PRAYING IN 3D: Awake in the Spirit

vulturesLast year on Pentecost morning a group of jet black vultures had settled under a spreading oak tree in our front yard. Never had I seen turkey buzzards, as they are known around here, except at their grisly work in nature’s final cleanup operation. Here they were at rest. I wondered what to call them, since there are long lists of fanciful group names for birds -such as, the parliament of owls, a gaggle of geese, and my favorite, an exaltation of larks. Of course vultures could be called your basic flock; but it occurred to me they might better be a wake of vultures- so silent, but alert and ready, and dressed funereally for the occasion. I guessed they were waiting for a scout bird to call them to their next grim mission. Looking this up on an internet bird list, I found they have several suggestive names, including a congregation of vultures, and yes, a wake of vultures, especially descriptive of this group. So it seemed to me, these birds were awake for their mission.

Still looking, and wondering, I counted -eleven, plus the one on that low tree branch. It’s the twelve Apostles of the Lord. My eyes widened. They’re waiting for the Holy Spirit as instructed. The one in the tree must be St. Peter ready to hold forth. This is getting weird. It’s almost 9 AM! Then the scout bird arrived and they flew into the reality of their instinctive task somewhere down the road. And I went off to church -awake, to congregate, dressed clerically in black, and feeling Pentecostal.

The buzzards just know, because they are birds, what their task is, what is the purpose of their very existence. And they know instinctively which bird is the leader, and how to follow. Not so, for Christians, since we are human and must act spiritually with freedom and choice. The only thing that makes our spirituality Christian is the Holy Spirit. So at the start of every consideration of the techniques of prayer we must remind ourselves to ask,and to keep asking: Come, Holy Spirit (“Send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior has gone before…Grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgment in all things, and evermore to rejoice in his comfort.” -Book of Common Prayer, pp.226-227) This is why Christians should always follow the old saying, Pray as you can, not as you can’t; because, no amount of technique, discipline or good intentions will help us to grow and develop. Christian spirituality is the operation of God, a gift to us that should inspire every practice. This does not mean no effort is needed on our part; but that effort should always be cooperation in response to God’s prior gift. We humans always seem to want to do things on our own; waiting seems a lazy waste of time. Beware. Waiting should always come first. Keep awake.

Before plunging into the consideration of some powerful prayer techniques, here are scriptural reminders for the self-directed, the impatient or the overly zealous- which pretty much includes all of us:

  1. The Holy Spirit is sent to empower us. A lamp may be plugged into the power source (Baptism), but it still must be turned on to give illumination. Here are some Bible verses to “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest:” Begin with Acts 1:8
  2. The Holy Spirit will be present, on our side and at our side, the Paraclete. John 14:16-17 and John 16:7-11.
  3. We never know how to pray on our own, nor do we need to. Real prayer will be a process we don’t initiate. We join and participate in energies already present; go with the flow. Romans 8:26-27. (This is especially important for intercessors.)
  4. We need to ask, and keep asking, for the Spirit. “Ask, search, knock” Luke 11:9-13. Sometimes, its the Giver we should seek, sometimes the gifts. Matthew 7:7-11.

The Light of the World: a Script for Meditation

Lately I’ve been working with Revelation 3:20 as interpreted by Holman Hunt in his painting “The Light of The World.” “Behold I stand at the door and knock,” Jesus says, “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him or her, and he or she with me.” This inviting text is not obviously about light, but the painter’s night vision of Jesus standing before the closed door with a lantern in his left hand is possibly the most familiar way of looking at this text. The following meditation uses memory and the imagination; then we will turn away from imagery completely.

Hunt_Light_of_the_World

This painting may be the most familiar British religious image. The interpretive title, in large letters by the artist on the frame, evokes chapter 8 of St. John’s gospel: “Jesus said, I am the light of the world. Anyone who follows me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” Hunt was a Victorian era Anglican painter of the Pre-Raphaelite school. He used an eerie realistic style full of symbolism. This is what he said many years later about his original conception:

[At this point, if working with a group, the leader turns on quiet music for meditation. Suggested: “Ave Verum”, Tchaikovsky/Mozart. Each person should have a print, or the painting may be projected]

