This past weekend I hosted a group of people for a "Contemplative Time Away". The intention of the weekend was to create an environment for prayer and fellowship. The days were framed by traditional Morning and Evening Prayer as well as Compline. The schedule included long periods of time for Contemplaive prayer.Contemplative prayer can be distinguished from meditation by its openness. Meditation uses montras, chants or sacred words to focus the prayerfulness and intention of the one meditating. Contemplative prayer, on the other hand, seeks to empty the mind of all thought. Neither meditation nor contemplative prayer is an easy feat since we all have thoughts and cares that invade the pivate times of silence.No wonder it's called a "prayer practice" or "spiritual discipline"! It takes time and practice to get better at it.
The weekend allowed us to spend time in silence together and explore the process of going deeper. We'd share about the experiences, and the time together felt closer to each other and God. It was time well spent. There was also plenty of time for other types of exploring - the nearby towns, shops, galleries and restaurants! One doesn't need to be locked away in order to pray, just be intentional about certain times and honor them.
After the weekend was over and the last car departed, I started putting the house back in order and rested. Hosting people who are quiet in prayer still takes energy! Never the less I felt good about the weekend and started to anticipate the next weekend that's scheduled in a few weeks time. I began to think of ways I can alter it incorporating the helpful comments made in the concluding session of the first weekend.
As it happens, on that same weekend in another part of New York a friend of mine attended a retreat at a Buddhist Center. I was curious and accepted his invitation to meet him there on Monday for a tour of the facility. I don't have a lot of experience with Buddhist temples or retreat centers, but was taken by the serene beauty of the buildings and remote rurual setting. As my friend described the weekend retreat he just experienced, I realized that it was very similar to the one I just hosted. While the physical environment and community gathered were different, the goal was similar - namely to quiet the mind and spirit, and to be in the presence of the divine. Whether the Divine is seen as external as in Christian prayer, or internal as in Buddhist enlightenment - or some combination thereof - the process of going deep to find it is similar.
I'm often struck by the number of young people attending Buddhist retreats and chanting sessions. There's a lot of musing that can be done in this area, but it seems that among the elements one can identify are the allure of the exotic, the desire for companionship and the yearning to go deep. Western Christianity carries the burden of a history of abuse and repression on small and large scale that tragically can ecclipse the deep resources and gifts inherent in its faith. Eastern religions do not carry this same baggage in the western world. Ironically they do in their countries of origin. Yet in this country they carry the image of wisdom and serenity without judgement, condemnation, or repression so much a part of the image associated with conservative Christianity.
Our common ground here and among the mystical traditions of other faiths - and they all have them - is the desire to go deep. We go deep in silence. Acheiving silence is not "sitting there doing nothing"! Silence takes work and focus.So many of us are uncomfortable with silence. We often fill it up with talk, music or TV. Sometimes we allow the chatter in our brains to take over with lists of "to do" or rehashing negative events, savoring positive ones, perhaps fearing the future or planning for it. It's so hard to be silent and in the present. Going deep transcends the noise and allows the spirit to exhale and find a core strength rooted in the love of God and presence of Grace. Spiritual;ity is a way of touching the Divine and connecting to the Eternal, religion is the method we choose to develop it.
Our religious communities often invite us to "expand our horizons", "reach out", "break out of the box" "push our boundaries". But they rarely invite us to "go deep". This is i no way to minimize the importance of what might be called horizontal or upward spirituality. But without a corresponding depth, one can eventually burn out. Perhaps it might be said that the invitation to go deep is implied. Yet, not everything that is implied is inferred.The invitation, just like the practice of deeper prayer, needs to be intentional. Jesus gives us a parable of the seeds sown along the path. Some are choked by brambles, scorched by the sun, or devoured by birds. Some fall on good soil and grow strong. Part of their strength comes from deep roots. People of all ages yearn to go deep and they will find the ways to do so. Our opportunity is to plumb the depths of our own religious mystical traditions, heal the past where it has caused pain, offer our own Christian voice of invitation to wisdom and serenty, or better still - offer a silent path to glimpse the grace of God.