God is the offering, the One Who offers, and the fire that consumes. ~Bhagavad Gita 4:24a
I was walking through Center City Philadelphia on my way to a panel discussion on Creating Sacred Music. As I was feeling neither particularly sacred nor particularly musical, I cast about for a way to get into the right frame of mind.
Looking at all the colorful sights of the city, I remembered how, when my children were babies, everything I saw, heard, smelled or tasted would remind me of them. “Clare would like those flowers,” I’d think; street buskers would make me wish Sophie were with me; foods brought one or the other kid to mind, depending on their taste.
What if I could broadcast my experience directly into their minds, I thought, so they could experience my walk vicariously? Then I realized that we are called upon, in the Bhagavad Gita, to do more or less exactly that—with God as the audience of our sensory input:
Some yogis perfectly worship the demigods by offering different sacrifices to them, and some of them offer sacrifices in the fire of the Supreme Brahman.
Some [the unadulterated brahmacaris] sacrifice the hearing process and the senses in the fire of mental control, and others [the regulated householders] sacrifice the objects of the senses in the fire of the senses.
Others, who are interested in achieving self-realization through control of the mind and senses, offer the functions of all the senses, and of the life breath, as oblations into the fire of the controlled mind. (Bhagavad Gita 4:24-27; emphasis added[i])
As I walked along, I mentally transmitted all the sights and sounds to Jesus, as though He were looking out through my eyes and hearing through my ears. As I walked along, exercising this “control of the mind and senses” by offering “the objects of the senses” into the fires of perception, I not only felt extremely close to the Lord, but I found my usual way of seeing people–a highly judgmental and evaluative way in which I am subject and everyone else is object–giving way to a compassionate mode of seeing as Christ sees.
Icon of St. Teresa of Avila by Robert Lentz, OFM
“Christ has no body now on earth but yours,” wrote St. Teresa of Avila:
No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks
compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which he walks about doing good.
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Shiva and Shakti
Tantra takes the relation of the senses to their objects even a step further, making the act of perceiving reflect the divine union of Shiva (the divine masculine and pure consciousness) and Shakti (the divine feminine and pure energy.)
A faculty and its object are like the primordial couple. The relationship of the eye to what is seen is the relationship of Shiva to his shakti. The ear and music, the eye and art, the tongue and flavour, all senses and their sensations are a participation in the eternal embrace.[ii]
I have written before about how the body–and in particular the senses–can be made the locus of divine service simply by an act of will by which we use them on God’s behalf. This act sanctifies both the senses and their objects, bringing us a greater awareness of the divine presence within and without, and preparing us to “be an instrument of [God’s] peace.” Going a step further, St. Teresa found such a dedicating of the senses to be a way toward divine union, in which Christ–the “bridegroom” of her Carmelite soul–entered into her and lived His risen life through her:
I was reflecting upon how arduous a life this is…I said to myself, “Lord, give me some means by which I may put up with this life.” He replied, “Think, daughter, of how after it is finished you will not be able to serve me in ways you can now. Eat for Me and sleep for Me, and let everything you do be for Me, as though you no longer lived but I; for this is what St. Paul was speaking of.”[iii] (1 Cor. 10:31) [i] Bhagavad Gita As It Is,
translated by Srila Pradhupada[ii]
Dupuche, John, Towards a Christian Tantra[iii] St. Teresa of Avila, Spiritual Testimonies. The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, Vol. 1. Translated and edited by Kavanaugh and Rodriguez.
Neither by matted hair, nor by lineage,
Nor by birth does one become a Noble One;
He in whom is the realization of Truth,
Who has attained to the holy stages,
He is the real Noble One.
Of what avail is thy matted hair?
Of what avail is thy antelope hide?
Within you there is a forest of defilements.
You deal only with outside. The Buddha (Dhammapada 26:11-12)
As a professed member of the Third Order of St. Francis–a religious order in the Episcopal Church–I attempt to live a Franciscan life with a Rule and under vows, but in the world rather than in community. When it was my turn to act as Convener of the local fellowship, I read an item in the job description that surprised me: be on the watch for Tertiaries who seem to make a point of wearing a lot of brown. The idea is that a person who dresses like that may be trying to mimic the brown habits of the First Order Friars, and the Third Order is very firm that we are not “First Order Light,” or a haven for friar-wannabes, but a fully independent Franciscan Order in our own right.
