As we live spiritually, life can be a grace filled journey into love: living more and more in it, learning more and more about it. The best learnings come from the experience of love as we journey through life. Life is a pilgrimage of love into love.
On this pilgrimage we slip, we fall, and we fail. The ways of love, of a human life growing in compassion and kindness, can be illusive and even foreign to us. Fear and ego’s self-interest can take our attention away from the life of love within and around us. We can find ourselves focusing on a way of living that is more about meeting our own perceived needs for survival at the expense of others. Compassion can give way to a stubborn selfishness. This selfishness can assume that what we need is a finite resource which only the strong and well prepared can…
According to one definition of home, I am currently homeless. I have been moving back and forth between friends and family while the future slowly sorts itself. While this sorting happens, putting down roots doesn’t feel like the right thing to do. It’s not surprising then that lately I have been wondering about what home actually is. Recently I re-read these words from John O’Donohue:
The word home has a wonderful resonance. Home is where you belong. It is your shelter and place of rest, the place where you can be yourself. (Eternal Echoes, 32)
Place and belonging. Home is about place and belonging. We can assume that this place and belonging is only physical. At this point in time I am sensing that, for me, place and belonging is not primarily physical – it is relational. There are wonderful and generous friends who are willing to share their physical home with me, who say that I am a part of the family, that their home is my home. As I grow in accepting this, something else is happening: we are deepening in the ‘place’ of our relationships, the home of our relationships. As this happens we express who we are with each other. In this place of relationship we discover ourselves. There is safety, shelter.
It has been good to be with family during this time – and important. With the passing of our mother, Marie, over a year ago now, family dynamics have changed. Mum was, in many ways, the one who held home as a physical place for us. She is no longer physically with us, so the experience of home has changed. The family home experience, for me, is no longer limited to a house. Mum is free in Christ and home is now something more. Home as a spiritual reality echoes a little more surely in the heart. The relationship I have with Mum has moved the place of home into a broader context, one that goes beyond the physical to embrace more of the eternal.
What has been important during this time has been faithfulness to the practice of meditation. It has been an anchor point, important for ongoing stability and peace. As home loses its physical foundation, taking on the relational and the spiritual, the contemplative practice of meditating during the course of each day has helped with the letting go of expectation and anxiety around what is next and what is happening. The grace of meditation grounds life in the home within.
In all of this I am seeing that, for me, being a part of The World Community For Christian Meditation at this time means being a global citizen. The physical of home and belonging that so often flows as gift from the relational and the spiritual is no longer limited to one place, one country. As the relational and spiritual goes global, so does the physical.
Jesus tells us that, if we want to be his disciples, we must grow in this relational and spiritual sense of home. This home is the heart of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is relational. Where ever there are relationships seeking true love, there is this kingdom. It is where we all belong. Where ever we are being drawn into the heart of relationship is where we must go. This heart is our home. It is where life is. It is the most important thing from which everything else flows. For our lives to proclaim the kingdom we must live into its heart – where ever this heart finds us.
As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:57-60).
A few years ago I discovered the Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo. One of my favourite Endo novels is called Silence. Recently Martin Scorsese adapted the novel into a movie of the same name. The story is set in 17th century Japan. Christianity had gained a minority following and, consequently, was soon seen as a threat. Because of this, Christians were persecuted and killed. The choice was given: renounce Christianity (apostatize) or die.
Silence is about the human struggle to remain faithful to a God that seems silent in the midst of suffering, a suffering that is happening precisely because of a decision to remain faithful to this silent God.
In the movie, Sebastiao Rodriques, a Portuguese Jesuit priest and missionary in Japan, struggles to make sense of what is happening to him and around him. His faith in an all-powerful God is shaken as this God does nothing to stop what is happening. The only ‘answer’ Rodriques gets is silence. What is the point of being faithful to this mute, powerless God? Surely to apostatize would be the better course?
The book and movie wrestle with the assumption that silence means an absence of the divine life. We can have an expectation of how God should act in a given situation, and this expectation can weigh heavily, especially in the midst of suffering. If our expectations of God are unmet, when all we get is silence dressed up as absence, faith can be lost. It can also turn dogmatic.
The challenge is to not turn from this silence, no matter how we may be experiencing it. If we do turn away, we may discover in time that the turning away was all a part of a turning back to what silence actually is.
When I closed my eyes it was twilight. Around the shed, the birds had been back in the trees announcing the end of day. But now as my eyes opened it was dark. All was still. All. Inside and outside. The mantra had settled the mind and darkness had settled the birds. Silence. And in the silence there was a presence. More than that: the silence itself seemed to be a presence, an always present presence; a presence not of my making. I sat, not wanting to break the stillness with movement. In silence, in presence, in stillness, I sat.
