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The Challenge of Contemplative Prayer: Escape From Conflict

There is an ancient Zen Koan that reads:

The ultimate path is not difficult.

Simply do not choose.

Our challenge, should we accept it, is simply do not choose.

Thomas Merton wrote: “Let no one hope to find in contemplation an escape from conflict, from anguish or from doubt.” In this post we begin with a simple question. How can we be people of faith in our 21st century world?

Back in 2015 John Shelby Spong, Bishop emeritus of the Episcopal Church, spoke about the courage to “wrestle with the issues of how we can take the Christian faith seriously and still be citizens of the 21st century.”

“We are living is a world where either you give up your religion in order to live in the secular society, or you give up the secular society in order to maintain your religious life.”

“Most of us are aware of this tension. Sometimes it is not conscious but we act out of it in a consistent way. Some people express this tension in their life by refusing to engage the 21st century at all. Ignoring the explosion of knowledge that has gripped western civilization for the last 500 years. They are people hiding from the tensions of today in a hiding place they call religion.”

“We have some other people in our world who are also aware, not always consciously, of this tension between living in the 21st century and being a believing Christian, or a religious person, and they act in a very different way. They act by dismissing the Christianity they think is real as something that is irrelevant to their lives.”

  • John Shelby Spong – July 19, 2015 at Community Christian Church of Springfield, MO

The challenge: Simply do not choose.

John Shelby Spong is a blessing to us all. He speaks in a plain and simple language that every person can easily understand. He also speaks with a frankness that cuts through the clutter of our daily existence.“How can you be a person of faith live in such a world? We hope there is another alternative. We hope there is a way to hold these two things together. It will not be without pain. It will not be without controversy or tension, but I think it can be done.”

Do we have an answer to the question of living faith in our 21st century world? If we say; “yes we have an answer”, then we have chosen. The ultimate path is not difficult we just need to refrain from choosing. Because the ultimate path is not difficult some would believe that means the path is easy. Our human brains desire dual thinking and that path is easy.

As we contemplate on the dual nature thinking of our world, as outlined by Bishop Spong, we pray that this post will open up many questions in the depths of our heart.

May I see in you the presence of Christ.

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Contemplative Prayer Handbook Creed

The Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC) published a creed for rebuilding a foundation for contemplation. I included the text of the creed below.

The CAC recommends that we read this creed in the discipline of lectio divina.

“With the first reading, listen with your heart’s ear for a phrase or word that stands out for you.”

“During the second reading, reflect on what touches you, perhaps speaking that response aloud or writing in a journal.”

“After reading the passage a third time, respond with a prayer or expression of what you have experienced and what it calls you to.”

“Finally, rest in silence after a fourth reading.”

We believe in one Triune God. “There is one Body, one Spirit, one and the same hope . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God who is Father of all, over all, through all, and within all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).

We believe that we are, first of all, a people, God’s movement in history.

We believe that our individual lives and our personal growth are for the sake of the generations to come after and built on the faith and the bones of those who have gone ahead of us.

We believe that we must build on the positive, on what we love. Creative and life energies come from belief and from commitment. Critics must first be believers who have learned how to say an ultimate yes.

We agree to bear the burden and the grace of our past. We agree to honor what is, including even the broken things of life: ourselves, church, state, and all institutions. Their dark side is a necessary teacher.

We are committed to building a world of meaning and hope. We recognize the clear need for prophetic deconstruction of all idolatries that make the worship of God impossible. True rebuilding must follow this temporary but necessary un-building.

We believe in a personal universe where the divine image shines through all created things. It is therefore an “enchanted universe” where we can always live in reverence and even adoration before the good, the true, and the beautiful.

Along with St. Paul in Colossians (1:15-20), as Christians, we believe that Jesus Christ is the clearest image of the unseen God. In him all things cohere, all opposites are overcome. He is the head of the living body, the One in whom all things are reconciled and overcome.

Dear reader, when I followed the lectio divina discipline and contemplated this creed I could not help feeling that perhaps some dual thinking has crept in. Allow me to explain;

“Critics must first be believers who have learned how to say the ultimate yes.”