The irony is that I’ve worn a lot of brown for years and years, both by preference and as a part of my Franciscan Simplicity. (Sometimes I mix it up with tan or beige or--when I'm feeling really risqué–olive or rust.) Because life in the world has a lot more variables than communal life, our Rule spells things out much less explicitly than the Friars’ Rule does. It consists of 9 “Principles” that we address in our lives, each in our own way, and write into a personal Rule which we re-write each year as our lives evolve and renew at our yearly Renewal of Vows. One of the Principles is Simplicity, which I address in a number of ways: buying fresh ingredients and cooking them in preference to warming up prepared foods, tolerating a certain number of weeds in our lawn rather than killing them with chemicals, and dressing in a simple way—plain, solid earth tones, made in America of natural fibers whenever possible, and keeping designs, prints advertising/commemorative devices to a minimum.
I buy clothing very seldom; some years, I don’t buy any at all, and I have at least one sweatshirt from my undergrad days. And lately, as items began to need replacing, I found myself replacing them by ordering from a catalog that caters to Amish, Mennonite, Hutterite, and Conservative Quakers customers. Plain unbleached collarless shirts, tough, plain American-made pants in black and khaki, suspenders, simple vests (including an Amish vest with hook-and-eye fastenings) and a Pike Mennonite hat for church and other dress occasions. I also went through my closet and trunk and gave away bags of clothing I either no longer wore, that hadn’t fit in years, or that were not sufficiently plain. I also got rid of all but 2 of my neckties. People began to ask me if I were an Anabaptist.
I simply felt a strong urge to be plain, not by default, but by design. I wanted to do it on purpose, and for a reason. Like the Franciscan Friar who told me that the habit “forces him to be a nice guy,” or the nun who said she had always been a woman of prayer, but before she became a nun people didn’t stop her in the street with prayer requests because they couldn’t tell, I wanted to make a statement with my dress, to make it sort of sacrament–which the Prayerbook defines as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”
But that’s where the Buddha is a step ahead of me, because no matter how (literally) black-and-white I may be on the outside, I know how much more murky things are within. And though there a plenty of warnings in the Bible about overvaluing externals, such things seem to sting a little more when you hear them from a source other than your own.
We don't know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. –Romans 8:26
Some people are good at intercessory prayer. They remember, not only those who have asked them for prayer, but also those whose situations simply seem to warrant it. They pray fluently, simply and without over-thinking things, and they make their needs known without seeming to micromanage God.
I am not one of those people.
In a group setting–in church, during the Daily Office with my fellow Franciscans, after Morning Meditation–it’s easy to simply ask for prayer for someone and briefly describe their situation and needs. But when alone, I feel the need to “pray something,” and find myself either talking too much, or feeling like I’m just going through the motions. I wonder whether to pray for a particular outcome, or simply “Your will be done.” Then I get caught in a “your Father knows what you need before you ask” loop, wondering if there’s even any point to intercession.
For those who may have similar difficulties, I will share a technique I have developed to deepen my intercessory prayer life using the Rosary.
Before beginning, I spend about five minutes in silent meditation, being aware of my intention to use the practice as a vehicle for intercession. Then, during each Hail Mary (or Jesus Prayer–I may use either) I allow the remembrance of some person or situation to come into my awareness. I then simply “hold them in the Light,” as the Quakers say, for the duration of the prayer, trusting that God will take it from there.
And that’s it.
The “allowing” is key; if I sit down with a pre-determined list of people to pray for, the whole practice takes on a mechanical, even frantic aspect–and once I’ve prayed through the list, my mind goes blank.
Over-thinking is deadly. It’s important to be like Pooh, and wait for things to come to us, rather than Rabbit, who takes it upon himself to go out and get them. This requires trust, but the trust is always rewarded; I have never done this practice without a steady stream of friends, enemies, relations, colleagues and situations coming to mind to be held up in prayer.
