FEATURED BOOK: THE CLOUD OF UNKNOWING

Week Four: Letting God Take the Lead

Cloud of Unknowing cover

The Cloud of Unknowing is a 14th-century treatise that offers instruction to beginners in contemplative prayer. Throughout the book, the anonymous author reminds us that God gives us the gift of prayer.

How heartening this is! When we remember that God’s in charge, we don’t have to think we’re going to master prayer or even be very good at it. Even when we’re bumbling through it, maybe our desire is enough, or at least a start. Maybe we’re always beginners.

 

Without God’s intervention, no saint or angel would even think to desire contemplative love. I also believe our Lord deliberately chooses lifelong sinners to do this work, perhaps even more often than he selects others who have not grieved him as much.

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Contemplative prayer is a gift, no strings attached. God gives it to anyone he wants. You can’t earn it.

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When understood properly, prayer is nothing but an intense longing for God, nurturing everything good and removing everything evil.

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[K]now that God is the one who stirs your will and longing, all by himself, with no middle man. Nor does he need your help to do this. Don’t be afraid of the devil, either; he can’t come near you.

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I’ve been enjoying the Cloud of Unknowing in a newer translation that renders the text in a modern English idiom. Read more here.

For reflection:

Cloud quote - week 4

FEATURED BOOK: THE CLOUD OF UNKNOWING

Week 3: When You’re Distracted During Prayer

Cloud of Unknowing cover

The Cloud of Unknowing, a 14th-century treatise on contemplative prayer, introduces a subject that plagues us all — distractions. Medieval mystics and other giants of the Church speak of distractions a great deal — obviously it’s a prayer problem that’s always been around.

The 13th-century Dominican theologian St. Thomas Aquinas said, “a man can scarcely say the ‘Our Father’ without his mind wandering to other things.” The same is true, perhaps even truer, of contemplative prayer. So if you have trouble with distraction, take heart! You (and I) are not alone. The Cloud author gives us these tips for dealing with those pesky stray thoughts:

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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.

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When exhausted from fighting your thoughts, when you’re unable to put them down, fall down before them and cower like a captive or a coward overcome in battle. 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.

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I also believe that when this attitude is genuine, it’s nothing but seeing who you really are . . . This is humility. The good news is that humility gets God’s attention. He’ll descend to avenge you against your enemies. Swooping in, he will snatch you up and then gently dry your spiritual eyes . . .

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I’ve been enjoying the Cloud of Unknowing in a newer translation that renders the text in a modern English idiom. Read more here.

Reflection:

Cloud quote - week 3

BOOK OF THE MONTH: THE CLOUD OF UNKNOWING

Week Two: A Short Prayer Penetrates Heaven

Cloud of Unknowing cover

The modern Centering Prayer movement teaches practitioners to choose one word to say and focus on during prayer. This technique has its origins in The Cloud of Unknowing (among other historical works) — our featured book of the month.

I grew up listening to long and wordy prayers in church. But the Cloud‘s 14th-century author explains why short prayers can be better prayers. I especially like his colorful example of a person who uses one word to cry for help in the midst of a fire. Aren’t we all crying out for help when we pray?

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Contemplatives seldom use words when they pray, but if they do, they choose only a few, and the fewer the better. They prefer a short one-syllable word over a word with two syllables, because the spirit can best assimilate it.

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[I]f we pray intently to get anything good, we should cry out in word, thought, or longing nothing but this word—God, nothing else. No other words are needed; for God’s very nature is goodness, and he’s the source of everything good.

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Why does this short little prayer of one small syllable penetrate heaven? Because you pray it with all that you are and all that you can be . . . the deepest wisdom of your soul is contained in this single tiny word, which is long in feeling . . .

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When a person is terrified by a fiery catastrophe . . . they cry out for help. That’s obvious. But what do they say? I can promise you a person in danger won’t pray a long string of words or even a word of two syllables. Why not? When desperate, you’ve got no time to waste . . . you’ll scream ‘Fire!’ or ‘Help!’ and this one-word outburst works best.

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I’ve been enjoying the Cloud of Unknowing in a newer translation that renders the text in a modern English idiom. Read more here.

For Reflection

Cloud quote - week 2

BOOK OF THE MONTH: THE CLOUD OF UNKNOWING

Week One:Cloud of Unknowing cover
Prayer as Rest

The Cloud of Unknowing is a contemplative treatise written in the late 14th century. It forms the basis (along with a few other historical texts) of the modern Centering Prayer movement.

The Cloud‘s anonymous author was a monk or priest who addressed his treatise to a young disciple just setting out in a religious vocation. Although written in a monastic context, the Cloud (and its “sequel,” the Book of Privy Counsel), has advice for anyone who wants to pursue a life of prayer.