“Critics” and “Believers” are labels used to separate groups within the living body. This seems rather like dual thinking to me and through my contemplation and prayer I have come to the conclusion that this sentence should be removed. The creed is wonderful and useful for contemplative prayer with this modification.

God bless,

Contemplative Prayer Handbook Ten Bridesmaids

The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids

Matthew

25 ‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” 12 But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

INTRODUCTION

This parable is a contemplative prayer primer. If you have ever wondered about the purpose and benefits of contemplative prayer this parable opens the door.

I am guessing that we just read this parable of the ten bridesmaids. It was printed here to allow us to read it together. Did it leave us with the impression that we have a lot more work to do to grow in our spiritual relationship with God? “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.”

Read the parable once again. Sense the urgency of being ready and to know God.  What does it mean to be ready? What does it mean, to know God? Readiness and knowing God are different for every person. We must ask ourselves, honestly, did we see ourselves as one of the five foolish bridesmaids?

Contemplative prayer is an introspective discipline that we can each learn to guide our preparation and to move each of us closer to knowing God. Allow me to guide us through the parable, and offer insights.

BACKGROUND

I would like to explain just a little about reading parables. Years ago, maybe 1986, I saw novelist and storyteller Megan McKenna speak about parables. Megan made it very clear that if we read a parable and are feeling good afterward we did not understand the meaning intended by the Gospel writers.

There are many ways to see ourselves in a parable, which is what makes those stories rich in learning.

To help us better understand the concepts that run through the parable, let us establish a definition of heaven, of knowing, and light.

Some folks desire to have an authoritative voice to reference in matters of faith, such as heaven. Included is a quote and link from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness.”

“Heaven is the blessed community of all who are perfectly incorporated into Christ.”

In Hebrew and Greek the word for knowing includes understanding from experience, an intimate kind of knowledge involving the whole person, not just the mind. Parents warn their children that fire burns, but until a person experiences being burned by fire the knowledge is incomplete. Knowing = experiencing.

In Hebrew and Greek the word for light can be a reference to both natural light and spiritual light. This is very similar to English. It is understood that spiritual light expresses a wisdom or knowledge of God.

INSIGHT

Matthew begins the parable with the statement; “the kingdom of heaven will be like this.” Some would say that this was intended by the evangelist as an eschatological theme for judgment day. Regardless, this is a wedding banquet that we do not want to miss.

In Matthew’s retelling of this parable there is no actual banquet with actual bridesmaids referenced here. These events and characters are all allegorical. We are clearly intended to identify as a bridesmaid in this parable. God is the bridegroom.

All ten bridesmaids took lamps to dispel the darkness (light from the lamp represents wisdom / knowledge of God).

All ten bridesmaids fell asleep. This can be interpreted many ways. Lulled to sleep is an idiom that is a pertinent in this situation. We are filled with a false sense of security and we feel secure in our situation when we should not.

When the time came for the bridegroom to arrive all ten bridesmaids awoke and trimmed their lamps. Only five of the bridesmaids, however, were truly known by the bridegroom. Only those five had the intimate experience and knowledge of God. Only those five were allowed into the banquet.

The remaining five bridesmaids were told “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” These five bridesmaids desired to attend the banquet. All five asked to be allowed into the wedding banquet, but lacked the intimate kind of knowledge expected from the bridegroom.

We might say to ourselves, why did the five bridesmaids with the flasks of oil not spare some for the others? Each person must experience God for themselves. Intimate knowledge cannot be purchased and it cannot be given, it must be experienced by the person.

If we seek to enjoy the beautiful wedding banquet, that is heaven, we need to truly know God. We need to experience God, in the same way we experience the burn from fire. We need to know God so deeply that if we fall asleep we will have that flask of oil to keep our lamp lit when needed.

Can we say that we know God to that deep level? This is where contemplative prayer can help.

PRAYER

Contemplative prayer traces its roots back to early Christian monasticism and the Desert Fathers. The writings of mystics such as St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross pushed contemplative prayer along.

It is true that contemplative prayer was perceived as an extraordinary grace reserved to only a few for many years, but St. Gregory the Great explained that “contemplation expands and enlightens the soul with a love that is itself knowledge, for as man draws closer to God in loving union, he grows in the knowledge to reform his life.”