I do this practice with the Dominican Rosary, because each group of beads (or “decade,” because they are arranged in groups of ten) is associated with a particular “mystery” from the lives of Jesus and Mary. The mysteries are
THE JOYFUL MYSTERIES
The Annunciation of Mary
The Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth
The Birth of Jesus
The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple
The Finding of the Jesus among the Elders
THE SORROWFUL MYSTERIES
The Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane
The Scourging at the Pillar
The Crowning with Thorns
The Carrying of the Cross
THE GLORIOUS MYSTERIES
The Resurrection of Jesus
The Ascension of Jesus
The Sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost
The Assumption of Mary
The Crowning of Mary as Queen of Heaven
In the traditional practice, one thinks about these events while praying the ten Hail Mary’s in each decade. But I have never gotten used to such discursive meditation; I don’t like “thinking about” things during contemplative prayer time. So while I soldiered on with the Rosary off and on for years, brief seasons of great fruitfulness alternated with endless stretches of mechanical recitation, and I would often abandon the practice for long periods.
When I use the Rosary as an aid to intercession, however, the practice comes powerfully to life, because the mysteries themselves guide my intercessions. While praying the Annunciation, for instance, ten people or groups of people who are struggling with issues of vocation may come to mind; during the Birth of Jesus decade, I remember expectant mothers and new parents; as I pray the Carrying of the Cross, I remember people who have taken on extraordinary burdens. And while you wouldn’t think you know 150 people, groups or situations in need of your prayer, you would probably be surprised. Just relax and refrain from grasping (as the Buddhists say) and they will come to you. And don’t worry–you will not forget those people who have particularly solicited your intercession.
So this practice has not only grounded and freed my intercessory prayer, but it has also enlivened my use of the Rosary. For me, holding people in the light whose situations connect them to the mysteries is a much more meaningful meditation on those mysteries than forcing myself to think about the events in some more literal way, while remembering those for whom I pray in the light of Jesus’ and Mary’s lives and ministries enables me to pray for others without getting tangled up in what to say.
Finally, when I rise from my prayer bench after this practice, I have a vivid sense of the “great cloud of witnesses by whom we are all surrounded on our spiritual pilgrimage; I feel more connected to “all the faithful of every generation” in the Communion of Saints, and am powerfully reassured that I am not alone.
 Matthew 6:8
 I also use the seven-decade Franciscan Rosary, which also invokes different “mysteries” for the various decades.
 Pope John Paul II added a group of ten “Luminous Mysteries” that reference Jesus’ public ministry, but they are not in universal use.
 Because, as a non-Catholic, I do not believe in the Assumption–or taking up bodily into heaven–of Mary, I substitute the Orthodox “Dormition”, or “falling asleep” (death) of Mary for this mystery.
 Hebrews 12:1
 Book of Common Prayer
A woman friend opened my eyes years ago to the way we men become very invested in our props when on dates. She told me about being out with a young man who, after dropping and breaking his carefully selected bottle of wine, became more upset than she could possibly account for at the time. Why was the wine so important to him, she wondered? Only later did she realize that men set the scene for wooing and seduction through the strategic deployment of such props. Things like flowers, candles and soft music are, for most men, more like magic talismans for producing the desired result than expressions of anything like love.
I often think about this story while preparing for prayer, smiling as I dim the lights, change the shrine flowers or light a stick of incense. “I know,” I say to God, “that you are perfectly aware of my use of these props, and that you know I intend them as an offering of devotion and an aid to my own recollection, their resemblance to preparing my dorm room for a hot date notwithstanding.”
Maybe it’s my background in Protestant Christianity that makes me elevate devotion over technique the way I do. Maybe the correct pronunciation of Sanskrit mantras really is essential to their efficacy; maybe the position of the tongue in the chakra bijas really does stimulate the pineal gland, or whatever. Many people of many millennia have believed so. But to my mind, emphasizing technique in this way is the spiritual equivalent of carefully laying the scene in one’s bachelor crib. And yes, of course it absolutely is love and desire that impels us to cultivate technique–but if the love isn’t paramount, the technique is empty, however efficacious it may seem in the short run.
I recently read a book about mantra meditation by John Dupuche, a Catholic priest with a doctorate in Sanskrit, who specializes in Kashmir Shaivism. I found his account of mantra highly resonant with my own: The mantra is a word, not just a sound repeated over and over. It is not a word said to oneself, a sort of soliloquy. Nor is it just a distraction for the mind so as to let the spirit soar. The mantra is an expression. It comes from a tradition and expresses the tradition…It comes from the reciter and expresses the reciter.
The mantra is the essence of the Word that surpasses all sound…the mantra is not so much the vocable, which is uttered with the lips or mind, but an attitude, an emotion, which constitutes the essential self. By reciting the mantra the practitioner undertakes to be true to his or her self.
