Our mental business is carried on much in the same way as the business of the state: a great deal of hard work is done by agents who are not acknowledged. George Eliot, Adam Bede
While a visitor in a church other than my own, I had a strong negative reaction to one of the lay ministers—some confluence of mannerisms and appearance just grated on my nerves to the point where I couldn’t stop watching this person, in the same way that one will continually pester a cold sore.
It being apparently a good morning, I was able to self-transcend enough to notice not only the irritating object, but also my own irritation. Isn’t that interesting, I thought; now why should I respond so negatively to this person?
Trying to run my thought process to ground, I began to catalog all the things about the person that annoyed me, and ask myself why I was so annoyed at each one. This strategy backfired. In no time, I had gone from being conscious of an irritant within my field of awareness to being entirely subsumed by irritation: I had absolutely nothing on my mind but how much this person annoyed me, and a laundry list of self-justifying reasons for being annoyed.
Then I remembered something that Martin Laird pointed out in his book, Into the Silent Land: when Satan was tempting Jesus in the wilderness, Jesus didn’t debate with him; he didn’t allow himself to be hooked. Instead, he simply met each temptation with an appropriate quotation from scripture. “It is written…,” he said, then shut up, never giving the tempter the time of day.
(I’ll interrupt myself here to share the only thing I ever learned in my brief career as a vacuum cleaner salesman: “once you have stated your case, the next person to talk loses.” When you are arguing with someone—a sales clerk or petty official, say—make your point and then absolutely clam up. It’s difficult, but often works; the tension produced by the silence just becomes too much, and your adversary will begin to babble in order to break it. Then you win.)
So I tried Jesus’ stratagem; abandoning my bogus self-examination about why this person rubbed me the wrong way, I simply told myself what God told Samuel in 1 Kings: “You see not as God sees, but as mortals see; for you look at outward appearances, but God looks on the heart.” I had to repeat this a few times over the course of the service, but it worked: I set aside my involuntary response and put my attention where it was supposed to be.
(The fact that this person turned out, in later conversation, to actually be a jerk is immaterial. I suppose. It’s not as though obsessing about the offending mannerisms was doing any good. And anyway, maybe being a jerk is just one more layer of appearances between me and the heart that God looks on.)
Fifty years before Jung opened his practice, George Eliot put her finger on the problem: “unacknowledged agents” in our minds do stuff without our awareness or consent.
Now Jung attributed much of this stuff to what he called “the Shadow”—those aspects of our personalities which we reject and repress, and which undermine and sabotage us in a bid for self-expression. And Jung believed that, in banishing the unwanted aspects of ourselves into the unconscious, we cut ourselves off from our creativity and self-realization. Jungian psychologist and Episcopal priest John Sanford likened the Shadow to Jesus’ “treasure hidden in the field” (Matthew 13:44). Make friends with your Shadow, the pop-psyche mavens tell us--and why not? If some repressed aspect of my personality is forcing me to read political blogs all night instead of going to bed so I won’t be irascible toward my children the next day, I’m willing to take that as a sign that some fundamental change in my life is called for.
But sometimes the Shadow just needs to pipe down. The Desert Fathers externalized their troublesome inner promptings as demons, and oriented much of their lives and practice toward silencing them—and surely not every vicious or self-destructive drive is potentially redeeming. Sometimes evil thoughts are just evil.
Martha Graham counseled Agnes DeMille to keep open to the urges that motivate her. Well and good; the forest is dark, but full of diamonds. But how do we distinguish between motivating urges that are potentially liberating, and those that are just plain bad? Or at any rate unhelpful? (“All things are lawful to me,” said Paul, “but not all things are useful.”) How can we tell the gifts of the Shadow from the Trojan Horse of the ego?
One thing I have heard before, but have only recently realized in my own experience, is that turning the attention from the object of one’s feelings toward the feelings themselves is a great disclosing tablet. When our whole field of awareness is filled up with the object, there is no room for awareness of self—the very reason, I suspect, that most of us “nurse our wrath to keep it warm” toward at least one person or situation: we don’t want to become self-aware on that score.
One evening I was at a motel desk with a friend, trying to get in touch with a mutual friend who was staying there and whom we had arranged to meet. Her room phone wasn’t working, and we were trying to get the desk clerk to somehow get a message to her—which, being more afraid of his employers than he was sympathetic to us, he refused to do. As we pressed him—OK, as I became angry--he became rude and dismissive.
Back in the car, my friend asked me why I so furious at this subaltern. As one reiterating the self-evident, I said, “Because he was rude to me!” “So what?” my friend asked.
And I couldn’t think of a thing to say.
