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Archive for the ‘Contemplative Practices’ Category

Influenced by the surrounding zeitgeist of courtly love and the Beguine movement, 13th century Flemish mystic Hadewijch of Antwerp embraced a very embodied mysticism. As Andrew Dreitcer writes in his notes for a class on Christian Spirituality through the Ages, “For Hadewijch, the Divine was known most fully in and through the experience (with attendant physical and emotional manifestations) of loving and being loved.” In courtly love, the love of the knight for his “sworn love” was infused with erotic human desire married to spiritual transcendent passions in a way that was both “exalting” and “humiliating,” “passionate” and “self-disciplined,” and “illicit” and “morally elevating.” [Maria Bowen, “Hadewijch: Background Notes” (San Francisco Theological Seminary, January 1995), 5, 7] These pairings were sometimes consummated though not generally.

“Hadewijch was the first to appropriate the image of courtly love as love for God,” writes Bowen, and she perceived a reciprocal relationship between God and humans as lovers to one another.  In the midst of this deep intimacy and mutuality between humans and God, God is still portrayed as “distant” and an “unattainable lover” who must be “conquered.”  With such an emphasis on mutuality, I wonder why she doesn’t see God more like Francis Thompson’s “hound of heaven” who either never ceases in God’s pursuit of us, or even a God who is deep within us and must only be awakened within? What if our longing for God is stirred within us by God’s already existent presence?

 I wanted to write a poem that honored Hadewijch’s style of mystical love poetry, and so this is what I will offer as my testament to the God in whom I live and move and have my being (Acts 17:28).

 

The Beloved

My heart yearns for the Beloved

my body aches

to merge in union with the One

who sees my holiness.

If only my own eyes could see

what my Beloved sees of me.

If only my own ears could hear

what my Beloved hears of me.

If only my own mind could know

what my Beloved knows of me,

I would be healed.

If I, like Mary, let him

have his way with me,

I will conceive his Word

and birth divinity.

So ravish me, Beloved.

Satisfy my desire.

Enter every closed and darkened place

and pour your radiant Light,

your blazing Love

into every part of me.

Set me on fire,

so that all that is dross

is turned to ash.

And I am left

breathless,

shining.

 

 

 

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 There are few hours in life more agreeable
than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.

~Henry James, Portrait of a Lady
(quoted on p.39 of The Metaphor Maker,
by Patricia Adams Farmer)

 

Though it was never accompanied by much ceremony, I grew up drinking tea. It was a habit of my mother when I was a child to have a cup most every evening, and it’s still a ritual we both enjoy to this day. And though we have no roots on the other side of the pond, we drink it British style, with milk. Though Mom has of late been foregoing any kind of sweetener, my preference is to add a spoon of honey from the Webb’s bees in Clarkesville, Georgia.

After my sophomore year at Purdue University, I left the dormitory for apartment life, and my roommate Laurel and I would commiserate about boys in our small eating area off the kitchen. Those conversations always seemed enriched by a cup of tea and a Pop-Tart. Hot tea soothed broken hearts and sometimes we held onto those best-friend rituals as if they were lifesavers. They were lifesavers.

In The Metaphor Maker by Patricia Adams Farmer, recent college graduate Madeline finds a sweet job in Eve’s tea shop where tea is held in very high regard.

Eve went to prepare the tea, which was easy enough since she had already put on the kettle for herself. As she poured the boiling water over the dry leaves, she felt the significance of such a simple ritual. The very act was like a thread of history, linking Eve to her mother and to past generations, all of whom found comfort from the woes of life – toothaches to heartaches – with a calming reassuring cup of tea. (86)

Between the years of 2006 and 2009, I lived in the north Georgia mountains near the small town of Clarkesville and it’s the place I consider the home of my soul. During that period, I wrote a twice-monthly column for the local newspaper, and in one of those essays I described a recent visit to a monastery.

I spent a few days earlier this year in silence at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia.  It had been a very hard and sad December for me – for a lot of reasons – and once we rang in the New Year I just felt the need to leave behind all the distractions of telephone and email for at least a few days.

The Monastery was established in the 1940’s when a group of Trappist monks traveled to Georgia from Kentucky to build a new community.  It’s a beautiful place with a lake, ducks and geese, and the beauty continues inside as well, especially in the cathedral with its soaring ceiling and stained glass windows.

