“Look for God, suggests my Guru.
Look for God like a man with his head on fire looks for water.”
― Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat. Pray. Love.
A friend of mine recently told me that he has decided to become a mystic.
Yeah, just like that.
Knowing him to be a deeply spiritual person, I was nevertheless surprised by this decisive announcement. One does not generally expect 24-year-old punk rockers from upper New York to embrace a life of austerity and contemplation. He’s pretty sure he can pull it off too. He figures being a mystic will mean having to pray more and that taking a retreat here or there wouldn’t hurt. The only part that seems to cause him pause is contemplative prayer. I tell him that when it comes to being a mystic, I’m pretty sure contemplative prayer is a big deal.
Someone once told me prayer is the art of talking to God, while meditation is the art of listening. So it’s an art form. But what does the art of listening entail exactly? And for that matter, how does one recognize God’s voice? I think the mystics would say it requires some combination of presence, stillness, and mindfulness. Personally, my mind doesn’t do still; at least it doesn’t come naturally. After living in Washington, DC for the past three years, I’m increasingly convinced that our environment is part of the equation. People in DC aren’t supposed to have time for contemplation. We are very busy, and very important, and ain’t nobody got time for that. I poke fun at my fellow residents, but I imagine most of us have multiple streams of stimuli clamoring for our attention at any one moment. It’s the nature of our globalized, hyper-connected world. A world where we’d rather text than call, rather facebook than grab coffee, rather watch TV than sit with silence.
The irony, of course, is that “professional religious people” like myself —who supposedly value and practice these kinds of spiritually formative disciplines— are perhaps the most likely to neglect them. In a commentary that routinely unravels my world, Eugene Peterson writes:
“What connects the great realities of God and the great realities of salvation to the geography of this Parish and in the chronology of a week? The answer among the masters who I consult doesn’t change: a trained attentiveness to God in prayer, in scripture reading, and in spiritual direction. This has not been tried and discarded because it doesn’t work, but tried and found difficult (and more than a little bit tedious) and so shelved in favor of something or other that could be fit into a busy pastor’s schedule.”
Something of God
The thing is I never make time for contemplative practices, but when I do they’re always a game changer. If I was stressed before, I’m calm and peaceful afterwards. If I went in angry or bitter, I leave feeling compassionate.
I was reminded of the power of meditation at last years Transform conference in San Diego. Transform is a gathering of faith leaders invested in missional ministry. Conceivably, because there would be a lot of “doers” in attendance, the event’s organizers decided to build centering prayer into every plenary session. They even devoted a track to contemplative practices. After one session I was addicted.
In one of the workshops fellow Emerging Voice’s blogger, Teresa Pasquale, led us in a ten-minute silent meditation. As we closed in on ten minutes Teresa asked up to picture a flame, the single flame of a candle. The flame, she said, is God; or love; or spirit; or “that which lifts our face off the ground.” She told us to focus on the flame, to let it be a source of love and healing. Then she directed us to zoom out from the light. To pan back and notice who’s holding the candle.
At this point I remember thinking, “Let me guess, it’s Jesus…” But it wasn’t. It was me.
Whatever part of me still holds on to hope, still thinks I am worthy of love and belonging, still feels a sense of gifting and purpose; that part of me was holding the God-light.
A year later I am still processing this experience. I don’t always remember all the details, or take the leap that allows me to believe this was God speaking into my heart. But I remember how it felt.
Maybe we do all have the ability to be mystics. Maybe all it requires is carving out time for silence and being open to what arises. And maybe when we do, we come to know something of God.