Later, upon reflection, I realized that if someone is rude to me, it constitutes an implicit statement about my relative worth—and that at some level, I take that statement at face value. This person is, by being rude to me, implying that I deserve no better, which some part of me already believes, so in order to distract myself from that externally validated self-assessment, I become furious at the rude person.
Lesson 5 in A Course in Miracles says “I am never upset for the reason I think.” The ego does a bang-up job of directing the attention outward in order to avert the inward gaze. Maybe the key to discerning between the (potentially) liberating drives of the Shadow and the cramping, self-protective machinations of the ego lies somewhere in there. Maybe if we have the keenness to discern and the courage to follow our redemptive inner promptings, we will find ourselves happier and more self-aware--whereas getting caught up in ego chatter invariably makes us more miserable and more aware of other people, other things.
Maybe these internal agents need to start carrying ID.
This post originally appeared at Little Teaboys Everywhere.
Those of you who follow this blog have already figured out that I love chaplets–prayer beads like the Dominican, Franciscan and Anglican Rosaries. (I also love malas–prayer beads used by Hindu and Buddhist devotees for chanting mantras.)
My older daughter just took up lacrosse this past spring, and if you’ve ever seen girls’ lacrosse, you know about “cradling”–the constant side-to-side twisting of the stick the player must do in order to keep control of the ball, women’s sticks not having the deep pockets that men’s sticks do. I think of the prayers associated with each bead as a similar thing–a sort of mental “cradling” that keeps the ball in the air, as it were–keeps me focused and allows my spiritual faculties to work unhindered (or, to be honest, a little less hindered) by my chattering mind. I also use the familiar Dominican Rosary (what most people mean by “the Rosary”) and the similar, but less familiar Franciscan Crown Rosary as aids to intercessory prayer, about which you can read more here. I also use the even less familiar, but wonderfully uplifting Holy Spirit Chaplet[i] for that same purpose, and for the many people who are strangers to this devotion, here’s how it works.
The rosary consists of a medal of the Holy Spirit. three small preparatory beads, and six sets of two large beads each, enclosing five sets of seven small beads. Like the Dominican and Franciscan Crown rosaries, each set of beads is associated with a "mystery" to be contemplated whilst reciting the prayers: 1) Jesus is Conceived by the Holy Spirit, 2) The Holy Spirit Descends Upon Jesus at Baptism, 3) The Holy Spirit Drives Jesus into the Wilderness, 4) The Holy Spirit Empowers the Church at Pentecost, and 5) The Holy Spirit Dwells in the Souls of the Righteous.The traditional way of praying this chaplet is a little complicated; as I am prone to do, I’ve simplified it. (In fact, in some places I’ve outright changed it; you can learn the traditional method here if you wish.)
ON THE HOLY SPIRIT MEDAL
Almighty God, to You all hearts are open, all desires known, and from You no secrets are hid. Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of Your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love You, and worthily magnify Your holy name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen (Collect for Purity, Book of Common Prayer. I begin all my Christian chaplet devotions–with one exception, about which more below–with this prayer.)
ON THE THREE PREPARATORY SMALL BEADS
Breathe in me, Holy Spirit, that all my thoughts may be holy;
Act in me, Holy Spirit, that my work, too, may be holy;
Draw my heart, Holy Spirit, that I may only love what is holy;
Strengthen me, Holy Spirit, to defend all that is holy;
Guard me, Holy Spirit, that I always may be holy. (St. Augustine)
ON THE FIRST OF EACH OF THE FIVE SETS OF TWO LARGE BEADS
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name;
Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread, and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Save us from the time of trial, and deliver us from evil. Amen.
ON THE SECOND OF EACH OF THE FIVE SETS OF TWO LARGE BEADS
Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you;
Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen
ON EACH OF THE SEVEN SMALL BEADS BETWEEN THE SETS OF TWO LARGE BEADS
Glory to God, Transcendent Majesty, Incarnate Word, and Indwelling Spirit,
As it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever. Amen. (Traditionally, this is the familiar “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit," etc. I prefer this version because it is not only more gender-neutral, but also more beautiful and, because it is longer, it allows more time to “hold in the light” each person for whom I am praying. It also just makes the whole exercise a little less like falling down the stairs.)
In the traditional version, one recites the Apostles’ Creed and the Our Father on the last two large beads, but I prefer to maintain the Our Father/Hail Mary pattern.
One other chaplet I am fond of is the Adoration of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament Chaplet. This one, as it turns out, I actually pray in the traditional manner–but not in the traditional circumstances.
This simple chaplet consists of a medal of the Blessed Sacrament[i] and thirty-three beads, one for each year of Jesus earthly life. It is traditionally prayed during Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, when the consecrated communion bread is exposed to view in a vessel call a monstrance, and the faithful pray in the presence of Christ in this form.