Retreatants that come to the monastery are welcome to join in any, all or none of the worship services led by the brothers, but what felt most holy to me was the last service of the evening that began with the monks’ chanting in a deep darkness broken only by candlelight.

When your soul is carrying heavy burdens, the evocative beauty of holy ritual can lift those burdens like steam rising from a comforting pot of tea.  Holy moments of synchronicity kept tapping me on the shoulder, showing me over and over again that God saw me and knew my heart.  And after a Divine accident put a book in my path that brought tremendous healing, I knew once again that I had been touched by Grace.

Tea and Grace. Sometimes that which is most simple and earthy can be accompanied by that which is most holy.

 

 

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In a 1959 interview with the BBC, Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung was asked if he’d grown up believing in God, and he answered that he did. The interviewer then asked if he now believed in God. Jung responded that the question was difficult to answer. “I know,” he said, “I don’t need to believe, I know.” We might ask what he knew and how he knew it. Of course I can’t speak for Dr. Jung, but I believe he meant that since he’d personally encountered God – since he’d had direct experience of God – his experience replaced “belief” with more concrete “knowledge.”

A deeply important part of my spiritual journey has been the practice of dream work and the examination of synchronicities – those occurrences in daily life that seem to be meaningful coincidences – along with other kinds of inner work based on the psychology of Jung and those who work in his tradition. I’ve also – like many Jungians – used myths, fairy tales, and sacred wisdom stories to show me where I am in my journey, as they reveal archetypal patterns of life and the psyche. This kind of psycho-spiritual practice has led me to experience a God who…

  • speaks to me personally through dreams and powerful synchronicities
  • reveals meaningful stories to me when they are most helpful
  • is moving me through refining fire for transformation and healing|
  • calls me to my true path or destiny just as God called Abraham, Jacob, Mary of Magdala and others.

Though one can see similar divine encounters in the stories of God’s people revealed in Christian and Jewish scripture, this is not the kind of God that is described by the traditional or classical Christian theology that was so heavily influenced by Greek thought. Traditional theology describes a God who is:

  • Wholly other; who cannot and does not interact directly with humans except through supernatural revelation and that kind of thing stopped when the last page of the Bible was written,
  • Absolute Ruler, Unchanging, the Unmoved Mover, and not influenced by humans’ situation or sufferings,
  • So offended or dishonored by human sin and error that humans are therefore separated from God by an unbreachable chasm,
  • No longer reachable by direct experience of “regular” people no matter what early Christians experienced,
  • And, that our personal experience of God should not be trusted because there’s no way to “know” or “prove” that we are encountering the “real” God as God is in God’s self

Who is the God you know? And if you don’t feel that you know God, which God would you put more trust in – the Unmoved Mover, or the God who knows your deepest troubles and who calls to you, personally, as “deep calls to deep” in that still, small voice?

Many in the church would have you believe that the only theology that is “right” is what has been handed down for centuries in our tradition. But as Bruce Epperly reminds us in his text Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed,

Postmodernism cautions us that all theology is concrete, situational, and time bound. Postmodern theologians warn us that universal theological statements are abstractions that can be both oppressive and irrelevant to flesh and blood human beings… [on the other hand] Process theologians affirm that people can still tell a universal story, but…this story is grounded in experience and perspective and must be open-ended and liberating. (p. 1)

Each one of us has our own theology, and we are engaging in theological activity “whenever we try to discern the meaning of our lives, fathom the reality of suffering and tragedy, and discover our place in the universe.” (p. 2)

The question is, does your theology help transform your life and your heart? Does your theology open you to experiencing the Living God so that you can say you know God exists? Does your theology free you from whatever binds you?

If not, what good is it?

 

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I’d spent half that day in 1995 holding on to my hat as the open-air truck bounced us around Canyon de Chelly, a most beautiful National Monument in Arizona. Under expansive and gorgeous azure blue skies, we saw cliff dwellings perched precariously in the red-brown canyon walls, examined pictographs sketched centuries earlier, drove through occasional groves of green cottonwood trees, and passed homesteads of Native Americans who farmed in that rugged landscape. When the “shake and bake” truck tour ended, I decided to get a bird’s eye view of the canyon from one of the overlooks at the rim.