“Nothing is said about the night (in Revelation 3), but I wish to accentuate the point of its meaning by making it the time of darkness, and that brings us to the need of the lantern in Christ’s hand. He being the bearer of the light to the sinner within, if he will awaken. I shall have a door chocked up with weeds, to show that it has not been opened for a long time, and in the background there will be an orchard.” Hunt said the symbols were “his own private fantasies.” The door, for example represents “the obstinately shut mind.” John Ruskin, the renowned 19th Century art critic and social reformer, defended Hunt against many who thought his painting weird and unseemly and gave it a negative first reception. Ruskin interpreted it this way: “On the left side of the picture is seen the door of the human soul; it is knitted and bound to its stanchions by a creeping tendril of ivy, showing that it has never been opened. A bat hovers about it; its threshold is overgrown with brambles, nettles and fruitless corn…Christ approaches it in the night-time –Christ in his everlasting office of prophet, priest and king. He wears the jeweled robe and breastplate, representing the sacerdotal investiture; the rayed crown of gold, in woven with the crown of thorns, but now bearing soft leaves, for the healing of the nations.” …Perhaps you see other things in this richly symbolic work. An enormous copy of it made late in life by the artist was sent on a world tour, and now hangs on the right side of the nave in the vastness of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral …It would be an impressive sight indeed to stumble upon the painting unawares. One might feel awed and overwhelmed by it –and yet warmed and drawn by the gentle and compelling majesty of the luminous face of the Lord…

And now I invite you to close your eyes, and remember the painting’s impression on your mind, perhaps vaguely, maybe in some detail; it won’t matter: …the twilight background.. the lantern in Christ’s left hand. . the door without latch or knob..the right hand, knuckles to the door; the Lord is knocking. Hear the gentle, yet firm knocking; feel the vibrations on the air….NOW, you are inside. Open the door, so the Lord can come in as he promised…There is an oval table and two chairs. He places the lantern in the center. He sits. You sit…Look at the face of Christ –now, through the lamplight, obscure maybe, yet clearly the Jesus you know.

[Turn off Music.]

NOW, still remaining in the scene, close your eyes. Focus on the light alone…When distracted notice your breathing, and quietly take the name of Jesus on the breath…Rest in that light.

NOW, eyes still closed, notice the light spreading all around your body…Now, take this warm, precious energy into your body. Breathe in the light. ..Then let it spread to your head, your chest, the center of gravity in your belly…spreading now down into your legs and feet…all over within and without…The Light.

When you are ready, come back to the group…Gently open your eyes.

 

 

 

Some Aspects of Physical Meditation: Walking in the Presence

The first thoughts about meditative postures are all still, static: kneeling, the full or half Lotus, seated with feet flat and straight back, or, the oldest one, standing with hands raised facing East. There is much to commend each of these; but what about movement? Years ago in seminary I prayed dutifully in my assigned stall in the chapel on my knees, eyes focused lightly on a mosaic medallion on the floor.  No one ever taught me anything about this; it just seemed right.  Mostly this was a discipline. Nothing much seemed to be going on between me and the Lord.

One afternoon, tired of sitting with my nose in a book, I did a familiar series of exercises just to break the monotony. After turning this into a routine, I began to notice a sense of well-being (oxygen and a surge of endorphins, no doubt), then came an expanding sense of peace, eventually a sense of presence. The same three-part prayer process also happened on brisk walks, as long as I didn’t get too involved with the scenery. This took place just beyond the point of boredom, when my mind would normally split off to think about things other than just walking. So I cultivated that process. To my surprise, repetitive exercise, just past boredom, turning from unnecessary thinking became, for me, a way into personal prayer.

Over the years, I’ve found this works with swimming laps, jogging, briskly walking, and several cardio machines. Since these activities are all safe, widely available and healthy, I’ve often wondered if many others find physical activity meditative. My hunch is that walking the labyrinth works this way for some (not me!). Certainly Yoga practice is meant to be physical meditation (I can’t stretch that far). My Tai Chi instructor refers to her ancient practice as “meditation in motion,” though our group seems to be involved mostly to develop balance and increase flexibility.

Long walks and hikes can be reflective, if not always technically “meditation.” The solitude, deep breathing and closeness to nature are spiritually enhancing. Not long ago I took a strenuous trek with friends on the Corridor Trails across the Grand Canyon from North to South Rim. My plan was just to walk carefully and enjoy the scenery. Since each step was different, not a sidewalk anywhere, I had to pay constant attention to secure footing. I was disappointed at first; the spectacular vistas were solely for rest periods. The unexpected effect of noticing each step for miles and days was to become more intensely present than I have ever been. This was eventually expansive and energizing, almost as great as the view.

But I digress. Perhaps brisk walking can become an effective meditative practice for many people who are concerned to counter the effects of our sedentary culture. Try this:

1. Choose a safe route where you can walk by habit –even around a track; boredom is OK, if you go past it. Take twenty minutes plus.

2. Offer a short prayer at the outset. Hold some scripture in your attention for a bit. Pray verbally again at the end –the Lord’s Prayer perhaps, slowly.

3. Then, either choose some issue, incident, or problem of the sort one might consider in a “sitting” meditation; let it unfold on its own.

4. Let thoughts go and simply be in God’s presence. “I   will walk in the presence of the Lord in the land of the living.”