As Eucharistic Adoration is not part of my tradition, I most often pray this chaplet when, for whatever reason, I find myself in a Roman Catholic church rather than and Episcopal one. Since I, as a non-Catholic, am forbidden to receive Communion in a Catholic church, the chaplet gives me something to do while the other worshippers are communing. (I find this far more edifying than my former practice of sitting there and being resentful.) Here’s how the devotion works:
ON THE BLESSED SACRAMENT MEDAL
Oh, my Jesus, as I cannot now receive You in Holy Communion, come spiritually into my heart and make it Your own forever.
ON THE BEADS:
Lord Jesus, ever present in the holy sacrament of the altar, have mercy on us, and on the whole world.
For reasons that I will write about later, I have found myself becoming ever more dependent on structured devotions like chaplets, and the more I practice them, the more satisfying they become. If you find it difficult to sit in utter silence during your contemplative prayer time, you may find rosary practice as fruitful as I have.
Not to be confused with the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit Chaplet, which is different.[i]
The Eucharist, or Holy Communion
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.
I have always had heart trouble–by which I mean that I have always lived primarily in my head. In meditation, it is always much more natural for me to put my awareness in the ajna chakra between the eyebrows that in my chest area. When I chant the bija mantra “Yam” into the anahata chakra, I become aware of the heart center through the tingling of the sound vibrations, but maintaining awareness of a spinning green light, or any other attempt to be “aware of the presence of God in my heart” has always felt artificial and contrived. No matter how many times I mentally repeat the Jesus Prayer while going through my day, I keep “hearing” it in my head, not in my heart.
But I discovered this passage in Abdul Baha’s Prayers and Meditations, concerning those people with discernment to see the divine majesty everywhere:
Surely the lamp of Thy love is burning in their hearts, and the light of Thy tenderness is lit within their breasts.
This passage leapt out at me, demanding my attention, so I treated it as a subject for lectio divina, or "holy reading" meditation, repeating it slowly and deliberately in silence as thought it were mantra or a Centering Prayer “prayer-word.” I found it very focusing. Certainly, the image of a burning lamp in my heart was much easier to hold in awareness than an abstract “heart center” (even one with a rotating wheel of green light in it) and a flame much more concrete than an abstraction like “love.”
Something else that has plagued me for years is my tendency to sublimate and somaticize difficult emotions. When my mom was dying, I had suffered from fainting spells; before leaving home and fiancée for graduate school halfway across the country, I endured shortness of breath. My tendency to live in my head has pushed my body into advocating for my heart, demanding attention for my emotional challenges. Through the practice of yoga and, perhaps, through meditating on this image from this passage, I hope to be finally be able to allow, as the Eastern Orthodox contemplatives put it, the “mind to descend into the heart.”
Hallelujah! Praise God in his holy temple;
praise him in the firmament of his power.
Praise him for his mighty acts;
praise him for his excellent greatness.
Praise him with the blast of the ram’s horn;
Praise him with lyre and harp.
Praise him with timbrel and dance;
Praise him with strings and pipe.
Praise him with resounding cymbals;
Praise him with loud-clanging cymbals.
Let everything that has breath
Praise the Lord. Hallelujah!
(Psalm 150, Book of Common Prayer translation)
There is a classic formula for Christian prayer whose acronym in ACTS: Adoration, Confession,
Thanksgiving, Supplication. (Some versions include a separate category for Intercession, which
Is otherwise included as part of Supplication–or as I prefer to call it, Petition.)
I have never really understood the need for Adoration. “Why does God need our praise?” I
wondered. Surely such a thing is superfluous. Which, of course, only illustrates how easy it is
(for me) to know something without bringing (my) knowledge to bear.
Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised. (Ps. 145:3)
Earlier this week, while preparing for intercessory prayer with the Franciscan Crown Rosary (a
practice I wrote about in my last entry) I decided that my usual modes of address at the
beginning of a prayer were becoming more than a little pat. So I cast around for some other ways
to address the Eternal: All-Pervading Energy, Ground of Being, Source of the Universe, Fountain
of All Being…there were many more, but I can’t remember them now because I very quickly
entered an exalted state as my efforts to put God’s reality into words brought me a fresh, vivid
sense of the unfathomable vastness of that reality. Praising God–which any meaningful form of
address to the Divine will almost necessarily be–brought home to me the hitherto purely
intellectual knowledge that “in him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28)
Here’s an example: I used to require students–non-music-majors–to attend a live musical
performance and describe what they heard. Most often, whet I got instead of descriptions were
labels: heavy metal, techno and the like. When I’d insist on actual descriptions of musical
parameters like volume, rhythm, melody and timbre, they’d object that, as non-music-majors,
they weren’t able to talk about music in that way. This, I maintained, is untrue; you needn’t have
access to specialized jargon–just use your own words.