I drove my rented car into the lot of the first overlook I came to, noticing that there were no other cars and no other people. I walked out and sat on a rock hundreds of feet above the canyon floor, watching the now-ant-sized truck tours below and listened to the hawks and the gentle breeze.  It had been an interesting vacation where I traveled alone, flying from Atlanta to Albuquerque, renting a car, and driving about a thousand miles to see a good bit of the American Southwest. This canyon was my last stop before getting back on the plane the next day.

As I sat on that rock, in what the Celts would have called a “thin place,” my awareness and sensory experience suddenly underwent a dramatic shift. My consciousness expanded and I could fully feel in every cell of my body this one truth: I was an infinitesimally small speck of dust in the universe. And I was connected to everything. I would say that the rest of my life since that moment has been an attempt to integrate that one truth. That moment – one that could be called “mystical” – revealed the Holy for me. It was certainly a “big” picture view.

Last week, I wrote about meeting God in a hummingbird, probably one of the smaller of the earth’s creatures. So the Holy can be revealed just as clearly in the “small” picture view as well. But isn’t it all too easy to miss God in those small moments?

As a scholar of process theology, I am most drawn to this school of thought because of the way in which it presents God as being very much in this world, not just transcending it. In “emerging process spirituality”, writes Bruce Epperly, “God is present as a source of guidance and inspiration in every moment of experience and in every encounter. According to process theology, all things and every moment reveal the holy.” (p. 132, Emerging Process) He writes,

Revelation is not other-worldly, nor does it draw us away from our concrete experience of God’s wholeness/holiness in the here and now of historic, relational, and embodied experiences. Encountering God calls us to love God in this concrete, ever-emerging world, rather than deferring issues of justice, peace, and self-realization to a disembodied afterlife.

Might God be revealed in our day-to-day encounters with friends? In our workplace? In our dogs, cats, and the wild things out back? In our battles with depression? In the crying infant a few rows up in the airplane? In our night time dreams and the meaningful coincidences or synchronicities that give us pause? Where do you meet the Holy?

 

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Yesterday, my church was a sycamore tree and God was a hummingbird. Maybe I should qualify that by saying that God was POSING as a hummingbird, but I believe that the Logos or Word of God is present in everything created so, for me, there’s not that much of a difference.  After all, the Gospel of Thomas has Jesus saying, “Raise the stone, and there you will find me; cleave the wood, and there I am.” But back to my September Sunday church in the sycamore tree…

I was not actually IN the sycamore tree, but the patio of my second story apartment places me right next to the extensive branches of the stately tree, and so when the light filtering through the leaves tickles my face as I rest there, it’s as if I can become a part of the tree itself. There are times in the morning when the leaves are haloed and especially gorgeous.

My time on the porch Sunday morning was primarily for the purpose of reading Dr. Bruce Epperly’s Holy Adventure (a 41-day guide to “audacious living), and so with my body resting on the two-seater there (and my dog, Cotton, occupying the other seat), I began to read. While I was immersed in the reading for Day 4, I heard the constant chattering of one of the hummingbirds that frequents my feeder, just when Dr. Epperly invited his readers to “Visualize yourself sitting in your favorite place of beauty.”(p. 45)  It was nice that I could do even better than that, as I was already present in that very real place. He continues, “Experience the unique beauty and wonder of this place. Feel its peace and tranquility.”

Hummingbirds are always a wonder for me, and to be able to catch them in a rare moment of stillness, perched on a branch, seems like an overabundance of grace. As I listened to the hummer’s vocalizations, I began speaking softly back, whispering my gratitude and love for this perfect little being. He or she grew very quiet and almost seemed to be listening to me as well. In that moment, everything paused and I experienced a brief respite of inner peace that was nothing short of a Eucharistic communion.

As Elizabeth Barrett Browning has written in her poem “Aurora Leigh”, and Dr. Epperly has quoted:

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only [she] who sees, takes off [her] shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

Here, in this place, the Spirit of God whispered on the breeze through the branches, outlined leaves in light, spoke through the chattering of a hummingbird, flowed through my mind in grace-filled words, and held my heart in the palm of Her hand for a blessed moment of stillness and beauty.

Marble cathedral  Sunday services rarely get any better than that.

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Source: Grace Cathedral website

I just walked into the womb of God.

