Happy New Year, neighbors! The new year is a threshold over which we step after the sometimes-dizzying pace of the holiday season. The fireworks on New Year’s Eve are the doorway into a blessed silence. This is nature’s invitation to embrace the true quiet and stillness of winter. But quiet and stillness can be elusive in our culture. We seem to think perpetual motion, mentally and physically, increases our value. Success is achieved by doing, and not so much by being. I want to conclude our series on prayer by sharing a sweet, somewhat counter-cultural approach to prayer. The concept of listening to God in silence is foreign to our spiritual sensibilities. If we said in our first discussion that prayer is a conversation with our Higher Power, should it not follow that God speaks and WE listen? When someone says, “God told me to…”, we might be tempted to be skeptical or think they are a little wacky. But what if we can learn how to listen? Talk of meditation and contemplation is often associated with Hindu and Buddhist teachings, with which many of us, especially if we are Christian, are unfamiliar. Yet the Christan tradition has a rich heritage in silent, listening prayer, often referred to as contemplative prayer. A teacher of mine, Father Thomas Ryan, author of Prayer of Heart and Body, refers to this type of prayer as “a long, loving look at the real.” It involves sitting in silence, focusing on a sacred word of our choice, while allowing the spirit to rest in God, without worrying about doing it “right”. Examples of sacred words are “peace”, “Jesus”, “Love”, “Grace’ or a prayer such as The Jesus Prayer. “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It can be any word or phrase that assists in an awareness of the holy. The sacred word is a place for the mind to rest in God while the spirit opens to God’s gentle presence. You may ask, “How can I focus for longer than two seconds?” Good news… our minds were made to think and we shouldn’t let that discourage us. Remember, intention is everything and practice is what gets us to Carnegie Hall. An image which I find helpful is that of the mind being like a mountain and our thoughts like the weather. The mind is stationary as thoughts float by like clouds and wind and rain. We can gently steer them back to our sacred word and our loving intention to be present to God. This is a heart-to-heart way of prayer that involves our entire being: heart, soul, mind, and strength. I invite you to take a few minutes during these days when a chill in the air or shorter daylight hours draw us naturally into cozy spaces. The following sequence may support your practice:
*Look at your environment and take in your surroundings with a soft gaze, with the intention of really noticing.
* Close your eyes and listen to every layer of sound around you.
* Notice how your body feels and make yourself truly comfortable.
*Notice your breath…observe the in-breath and out-breath.
*Gently steer your awareness to your sacred word or phrase.
* Rest here, with the intention of just being present to Presence. Come back to your word if your thoughts stray…Be gentle with yourself.
*Start with a short session and increase as you feel led.
Happy New Year! Happy Listening!