Prayer is Infiltrating Christian Youth Groups

A group in Eureka, Montana, called Lighthouse Trails, recently warned people against me, Jim Wallis, and Sojourners because of our association with Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, and contemplative Christian spirituality.

The folks at Lighthouse Trails describes their mission thusly: “In the year 2000, we learned that a mantra-style meditation coupled with a mystical spirituality had been introduced to the evangelical, Christian church and was infiltrating youth groups, churches, seminaries, and Bible studies at an alarming rate.  Thus, in the spring of 2002, we began Lighthouse Trails Publishing with the hope of exposing this dangerous and pervasive mystical paradigm.”

At the same time I was reading the reports from Lighthouse Trails, I was also re-reading parts of Merton’s book Life and Holiness in which he lays out a few basic ideas in Christian spirituality.

Henri Nouwen writes in the book’s introduction, “It is not a book about doctrines or dogmas, but about the life of Christ. … In its great simplicity, this is a radical book. It calls for total dedication and a total commitment [to Christ].”

Here is an excerpt:

“Prayer is then the first and most important step. All through the life of faith one must resort constantly to prayer, because faith is not simply a gift which we receive once for all in our first act of belief. Every new development of faith, every new increment of supernatural light, even though we may earnestly working to acquire it, remains a pure gift of God.”–Thomas Merton, Life and Holiness by Thomas Merton (Image, 1963, p. 81)

I don’t have anything in particular to say about Lighthouse Trails, except they are located in what must be the most beautiful place in the world at the northwest tip of Glacier National Park.

I understand their concern about Christian mysticism. Christian mystics are those who have a direct spiritual experience of God through Jesus. (See John 10:30 on union with God.) It may be a one-time experience that informs one’s faith or it may be an ongoing experience that radically affects one’s faith journey. It is not about belief or catechisms or rational assent to dogma. It is about a total transformation in Christ — about being “born again.” And this is inherently uncontrollable by religious authorities or dogmatists.

Christian mystics have a long history of being a threat to institutional religions and dogmatic believers. Conversely, the danger to Christian mystics is that they may put too much authority in their personal experience of God, rather than submitting their experiences to the wider wisdom of the Christian community.

This is the paradox that Merton, Nouwen, and even I, know well. As a result, we try to live attentively and, as Merton wrote, “resort constantly to prayer,” asking always for Christ to have mercy upon us.

Thomas Merton: The ‘Prayer of the Heart’

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I remember once telling a group of Lutheran bishops that their job–and the job of their churches–was not to raise more Christians but to shape and form true human beings. We had an interesting conversation out of that! Merton’s quote below reminds me that “prayer” at it’ most essential is an impulse of the human heart, not part of an equation of dogmatic exchange.

What is the purpose of meditation in the sense of “the prayer of the heart?” In the “prayer of the heart” we seek first of all the deepest ground of our identity in God. We do not reason about dogmas of faith, or “the mysteries.” We seek rather to gain a direct existential grasp, a personal experience of the deepest truths of life and faith, finding ourselves in God’s truth. …Prayer then means yearning for the simple presence of God, for a personal understanding of [God’s] word, for knowledge of [God’s] will and for capacity to hear and obey him.–Thomas Merton

Contemplative Prayer by Thomas Merton (Image Books, 1996, p.67)

Healing Prayer: Our Bodies’ Intricate Design

by Shawn Lovell
by Shawn Lovell

I’ll be posting sporadically in February while I’m off work recuperating from surgery. (Nothing serious.) During my Sabbath recovery time at home, I hope to have daily prayer at 6 p.m. each evening in February.

I’ll be using the daily gospel reading and the prayer below and invite you to “join” me (through the Holy Spirit internet) each evening.