Reading the Cloud of Unknowing, I’m especially drawn to the author’s description of contemplative prayer as rest and even akin to sleep. I don’t know about you, but I think rest is something most of us need in a culture characterized by a lot of striving. Are you tired and anxious? The Cloud author writes:

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I . . . call [contemplative prayer] ‘rest’ for two reasons: When your soul is engaged in contemplation, it doesn’t feel worry or doubt. It’s totally at peace because it knows exactly what it’s supposed to do.

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It makes sense to compare the work of contemplation to sleep. When we’re asleep, the functions of our physical faculties are suspended so that our bodies can get complete rest. Sleep nourishes and strengthens our bodies in every way. The same is true of the spiritual ‘sleep’ of contemplative prayer. The stubborn questions of our restless spirituality and all our creative and rational thoughts are firmly bound and totally emptied, so the happy soul can sleep soundly, resting profoundly in the loving awareness of God as he is, completely nourished and strengthened in spirit.

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When you are seeking God, you won’t rest until you rest in him . . .

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I’ve been enjoying the Cloud of Unknowing in a newer translation that renders the text in a modern English idiom. Read more here.

For Reflection

Featured Book Cloud - week 1

Featured Book: Finding Grace at the Center

Week Three: Prayer without Judgment or Evaluation

finding-grace-at-centerIn Finding Grace at the Center: the Beginning of Centering Prayer, a collection of essays by M. Basil Pennington, Thomas Keating, and Thomas E. Clarke, Thomas Keating provides an extremely helpful introduction to centering prayer based on The Cloud of Unknowing, a Carthusian monk’s prayer guide for novices dated to around the 14th century.

Keating is especially careful to avoid overselling what “happens” during centering prayer. One may not expect incredible revelations or to even be fully in control of what happens during this prayer. Rather, intention becomes essential as we enter this form of prayer.

Keating writes:

 

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“[Centering prayer] is not an end in itself, but a beginning. It is not to be done for the sake of an experience, but for the sake of its fruits in one’s life.”

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“The presence of God is like the atmosphere we breathe. You can have all you want of it as long as you do not try to take possession of it and hang on to it.”

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“Accept each period of centering prayer as it comes, without asking for anything, having no expectations. In that way its fruits will grow faster.”

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“We always want to possess. That is why it is so hard to leg go–why we want to reflect on moments of deep peace or union in order to remember how we got there and thus how to get back. But charity is non-possessive. It gives all back to God as fast as it comes. It keeps nothing for itself.”

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“Take everything that happens during the periods of centering prayer peacefully and gratefully, without putting a judgment on anything, and just let the thoughts go by. It does not matter where they come from, as long as you let them go by. Don’t worry about them.”

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Read more…

 

Book of the Month: Finding Grace at the Center

finding-grace-at-centerWeek Two: Transformed in Silence

In Finding Grace at the Center: the Beginning of Centering Prayer, a collection of essays by M. Basil Pennington, Thomas Keating, and Thomas E. Clarke, M. Basil Pennington writes about the transformation that comes in the practice of centering prayer.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of centering prayer for those new to it is the manner in which God transforms our lives in silence. There is no way to measure or evaluate your progress in the moment.

The transformation of our lives happens gradually by faith, much like the way a branch that abides in its vine can grow fruit.

 

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“Perhaps in this prayer we will for the first time really act in pure faith. So often our faith is leaning on the concepts and images of faith. Here we go beyond them to the Object Himself of faith, leaving all the concepts and images behind.”

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“If we have lots of thoughts-good, lots of tension is being released; if we have few thoughts-good, there was no need for them… All these are purely accidental; they do not touch the essence of prayer, which goes on in all its purity, whether these be present or not.”

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“If we are faithful to this form of prayer, making it a regular part of our day, we very quickly come to discern-and often others discern it even more quickly-the maturing in our lives of the fruits of the Spirit.”

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“We begin… to experience the presence of God in all things, the presence of Christ in each person we meet. Moreover, we sense a oneness with them.”

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Read more…

 

For Reflection

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Book of the Month: Finding Grace at the Center

Week One: We Are Made to Love and to Be Loved

finding-grace-at-centerIn Finding Grace at the Center: the Beginning of Centering Prayer, a collection of essays by M. Basil Pennington, Thomas Keating, and Thomas E. Clarke, we find a brief and generally accessible (2 out of 3 essays at least) introduction to centering prayer and contemplation. The most important step at the outset is to reorient ourselves around God’s reality rather than our own.

We simply won’t proceed into centering prayer without accepting God’s love for us, learning to stop expending effort in order to pray, and stepping away from our many priorities and activities.

This opening essay by M. Basil Pennington offers several grounding statements that can provide the foundation we need to move forward into prayer:

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“We have been baptized into Christ. We are in some very real, though mysterious way, Christ, the Son of God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. ‘I live, now not I, but Christ lives in me’ (Gal. 2:20). As we go to the depths we realize in faith our identity with Christ the Son.”

