Thursday, July 30, 2009

meditation [disciplines of the inner life]

Listening means being released from willfulness, arrogance, and self-assertiveness. It calls for respectful presence to the mystery we are meditating, for humble openness to its meaning. ...Listening is only possible to the degree that we let go of the grip of our egotistic will and become inwardly and outwardly silent, alert, receptive, attentive. Then we may be able to think clearly or meditate; it becomes possible to reflect on our lives as a whole or on a text we are reading. What we hear sinks from our minds into our hearts. Ideas are not exploited to serve our purposes but to direct us to deeper wisdom, to a revelation of persons, events, and things as they are in themselves. We become the servants rather than the masters of the word. -- From Pathways of Spiritual Living by Susan Annette Muto

During this meditation on, well, meditation I was reminded of a journal entry from several years ago: God wants to form a Grand Canyon in me and all I want to be is a rain gutter.

Who knows what to blame: laziness, self-hatred, Baptists, Capitalism or the Devil, himself. I just have the hardest time letting stuff -- truth, prayer, learnings, love -- sit inside me long enough to erode the walls and dullness and form anything of majestic beauty. I continually look for ways to use these gifts up on something productive or reputable. Or to plan ways to spout them off to someone else. Use up the sense of God's presence for a few minutes of selfish pleasure and then let it trickle through me onto something that costs me nothing. [I'll spare you the other metaphor the Spirit gave me for this behavior while I was studying the reproductive carelessness of the men in Genesis 38:9 years ago. The picture at the top of the post just wouldn't be the same.]

But meditation requires sitting, soaking, eroding, allowing the Spirit of the present God to wash and rumble and wear me down into receptiveness. I find myself in love with the idea of this kind of relationship with the Almighty but very much adverse to the discomfort of it. I keep wanting to pickpocket God's glory; to dab a few drops of Him behind my ears and move on with my life hoping that faint scent of Him will cover up a multitude of my sin and ignorance. If I can manage to impress people at the same time, then even better.

It's worth noting that many of my favorite words, images, and experiences point toward an opposite behavior.
Indeed if we consider the unblushing promise of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. - C.S. Lewis
Earth’s crammed with heaven. And every common bush afire with God, and only he who sees takes off his shoes, The rest sit around and pluck blackberries. -- Elizabeth Barrett Browning
With all this excessive flinging about of quotation and metaphor, I'm probably not making myself clear. I am learning that meditation requires being willing to sit and listen and wait and feel nothing. It is an emptying of myself of myself -- and all the baggage I lug along with me each day -- in order to connect with the present God. And to do this without requiring of Him a quota of warm fuzzies or spiritual truths that He's supposed to dispense like Pez candies. (so much for getting rid of metaphor!)

For me to take this on as a discipline I knew I needed some sort of "trigger", and, yes, this is an acknowledgement of my weakness. I read where Thomas Merton said that embracing my weakness as a beginner is all part of the deal. I live in a part of Endicott that is graced with the sound of churchbell chimes every fifteen minutes of the day. I actually love this village charm but find myself not even noticing it half the time. As a baby-step in the discipline of meditation I asked God to alert me to the sound of the bells on each hour and that, in return, I would take those moments to pause, turn down the volume of my thoughts, breathe deeply and listen. For what, I'm not quite sure, but I think that also is part of the deal -- this emptying out of mental, emotional and physical noise to sit with the present God.

I'd love to tell you that the experiment with the church bells was an overwhelming success; as it happened in reality, I only noticed them a couple of times that entire week. I got frustated quickly because -- if I'm being totally honest -- it just seemed like a lot of work to stop mid-track and do nothing. I thought about counting the bell chimes, praying for someone else, imagining something God wanted me to know. I did make up a simple little prayer that went something like: Thank-You, Father, for this new hour to be alive. So that was kind of cheering. I read about another short prayer that a guy named Diadochus wrote in the fifth century: Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me. That might also do the trick.

I should also take this opportunity to confess that the very same week I was learning in the discipline of meditation I became addicted to a new word game on Facebook. Providential testing or devilish diversion - who knows? I have a strong suspicion, though. If nothing else stuck, this remembering of God's Word did:

One thing I have asked from the Lord, that I shall seek: That I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord and to meditate in His temple. To live with Him in His house my whole life long. I'll contemplate His beauty; I'll study at His feet. -- Psalm 27:4 NIV & MSG
I spent almost all of this time on meditation feeling uncertain. Lost. Perhaps that's what empty is supposed to feel like. I am reminded of a song written by Aaron Niequist: I will stay empty, I will keep waiting until You fill me up with You.
While I wait I take comfort in Merton's admonition:

People who try to pray and meditate above their proper level, who are too eager to reach what they believe to be a "high degree" of prayer; get away from the truth and from reality. In observing themselves and trying to convince themselves of their advance, they become imprisoned in themselves. Then when they realize that grace has left them, they are caught in their own emptiness and futility and remain helpless. Acedia (sloth, or apathy in spirit) follows the enthusiasm of pride and spiritual vanity. A long course in humility and compunction is the remedy! We do not want to be beginners. But let us be convinced of the fact that we will never be anything else but beginners. -- From Contemplative Prayer
May this truth wear down and form running, living waters in the canyons and crevices of me.
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