bad at contemplation

I think I’ve mentioned in the past that I have a morning devotional routine… routine in that it has regular components, and a usual timeslot. Not routine as in “I do it every day,” but then, I’m a known-non-routiner in that regard.

My drill? I read 3 poems (or 3 pages of poetry, or to the end of one poem) in whatever volume I’ve selected. Into a journal I use for the purpose, I transcribe — while murmuring aloud — 3-5 verses of whatever book of the Bible I’m transcribing… about a page’s-worth. I set a timer. I sit in contemplative silence/centering prayer for my timer’s-worth, and then move on with my day.

The volume of poetry? Something from a stack I have. Sometimes the poets are confessing Christians. Sometimes they’re not, or I don’t know whether they are or not. Sometimes the poets are excellent craftsfolk. Sometimes they’re not.
The transcription? It’s very loosely based on the Jewish practice of Torah transcription. I’m working through Jeremiah — it’s the first book I’ve worked with this way. Why Jeremiah? Why not? Plus I have a poem with Jeremiah in it that needs help… maybe reading the book will come in useful?
The silence? Yeah.

Onceuponatime — early Aughts, I guess? — I took a course in Centering Prayer, which is a discipline of contemplation and silence. When I was reading The Cloud of Unknowing last spring, I noticed that the Cloud author’s recommended prayer-mode had a lot in common with Fr. Keating’s articulation of Centering Prayer. I was already performing my version of Centering Prayer whenever it was that I enacted my morning routine, though it was constantly a struggle, over and above the struggle of performing the devotion in the first place. Kinda nice, to meet a long-time companion unexpectedly that way!

When I took the course, I learned the rules. I learned about having one (holy) word, about returning to that word whenever thoughts come, about how the minimum time for practice is twenty minutes.

As I started to do this at home, about all that I could consistently repeat was… the word.

Thoughts come? Ha! Does a hurricane bring rain?
Oh, and twenty minutes? When I begin vibrating after five?
Folk are always encouraging, and I know all about how disciplines require repetition in order to embed themselves well, so I persisted. Grumpily. In my own, haphazard way.

Oddly, I never thought to ask myself why I kept persisting. I just did.

Last winter, I had occasion to visit with a counselor for a while. She’s a long-time practitioner of contemplative and centering prayer, and our time together tended to work like this — I’d unspool the array of things in the front of my mind, which we’d discuss as much as they needed to be discussed,
and then we’d fall silent. And remain in silence,
until she called time and we’d set up our next meeting.

The first silence felt incredibly odd — uncertain — because there wasn’t much frame to the beginning, so there was no indication as to the ending. (Hidden information if you’re not familiar with therapeutic sessions — you the client/patient don’t see a clock. Therapeutic time is… nominally, anyway… a form of kairos.) I had to trust this person with the time, and the silence, and — I notice now — with closing the silence without jarring. Being interrupted, particularly in silence or in concentration, feels like a violence to me. But she managed it. And more to the point: I understood this was part of what we were doing together: our being silent as an end in itself.

The next time I still felt odd. And I recognized that my feeling odd was not very important… I could be silent while feeling odd. And did.

So in the spring, as I read:

Focus on the God who made you and ransomed you and led you to this work. Think of nothing else. Even these thoughts are superfluous. Instead, do what pleases you. You only need a naked intent for God. When you long for him, that’s enough. […]

When distracting thoughts press down on you, when they stand between you and God and stubbornly demand your attention, pretend you don’t even notice them. Try looking over their shoulders, as if you’re searching for something else, and you are. That something else is God, hidden in a cloud of unknowing. …

There’s another trick you can try, if you want. When exhausted from fighting your thoughts, when you’re unable to put them down… Give up. Accept that it’s foolish for you to fight them any longer. Do this, and you’ll find that in the hands of your enemies, you are surrendering to God.

The Cloud of Unknowing, Carmen Acevedo Butcher trans., p24, 74-75

I sighed with relief. Feeling awkward was fine, as my intellect had already told me. Having a seemingly endless stream of thoughts? Just throw in my mental towel — and keep sitting in silence.

Over the years, I had eased my vibrating self from five minutes all the way to ten. In the spring, after reading Cloud, I upped it to twelve. As I began my pilgrimage, I thought: fifteen minutes? Why not?

Extra interesting to me — while I’d developed a felt sense of “ten minutes” (I could tell within a few seconds when my timer would sound), and even twelve,
something has shifted in my bodily restlessness, too.

I can hang out in silence, get restless, remind myself that being restless is okay too (see: Give up.), and stay sitting in silence.

On day one or two of my pilgrimage time, I said to myself:

Y’know, I’m really bad at this.

It’s my soul-basic form of prayer.

And these two things can be true at the very same time,
because it doesn’t matter to God whether I’m any good at this or not. If pressed, God prefers my showing up to my absence… but throughout all, God loves me.

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