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

CONTEMPLATIVE PROFILE: GREGORY THE GREAT ON “RESTING IN GOD”

You may have heard that St. Gregory the Great (c. 540 – 604) defined contemplation as “resting in God.” Indeed, this quote is posted on the home page of The Contemplative Writer! This snippet is a condensed version of what St. Gregory really said, and I thought we should take a look at the full statement. It’s a wonderfully nuanced description of just what “resting in God” really means:

But the contemplative life is: to retain indeed with all one’s mind the love of God and neighbor, but to rest from all exterior action, and cleave only to the desire of the Maker, that the mind may now take no pleasure in doing anything, but having spurned all cares, may be aglow to see the face of its Creator; so that it already knows how to bear with sorrow the burden of the corruptible flesh, and with all its desires to seek to join the hymn-singing choirs of angels, to mingle with the heavenly citizens, and to rejoice at its everlasting incorruption in the sight of God. (Source)

Note that for Gregory, resting in God means:

  • Cleaving to our Maker
  • Being aglow to see the Creator
  • Bearing the burdens of the flesh
  • Desiring heaven

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Gregory the Great (c. 540 – 604) was pope of the Catholic Church from 590 to 604. He was a contemplative, a missionary, a reformer, and a physician of souls. Read more here.

Reflection: How are prayer and contemplation like rest for you?

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…

 

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, 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 (@edcyzewski) to nominate your favorite articles, blog posts, and books by Thursday at noon each week.

 

Hygge: A Heart-warning Lesson from Denmark (found via Michelle DeRusha’s newsletter)

Not All Habits Are Equal (Just read a lot, ok?)

9 Practices for Post-Election Contemplative Resiliency  (Since we don’t have a time machine yet…)

How to NOT Be Driven by Your Aversions

Characteristics of Healthy Spirituality

 

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Learn how your support, through a one-time gift or small monthly gifts can keep this website running: Support Us Today

 

Featured Article: A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind

We have many, many ways to avoid being present in the moment. We can interrupt ourselves as often as we like. And now it appears that a Harvard study of happiness and contentment has linked these constant interruptions as detrimental to our happiness.

A wandering mind that isn’t focused or fully present for an activity or task is often an unhappy mind.

This shouldn’t be a surprise to Christians who practice contemplation, as mindfulness and awareness of our thoughts saves us from their tyranny and enables us to trust our worries and concerns with God.

However, it’s still helpful to see how the wisdom of our faith has strong backing from science:

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“A recent Harvard study reveals that stray thoughts and wandering minds are directly related to unhappiness. The study discovered that those with constantly wandering minds were less likely to be happy than those able to focus on the tasks at hand.”

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“Csikszentmihalyi, often called the grandfather of positive psychology, found that our happiest moments are when we are in the state of flow. In this state, we are highly alert. We are totally focused with one-pointed attention. This focus–this mindfulness of being in the moment–is when true happiness spontaneously arises.”

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“Flow allows you to truly and deeply live your life as it unfolds in the here and now. Perhaps this is why the latest research continues to confirm that mindfulness increases happiness–to be mindful is to truly experience life and make the most out of every moment.”

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Read more.

 

Scripture Meditation: Don’t Think Too Hard about It…

“The Lord knows people’s thoughts; he knows they are worthless! Joyful are those you discipline, Lord, those you teach with your instructions.”
– Psalm 94:11-12, NLT

What better motivation to pursue the silence and rest of contemplative prayer than to read that God knows our thoughts are worthless!

While there is a great deal in scripture that praises meditating on scripture and remembering God’s laws, this Psalm offers a reality check for the times when we rely on our own wisdom. Most importantly, we find that even when God sees our inadequacies and failures, he responds with mercy and instruction.

Even when God knows that we will fall short over and over again, he desires to give us the joy of his instruction and discipline. May we find God’s loving direction, even as we discover the folly of our wisdom.

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

featured-book-november-14

 

Contemplative Profile: Evelyn Underhill

Week Two: Contemplation and Action

Contemplative profiles are back with the help of author and historian Lisa Deam. This month we’re featuring Evelyn Underhill:

In Evelyn Underhill’s later works we see a theme that runs through the history of Christian contemplation: the dance of contemplation and action. Our private prayer life is important. In fact, Underhill says we must each be a “secret child of God.” Yet our prayers also open us to the larger purposes of God. We’re not merely fulfilled; we’re spilled out into the world.

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“For it is the self-oblivious gaze, the patient and disciplined attention to God, which deepens understanding, nourishes humility and love; and, by gentle processes of growth, gradually brings the creature into that perfect dedication to His purposes.” (Worship)

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“A real man or woman of prayer, then, should be a live wire, a link between God’s grace and the world that needs it . . .” (“Life as Prayer”)

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“We are transmitters as well as receivers. Our contemplation and our action, our humble self-opening to God, keeping ourselves sensitive to His music and light, and our generous self-opening to our fellow creatures, keeping ourselves sensitive to their needs, ought to form one life; mediating between God and His world, and bringing the saving power of the Eternal into time.” (Spiritual Life)

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Reflection

How can I be both a receiver and a transmitter of God’s love this week?

 

About Lisa Deam

Lisa Deam writes and speaks about Christian spiritual formation from a historical perspective. She’s the author of A World Transformed: Exploring the Spirituality of Medieval Maps. Visit her on Twitter @LisaKDeam and at lisadeam.com.