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“In a movement of faith that includes hope and love, we go to the center and turn ourselves over to God in a simple ‘being there,’ in a presence that is perfect and complete adoration, response, love, and ‘Amen’ to that movement that we are in the Son to the Father.”

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“In practice most of us work as though God could not possibly get things done if we did not do them for Him. The fact is there is nothing that we are doing that God could not raise up a stone in the field to do for Him.”

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“No one else can give God our personal love. It is uniquely for this that He created us.”

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“If we expend great effort, then when it is done we can pat ourselves on the back and salute ourselves for our great accomplishment. This prayer leaves no room for pride. We have but to let go and let it be done unto us according to His revealed Word.”

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Read more…

 

For Reflection

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Featured Book: Everything Belongs

Week Five: Free from Fear

everything-belongs-rohrIn Everything Belongs,  Richard Rohr writes that we find freedom from our fears and anxious thoughts by facing them.

In this moment of awareness, we may find that our fears and wounds appear to be even worse than we have realized. There is no way around this. There is no way to avoid this.

As we face our thoughts, we will develop the capacity to trust in our crucified Lord who conquered all of suffering and death, identifying with our weaknesses and still rising to new life.

Much like the silent mystery of the Resurrection, our new life will come from God in ways that we cannot detect but that cannot be denied:

 

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“The wounds to our ego are our teachers and must be welcomed. They must be paid attention to, not litigated. How can a Christian look at the crucified and not get this essential point?”

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“A lot that’s called orthodoxy, loyalty, and obedience is grounded in fear. I do a lot of spiritual direction, and when I get underneath the language of orthodoxy and obedience, I find fear… We call it loyalty, but it’s often fear.”

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“Most people become their thoughts. They do not have thoughts and feelings; the thoughts and feelings have them… So we have to observe, but also not let the observer become an accusing tyrant.”

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“In the silence of contemplation, we will observe the process whereby we actively choose and create what we pay attention to. that’s why the first twenty minutes are usually so terrible.”

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“In reality our growth is hidden. It is accomplished by the release of our current defense postures, by the letting go of fear and our attachment to self-image. Thus, we grow by subtraction much more than by addition. It’s not a matter of more and better information.”

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For Reflection

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Featured Book: Everything Belongs

everything-belongs-rohrWeek Four: Finding God, Finding Ourselves

We have nothing to prove before God. We are loved today as we are, but there are many obstacles and distractions that keep us from becoming aware of God’s love and presence. Our false selves need to go because we alienate ourselves from others and from God as we fight to maintain that false image.

We can only face the barriers to God and to prayer if we venture into silence and solitude. These holy places free us from the control we attempt to assert over our lives.

In Everything Belongs, Richard Rohr writes about the union we can find with God if we pursue silence and solitude:

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We wait in silence. In silence all our usual patterns assault us. Our patterns of control, addiction, negativity, tension, anger, and fear assert themselves. That’s why most people give up rather quickly.

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“The desert is where we are voluntarily under-stimulated. No feedback. No new data. That’s why he says to go into the closet. That’s where we stop living out of other people’s response to us. We can then say, I am not who you think I am. Nor am I whom you need me to be. I’m not even who I need myself to be. I must be ‘nothing’ in order to be open to all of reality and new reality.”

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“You are in union. There is nothing to prove. Nothing to attain. Everything is already there. It is simply a matter of recognizing and honoring  and trusting. All spiritual disciplines exist to help you trust this personal experience of yourself, which is, not surprisingly, also an experience of God.”

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“Our fear is in the service of all the little ways we have learned to protect our false self. But love is who we really are. We’ll never see the love we really are, our foundation, if we keep living out of our false self of self-protection and overreaction.We must remember that ‘perfect love casts out all fear.'”

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“In contemplative prayer, we move into a different realm. It is not the arena of merit, of reward and punishment; it is the realm of pure grace and freedom.”

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Read more in Everything Belongs.

 

For Reflection

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Book of the Month: Everything Belongs

everything-belongs-rohrWeek Three: Real Freedom… from Ourselves…

 

What gets in the way of our freedom? Most of the time, we do!

In Everything Belongs, Richard Rohr writes about the way the ego, our desire to uphold our self images, and the ways that we judge others all can lead us away from our true selves, union with God, and union with others.

This week’s quotes include the following:

 

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“When we live out of the ego, we impose our demands on reality. But when we live in God’s presence, we await reality’s demands on us. “

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“As long as we are comparing and differentiating from the other, we can’t love the other. We judge it.”

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“Most don’t know how to surrender to God. How can we surrender unless we believe there is someone trustworthy out there to surrender to?”

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“We don’t live in our bodies where we can feel our own feelings and trust our own experience. Instead, through commercials and advertisements and jingles we live in images and appearances.”

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“I’ve seen far too many activists who are not the answer. Their head answer is largely correct but the energy, the style, and the soul are not.”

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Read more…

 

For Reflection

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