Over Thanksgiving break, my wife’s godfather opened two bottle of red wine and removed the labels, offering each for sampling and our estimate of what they were. “That tastes like a Chianti,” I said of the first. My wife, who’d been listening to me bitch about my student’s papers all morning, shouted from the next room, “That’s not a description–that’s a label!” “I don’t speak wine!” I rejoined. “You tell your students they don’t need to speak music,” she answered.
She had me there, so I applied myself to describing what I tasted without recourse to jargon.
“Well…on top, it kind of tastes like flowers.”
Holy Moly, I thought: Distinct floral notes!
“But underneath, I can taste herbs.”
Hey—would that be “herbal undertones”?
Two remarkable things were happening as I tried to describe what I tasted: 1) I paid closer
attention to what I was drinking, and 2) the argot of professional wine critics began to make
sense for the first time. Phrases that had previously washed over me like some foreign language
suddenly yielded up their meaning as I verified their accuracy by experience.
That’s what praising God does: sharpens our attention to the Divine, and elucidates the
descriptions used by those who have gone before us. "The old words of grace are worn smooth
as poker chips,” wrote novelist Walker Percy, “and a certain devaluation has occurred, like a
poker chip after it has been cashed in." Groping for our own words restores the texture of the
I used to wonder why we should praise God, because I had forgotten a cardinal rule of prayer, as expressed by C.S. Lewis: “It doesn't change God- it changes me.” The more we dwell on God, the more surely we come to share in the Divine nature. “What we think,” said the Buddha, “we become.” And surely this is why Paul exhorted the Christians at Phillipi, saying:
…whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things. (Phillippians 4:8)
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.
Everyone who’s ever been to a yoga class knows that we’re not supposed to compare ourselves to others. We also know how difficult it is not to try to match those who are stronger or more supple than we are, or to take comfort in seeing others struggle with things we find manageable. The urge to one-up others is very strong.
I’ve also heard teachers urge students not to try to “make it look like the pictures in the books,” as doing so could lead to forcing and injury.
In a physical practice like yoga asana, it’s easy to catch ourselves evaluating others, both in person and in print. In contemplation, it’s not so obvious in person; we may have a strong sense that someone else is further along the path than we are, but unless they tell us themselves about their experiences, we can only guess at how prayer is “going” for them.
In print, however, we are offered vivid accounts of the experiences of the great contemplatives of history, from Teresa of Avila to Vivekananda, and from Julian of Norwich to Ramana Maharshi. This is good insofar as it in instructive and inspirational, but I fear that reading about the great mystics can be daunting, too–especially if we have practiced for years without ever being “caught up into the third heaven”[i] or having visionary experiences. Each person’s experience in prayer is unique, and it is useless to compare ourselves to others. The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, a fourteenth-century English text on contemplative prayer, emphasized this point:
It is important to realize that in the interior life, we must never take our own experiences, or the lack of them, as the norm for everyone else. He who labors long in coming to contemplation, and then rarely enjoys the perfection of this work, may easily be deceived if he thinks, speaks or judges other people on the basis of his own experience. In the same way, he who frequently experiences the delight of contemplation–almost, it seems, whenever he likes–will be just as mistaken if he measures others by himself. Do not waste your time with these comparisons. For it may be that, in God’s wisdom, those who have, at the beginning, struggled long and hard at prayer and only tasted its fruits occasionally may, later on, experience them as often as they like, and in great abundance.[ii] In fact, if you are experiencing emptiness in prayer, it may well be a good sign. You are, at any rate, in very good company: everyone from St. John of the Cross to Mother Theresa has gone through “dark nights of the soul.”
Screwtape, the senior demon who coaches his nephew through his first temptation assignment in C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, warned his protégé about God’s motives in going into hiding:
He will set them off with communications of His presence which, though faint, seem great to them, with emotional sweetness, and easy conquest over temptation. But He never allows this state of affairs to last long. Sooner or later He withdraws, if not in fact, at least from their conscious experience, all those supports and incentives. He leaves the creature to stand up on its own legs–to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish….Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best… He wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles. Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger, than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy's will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.
So if you feel like “nothing’s happening” in prayer, don’t despair. The signs of spiritual growth are subtle; often, other people may notice the changes in you before you do, as you gradually grow, spiritually, through practice. Or it may be that God is only withholding His hand so that you may learn to stand up on your own legs.
[i] 2 Corinthians 12:2
[ii]Anonymous, The Cloud of Unknowing, Chapter 72. Ed. William Johnston, SJ.
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)