BOOK OF THE MONTH: REVELATIONS OF DIVINE LOVE

Week One: Clinging to God’s Goodness

All Shall Be WellIn the late 14th century, the English anchoress Julian of Norwich wrote her influential book, The Revelations of Divine Love. The book is based on a series of visions Julian received, and its stated purpose is to reveal the divine will, which is to love and know God. The Revelations has become a Christian classic for its unique theological and spiritual insights into God’s love.

In her book, Julian has many things to say about prayer. In the first revelation, Julian writes that prayer is more of an attitude than a set of techniques. I find this encouraging, because it means that we don’t have to approach prayer with a lot of bells and whistles. Clinging to the fullness of God is, Julian says, the “truest form of prayer.”

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What came to mind next was the way we pray: in our ignorance and incomprehension of love, we use many methods for asking God what we want. But I realized now that God is worshiped—and delighted—when we simply turn to the Divine One, trusting totally in that Unity* and clinging to Divine grace.

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Even if we were to practice all the prayer techniques ever used, they would never be enough to connect our souls to God with utter wholeness and fullness, for God’s goodness is the entire whole of reality, a unity that lacks absolutely nothing. By focusing our attention here—on the absolute Unity that never fails—we achieve the truest form of prayer.

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Resting in this Unity is the highest prayer, and it reaches down to our deepest needs. It brings our souls to life; it brings us more of life’s fullness; and our lives expand with grace and strength.

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*Note: In this edition of the Revelations, Julian’s word “goodness” is translated as “unity” to express the idea of the fullness of God, the way he encompasses every part of creation.

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Julian of Norwich (1342 – c. 1416) was an English visionary, mystic, anchoress, and writer. Read about her here.

I’ve been enjoying the Divine Revelations in a modern translation entitled All Shall Be Well.

For reflection:

Julian of Norwich - week 1

BOOK OF THE MONTH: BEFRIENDING SILENCE

Week Four: The Community of Prayer

Befriending Silence

Reading Carl McColman’s Befriending Silence, I found the two biggest takeaways to be the importance of living a life in community and a life of prayer. These two ways of life might at first seem like opposites. Contemplative prayer, after all, is often undertaken in solitude. If we happen to be writers, we spend even more time alone!

Yet McColman reminds us that prayer, even silent prayer, makes us part of a larger community. This is a gift and, for non-monastics, sometimes a challenge. Here’s what McColman has to say about community:

The Cistercian way of life rests on the idea that spirituality needs community.

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Monks and nuns enjoy the support of a community that prays together multiple times every day, where everyone is expected to take part in the liturgy in a public way. Those of us who are not monastics . . . do not have an abbot or abbess who will check up on us if we start skipping prayers, so we have to be truly intentional about our decision to make prayer a priority.

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Christian prayer always has a communal or social dimension to it, even when we pray in solitude . . . Prayer makes a difference in our lives, not just in terms of personal spiritual growth but also as a means by which we discover God’s love and compassion expressed for the world.

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When we pray for our family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, our community and nation, as well as our adversaries, enemies, competitors and opponents, the space to slowly, gradually grow in compassion and love opens within us.

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Read more here.

For reflection:

McColman Week 4

CONTEMPLATIVE PROFILE: CATHERINE OF SIENA ON CONTEMPLATION AND ACTION

This month we’ve been looking at the letters of the 14th-century mystic and reformer Catherine of Siena. In a letter to a Dominican laywoman, Catherine writes a wonderful passage on the melding of contemplation and action. She doesn’t mince words when describing how Christians are to behave. Loving our neighbor, Catherine says, is the only proper response to God’s love for us:

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You know that every virtue receives life from love, and love is gained in love, that is, by raising the eye of our intellect to consider how much we are loved by God . . . Loving God we embrace virtue out of love, and we despise vice out of hatred.

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So you see that it is in God that we conceive virtues and in our neighbors that we bring them to birth. You know indeed that you give birth to the child charity that is in your soul in order to answer your neighbor’s need; and that you give birth to patience when your neighbor does you harm. You offer prayer for all your neighbors, and particularly for the one who has wronged you. This is the way we ought to behave . . .

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Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) was a member of the Dominican Order of Penance. She was a mystic, a reformer, and an adviser to popes. Her written work includes over 300 letters and a contemplative treatise, The Dialogue. Read more here.

Read Catherine’s letters here.

BOOK OF THE MONTH: BEFRIENDING SILENCE

Week 3: Letting Go
Befriending Silence

In Befriending Silence, Carl McColman explores three kinds of monastic prayer that can help us today. In previous posts, we looked at the gifts of lectio divina and the Divine Office. We now turn our attention to contemplative (silent) prayer.

Contemplative prayer gives us much-needed peace and inner rest. When we pray in silence before God, McColman says, “The Holy Spirit invites us to gently set aside our attachments to our interior drama so that we might rest in God’s unchanging stability.”

Since it is mostly without words or particular agendas, contemplative prayer offers an additional benefit that can also be a challenge: letting go of our all-pervasive need for control.

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Contemplation challenges us not only as individuals but as a society because ours is a society that rewards assertive, take-charge, type A behavior, and we want to do spirituality in the same way.

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Think of it this way: every conversation requires both speaking and listening, otherwise it is one-sided. The Divine Office and other verbal prayers invite us to speak to God, while contemplation gives us the space to listen.