In the movie, Rodriques too begins to sense a divine presence in silence. He discovers a God in the silence who is suffering with all who suffer. God speaks as silent presence, and God is fully present all the time no matter what. In this presence God loves. Love is this presence. In the reality of human suffering, Divine Love suffers with us and makes of suffering a way into the depth and meaning of life. Suffering is not taken away – it can become gift.
Sometimes the events of life can shake us from our expectations of God and our ideas of silence. It’s as if what is happening is breaking down what we have held dear, what has up to that point provided meaning. It can all be taken from us, leaving us lost and bereft. Suffering can wrench us free from ideas of life and divinity formerly held close. If our humanity is to deepen, if we are to discover more a God in communion with us through everyone and everything, then ideas of life and divinity must change. Only later do we look back and see that we are somehow freer, less fearful, more humble and simple than we were before.
As this happens the way we live with silence changes. We grow into silence. Silence becomes the way we can be with the God who is transfiguring our humanity for communion with Love.
The invitation then is for us to be present ourselves to this divine presence in us. As this happens, as we give regular attention to it, our deep union with the divine life is realised consciously – we become more and more aware of it. A communion of Spirit and spirit (already given) in time becomes a communion of divinity with the whole of our humanity. Our psyche becomes an inner landscape so transfigured by silence that the divine presence becomes uniquely conscious in us.
Meditation is simply a way to give regular attention to this divine presence in us. It is the putting aside of all ideas about life and God – even the ideas that suffering may have helped us come to. Ideas about union are not union. We become silent so that we may be simply conscious-in-communion with divinity rather than self-conscious with ideas, thoughts, and imaginings.
Perhaps all this may seem like a folly or a panacea, an escape from actually doing anything at all. However, what happens as we attend to this silent presence of Love in us is that we are drawn into a particular kind of action: loving action. In whatever circumstance we find ourselves in Divine Love is always inviting us into loving, kind action here and now. As we meditate we come to know, in our own experience, what this love is – the flavour of it. The invitation to loving action then becomes harder to resist and we end up expressing the love we are becoming.
It’s November now. It’s been a good couple of months since I got back from the Shed and Mossy Point (see The Shed: Be In Time and Poised for Adventure below). I’ve been giving time to other writing projects and, as a result, I haven’t been contributing much to the blog.
One of the fruits of time in the Shed was a re-connection with silence. I forgot just how much the general activity and sound of life can get in the way of quiet and silence. The Shed and the nature of Mossy Point had in them an invitation to come back into the sustaining silence which we are always in and from which we all come.
One book that I took with me into this time was Silence: A Users Guide (Volume One) by Maggie Ross. Reading this book, in the solitariness of the Shed, was a needed ‘kick in the pants’. It laid bare the need now for more of us to engage in ‘the work of silence’: to prioritize a life committed to cultivating practical silence in life. In silence we encounter the roots of our being, not just in God, but also in creation – a creation which God has fully and lovingly given the divine life to. In silence we remember that we are a part of this creation, especially when we find ourselves in the silence of creation itself.
So many lives today are divorced from our being in silence and the silence of creation. As a result, the union with creation that we all share, a union that this silence can re-acquaint us with, is lost. Add to this our tendencies to over-consume and view the planet as more of a resource than a revered and precious home, and we can see why this planet’s ecosystems and biodiversity are in trouble. Ross pulls no punches when she maintains that we are ‘sleepwalking towards our own extinction’. At the very least we are meandering towards a planet that can no longer sustain the sum of us as we are now, nor the consequences of our actions as they currently stand.
In the face of this the divine life is fostering contemplatives – in all walks and ways of life. A contemplative is simply someone who accepts deeply that we are human beings. A contemplative is someone committed to the practical living of life from the deep of who we are. They accept that learning to be ourselves involves learning to be receptive and responsive to the deep mind – where the mystery of us is and where we can unfold from. From this deep we can learn to live lives of connection and reverence with each other and the whole planet.
A contemplative is not a consumer.
Encountering our humanity at this depth means somehow entering silence. Human wisdom maintains that in order to enter silence we need to lay aside self-consciousness with all its thoughts, imaginings, and emotion. We have lived in a time where an over-focus on the self-conscious mind has lead to a forgetting of our deep truth. We are not our thoughts, we are not our feelings.
