Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Be Still

Everybody’s talking about meditation (wait, is “talking about meditation” an oxymoron?). Well, not everybody—but I have been hearing about it from fairly
disparate sources.

Russell Simmons has a new book entitled Success Through Stillness: Meditation Made Simple. Simmons is a very successful businessman who has found meditation helpful and believes that the practice can make anyone more successful. In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that I have not read the book. I did, however, hear Simmons being interviewed about the book on Morning Joe and I read an article on Huffington Post that Simmons wrote about his book (he was also interviewed about it on FOX News, so it’s a bipartisan subject).

Simmons maintains that sitting quietly for twenty minutes twice each day will make you a better person. In the Huffington Post article, he said that meditation will make you better balanced, less anxious, more connected, more productive, and healthier. His points are all valid. While Simmons came to meditation through the practice of yoga and apparently comes at it from no particular religious perspective, he does say that an emphasis on stillness is found in all religions.

The irony in Russell Simmons promoting the stillness and quiet of meditation is that he made his professional mark promoting noise and activity; he was one of the founders of Def Jam Recordings, a record label that for thirty years has promoted and produced mainly hip hop music, most fans of which play it very loud, much like I do my beloved rock & roll. Who ever thought that self-inflicted deafness would promote inter-generational and cross-cultural cohesion?

While I have no doubt that meditation is of benefit to anyone who practices it, I want to advocate for a particularly Christian practice of meditation.

In the March 5, 2014 issue of Christian Century, pastor Peter Traben Haas has an article entitled “Contemplative Congregation: An Invitation to Silence” in which he writes about how he has been leading the Westminster Presbyterian Church of Waterloo, Iowa toward adopting contemplative practices. Haas sounds like Russell Simmons when he writes, “Pastors are apprehensive about how to ‘be Christian’ and ‘do church.’ I am certain that this apprehension dissipates with a twice-a-day meditative prayer practice”; mediation, then, will make pastors less anxious and more effective in their work. While Haas in those sentences focuses on the value of meditation for pastors, his article is really about its value for all Christians.

Haas’s approach to meditation differs from that of Simmons, which is not surprising given that Simmons writes to a general audience and Haas to a Christian one. The form of meditation recommended by Haas is centering prayer. While Simmons encourages us to focus on the silence, Haas says, “In other forms of meditation we focus on a word or on the silence, while in centering prayer we consent to God’s presence. Our goal is not to have no thoughts or to continuously say a certain word but to consent to the presence of the Spirit of God in the silence.” In centering prayer we still sit in silence but whenever our thoughts wander from God we repeat a chosen word such as “Jesus,” “grace,” “love,” or “Abba” until we are focused again.

As Haas points out, being alone, still, and silent in the presence of God is encouraged in the Bible: See, for examples, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10) and “Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (Matthew 6:6).

The point of Christian meditation in the form of centering prayer is not to give us an escape from the world; it is rather to cultivate within us a place where we are always aware of the presence of God as we go about living our lives. Writer Ronald Rolheiser puts it well:

Solitude … is a form of awareness. It’s a way of being present and perceptive within all of life. It’s having a dimension of reflectiveness in our daily lives that brings with it a sense of gratitude, appreciation, peacefulness, enjoyment, and prayer. It’s the sense, within ordinary life, that life is precious, sacred, and enough.
How do we foster solitude? How do we get a handle on life so it doesn’t just suck us through? How do we begin to lay a foundation for prayer in our lives?
The first step is to “put out into the deep” by remaining quietly in God’s presence in solitude, in silence, in prayer.
[Prayer: Our Deepest Longing (Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 2013)]

The goal of the Christian life is to walk humbly with our God. In preparing for last Sunday’s sermon, I rediscovered the fact that in the biblical story of Noah, the great ark-builder never says a word. Noah was the great person of faith that he was because he listened to God and, when he heard from God, he obeyed God.

Taking a couple of times a day to practice Christian meditation in the form of centering prayer is a wonderful way to learn to listen; as we learn to be still in God’s presence and to listen to God in those moments of silence, we will become more and more able to be still and to listen all the time …

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