Healing Prayer

Blessed are You, God of All Creation,
who has made our bodies in wisdom.
It is You who created openings and arteries,
glands and organs, bone and blood,
marvelous in structure, intricate in design.
Should one part be blocked or fail to function
it is difficult for us to praise You properly,
difficult for us to serve Your people with humility.
Wondrous Fashioner and Sustainer of life,
Source of our health and our strength,
bring complete healing to all of our wounds.
You who blessed our ancestors and who
gave healing power to Jesus, send your angels
to accompany [insert names here] and all who are
sick. Let the healing river flow over and
through them. Let the leaves from the Tree
of Life—the tree with medicine for the healing
of nations—fall gently upon them.
May the occasion of their healing
be an opportunity for all of us to be healed,
so that we might more properly praise You.
In the name of Jesus, we pray. Amen.

by Rose Marie Berger (February 2010). Please reprint freely.

Chittister: ‘Call on God, but Row Away From the Rocks’

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Joan Chittister is a Benedictine sister, author, excellent lecturer, and leading champion for women around the world. I like the way Chittister and her community ground themselves in daily prayer and take a very realistic view of the world – a view that is shot through with a sense of humor.

Here’s an excerpt from her book The Breath of the Soul: Reflections on Prayer:

“Call on God but row away from the rocks.”–Indian Proverb

Healthy prayer and neurotic prayer are two different things. Neurotic prayer denies reality. Healthy prayer grows both spiritually and psychologically as a result of it.

When we fail to accept the fact that some things just are: that rain rains and sickness comes and the unexpected is commonplace—when we fail to realize that life is life, all of it meant to teach us something, to give new opportunities to be better, stronger people—we miss both the meaning of life and the real role of prayer in it.

The spiritually mature person does not rely on God for miracles. They rely on God for strength and courage, for insight and hope, for vision and endurance. They know that God is with them; they do not believe that God is an instrument for the comfort of human beings.

They do know that one of the purposes of prayer is to give them the courage it takes to do what we are each meant to do in the world that is ours. They do not forgive themselves the responsibility for changing their own little piece of the world on the grounds that if they pray hard enough God will change the world for them. They know that, without doubt, it is their responsibility to change the world.

The mystic Catherine of Siena, whose relationship with God was legendary, changed her part of the world by chiding popes and feeding the poor.

The mystic Ignatius of Loyola, whose life of prayer is exactly what took him and his men to the streets of Europe, changed the world by defending the faith and re-catechizing a generation gone dry.

The contemplative Thomas Merton, whose life in a cloistered religious community made prayer the context of his very life, changed the world by speaking out from the cloister to lead an anti-war movement intent on stopping the illegal war in Vietnam.

The laywoman Dorothy Day, whose life of prayer followed a tumultuous life, changed the world by modeling the care of the poor on the streets of New York City.

None of the great spiritual personalities of the Church have ever made prayer a substitute for justice and mercy, for peace and equality, for honesty and courage.

They “rowed the world away from the rocks,” made the miracles the world needed—and so must we.–Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB

An excerpt from The Breath of the Soul: Reflections on Prayer by Joan Chittister (Twenty-Third Publications)

Tielhard de Chardin: A Morning Offering

teilhard-de-chardinI finally picked up a copy of Hymn of the Universe by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955).  I’ve been poking around de Chardin for years, but never actually reading him. He was a French Jesuit, paleontologist, biologist, philosopher, mystic and poet. All the stuff I like!

Here’s a quote from the opening section titled “The Mass on the World,” written while de Chardin was on a scientific expedition in the Ordos desert in Inner Mongolia and celebrates Mass alone at dawn:

One by one, Lord, I see and I love all those whom you have given me to sustain and charm my life. One by one also I number all those who make up that other beloved family which has gradually surrounded me, its unity fashioned out of the most disparate elements, with affinities of the heart, of scientific research and of thought. And again one by one–more vaguely it is true, yet all-inclusively–I call before me the whole vast anonymous army of living humanity; those who surround me and support me though I do not know them; those who come, and those who go; above all, those who in office, laboratory, and factory, through their vision of truth or despite their error, truly believe in the progress of earthly reality and who today will take up again their impassioned pursuit of the light.

Annie Dillard also has a wonderful book called For the Time Being that plays with excerpts from de Chardin’s diaries and writings.

