Tag Archives: contemplation

The Contemplative Way as a Practice in Death

by Drew Jackson

In William Shakespeare’s play Measure for Measure, it was Claudio who said, “Death is a fearful thing.” These words resonate with each of us in one way or another. We all have fears associated with death. Like the child who is afraid of the dark, we fear what we cannot see. We fear that which we cannot know for certain. Fear of the unknown causes us to have great anxiety at the thought of death.

Will the process be painful? Is there any life after death? How will I be remembered when I’m gone, if I’m even remembered at all? These are just a few of the questions that race through our minds when we are confronted with the thought of our own death.

Not only do we have fear of the unknown when it comes to death, but we also fear the loss of control. Death is the ultimate surrendering of control. It is the final act of letting go. This, however, is what causes us to fear because we like to grip tightly to life. We fear death because we don’t want to lose life. Yet it was Jesus who said, “If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it.”

This is the great paradox: that life best lived is lived as a series of losses, a series of deaths. Death is not meant to be a one time event at the end of life but, rather, a daily experience by which by which we learn to continually embrace the unknown, step into mystery, and release the need to control. The last words that Jesus breathed out as he hung on the cross were, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” However, we know that this committing or surrendering of the will to God, this death, was not just a one time act but, it was a moment by moment practice throughout the life of Jesus.

The practices of contemplative spirituality, such as silence, solitude, and stillness, make space for us to learn this type of surrender in the midst of our daily lives. Thus, the contemplative way is a practice in “death.” If you have ever witnessed the moment of death you know that death is ultimately silent, still, and alone. The practices of contemplative spirituality prepare us for this. The contemplative way thrusts us into the beautiful struggle of embracing the unknown and losing the need to control.

In silence and solitude we confront our fear of the unknown because we are forced to come face to face with ourselves. We fear what we cannot see or discern, and most of us live without being able to see what lies beneath the surface of our own lives.

We often drown ourselves in noise and busy ourselves with activity because we don’t know what we will discover if we are left to our own selves and our own thoughts. Yet it is when we come to see ourselves that we learn what must metaphorically, die. The Apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:31, “I die every day.” The death he was referring to was the death of what he often called the flesh, or what the mystics call the false self or the shadow self. When we adopt contemplative practices as regular parts of our lives, we are taught how to welcome death to our false self, instead of resist it.

Both Scripture and nature teach us that death is the pathway to life.

Jesus said in John 12:24, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Without death there can be no life. Learning to practice death through contemplation teaches us what it looks like to live, and live fruitfully. The fruit that results from death to the false self is rarely, if ever, for us, but it is for others to experience life. The Apostle Paul speaks to this when he says in 2 Corinthians 4:12, “death is at work in us, but life in you.” This is the story of the Christian gospel, that death for Jesus meant life for the world. When the gospel becomes a lived reality in our lives, we practice death so that others can experience life.

To some, pondering death seems morbid, but Scripture teaches us that in doing so there is wisdom to be found. This is because pondering and practicing death teaches us how to live. Death shows all of us that we are finite and have limitations. When we learn to practice death through contemplative practice we develop the ability to see our manifold limitations. The practices of silence, stillness, and solitude help us learn that we cannot control everything, and they invite us to practice death by embracing our limitations.

William Shakespeare famously said in his play Julius Caesar, “A coward dies a thousand times before his death, but the valiant taste of death but once.” In making comment on this quote in his book A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway says: 

(The man who first said that) was probably a coward…. He knew a great deal about cowards but nothing about the brave. The brave dies perhaps two thousand deaths if he’s intelligent.

I stand in agreement with Hemingway in saying that wisdom is found in learning to die many deaths. Contemplative spirituality invites us to be those who can say, “every day I die a thousand deaths.” This is wisdom. This, indeed, is life.

Death and resurrection are not reserved for the end of life. Both realities are meant to be experienced every moment. The practices of contemplative spirituality are given to us as gifts that lead us into dying a thousand deaths each day.

As we learn to practice death by way of contemplation, death at the end of life is no longer a fear, but is received as the next logical step. Death is no longer an unknown for us because we already know that life comes through the process of death. We will have lived that reality each day.

