enthusiasm, amid day to day social concourse.

I will take it a step further.  Given that one of the contributions of more contemporary theological reflection and devotion is being in conversation with modern psychology and the psychological arts, some of us keep in the garage of our psyche a persona, a kind of “stage presence,” that neighborhood of our personality that has been shaped and formed by the world of our encounters with counseling, therapy, self-development, the Myers-Briggs, the Enneagram {actually with ancient sources}, and other encounters where working in the garden of the self has helped us grow the tree of “self” deeper in roots and higher in branches. 

For me, many of these experiences have been profound, and given me “new eyes” with which to see the familiar inner-man, whom I have come to know and become through the years.  However, talking about that “self,” and the soul in real prayer, may be something a bit different.

The conversation with God to which I am referring tonight is a prior conversation; it is as deep as memories from the crib.  As deep as memories of my mother rocking me to sleep singing “Hush little baby don’t say a word . . .”  As deep as something described by TS Eliot in the Four Quartets:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.”

Before giving ourselves to a prayerful moment, there is the renewed affirmation that God is indeed in the world, and the scriptures have the power to speak God’s truth into our lives; our movement toward prayer is not making something “happen” that is somehow self-generated.

Building our life of prayer and meditation from Scripture is also a kind of authentication of the source from which we are seeking to draw power.  Out hope is to be drawn more deeply into the incarnate presence of Christ, and therefore travel more deeply into the reality that God is already in the world.

For me, centering my prayers in liturgical and lectionary readings is both keel and sail.  This kind of time with God actually frees me from my inclination to dwell in the “imagination of my heart.”  There is both a gentle direction offered, the way the wind presses a sail.  There is a kind of direction and stability, as the keel of a boat steadies and directs its travel.

Lectio – Choosing a text.  I find it most helpful to be reading in the books that I know the Church of which I am a part is also reading.  Therefore I turn to the Daily Office or the Sunday Lectionary for the page from which to begin.  And within that context, I find that I more often than not am turning to the Psalm, the Gospel, and occasionally the Epistle.  I have noticed through the years that I have bias toward understanding the entirety of the two testaments through the truth of the Incarnation. 

In Lectio, the opening, I am simply reading and noticing that my consciousness, my psyche, my mind and my heart, are slowing down and taking the exit ramp off the daily merry go round.  I am also often looking at a candle, recalling that all that I can see, touch, taste, and smell is simply slowly being consumed in the laws of entropy; slowly burning like a candle, as one great offering of flame to God as experienced through time.

In this “state,” I generally find that the contours of my life are pressed as by a breeze, or caught, as by a force of flowing water, by something that I am reading.  I am giving my mind to a moment of vulnerability so that it might be caught in scripture.

This past week I spent a fair amount of time on two verses from the Psalm:

Psalm 27

Dominus illuminatio

1 The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom then shall I fear? *
the Lord is the strength of my life;
of whom then shall I be afraid?

2 When evildoers came upon me to eat up my flesh, *
it was they, my foes and my adversaries, who
stumbled and fell.

11 You speak in my heart and say, “Seek my face.” *
Your face, Lord, will I seek.

12 Hide not your face from me, *
nor turn away your servant in displeasure.

Traveling down that off-ramp from the busy highway of my life, I have to be honest about what is keeping me from God during the day.  Have I become busy in order to avoid my fears?  If I am noticing fear and anxiety, “Of what am I afraid?”  Afraid of getting old?  Afraid for my children and their situations?  Afraid for our Church community and our ongoing sustenance?  Afraid for the world, and the lives that are at risk because of the actions of those who seem to have no regard for God?  What is stirring in those deeper waters?

Perhaps I am feeling small and alone.  Perhaps I have treated myself and others with a dose of egoism.  Why?  Why might I feel forgotten in my life?  Is there a love for which I am searching?  Do I feel that my life ultimately has no meaning and the days passing by without existential significance or notice?  What sort of attention do I really want from God?  What might God’s “face” give to the fabric of my being?

Sussing out and sorting these queries is truly the beginning of Lectio.  As I have shared with you in the past, the Buddhist have a wonderful phrase for what plagues most of us when we rest for prayer – monkey mind.  For me the key to monkey mind is to realize that I have the time; in fact that the highest and best use of my time is to seek nearness to God.  So we can fold up the day planner version of daily life for a bit and ponder what the promise of eternal life is interrupting my daily life for a bit. 

Settling on “Your face Lord will I seek . . .”  I begin to repeat that verse from Psalm 27.  “Your face, Lord, Will I Seek . . .” becomes the verse, the mantra, the repeat button, the song in my head that I cannot shake.  Your Face Lord Will I Seek . . .

And then comes the gentle shift to Meditatio.  I repeat this phrase, sometimes physical, sometimes in my mind, sometimes both.  Repeat, repeat, repeat.  Let the monkeys dance and shriek, let the flood of moments, regrets, anxieties, and worries.  The to-do list.  All be cast upon the screen of my consciousness. 

