Thursday, June 16, 2011

Confessions of a lapsed contemplative

For years contemplative prayer has drawn me, like the vision of a mountain stream on a hot city day. I’ve read the right stuff, from the classics (Julian of Norwich, The Cloud of Unknowing) to the moderns (Basil Pennington, Thomas Merton, Richard Foster). I’ve gone through the disciplinary paces, practiced the helpful techniques—repeating slowly the name of Jesus, even doing breathing exercises to control my brain waves.

I believe the books. I accept the testimony of the saints that this is all real. The problem is, it doesn’t seem to work for me. At least not on a consistent basis. Not that I haven’t had moments of ecstasy. I have. But they are short and seem to come about once a decade.

Perhaps my expectations are too romantic. The idea of simply being in God’s presence, without words, basking in the glow of divine love—well, who wouldn’t want that ?! But even as I ask the question, I imagine any number of my friends who would think this is supremely silly. Maybe not everyone would want it. But I do.

Perhaps my imagination is the culprit. It has always been active, mostly giving me pleasure, but sometimes giving me fits. In a typical attempt at contemplation, I begin by praying for God’s protection and invoking the Spirit’s presence and help. Then I begin to “center down.” But hardly a minute passes before the most mundane, funny, or downright irreverent thought comes to mind, and without realizing what’s happening, I’m off on the trail of an interesting tangent. I’m reconstructing a frustrating conversation I had the day before (my imaginary remarks are always more brilliant than the stuff I actually say), or getting a head start on worrying about next week’s deadline. Suddenly I realize, Oh no! I’ve done it again! I quickly offer my tangent up to God, try hard not to feel guilty (as the books tell me I mustn’t), and again begin breathing the name of Jesus. But within minutes I’m mentally composing a poem about frogs to send my grandson for his birthday.

I’m currently taking a contemplative break. By that I don’t mean I’m on a spiritual retreat where I contemplate for two weeks. I mean I’ve put my devotional guidebooks back on the shelf and, for the time being, am sticking with more active ways of prayer.

At the heart of my struggle is a longing for intimacy with God, a desire to hear his voice as part of my everyday experience. And, thanks to God, contemplative prayer is not the only way this happens.

God speaks in many ways, both ordinary and extraordinary. He even uses my imagination. Part of my growth has been learning to recognize his voice.

A few years back God spoke to me through a dream that seemed anything but spiritual. I dream a lot, mostly weird stuff I forget as soon as I wake up. But every once in a while God speaks through a dream.

In this particular dream I gave birth to a little girl, and she was beautiful. About four months old at birth, and healthy. But what a pooper! As I was holding her in my dream, admiring her, she started doing her thing, filling up her diaper. She about doubled in weight (which is only possible in a dream). I handed her to Hal who willingly cleaned her up. He then gave her back to me, naked, and she started in again.

In the dream I remember feeling that all the poop was just a necessary part of having a baby. It was inconvenient and definitely messy, but quite natural. Our little daughter was worth all the inconvenience involved in raising her.

As I told this dream to my sleepy husband, he said, “Nancy, God is telling us something important.” He interpreted it to be a message about the ministry we were still in the process of beginning in the university. Essentially what we had given birth to was very good, but a natural part of the birth of anything (whether a masters program in missions, a book, or a baby) is the mess. I think God was encouraging us to put up with the messiness of the process, faithfully clean it up, and go forward.

It seems I’ve gone from the sublime to the ridiculous, from basking the in silent fullness of God’s presence to dreams of baby poop. The point is that God speaks to his listening children, and the messages take many forms. Some are sublime. Some are hilarious.

I’m still drawn to contemplative prayer, and I still hope that someday I’ll get it right. Meanwhile, speak, Lord. I’m listening to whatever you want to tell me, however you want to say it.

(Adapted from the archives, but just as true today. Originally published in Quaker Life, 2002.)

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