We are at the point now where the life of the planet and the future of humanity depends on us coming home to the deep of who we are. This is why contemplative practice of any kind is so important right now. Whether it be meditation, gardening, knitting, good conversation – anything that has attention lost (for a time) to our over reliance on self-consciousness. We are too self-conscious.We need relationships and spaces where it is safe to forget ourselves. As we do this we discover that forgetting ourselves is as natural as breathing. And as this happens we remember ourselves: you and me in the depth of us sharing nature with divinity itself; a divinity that is relational and loving.
The future of us on this planet depends on us practicing a turning away from self-consciousness (a denying if you will) and expressing more of our relational and loving selves.
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?” (Matthew 16:24-26)
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As time goes on here at the shed I find that I am adapting to the rhythms of nature around me. This has affected the way I move through the day. It’s wonderful to feel a part of the life around me, to be with the trees as they move, the birds as they fly, the possums as they screech at night (so far they haven’t kept me awake).
The shed, because of its position, and its large front window and sliding door, gets a lot of sun (or passive solar). Consequently, I have also become more conscious of the sunlight and the way it moves within the shed’s modest living and working space.
The best time to start work is around 8:30am. At this time the light is starting to come in behind me (as I sit at the desk). I have got into the habit of keeping half of the front curtain drawn at this time so that the sun doesn’t fade the sofa bed. As the morning goes on the light moves from the sofa bed towards the desk; as this happens I can fully open the curtains. The space within becomes illuminated.
Around 11 I can feel the sun starting to warm my shoulders. Half an hour later it’s onto the desk and not too far from the computer screen. Now it’s time to stop for the morning, time for meditation then lunch.
In the early afternoon the birds of the morning return to the back yard trees. If I’m still enough, Wattle Birds will join me for lunch, searching for pollen on a nearby bush. Finches sweep up and back in the air eating insects they see in the sunlight.
Around 1 or so I’ll go for a walk, perhaps to a nearby beach or the river, or the ocean head.
By 2pm the sun has moved enough from the desk and it’s time to begin again. The morning’s brightness has given away to an afternoon’s glow. At this time of year the afternoon’s temperature is pleasant. It becomes easier to get lost in the work (except when the birds start to use a nearby birdbath).
In attending to life now, being in time, the divine presence in life can come alive in us. This is what contemplative practice does.
Life is meant to be contemplative. To experience the gift of divinity within as we attend to creation is a fruit of contemplative practice. We are better able to sense and let go into the God-life as it is in all of creation. Without a regular practice that draws attention into the heart we can forget to attend with the heart in life. In this forgetting we lose out, not only to experiencing divine love now, but also to the experience of being who we truly are. To be here now is to live in the unity that is Being and being – God and us – together.
To be contemplative in life also requires a certain degree of integrated thinking. For too long now life in the West has been dominated by ‘left brained’ thought. The human brain has two hemispheres linked by the corpus callosum.
The left hemisphere deals with the world in abstract ways. It has a narrow focus so as to serve day-to-day activity and function. Left on its own it will calculate and manipulate the world without a sense of its own limitation. It will become ridged in its ideas, ideologically fixed.
The right hemisphere deals more in metaphors. It is the explorer rather than the dissector. It sees the bigger picture of interconnection and relationships. It is about what is unique to the particular, not the particular’s generalisation. It is that part of reasoning that knows the limits of reason. It is the backdrop and frame of balanced function. It provides meaning and context to the day-to-day.
We need both hemispheres operating together if we are to function in a holistic way. Both are needed for healthy reasoning and a healthy emotional life. Consciousness in harmony is about both working together. As the neuroscientist Iain McGilchrist says in The Divided Brain and the Search for Meaning
What we call our consciousness moves back and forth between them [the hemispheres] seamlessly, drawing on each as required, and often very rapidly.
Living life contemplatively is about living life with both hemispheres engaged together in attending to life. Healthy attention sees the particular (that bird in the tree) in its context (the web of connection that is the birds and the trees – and everything else). Seeing here is a ‘heart seeing’, a seeing that includes what our eyes see and what our intuition senses.
This kind of whole attending opens us to the possibility of sensing the divine in life. It opens us to revering life as a precious event of fullness and mystery. We become more naturally able to revere each other, even when we seem very different from each other.
Meditation, as a practice of attention for life, helps to integrate the hemispheres so that the experience of life may become contemplative. Life then becomes more and more about not expecting anything, but simply about being here now. That is enough.
Phil Keaggy, ‘Be In Time’
Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (2009).
Iain McGilchrist, The Divided Brain and the Search for Meaning (2012). This is an ebook available via Kindle. It is a good summary of the key themes of The Master and His Emissary.