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Contemplative prayer fosters an inner spirit of acceptance and receptivity. It reminds us that we are not in the driver’s seat when it comes to prayer (or indeed any aspect of spiritual living). When we pray in silence, we actually embody humility in our prayer. We make ourselves available to God but without presuming to tell God what we want to have happen or what we think should happen. Rather, we shut up and let God take the lead.

Read more.

For reflection:

McColman - week 3

CONTEMPLATIVE PROFILE: PRAYING WITH CATHERINE OF SIENA

St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) was a compassionate spiritual adviser and encourager. Interestingly, she dispensed much of her advise in writing, in the form of letters. Sometimes she wrote to popes and other rulers, sometimes to simple religious folk like herself.

In a letter to her niece, who was a nun, Catherine describes three kinds of prayer. It’s helpful to take a look at her taxonomy. Note: what Catherine calls “mental prayer” (below) appears to be akin to contemplative or silent prayer:

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Prayer is of three kinds. The first is unceasing: it is a holy constant desire which prays in the sight of God, no matter what you are doing . . . The glorious saint Paul seemed to be referring to this when he urged: “Pray constantly” (1 Thes 5:17).

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The second kind is vocal prayer: you engage in this when you say the office or other prayers aloud.

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This is meant to bring you to the third kind, namely, mental prayer. Your soul reaches this kind of prayer through the use of vocal prayer with prudence and humility, so that while the tongue speaks, the heart is not far from God. And when you perceive that God is visiting your mind so that it is drawn in any way to think of its Creator, you ought to abandon vocal prayer and to fix your mind with great love on God’s visitation.

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A bit more on mental prayer:

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[The soul] rises above herself, that is, above the gross impulse of the senses, and with angelic mind is united with God in intense love. By the light of her intellect she sees and knows, and she clothes herself with truth, becoming the sister of the angels.

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Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) was a member of the Dominican Order of Penance. She was a mystic, a reformer, and an adviser to popes. Her written work includes over 300 letters and a contemplative treatise, The Dialogue. Read more here.

Read Catherine’s letters here.

Reflection: Do you practice all three kinds of prayer mentioned by Catherine of Siena?

FEATURED ARTICLE: IN PRAISE OF SOLITUDE

Recently I’ve seen a spate of articles praising solitude. As the mother of two young children, I was drawn to these essays like a magnet; solitude can be hard to come by in my house! I’m not alone (no pun intended) in this reaction. Many people believe that our society’s over-emphasis on social interaction is wreaking havoc on our well-being.

If you’re part of The Contemplative Writer community, you probably know the benefits of solitude when praying (corporate prayer aside) and doing creative work. It turns out that scientific achievement requires solitude, too. Even business executives are being told to protect their alone time. New studies affirm that solitude changes our brainsin a good way. Being alone in nature, for example, decreases our propensity to self-criticize and increases our attention spans and our sense of contentment.

In an article in  The Walrus, author Michael Harris explores solitude, including some fascinating history on wilderness treks and urbanization. The article largely concerns the importance of going out into nature; the underlying assumption is that this will be or can be an activity taken in glorious solitude.

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[A]t Stanford University, study participants had their brains scanned before and after walking in grassy meadows and then beside heavy car traffic. Participants walking in urban environments had markedly higher instances of “rumination”—a brooding and self-criticism the researchers correlated with the onset of depression. And, just as parts of the brain associated with rumination lit up on urban walks, they calmed down during nature walks.

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Outside the maelstrom of mainstream chatter, we at last meet not just the bigger world but also ourselves . . . This is the gift of even a short, solitary walk in a city park. To find, in glimpsing a sign of the elements, that one does belong to something more elemental than an urban crowd. That there is a universe of experience beyond human networks and social grooming—and that this universe is our true home.

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To walk out of our houses and beyond our city limits is to shuck off the pretense and assumptions that we otherwise live by. This is how we open ourselves to brave new notions or independent attitudes. This is how we come to know our own minds.

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Virginia Woolf noted that even the stuff and furniture of our homes may “enforce the memories of our own experience” and cause a narrowing, a suffocating effect. Outside of our ordered homes, though, we escape heavy memories about the way things have always been and become open to new attitudes.

 

But there does seem to be an art to walks; we must work at making use of those interstitial moments. Going on a hike, or even just taking the scenic route to the grocery store, is a chance to dip into our solitude—but we must seize it. If we’re compelled by our more curious selves to walk out into the world—sans phone, sans tablet, sans Internet of Everything—then we still must decide to taste the richness of things.

Read this article in The Walrus.

FRIDAY FAVORITES FOR PRAYER AND WRITING

Each Friday I share some of my favorite finds related to praying or writing. If I think it could help you pray or write better, or just “be” better, then I’ll include it below.

Do you have someone else’s article or post to share? Join the Contemplative Writers Facebook group, comment on today’s post on my Facebook page, or follow me on Twitter (@LisaKDeam) to nominate your favorite articles, blog posts, and books by Thursday at noon each week.

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Warming Up to Prayer via Tammy Perlmutter (in which Buffy the Vampire Slayer makes an appearance)

A Contemplative Faith – With a Gaelic Accent! via Carl McColman

The Books That Made Your Favorite Writers Want to Write via Emily Temple (some surprising choices here!)

When Writing Is Actually About Waiting via Joe Fassler

Why I Said Yes to a Part-Time Job (Or, Let’s Talk Real About the Creative Life) via Michelle DeRusha

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