Each individual can learn the discipline of contemplation. This method of prayer seeks to cultivate the capacity to listen to God at ever deeper levels of inward attention. This brings us to a state of resting in the presence of God.

Contemplative prayer, remaining silently and openly in God’s presence, “rewires” our brains to think non-dually with compassion, kindness, and a lack of attachment to the ego’s preferences.

In contemplative prayer we move beyond language to experience God as Mystery. We let go of our need to judge, defend, or evaluate, plugging into the mind of Christ which welcomes paradox and knows its true identity in God.

During contemplation we come to know that there is no separation between sacred and secular. All is one with Divine Reality.

We must be willing to let go and die to our small selves, our false selves, in order to enter this new sacred space. This is our first step toward gaining that experiential knowledge of God.

RESOURCES

Lectio Divina

 

Original Sin Debate

The inspiration for this post began as a conversation with my youngest daughter. We were driving home the other night she told me that the Religion teacher assigned a research topic with a written report. Her research assignment was original sin.

She then admitted that she chose the topic. Original sin has long been a topic she feels strongly about.

“The relationship between God and man has been broken by original sin. Man could not pull himself up by his own shoe-strings, and thus the only hope of restoration was from God’s side. Yet it was from our side that things had to be put right. It appeared hopeless. But God found the answer. For in Christ he himself became man, and as man reconciled us to himself.”
– John A. T. Robinson (Honest to God, P. 78)

I am willing to bet this notion, outlined by former Bishop John Robinson, is familiar to us all. After all, the Bible is the word of God. The Bible holds God’s moral codes set down for the Church from the beginning of time. God’s word is then interpreted for the Church through God’s anointed servants within the Church hierarchy. Those Church leaders explain that the Cross represents salvation, as salvation is attained by Christ’s redeeming work on the Cross.

Bishop Robinson originally wrote these words as a challenge to our Church leadership. These notions are outmoded Christian concepts that are really only acceptable to more traditional members of the Church. Bishop Robinson was asking for the Church leadership to acknowledge that other less traditional members of the Church need a voice and a platform for greater spiritual growth.

This would include my daughter.

“For many Christians, the significance of the Incarnation is that it ended with an atoning death, one that cleansed impurity, carried away sin, or purchased salvation… Some concept of the incarnation precedes all their atonement concepts, but does not supply the actual content of their atonement reasoning… These notions may be common, but they turn out not to be essential to Christianity…”
– Stephen Finlan (Problems with Atonement, pp. 3-4)

Original sin is a normal conversation in my family. I realize that other families avoid religious topics but that is not our way. All three of my daughters have been discussing theological topics, such as original sin, since they were in Junior High. The original sin doctrine felt wrong to my youngest daughter, even then.

Because she had two older sisters my youngest was exposed to Scripture study earlier in her education. She remembers expressing some concerns about original sin as far back as the 4th grade. She had been taught that the poem of Adam and Eve was not literally true, but actually a story drawn from much older Babylonian myths.

That is why my youngest chose original sin as her research topic.

“the first man was scarcely self-conscious, knew only privation and the wearisome struggle to survive. He was far from possessing the full endowment of reason, which the old doctrine of paradise attributes to him. But once the picture of paradise and the Fall has been broken into pieces, the notion of original sin goes with it, to be followed logically, it would seem, by the notion of redemption as well.”
– Joseph Ratzinger (Faith and the Future, p. 17)

Adam and Eve never existed and the Fall of man was a myth, yet the Church continues to explain Atonement as if the Fall of man were literal. The quote from Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI was written to say that we are throwing out the baby with the bathwater when we acknowledge that Fall, original sin, and redemption are myths.

As Catholics we don’t have to believe this way. My 10th Grade daughter can separate myths from her faith. Catholics, even in Junior High, can understand that Adam and Eve and the Fall of man is a retelling of an ancient Babylonian myth and still be believe in God.

We pray that the Church will allow traditionalists to hold onto their more literalistic interpretation of original sin and at the same time allow non-traditionalists to accept that there is no need for original sin.

I don’t know how the teacher will respond to my daughter’s research paper, but she has had practice broaching controversial theological topics in school.

When Catholic Church leaders allow room for a traditional and non-traditional response to original sin all of us will be more faith filled.

