Saturday, November 19, 2011

Collaborative Contemplation

Greetings fellow sojourners! I would like to ask if I could begin some dialog with you about this odd juxtaposition of terms: collaborative contemplation. I have been asked to talk about contemplation at a contemplative retreat in January, and after talking with the leaders, we noticed that there was a strong concern for the communal dimensions of contemplative prayer. Why do we come together to do this "individual" practice? I found the discussion inspiring because I was making connections between it and the book I'm currently reading: Cathy N. Davidson's Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Work, Live, and Learn. The book deals with "attention blindness" -- a state of unawareness which is a process of learning that begins in pre-infancy. We are culturally nurtured to "pay attention" to certain things and disregard others. While this is a necessary skill for survival, it is nonetheless a limiting agent in the observation of reality. Thus, Davidson argues that collaboration is a much needed factor in the lives of communities.

With this idea in mind, it seems that centering prayer (and other contemplative practices) may be viewed as a "tool" to help one's attention blindness by training the brain to take a break from its conditioned patterns of "paying attention." My question is, "Can the idea of collaboration work somehow with contemplation to add a new dimension of spiritual awareness to not just an individual, but also to a community?" I don't mean to imply that "two heads are better than one, and with more we'll figure out the Mystery." But can we come closer to the Mystery and be enriched in the process of viewing "it" in a form of collaborative silence that is not possible in isolation?

Do you know of writers that tackle such a perspective? Scripturally, I'm looking at the story of the Transfiguration and other instances of Jesus taking a few of his disciples with him to retreat in prayer as a springboard into the discussion. I would appreciate any advice, or corrective suggestions this idea inspires! By the way, it's interesting that this talk will be held during Epiphany.....

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Faithful Presence

In the last third of his 2010 book To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World James Davison Hunter develops an alternative approach to our dominant secular culture, one that is not adversarial. He advocates “faithful presence” and argues this is the model most appropriate for our current historical context—which he calls exile. He cites Jeremiah’s prophecy regarding the Babylonian Exile as relevant to us. I would also point to Joseph’s service to the Pharaoh in Egypt. Like those Israelites we must seek to bless those of the dominant culture while simultaneously maintaining the integrity of our own spiritual calling. Hunter develops and emphasizes the concept of shalom, drawing on both the Old and the New Testaments. We are to be representatives and transmitters of the shalom of God—the harmony, wholeness, beauty of God—seeking and sharing God’s shalom with all others to the fullest extent possible.

To effectively develop and share God’s shalom, we must first be faithfully present to God and then faithfully present to fellow Christians. Only if these first two sets of relationships are real and active can we be effectively present to those outside the church. All these relationships need to be incarnated in genuine, actual practices.

Clearly the first and foremost relationship is with God. If this relationship is not vibrant, then all our other relationships will not be as they should. To practice being faithfully present to God, Hunter identifies these kinds of disciplines: “participation in the sacraments, collective adoration, repentance, contemplation, intercession, devotion, and service” (244). In terms of individual devotion, he specifically mentions “prayer, meditation, fasting, study, simplicity, and solitude” (244). Unfortunately many of these practices are not emphasized in contemporary circles. Enthusiastic worship and eloquent preaching are often promoted, but meditation, solitude, interior silence, and the like are given only lip service at best, at least in most circles, perhaps piously encouraged, but if so, only in vague, non-specific ways that fail to challenge and/or actually help most believers develop in-depth spiritually.

But in fact these practices are central, core. As Hunter says, "It is important to remember that Christianity – in its beliefs and practices – is defined from the center out" (281). If instead of making God and relationship with him the center, we make “a certain understanding of the good in society the objective, [then] the source of the good – God himself and the intimacy he offers – becomes nothing more than a tool to be used to achieve that objective” (285). When this happens, as it has numerous times in Christian history, the results always include the tragic and grotesque. In contrast, our lives both individually and as Christian community, need to be expressions love, beauty, and harmony. My prayer is that God will indeed help us to be faithfully present to him and to one another in these ways.

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