At the end of life we will no longer fear the loss of control because we know that the loss of control leads to true rest in God. As we learn death through contemplative practice, we experience afresh what life is like connected to the Source. Contemplation teaches us to die to the desire to go our own way, and to embrace the continual invitation to return to God.

All that death is, finally, is a return to the Source, our final return to God.


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Drew Jackson serves as the Associate Pastor at GraceWay Community Church. He is also a part of the Lausanne Movement. He lives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania with his wife Genay, and their two beautiful daughters Zora and Suhaila. 

Questions > Answers.

By George Mekhail 

 

I have changed a lot over the past 18 months. I’ve deconstructed much of my worldview and consider the journey as just getting started. I am a heretic, a pirate and a mystic. I used to see things very differently than I see them today, and I hope that this process of change, growth and evolution only continues. I cannot deny that what I’ve experienced has been healthy.

I often ask myself how I got here, why I’m here and if it’s a good thing that I’m here. I talk to myself more and more these days. I ask: what factors lead to my spiritual curiosity, what moments shaped my trajectory and what common thread has been there throughout? Do I like me more or less? Do I allow others to define me or do I find my value and worth in Eternal things?

I’m learning that asking questions is far more important than answering questions. This is one of the most valuable lessons that contemplation has taught me on my journey.

Let’s be honest: on the surface, answering questions is way more fun than asking questions. If I am answering a question, I am the center of attention. I am on the conclusive side of the discussion. I am in control. But, if I am asking a question, I am deflecting attention. I am teeing up the discussion, for better or worse. I am releasing control. Asking a question opens things up and possibilities abound. Answering a question shuts things down, declaring alternative possibilities irrelevant.

Now there is obviously a time to answer questions, I’m not anti-answers. But I would describe this pivot towards more question asking and less question answering as the largest contributor to this current season of peace in my life. A paradoxically difficult season, filled with extremely challenging days, betrayals, insecurity and instability. But despite the external factors that might be perceived as negative, contemplative practice helps me count them as blessings.

A few weeks back, after some time in reflection, I started to realize that I was feeling misunderstood. I’m not sure if that’s common or not, but this came to light in a recent session with Phileena, my spiritual director. She proceeded like she often does, by asking me to “withhold judgement, consider how it feels to be misunderstood.”

If you’re like me, that is a difficult question. I’m generally unaware of my feelings, often preferring solutions to stillness. So if I feel misunderstood, my next step is typically to ramp up efforts to deliver clarity so I can be understood. Boom. Problem solved, question answered. No feelings necessary.

Except when it doesn’t go down that way. Which is more often the case. It starts a fruitless cycle of frustration which does not satisfy the soul. Even if I successfully deliver clarity, I never actually dealt with the ramifications of feeling misunderstood.

That’s why I love the phrase “without judgement.” Phileena always emphasizes this part of the process, and it took me a while to see its real value. But in my desire to explore why I’m feeling misunderstood, the temptation is to offer simplistic answers which carry unhelpful judgements like “because ‘Nikole’ just doesn’t get it” or “because I haven’t spent enough time explaining my idea to ‘Nikole’.”

In my case, feeling misunderstood requires me to actually FEEL misunderstood.

That’s a huge step. To feel our feelings instead of merely talking about them.

 

Then a deep breath.

 

Man. I feel really misunderstood.

 

Now, without judgement. {I’m not mad, upset, disappointed, proud of myself/others for this feeling. This feeling simply is my experience.}

I am now aware of this feeling. I acknowledge it, I welcome it, I learn to integrate it – without judgement – into my present circumstance.

How does this feeling of being misunderstood relate to my ego? What other questions does this reveal and how do they reveal the unconscious patterns I operate out of daily?

 

Another deep breath.

 

I don’t want to oversimplify a contemplative process that actually requires a lot of hard work. Adopting a contemplative stance in life is like working out, studying for an exam or investing in a relationship. It requires focus and commitment. But the fruit is incredible. Instead of reacting to life, we learn to respond. Reacting generates a lot of contraction. Responding generates expansiveness.