God bless,

Do Not Judge (Matthew Kelly – Rediscover Jesus)

“Judgement is one of the major obstacles that prevent us from loving others as God commands us to.”
Matthew Kelly (Rediscover Jesus, p. 76)

Fr. Leo asked each adult to take a copy of the Matthew Kelly book during Christmas Midnight Mass. His instructions were to read the book and take the opportunity to become reacquainted with Jesus.

If I understood Fr. Leo correctly the Parish will run a worship program based on the book. Just for that reason I thought I should read the book.

I particularly enjoyed Chapter 16. It is titled “Do Not Judge.” This chapter topic is a major part of my faith reconstruction. I struggle with judging and although I know this is a universal struggle for all humans and I must get this under control for my salvation.

Matthew Kelly writes that we should focus “on reducing the amount of judgement” and we can expect “peace, joy, and incredible spiritual growth.”

I say YES, and…

A tool every Catholic will want to include in their toolbox is the discipline of contemplative prayer. Through contemplative prayer we can tap into non-dual thought. It is dual thinking that drives us to judgment.

If you are looking for a practical application to bring peace, joy, and incredible spiritual growth it is non-dual thought. We have all been indoctrinated into dual thinking as part of growing up. Unlearning this is not easy, but to rediscover Jesus we need to work toward increasing our non-dual thought.

When Fr. Leo mentioned the Matthew Kelly book I rolled my eyes. I had a bad judgmental attitude about the book before I even held a copy. Just like a self-fulfilling prophesy, my judgments were confirmed when I read the book.

I struggle with dual thinking, so much so, that I still wince when I read Matthew Kelly’s book. I continue to scream at what I believe are incorrect statements written by Matthew Kelly, however, all of my fuss is now contained within my head.

Well… my wife might disagree because there has been a rant, here and there, that she witnessed. I am getting better. I recognize my weaknesses and dual thinking.

I find peace through my contemplative prayer. The Holy Spirit guides me in non-dual thought. As such, I can say that Matthew Kelly’ book is what it is. It is neither good nor bad. I will take away the lessons I need to be a better Christian and the rest I will leave as they are.

I find that Matthew Kelly and I are in agreement on some important aspects of Jesus’ teaching. My judging nature was holding me back from God. No amount of confession and absolution could resolve the dual thinking specter that created a wedge between God and me.

People who struggle with dual thinking should spend some time rediscovering the teachings of Jesus. I recommend spending time in contemplative prayer. I also recommend reading Fr. Richard Rohr.

“The inner life of quiet, solitude, and contemplation is the only way to find your ground and purpose now. Go nowhere else for sustenance.”
Richard Rohr (Falling Upward, p.164)

God bless,

The Hunt For a New Parish

Dear surfers,

My wife, three daughters and I have been on a search for a new Catholic Parish. In our 30 years of marriage my wife and I have been members of three different Parishes. This is an average of one new Parish every ten years. For the next decade, hopefully more, we will belong to a new Parish. Luckily, we live in the Detroit area and there is an embarrassment of riches regarding Parishes to choose from.

The struggle with finding a new Parish revolves around our family faith development. We need to find a place that is the right fit. This will not be easy.

I have been experiencing faith deconstruction for more than a decade and the older more traditional Catholic Parishes are holding back the process of my faith reconstruction.

My wife has been traveling on a similar faith journey, but she was always more progressive than me.

My children are from the “none” generation and the old traditional Catholic piety is not something they appreciate. They specifically dislike the treatment LGBT people receive from some of the Catholic institutions and traditional Catholic priest homilies.

The new Parish must be the right fit but like any good relationship it is a two way street. Our goal is to find a Parish where we can fully participate in the community. We volunteer our time in music, worship, and education ministries. We have a fair amount of experience and a lot to offer.

The new Parish we are looking for will need to be closer to our faith experience and help us grow. In order to meet our needs the Parish will need to share many of the faith values cited in the “twelve theses” recently presented by Bishop John Shelby Spong.

The Twelve Theses

1.God
Understanding God in theistic categories as “a being, supernatural in power, dwelling somewhere external to the world and capable of invading the world with miraculous power” is no longer believable. Most God talk in liturgy and conversation has thus become meaningless.