Thus the mantra, like all words and expressions, is a bridge between the speaker and the one addressed. The mantra is necessarily said to someone. I can become the mantra only if I say it to someone who receives the mantra, who listens and accepts the mantra.
For Dupuche, the mantra expresses the one who recites it, for the sake of the One who hears it–irrespective of linguistics and technical minutiae.
Like mantras, mudras are often thought to have empirical effects on the practitioner independent of intention. According to Kundalini Yoga theory, a mudra is:
A gesture or position, usually of the hands, that locks and guides energy flow and reflexes to the brain. By curling, crossing, stretching and touching the fingers and hands, we can talk to the body and mind as each area of the hand reflexes to a certain part of the mind or body.
While I have never seen any convincing science that supports the notion of hand reflexology, it may very well be that holding the hands in various postures objectively stimulates the nervous system. But for the time being, anyway, you can’t prove it by me.
For Buddhists, mudras have a primarily iconographic and symbolic function, similar to stereotyped hand gestures in Christian icons. Different positions of the hands have different meanings that help the viewer to “read” the image.
My own position, as usual, falls somewhere in between. For me, a mudra–like everything else in spiritual practice–is about intention. When I use a mudra while chanting or in silent meditation, I am implicitly aware of–though not explicitly thinking about–the meaning of the gesture as it relates to my intention for that period of practice. While meditating on the sahasrara, or “crown” chakra, I may use the dhyana mudra, which is associated with deep concentration and devotion; I may use the vismaya mudra, associated with clear spiritual perception, while focusing on the ajna, or “brow (“third eye”) chakra. But I do so, not because I believe that holding the hands a certain way will objectively facilitate the desired result, but as an aid to honing my intention–a mission statement for the practice, a string around my spiritual finger to remind me of what I am doing and why. A string on my finger–not a ring through God’s nose.
In spiritual practice, it seems to me, all is offering–all is devotion. We offer mantra and mudra as gifts of love, not as techniques for producing a desired result–just as a man gives a woman a ring, not to facilitate an acceptance of his offer of marriage, but as a way of declaring his own intentions and desires.
If one offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, fruit or water, I will accept it. –Bhagavad Gita 9:26
Ninety per cent of life is just showing up. –Woody Allen
This morning I went to the chapel at my parish church, where we have daily morning meditation. (My wife said, “Are you sure you have time for morning meditation today?” I countered that Gandhi meditated an hour a day, except on very busy days, when he meditated two hours. She pointed out that Gandhi didn’t have his mother-in-law coming over.)
Because I arrived at the last moment, I took a seat on a bench rather than on a cushion or prayer stool. The result was what I should have expected: I kept nodding off. (This is my main reason for using a traditional meditation posture–it keeps me awake.) I was disappointed, because I have a to-do list as long as my arm today, and I was counting on the meditation to ground, center and energize me.
Fortunately–and here is where my Christian undercoat starts to show through the yogic veneer–I rely on grace as much as, or more than, my own poor efforts. (Yogis rely on grace, too, but it isn’t emphasized as much.) I firmly believe that, whatever my experience in prayer or meditation may be, and however I feel afterward, and irrespective of whether I am alert or dull, God receives my offering graciously.
But “offering” is the operative word, here. If we regard our sadhana, or practice, simply as spiritual push-ups, we advance only insofar as we are at the top of our game. If we regard it as an offering of love, as bhakti (“devotion”), then our showing up and offering the best we have in us at the time counts for something. Simplistic, perhaps, but simple is good.
This is where the old Roman Catholic concept of “merit” speaks to my Anglican soul. When I see old-fashioned prayer-cards or other devotionals which promise X years of release from purgatory for people who pray this novena or that chaplet or what-have-you, it certainly smacks of what I was taught to regard as “works righteousness.” But understood in the proper light, the concept of merit frees us from the fear of wasting our efforts whenever we are at less than full capacity. We aren’t responsible, primarily, for how well we do, but for how faithfully we show up. “Merit” accrues more to our intention and effort than to apparent “results”; if we practice faithfully, we gain merit to offer up for the healing of the world. (The Buddhists also speak of “merit” accruing to spiritual practice, and of offering it for the good of others.) And the effort of praying through drowsiness or distraction is never wasted, even if we don’t walk away feeling the way we wanted to.
