Praxis: an introduction to Contemplative spirituality and practice

Christ Church: Portland has recently launched a monthly contemplative gathering called Praxis. To stay up to date about our schedule and content, check out our Facebook page for more information. If you missed our most recent gathering, check out the video below. Also, here are some reflections from our very own Ali Moore…

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So, first of all, Contemplation. What do we mean by it? Broadly speaking, it is any practice that help us silence our minds and to open ourselves to the Presence of God, or the ground of all being as Paul Tillich called it, or whatever term works best for you. As you can see in the visual of the Tree of Contemplative Practices, there are many roots and branches that count. In this first six months we are going to dive deeper into a few of them.

We will draw primarily from the Western Christian tradition. But we will also pull from other wisdom traditions as we continue through this series. Our aim is to set a table and try various approaches so that each of us can find practices that resonate for us and that we can support each other to maintain.

Each gathering we’ll spend time together learning about a contemplative approach. Then we’ll practice together for 10-20 minutes. After we close the practice, we’ll check in. Each week we will post resources for our community so we can deepen our study and practice in the time between gatherings.

We encourage everyone to set a time and space to practice at home. Most spiritual masters, from Father Thomas Keating to Sakyong Rimpoche will tell you that 20 minutes twice a day is optimal. The greatest benefit, however, comes from maintaining a consistent practice, even if only for 10 minutes a day as often as you can.

Contemplative practice gradually changes us. It makes us less reactive, more grounded, more loving people who are then more able to act in the world in ways that are consistent with our beliefs.

So – this month’s teaching is to give us a dive into the western Christian tradition. Much of our material is drawn from Father Richard Rohr and one of his friends Father Thomas Keating. Many of you are familiar with Rohr’s teachings. But for those of you who aren’t, he is a Franciscan priest in Albuquerque who founded the Center for Action and Contemplation. He has written a number of excellent books. In particular on this subject is The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics Seeand Just This. And I encourage all of you who don’t already get Rohr’s Daily Meditations as an email to sign up. We will note all of these resources on our community site.

Father Thomas Keating, who died recently at the age of 95, was a Trappist monk known globally for his writing and teaching on contemplative prayer.

What is the background of contemplation in Christianity?

In Fr Thomas Keating’s book, Open Mind, Open Heart: 20thAnniversary Edition, he said, “a positive attitude towards contemplation characterized the first 15 centuries of the Christian era. A negative attitude has prevailed from the 16thcentury onward.”

He offers this example from the sixth century:  Gregory the Great described contemplation as the knowledge of God that is impregnated with love… it is a Resting in God. In this resting or stillness the mind and heart are not actively seeking Him but are beginning to experience, to taste, what they have been seeking. This places them in a state of tranquility and profound interior peace. This state is not the suspension of all action, but the mingling of a few simple acts of will to sustain one’s attention to God with the loving experience of God’s presence. (. 141)

Brief History of Christianity:

  • 313:  Emperor Constantine converts to Christianity, so the religion is aligned with Roman imperial power

  • 1054: Great Schism - Patriarch of Greek Church splits with Rome; end of the one holy undivided church; West stopped studying the eastern (desert) fathers and mothers, who represented the contemplative, more mystical tradition in Christianity; that tradition stayed more alive in Eastern Orthodox church

  • Pre-literate Christians depended largely upon art to tell the story, more room for mystery

  • Codependency of clergy and laity due to illiteracy gave clergy power to control story

  • The Protestant Reformation affected only about a half or ¼ of the whole church. The Reformation rightly challenged Rome on many issues, but one can see a deepening either/or mentality as fighting over doctrine led to the further splitting into multiple denominations, something we see continuing today.

  • St Ignatias of Loyola with his lectio divina and Mystics like St John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila and others kept the contemplative tradition alive,

  • (Fascinating that it wasn’t until 1850 that the Pope was declared infallible in Rome and that the Bible was deemed inerrant in U.S. South - very legalistic). Clearly modern western Christianity needs contemplative practice to help the mind lose its judgmentalism

Beginning after WWII and quickening during the 1960’s many people in the west searched in the eastern meditative traditions – it is a sign of a spiritual hunger, according to Father Keating. Reviving the Christian contemplative practices can feed that hunger for genuine spiritual experience beyond the mind. It was in the late 60s that Keating and others began to develop practices around what they call Centering Prayer.

We’ll go deeper with Centering Prayer as our gatherings continue – and you can try it on your own if you want to. We’ll post guidance.

So according to Father Rohr, here are some notes from a recent gathering we participated in last November at the Center for action and Contemplation::

  • We need to change the way we see the world through contemplation.

  • Our default way of looking at the world, and of experiencing the world is dualism in the mind: either/or thinking

  • We tend to look at the world as good/bad, right/wrong, gay/straight, black/white, all sorts of binaries and rigidities in our ways of thinking which play out in the way we approach life

  • If something is familiar, we think it’s true; if it’s unfamiliar it feels false or makes us fearful

  • Christians not trained to critique their own thinking; people look more to their culture than to the Bible to find “truth” but they don’t see their own bias.

  • The “shedding of thoughts” taught by the desert fathers and mothers is akin to the Buddhist concepts of detachment, to get the mind out of control so we can directly experience god

  • One must die to one’s own agenda, conclusions, and ideas to be open to God (log removal as Adam shared). Spiritual truths are known only by experience (through prayer/contemplation), not observation

  • Eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is certain death because it creates the separation, the dualism which keeps us from deeper comprehension

  • Sin of certitude

  • Labeling is a control mechanism, not a truth mechanism

  • Ego likes to separate; the soul wants to unite

  • We need higher level spirituality to correct the separation; must be subject to subject in order to be able to dwell in the not knowing and to create compassionate people

  • Need to quiet the mind and invite divine presence into us. This is the essence of contemplation

As Rohr puts it, “Contemplation is awakening to the contemplative dimension of LIFE. In the Eastern Traditions some call it meditation or the path to enlightenment. Every development in contemplation reveals more and more of the mystery of silence and the importance of receptivity over effort, especially in prayer… Silence leads to stillness; stillness leads to surrender. While this doesn’t happen every time we sit down to pray, interior silence gradually opens to an inner spaciousness that is alive.  In this context, if we speak of emptiness, we are not speaking of just emptiness, but of emptiness that is beginning to be filled with a Presence. Perhaps we could say that contemplation occurs when interior silence morphs into Presence.” (from 12/18/18 morning meditation)

The roots of our ways of thinking are in our culture and wired into our brains.  But we can challenge our beliefs and we can rewire our brains. Contemplation helps us do this.