2.Jesus – the Christ.
If God can no longer be thought of in theistic terms, then conceiving of Jesus as “the incarnation of the theistic deity” has also become a bankrupt concept.

3.Original Sin – The Myth of the Fall
The biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which we human beings have fallen into “Original Sin” is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.

4.The Virgin Birth
The virgin birth understood as literal biology is impossible. Far from being a bulwark in defense of the divinity of Christ, the virgin birth actually destroys that divinity.

5.Jesus as the Worker of Miracles
In a post-Newtonian world supernatural invasions of the natural order, performed by God or an “incarnate Jesus,” are simply not viable explanations of what actually happened.

6.Atonement Theology
Atonement theology, especially in its most bizarre “substitutionary” form, presents us with a God who is barbaric, a Jesus who is a victim and it turns human beings into little more than guilt-filled creatures. The phrase “Jesus died for my sins” is not just dangerous, it is absurd.

7.The Resurrection
The Easter event transformed the Christian movement, but that does not mean that it was the physical resuscitation of Jesus’ deceased body back into human history. The earliest biblical records state that “God raised him.” Into what, we need to ask. The experience of resurrection must be separated from its later mythological explanations.

8.The Ascension of Jesus
The biblical story of Jesus’ ascension assumes a three-tiered universe, which was dismissed some five hundred years ago. If Jesus’ ascension was a literal event of history, it is beyond the capacity of our 21st century minds to accept it or to believe it.

9.Ethics.
The ability to define and to separate good from evil can no longer be achieved with appeals to ancient codes like the Ten Commandments or even the Sermon on the Mount. Contemporary moral standards must be hammered out in the juxtaposition between life-affirming moral principles and external situations.

10.Prayer
Prayer, understood as a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history, is little more than an hysterical attempt to turn the holy into the servant of the human. Most of our prayer definitions of the past are thus dependent on an understanding of God that has died.

11.Life after Death
The hope for life after death must be separated forever from behavior control. Traditional views of heaven and hell as places of reward and punishment are no longer conceivable. Christianity must, therefore, abandon its dependence on guilt as a motivator of behavior.

12.Judgment and Discrimination
Judgment is not a human responsibility. Discrimination against any human being on the basis of that which is a “given” is always evil and does not serve the Christian goal of giving “abundant life” to all. Any structure either in the secular world or in the institutional church, which diminishes the humanity of any child of God on the basis of race, gender or sexual orientation must be exposed publicly and vigorously. There can be no reason in the church of tomorrow for excusing or even forgiving discriminatory practices. “Sacred Tradition” must never again provide a cover to justify discriminatory evil.

No Catholic Parish can agree to all of these theses today, but the closer we get the more opportunity there will be for my family to grow our faith. Growing our faith is the goal.

We hope your Parish helps you grow in faith, as well.

God bless,

Matthew Kelly

I want to take a minute to speak to you about faith, struggle and Matthew Kelly.

My family and I are auditioning new Parishes in the Detroit area to find one that suits our growth in faith. We discovered a Parish that we like and we are seriously giving consideration to becoming members.

During Midnight Mass this Christmas the Parish handed out a book by Matthew Kelly titled “Rediscover Jesus An Invitation.” The Priest suggested that every adult take a copy and use the book to come to know Jesus better.

I am in the midst of reconstructing my faith and I still struggle with those old dual thought deconstruction concerns of my past. I refused to take a book. We still have four copies, so I decided to consider some new non-dual thought philosophy and give the book a quick read.

My hope was that I might be able to see the book in a non-judgmental way and move past those old exclusionary thoughts I struggle with. What I realized is that I still have a lot of work to do.

I was not able to read the book without judgement. I discussed my concerns with my wife and we even went to the Matthew Kelly Website and watched him explain the book in a Youtube video. It was all of no use.

Reconstructing my faith is going to be a struggle for a long time. I am certain many of those reading this will be struggling with their faith. I encourage those folks who are in the midst of struggle to keep going in the face of adversity.

I will be praying for all of you. Have a look at the book. Try to understand that this is Matthew Kelly’s Jesus. It may not be your Jesus, but if you read it with a non-judgmental mindset it may help you to rediscover Jesus for yourself. I was not able to do this, but I will keep trying.

God bless,