Lingering in the Prayer Cloud

The Sojourners clan meets once a month for worship at the office. Yesterday, Sojo Assistant to CEO Tim King led us in a “prayer and praise” service.

Afterward, Sojo immigration organizer Allison Johnson sent a note saying, “Here is an image of the word cloud made of our collective prayers from today’s chapel.”

I thought it was lovely word-art. (It’s the kind of thing that makes the Baby Jesus smile.)

wordcloudorig

“Be Still and Know” contemplative prayer video

One of the great things about working at Sojourners is always getting to do something new. Here’s a video made by our assistant editor Jeannie Choi and our interactive media producer Matt Hildreth interviewing me about contemplative prayer.

I had just come back from accompanying a friend at “Divorce Court” when I made this video – so the chance to “breath in and breath out” was greatly appreciated! Hope you like it. (Read Ruth Haley Barton’s article on contemplative prayer here.)

Dublin: How to Pray When You Have a Desk Job

At Trinity University in Dublin, along with the Book of Kells, there were other medieval manuscripts on display. The Book of Armagh, the Book of Darrow, and (one of my favorites) the Book of Mulling were all there to ooh and aww over.

Illumination of St. John from the Book of Mulling

It is perversely comforting to find the monks and nuns of the Middle Ages wrestling over the same issues we wrestle over today. In particular, how to pray when you have a desk job.

One display case held a copy of a sermon preached at the Durham Cathedral in England sometime in the 1100s. I was really touched by the details and the craft.

Medieval Allegory of the Scribes Tools

The parchment on which we write is pure conscience;
the knife that scrapes it is the fear of God;
the pumice that smooths the skin is the discipline of heavenly desire;
the chalk that whitens it signifies an unbroken meditation of holy thoughts;
the ruler is the will of God;
the straight-edge is devotion to the holy task;
the quill, its end split in two for writing, is the love of God and of our neighbor;
the ink is humility itself;
the illuminator’s colors represent the multiform grace of heavenly wisdom;
the writing desk is tranquility of heart;
the exemplar from which a copy is made is the life of Christ;
the writing place is contempt of worldly things lifting us to a desire for heaven.

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The Flat-Coat Retriever of Grace

I have a bumper sticker that reads: “Lord, help me to be the person my dog thinks I am.” This is a theological replacement for my shy and vulnerable mid-20s angst which shrink-sized to “I think your karma just ran over my dogma.”

In poet Denise Levertov’s poem “Overland to the Islands” she lets her imagination map out her way to God:

Let’s go—much as the dog goes,
intently haphazard, …
dancing
edgeways, there’s nothing
the dog disdains on his way,
nevertheless he
keeps moving, changing pace
and approach but
not direction—‘every step an arrival.’

My dog is like this. Always exuberantly joyful. Always forgiving of my many faults. Where I fail in hospitality, she welcomes friend and stranger alike. When intellectual theology fails, my dog nudges me back to the heart of my faith w-a-l-k. (No, sweetie, not right now.).

1-900-PHONE-PRAYER

So I’m answering phones at work over lunch…(It’s one of those egalitarian things that everyone at my work shares, in case the world falls apart while we are taking a break and we don’t know about it.) Mostly I’m doing my best impression of a Dial-M-for-Murder operator from the 1940s … “What extension please? I’m sooo sorry. She’s away from her desk right now or perhaps downtown destabilizing the International Monetary Fund. Would you like to leave a message on her voice mail?” And, even though we are a magazine, I for one am not at all capable of handling a simple subscription question, so I leave the real receptionist something under 100,000 renewal requests on small sticky notes casually plastered across her desktop.

So this time at lunch…with the handset already warm and sweaty, I yank it off the cradle and hear a broken down man’s voice saying, “Is this Sojourners? I need you to pray for me.” Then the line went dead.

Even though I am Catholic and there’s probably something in the rule book against “laying hands on” inanimate objects, I put both hands on the phone and prayed with all my might.

Where ever you are sir, may the angels escort you..