Instead of relentlessly pursuing to deliver answers, I’m learning to reach out and claim the gift of more questions–which have turned out to be critical to my growth. Questions develop our awareness. Furthermore, questions acknowledge that no matter how much “Nikole” doesn’t get it, her experience is also her experience and it carries its own validity.

Contemplation is teaching me that questions are greater than answers, because questions lead to more meaningful connection to myself, to God and to others.

 


GM_blogpic2George Mekhail has been serving as the Executive Pastor at EastLake Community Church since July 2011. He is also the Chair of the Board for Gravtity, a Center for Contemplative Activism. He lives in Bothell, Washington with his wife Danielle, and their two beautiful children, Kingston and Saxyn. He has a deep set love for his family and makes it a goal in life to show up for them. 

When Life is Like a Jar of Mekong River Water

by Craig Greenfield


The Mekong is a broad brown river that runs through Cambodia and Vietnam. Craig Greenfield, a veteran of Cambodian slums and inner city ministry explains in his new book, Subversive Jesus, how a jar of Mekong River water helped him find the balance between activism and contemplation. This is an excerpt…


At first the water in the jar looked murky and muddy. But when I placed the jar on a table, the silt in the water gradually sank to the bottom of the jar.

As soon as I picked it up, everything churned up again, but the longer I left it in stillness, the clearer the water became.

In the same way, I sensed God calling me to rest in him and his peace. I heard his gentle whisper, “Be still and know that I am God.” In silence and solitude with God, I knew that my heart, mind and soul would settle and clear.

As Phileena Heuertz has said, “Through activism we confront toxicity in our world, through contemplation we confront it in ourselves.”

For years, I had pursued the heart of God through activism in the slums of the world. The subversive Jesus I had come to know and love had placed a youthful passion in my heart for justice and the poor. But I had come close to burning myself out by pursuing his Upside-Down Kingdom in my own strength.

Now, God was subverting my drivenness and destabilizing my arrogance by calling me back to the very things that would give me the power to continue for the long haul. In this complex dance between contemplation and action, I had been out of step too many times to mention, each foot tripping over the other. But it was a dance that I needed to stumble my way through.

Mother Teresa, who probably knew better than most what it meant to be a contemplative activist, said, “We need to find God, and God cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature—trees, flowers, grass—grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence…We need silence to be able to touch souls.”

This is not about external silence, which Mother Teresa would not have found in Kolkata, but rather an internal slowing down in order to become aware of God’s presence.

Evenings at our community home in the Downtown Eastside can feel overwhelming and out of control. Some of our homeless friends smell of the streets and unwashed socks. Many who are consumed by their addictions or mental illness have lost interest in personal hygiene. Some do not know what it means to talk quietly, including my own children—and my wife Nay says they get it from me.

But regardless of what might have happened during our often chaotic house during the evening—whether a spontaneous jam session on the guitars, or the painful detoxing of someone withdrawing from crack—at nine o’clock, everyone knows that it is our community’s time to gather for listening prayer.

Drawing on the rich prayer tradition of St. Ignatius, we seek silence in the cloister within our hearts. Through Ignatius, we have learned that we don’t have to retreat to a monastery to find space for prayer, but can be in silence together and become aware of God’s presence right in the midst of our chaotic inner city neighbourhood.

And in that place of inner silence, we invite God to shine light on our day.

The churned up water of our hearts slowly clears.


 

CraigCraig Greenfield is the author of Subversive Jesus: an adventure in justice, mercy and faithfulness in a broken world.

Craig is the founder and director of Alongsiders International, a grassroots movement working in a number of Asian and African countries, equipping young people to walk alongside those who walk alone – vulnerable children in their own communities.

there are no dead ends, only a clearly defined path

Walking the Labyrinth

by Kathy Mansfield

 

 What is the Labyrinth?

The labyrinth is not a maze. The labyrinth is an ancient spiritual tool—a single path of prayer and meditation leading to a center and returning back. Unlike a maze—there are no dead ends, only a clearly defined path.

Labyrinths are thought to enhance right brain activity. Whereas a maze is constructed to be a left-brain puzzle.

