Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Venturing Into the Silent Land III: Stillness of Body and Soul

The book discussion Robin (of Metanoia) and I began earlier this summer continues with this guest post by Robin.

While I had found the advice in Into the Silent Land about prayer posture and breathing to be succinct and helpful, I wondered what Robin's response was, given that I know she prays afoot with regularity. I pray on my feet as well, but also sit to meditate -- usually at the end of the day.

I sympathize with her over the interruptions. I've been burst in on 3 of the last 5 nights (a determined cat, a spouse wondering about sheets for making the bed...). I blockade the door with the CRC and the atlas and still they come!
The photo is of a place where I've yet to be interrupted while sitting in prayer - it's just too far to get to at night, except in my memories.

Without further ado, Robin's thoughts about sitting still — or not:

We make certain assumptions about the postures we should adopt for prayer.

Little children are often taught to pray by kneeling at their bedsides or sitting in bed, hands carefully folded, head bowed.

Throughout the Bible, various postures are referenced in instructions for prayer. In church, those of us who are Protestant generally sit, bow our heads, and close our eyes for corporate prayers; Catholics sometimes kneel. Christians of all kinds often raise arms and hands in praise or supplication. Muslims prostrate themselves on the ground. Jews bow repeatedly as they daven.

Some years ago, when I was somewhat frantic and confused about how to deal with a particular issue in prayer (I think I wailed, "What am I supposed to do?"), my spiritual director of many months began, patiently, with "Sit or kneel, and . . . ".

In other words, prayer is generally understood to engage the body as well as the mind and spirit.

I tend to be a walker. I am easily distracted, and walking helps to focus my mind as well as my body. I usually walk three or four miles a day, and if I am praying for people or about events, I will often sort of divide my topics by blocks (or distances, if I am out n the country). I'm not at all rigid about it, but if I happen to cross a street and realize that I am completely off track ~ thinking about overdue library books, for instance ~ the geographical marker pulls me back. And since I generally pray in either a lectio divina or imaginative kind of way, the forward motion of walking seems to help my mind move in the same general direction.

In Into the Silent Land, Martin Laird urges us to sit still. More specifically, he says to sit up straight in a wooden chair, hands resting on your knees, and to pay attention to your breathing. He falls within a well-worn tradition with respect to contemplative prayer in this regard. And there's no question in my mind that he's right, in that it's very hard to be quietly attentive to God when you are on the move. I have often found my walks prolonged by the realization, somewhere in the middle, that what I really have to do is sit down and pay attention.

Since Michelle and I have been thinking about this book together, I have spent a lot more time sitting in prayer. I can't claim that I am perched on the edge of a hard chair, hands in my lap. But in my Adirondack chair out back, next to the hostas and St. Francis statue. On various monuments and benches in the cemetery. On the bridge over the dam at the Little Lakes.

Looking back at a few of my journal entries, I see four things. First, I am becoming increasingly aware of sounds. Cicadas, machines, catbirds, raised voices (they carry a long way in the silence of early morning). One day I wrote that while I found no inner sense of God, I did at least experience a few minutes of attentiveness to my tiny patch of the world as it sounds early in the day.

Second, I am more conscious of seeing God in all things. The other morning, sitting on a bench near one of the Little Lakes, I opened my eyes to see the great blue heron who fishes on the other side every morning stretch her wings wide and arc her neck outward, no doubt in hope that breakfast was about to swim by. I had a deep sense of God's rest in and embrace of creation at that moment.

Third, I am finding it somewhat humorous and somewhat irritating to realize how unaware of silence ~ and of others ~ we are. Twice in the past couple of weeks I have been seated, on a bench or on the ground, at the Little Lakes, eyes closed, clearly praying or meditating or otherwise disengaged from the immediate world around me, only to have runners or walkers stop RIGHT NEXT TO ME to carry on an extended conversation. It's clear that, if they notice me at all, it doesn't occur to them that I am doing anything beyond soaking up the sun.

And finally ~ much as I am enjoying this time of very focused prayer (well, it might be better characterized as "attempted focus"), I am an endless procrastinator and often skip it all together. Fifteen, twenty minutes ~ and yet I manage not to get there. What is that about, I wonder? Why would I rather walk through my neighborhood, turning this and that over in my mind, looking at a Scriptural passage through a multitude of perspectives or rummaging about in response to the questions posed by that day's Pray As You Go, than settle down to open my mind and heart to Silence?

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