Sometimes I imagine myself on a beach, and the waves of information and unprocessed feelings are splashing on the beach of something greater, something eternal, God’s word.  And I am sitting on that beach watching those waves crash and repeat, crash and repeat .  . .all the while repeating to myself very calmly and slowly – Your Face Lord Will I Seek.

Meditatio, Meditation, rumination, is like mixing the ingredients you have just place in a bowl.  Sometimes it is difficult to see where the eggs, butter, sugar, and spice all begin and end; yet certainly they are all there.  The Holy Spirit, and my internal acquiescence, willingness, acceptance that God is about to take the reins, are all at work – first within my mind, and then traveling to the regions of my heart.

During this meditation, sometimes a few minutes, sometimes five minutes, I often notice a tension, a tug of war, arm wrestling, as my conscious mind seeks to retain its own contours.  As I continue to flash images from my imagination upon the screen of my mind’s eye of needing to prepare for the Bible Study, write the sermon, visit the hospital, call the shut-in, look at the budget, pick up the kids, go to the bank, phone my parents, etc., etc.

Meditatio, this meditation, is essentially the movement toward surrendering the present moment to the eternal moment; walking from the small room into the open meadow.

What is the added ingredient of that verse, “Your Face Lord Will I Seek,” beginning to say to me and my reality?   

Once the hold has been taken, and the monkeys are at rest, there is a new open space in my consciousness.  The plane has left the ground and cleared the turbulence.  The ship of psychic and scriptural reality is underway.  Once the “zone” has been achieved, there are a number of places to visit. 

If I am carrying someone in the corner of my heart; someone sick, someone struggling, someone who has taken residence in my consciousness due to life’s variability, I find myself looking for their face and hearing their voice.  I want them in that prayerful space with me.  The same is true if there is something for which I am praying; a child, Liza, the soldier I saw struggling on the evening news, with the third eye of the heart and the soul, I look for them.  If there is someone with whom I am irritated, angry, and ready to squash, although it can be like reaching for the brass ring, I too try to bring some version of how I have known them into that place.  It is a place of peace, yet also light and energy; and I raise the desire from my bowels, “Good Lord, deliver us.”

There is something about having others in that place with me that lends these moments gravity; as though they are concretized in being shared by those I carry in my heart and mind.  This past week, given that my holding pattern was centered on “Your Face Lord Will I Seek,” the desire that arose had to do with the Incarnate and Risen Christ spilling the light of His countenance into all of our lives.  Lately filled with images and news of the Ukraine. 

Oratio, oration, is that stage of this experience where we speak to God, given that God is speaking to us.  For those who are halt and lame, I may find myself saying their name as I imagine the face of Christ shining upon them; for healing, either in this life, or the next.  “Give them life Lord.”  For those with whom I am experiencing a broken relationship, I may find myself saying their name, holding their face and voice in my mind’s eye, even noticing the twinge in my gut when I think of them, and saying Lord forgive us.

Offering this utterance, these names, these words of petition for life or forgiveness, is my offertory, my Oratio – speaking to God with the knowledge that heaven is now present.

I know that this space is drawing to a close when I begin to hear and feel the notes of gratitude that come when I sense that God has been near.  And it has taken me some time to learn this; I try not to artificially extend or manhandle the psychic delicacy of the Meditatio – Oratio experience.  It is a kind of catharsis for me, with sources deep within what I feel, think, and desire.  Too much acquisitiveness, or sense of accumulation, of the consolation that I am experiencing leads only to the bird flying from the hand.  The gift of the presence is never mine to keep, but simply to touch and to hold for a moment.  I have learned that it is better to leave such moments with the perception that God’s fingerprints are indeed upon my consciousness, than be left meditating upon my own fingerprints having tried to wrest something “holy” from the experience.

Once the Meditation and Oration are beginning to close, I intuitively know that it is now time to rest. 

Contemplatio – Contemplation, for me, is like the pending resolution of piece of music.  In some great symphonies, there seeds of the concluding movement are sprinkled into the entire piece.  Yet as we move through the piece, we find those seeds have sprouted, and there is a sense that we are drawing to the close.  Contemplatio – Contemplation, rest and reflection, opens for me when I sense that the seedlings intimating closure have blossomed.  There is just a sense that our time is now over; the way that we might discover that we are at the end of a wonderful visit with a long-lost friend.  There is always the moment when someone scoots back a chair.

During this final space, for me, there is generally a note of gratitude and thanks.  There is the sense that the internal screen of my consciousness is either clean, or bordered with intimations of immortality {Wordsworth}.  There is the sense that I have both visited another place, and been visited by a friend from that place.  Contemplation is resting in the knowledge that I have been touched.

Being conscious of this space, this resolution of my desire, may last five, ten minutes; depending upon how quickly I reach the awareness that I am now being self-indulgent rather than empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Generally I get up with some sense of resolution that indeed God is God, and we are his children.  And so, as I pull the little mini-van of my daily life back to the highway of daily life, I am not traveling alone, or afraid that my life and my ultimate concern are forgotten in the universe.

In the words of an old Benedictine Prayer Book – “Prayer is the reminder that we do not live alone in a time-bound universe.”  And so, my reality has been once again secured by God. 

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