At least that’s what the labyrinth spread out upon the floor of the chapel at the Claremont School of Theology became for me this evening. We’ve been exploring a different contemplative practice in our class each week, and this week was the practice of walking the labyrinth. For those who are not familiar, a labyrinth is a winding pathway that is typically walked in a meditative way as a means of deepening one’s relationship with God. Unlike mazes, labyrinths have no dead ends or high walls; their pathway leads in to a center and then back out again.

It is thought that labyrinths might have been used to take the place of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and their use in the United States has become more popular in recent years due, in part, to the work of people like Lauren Artress from Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.  Here at school, we’re in the final throes of our semester, and our canvas labyrinth has been installed in the chapel to help with stress reduction as well as contemplation.

We entered the chapel adorned with lit candles, icons, and music, and I entered the pathway with a prayer expressing my intention to welcome God’s presence.  At turns in the circuit, I imagined things I wanted to be rid of – ways of thinking that no longer serve me – and immediately felt tears stinging my eyes as I prayed to let them go.

Right foot spread from heel to toe, raised leg, and then left foot following suit; over and over again, I connected body to ground, body to ground, praying for a better connection between body and soul, and body and heart. As I rounded a turn near the illuminated icons, there was Mother and Child and I saw myself held in the arms of my Mother God. I was held still in her gaze for a long moment of deep connection.

And then I knew that I was not just walking toward the center of a labyrinth, but I was walking toward the womb of my Mother God, Mother Sophia, and that it was in Her womb that I would be fed and formed and finally birthed as a new being back into the world. Every turn now brought her loving presence deeper into my body, and I breathed in this new found joy. Mother Sophia! Mother God! Now the saxophone jazz was a celebration, now the prayers were praise, now the Love was right Here.

 

Sources: The Way We Pray: Celebrating Spirit from Around the World, Maggie Oman Shannon  (Berkeley, CA: Conari Press, 2001) and 50 Ways to Pray: Practices from Many Traditions and Times, Teresa A. Blythe (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2006.

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What if you slept? And what if, in your sleep, you dreamed? And what if, in your dream, you went to heaven and there plucked a strange and beautiful flower? And what if, when you awoke, you had the flower in your hand? Ah, what then? ~Samuel Taylor Coleridge

I love dream work. I don’t even remember when I began working with my dreams, although I know that I began my love affair with all things Jungian after reading Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. That book and her audio series Theatre of the Imagination are truly banquets for the soul. I’m glad I still have a car with a cassette deck so I can keep listening to Estes’ evocative voice and entrancing storytelling while driving. But I digress; we were talking about dreams.

Dream work is commonly done in Jungian psychology, and it is based on the idea that our psyche is made up of both conscious and unconscious aspects. Jung believed that the unconscious held information of which we were not yet aware, but which could be life enhancing and important for our well being. In addition to our personal unconscious, he believed there was a transpersonal collective unconscious which holds the kinds of archetypal patterns that come to humanity in dreams, fairy tales and wisdom stories or myths. He believed that there was a pattern of wholeness in each psyche that he called the Self, and that this Self could use the symbolic language of the unconscious to speak to us through dreams.

Rev. Jeremy Taylor, a Unitarian Universalist minister and author, believes that all dreams come to us in the service of health and wholeness. I personally believe – and have experienced – that dreams are a language that God uses to be in dialogue with us, to show us love and to give us guidance. Tuning in to our dreams, I believe, helps us tune in to God’s purposes for our lives.

I’m currently in a doctoral program at Claremont Lincoln University, and taking a class in Teaching Contemplative Practices. Last night, I led our class in a contemplative practice using dream work. Though I’ve led groups before in dream work – where the whole gathering works together on one dream at a time – but last night’s practice was different, more meditative. I suggested that this practice could be almost like a kind of lectio divina, where the dream is approached as a sacred text. After the participants reviewed their dream in their minds, and then wrote down the images and the associations they held for each, I invited them to hold all the images in front of their minds’ eyes and contemplate them like an icon, like a window to the Sacred, opening themselves to any message that the dream may have come to offer. Finally, we paused in silence and gratitude for the dream and the Dream Giver.

Many of the participants shared that they’d had an “aha” moment of new insight into something related to the dream. Certainly, those kinds of insights can be just as sweet as any rose with which we awaken.

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