Wow. I feel so privileged to have been part of the first contemplative gathering at First Christian Church of Decatur, Georgia.
It was a very simple thing, actually. There were over 20 of us (I counted 21, but someone else said 22, maybe I forgot to count myself) gathered together in one of the education rooms at the church. We sat in a circle and after introducing ourselves, we shared a communal exercise based on the ancient monastic practice of lectio divina (sacred reading). Traditionally, lectio consists of four “movements” (like movements in a symphony): first, reading a passage from the Bible or some other sacred text; next, reflecting on how this God speaks to you through this passage; then, prayerfully responding to God’s word as encountered here; and finally, simply resting a moment of contemplative silence. Obviously, lectio is a very personal and intimate spiritual practice, so it needs to be adapted somewhat for a group. There are various ways of doing that; the exercise we did last night was based on group lectio as led by Fr. Anthony at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit. We begin with a Gospel reading (last night we used Luke 15:1-10). After a few moments of silence, the passage is read again, more slowly. Then members of the group are invited to speak briefly, saying just a phrase or sentence about how the passage is speaking to them. After everyone who has wanted to speak has done so and the group settles back into silence, the Gospel is read a third time, slowly again, and followed by about five minutes of silence. Then every person is invited to say just one word from the passage, or in response to it (if someone has no word they wish to share, they can simply say pass). The entire process takes about a half hour and is lovely in its quiet and simplicity.
After the group lectio exercise, we moved into a longer period of silence — last night was only ten minutes, but perhaps in the future this will be a longer period. Obviously this is a time when individuals may practice centering prayer, or the prayer of the heart, or may simply just rest in the silence, attending to their breath and body in response to the invitation of Psalm 46:10: “Be still and know that I am God.” We did not advocate for any one particular method of contemplative practice, but invited each person to relate to the silence in whatever way was meaningful for them. Of course, the traditional idea, going back to ancient sources like the writings of Evagrius Ponticus and medieval texts like The Cloud of Unknowing, is to allow prayer to settle in to a place beyond the chatter of the discursive mind (unlike what some of contemplative prayer’s critics may think, it’s not about “emptying the mind,” rather it is about gently responding to the “sound of sheer silence” between and beyond our thoughts, the silence where we may discern the loving presence of God). Contemplative techniques like centering prayer or Christian meditation are designed to help us find that “sound of sheer silence” which is always present, only we are usually too distracted to notice.
After the ten minutes of silence, we took a stretch break and then my friend and colleague the Rev. Phil Foster led us in evening prayer (Vespers), adapted from the evening prayer services found in the Benedictine Daily Prayer book and the Saint Helena Breviary. Following the traditional monastic practice, our service began with opening verses, a hymn, four psalms with antiphons, a reading, silent time, the Canticle of Mary (Magnificat), a litany, the Our Father, and closing prayers. Even though a number of the people who attended last night had never participated in a monastic style service, we chanted most of the service, using a simple plainchant — and it was sublime. The voices blended together in a lovely harmony of serene praise. We chanted the psalms responsively, the hymn and Magnificat in unison. Especially considering that this particular group of folks had never before sung or prayed together, it truly felt blessed.
And that was our evening. A simple, gentle, welcoming gathering. We were a diverse group: young and old, male and female, white and black, representing a variety of church backgrounds (and level of church involvement). We hope that this contemplative gathering will be a safe space both for people who are active churchgoers but also for those who may have felt alienated from traditional religion for a variety of reasons. Our goal is not to preach or proselytize or push a particular point of view. We simply want to gather with others who value the opportunity to taste silence before the mystery that is called God.
If you’re interested — we’ll be gathering like this on the third Sunday of every month. Our next meeting is on October 20, 2013, at 5 PM (follow this link for details). Hope to see you there!
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