Screwtape, the senior demon who coaches his nephew through his first temptation assignment in C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, put is this way:
Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling; and never let them suspect how much success or failure of that kind depends on whether they are well or ill, fresh or tired, at the moment.
So rather than reproach myself for wasting time and effort this morning, I am going to assume that the effort itself, poor as it was, was still an opening for grace.
Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” (Mark 21:41-44)
As with all the ways of practicing God's presence, it is our authentic desire and willingness that counts, not the specific experience or lack of experience. –Gerald May
I love novenas–those nine-day Catholic cycles of prayer with a particular intention. I used to explain to Protestant friends that a novena is like a public radio pledge drive of prayer: of course, your local station would love for you to contribute at any time, but every so often they set aside several days to pester you about it. A novena is a dedicated time of prayerful pestering.
During a period when I had a lot of discerning to do, I used to use novenas frequently. It got to the point where I would sometimes receive an answer to my prayer almost immediately after I had formed the intention of praying a novena–even before I had actually prayed it.
I have come to believe that intention is everything in spiritual practice. It trumps technique, and it is more central, more vital than any altered states of mind we may experience. It is more key to spiritual advancement than any specific exercise or sacrament, and it is more powerfully influential in prayer than what we say or how we say it. And I will go so far as to say that the primary purpose of spiritual practice is to sharpen and focus our intention.
Now, I’m not advocating some kind of The Secret-esque “law of attraction” that will “manifest” what we want in the world if we manage our thoughts and feelings properly. But I am suggesting that if we sharpen our intention, two things will follow:
- Our moment-to-moment choices, both conscious and unconscious, will be more in line with our deepest desires. We will be less likely to “trade in what we want most for what we want now,” as a colleague puts it, if we have, through practice, kept our true intentions within our awareness. As Gerald May put it, “All our choices reflect an economy of passion: how we decide to invest ourselves in what we care about. Large and small, we make thousands of such choices every day.”
- God will honor our desires more abundantly as they become more focused. “Delight in the Lord,” says the Psalmist, “and he will give you your heart’s desire.” (Ps. 37:4) I used to think this was a kind of Catch-22, like Henry Ford’s promise that you could have your Model T in any color you wanted as long as it was black. But I have come to realize that our true “heart’s desire” is, in fact, the Lord–everything else is something we have been duped into believing we desire. The more focused our intentions, the less divided our loyalties between God and what the Bible calls “the World,” and the Upanishads call maya. “Come near to God,” says the Letter of James, “and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” (Ja. 4:8) Or as Jesus Himself put it, “No one can serve two masters.” (Mt. 6:24)
After a long period of uncertainty about what I was being to called to do in the world, circumstances began to align themselves in a way that made my path clearer than it has ever been. Now, you would think that this would be cause for rejoicing and plunging in with both feet, but life can put us into a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, in which we cling to our captivity out of fear of the very freedom we crave. Knowing exactly what I needed to be doing, I found myself doing everything but, balking at change and caught in the grip of acedia.
Fearful that my chance would pass me by, I began a nightly practice of chanting Om gam Ganapataye namaha–a mantra addressed to Ganesha–with the intention that the Lord of Success and Remover of Obstacles would clear my path of obstructions. (I will write more soon about how this Christian relates to the Hindu pantheon.) Almost immediately, I began to feel my stuck-ness loosening up, and found that I could move down the path before me with increasing ease.
Finding that my rate of recovery was slackening, I approached one of my parish priests for laying-on-of-hands and healing prayer. The result was dramatic; the combination of her intercession and my own practice set up a kind of virtuous (as opposed to “vicious”) cycle of grace and intention, each fueling the other and taking me to a greater state of emotional and spiritual health than I had enjoyed for a long time. I practiced with intention, and God answered with grace that, in turn, encouraged my intention–an "upward spiral," if you will.
The Baal Shem Tov
In Martin Buber’s Legends of the Baal Shem, God commands the Master to do spiritual battle with a false messiah. Warning him that his foe was too powerful for him to defeat alone, God charged the Baal Shem to seek the help of a tzadik, or holy man, to whom he would direct him. Traveling through a field, the Baal Shem saw a shepherd incessantly leaping back and forth over a ditch. “For you, Lord,” the shepherd cried, “and to please you! If you had sheep, I would guard them all day without pay; show me what I can do for you!” This, God told the Master, is the holy man you seek.
I will have truly made progress on the day when all my spiritual practice is done in the same spirit of pure, Godly intention.