A maze can have more than one entrance and numerous choices along the way. The walls are usually high so as to block one from seeing the way out. Mazes were developed as a source of entertainment. Labyrinths are tools for spiritual renewal.

Walking the labyrinth is a form of contemplative prayer that can bring one closer to God, and to self. Because it utilizes the mind, body and soul, it can help with healing, grief, forgiveness, gratitude, prayer and creativity. 

The labyrinth journey quiets the mind as it removes us from the distractions of daily life. In so doing it allows us to reflect, receive, and be renewed.  The inward and outward turns, symbolize our path through life and our spiritual journey. We appear to reach our destination, only to find that we still have a long way to go

“The labyrinth is an archetype, a divine imprint, found in all religious traditions in various forms around the world. …We [people who use and work with labyrinths] are rediscovering a long-forgotten mystical tradition that is insisting to be reborn.” 

-Lauren Artress, Walking the Sacred Path

 Why Walk the Labyrinth?

For some, walking the labyrinth is a way to relax and to meditate, but for others, it is a highly spiritual experience.  For these people, modern day pilgrims, the walk, the journey to the center and back, is a metaphor not only for their journey through life but for their faith journey. On the labyrinth they learn to trust God, to seek His wisdom, and to hear His voice. It is a way to reconnect with our inner Spirit, to go within, to hear the voice of God.

 The world surrounds us. Noise and busyness, abound. Finding time to be still and seek God is becoming harder and harder. The labyrinth is an ancient spiritual tool that can help us “reconnect” to the Spirit within and to feel God’s presence in the midst of this chaotic world. The labyrinth is truly a gift to us from the past.

What Can the Labyrinth Do for Me?

I once stood in wonder as I observed a young girl who was walking the labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral in June 2009.  As I watched her journey into the labyrinth, barefooted, I was amazed at the reverence with which she took each step.  Much to my amazement, when she arrived at the center she started to pray each petal of the center rose.  She got it!

How could such a young girl know how special, how mystical, the Chartres labyrinth is?

I could sense her connection with God, and I could imagine a ray of light illuminating her face; God shining Divine light down from the heavens on her because her prayer was so humble, so intense, so pure, telling her, “My daughter, with you I am well pleased.”  I felt voyeuristic watching this deeply personal and spiritual moment, yet I could not take my eyes off of her until after she had completed her walk.

Later, after I was finished writing in my journal, I saw her with her grandfather at the exit. Had he shared the secrets of walking the labyrinth and praying the center with her?  I do not know.  However, I do know that this image of  “The Girl Praying the Center” is forever etched on my mind.  I will never again walk the labyrinth without thinking of her and her Divine connection. As Thomas Keating once said,

“A single moment of divine union is more valuable than a long period of prayer during which you are constantly in and out of interior silence. It only takes a moment for God to enrich you.”

-Thomas Keating

Don’t you long for this too?  To feel God’s presence in your life once again (or perhaps for the first time)?  The labyrinth, an ancient, spiritual tool, can help you do just that. All it takes is a few minutes of your time.  Are you willing to take the first step?   As St. Augustine said,

“Solvitur Amublando – It is solved by walking.”

Kathy Mansfield is an Advanced, Certified Veriditas Labyrinth Facilitator. She trained under Lauren Artress, the founder of Veriditas.

As a facilitator, Kathy offers monthly walks to the formerly homeless in Charlotte and has seen the impact this type of spiritual practice has on those that have faced difficult situations in their lives. She has seen their transformation of spirit.  Kathy also facilitates walks for her church, women’s conferences, retreats, retirement communities, survivors of domestic violence, and for whomever calls her and asks for her help.  Kathy works with several groups to help them determine what type, size, style of labyrinth to build.

Kathy is also an artist, a photographer that uses her photos to create meditative moments.  She also creates Gratitude Beads that you can carry with you throughout the day. Every time you are feeling grateful for someone or for something you can pull one of the beads forward. At the end of the day, you can look at your Gratitude Beads and be reminded of all of your blessings.

If you would like more information or are interested in Gratitude Beads, email Kathy at  Heron39@aol.com.

Charlotte Labyrinths, Spiritual Labyrinths | Labyrinths in Charlotte, NC