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Setting the Stage for a Contemplative New Year

Article by Winston Charles (January 2018 eNews)

One sage piece of advice given to me was, “Don’t join a fitness center in January. It will be packed with well-intentioned people who have made New Year’s resolutions to finally do something about getting fit and healthy. Wait until February when yet another gaggle of New Year’s resolutions has turned cold.”

Making New Year’s resolutions about one’s spiritual practice often follows this path of good intentions that leads to disappointment and guilt. Nonetheless, the turn of the calendar still provides a time for examen and an opening to new or renewed intentions to deepen one’s relationship with the Beloved. Like all things on the contemplative path, discernment calls for letting go, falling back into openness, listening with the receptivity of the contemplative heart to what is invited. Only this deep listening to a call that is uniquely right for this person at this time in this place will maintain the authenticity required in order to return again and again to the invitation to step up to the threshold of stillness and receive, often imperceptibly, the loving Presence of the Divine.

Two dynamics mark a contemplative spiritual practice: a dedicated time in which the entire intent is to be still and open before the Presence of the Holy and a repertoire of spiritual practices that with alacrity can be called upon to open the spiritual heart to the Deep Presence.

What relationship ever flourished without dedicated time together in conversation or simply in being with one another in silence? As Thomas Merton wrote, the deepest level of communication is not communication at all but communion. This is the intent of the dedicated time of pure openness to God: communion, sitting on the couch with the Beloved in silence.

Centering Prayer, as taught by Thomas Keating, is perhaps the most widely known contemplative spiritual practice among Christians seeking such communion with God, although it is by no means the only way. In one sense, the possibilities are limitless: walking in the woods, dancing in the Spirit, chanting a sacred word or phrase, sitting with a cup of coffee while gazing into creation. All of the spiritual practices that open our hearts to the Heart of God have shared characteristics that set them apart from other meaningful spiritual practices. First, there is a continual letting go of thoughts, returning again and again to that state of vulnerable openness to the Divine Presence. The flow of this prayer is not from us to God, not even an exchange, but rather always opening the heart to receive the Pure Presence of Love. Each letting go of a thought or emotion is a turning toward a deeper openness and receptivity. The Beloved is the primary actor in this prayer; we are the recipients. Through such openness, God opens us into the persons we are created and called to be.

Many hurdles can cause stumbling along the intended path, but each spill provides opportunity for deeper transformation. The most named hurdle is a perceived lack of time. We do indeed live full lives, especially those who juggle work, family, and self-care; however, often other dynamics encumber our desire for contemplative openness: a feeling of not doing this practice right, a frustration of not seeing any results, a cultural conditioning that says sitting doing nothing is a waste of time, a resistance to the vulnerability of radical openness, an image of the Divine that is less than the absolute love that is God, an aversion to or even panic of realizing that the old, familiar ego patterns of behavior are specious, fear-based survival schemes that constrict us. Each one of these thoughts is merely another opportunity to trust, to have faith, to let go, to simply be still and know that the Beloved holds us with tenderness and love.

A dedicated time of openness and stillness provides the foundation on which to stand throughout the day. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  (I Thessalonians 5:16-18) The invitation to “pray without ceasing” is an invitation to a deeper consciousness, one based not on culturally formed patterns of perceiving and reacting but on the radical Presence of the Divine that embraces all and calls all into being and living. To live in this deeper reality invites us to see all of life as spiritual practice, no matter what happens to us or what we feel, think, or say. All offers opportunity to notice, to let go, to respond from a deeper place, that place to which we open during those dedicated times of contemplative prayer. When we notice ourselves reacting in fear or defensiveness or anger, we can stop, sense our emotions, open our hearts to the Beloved and pray for the persons or situations that face us, leaning back into the spiritual heart and then forward to respond with compassion and courage. Each time this happens, a slight modeling takes place deep within that liberates us to be people of the Beloved.

As the new year begins to unfold, let us take time ever so gently to examine our spiritual practices, to open the “ears” of our spiritual hearts in order to listen deeply to what the invitation may be. As we discern the right path for us, may we also give up any comparisons with other people’s practices. No matter whether such comparisons make us feel guilty or prideful, all are stumbling blocks to faithfulness. Listen only to the invitation to meaningful spiritual practice that comes from the heart and that continues to invite no matter what our “success” may be.

We all carry within us the image of God, the imago dei. This imago within, which is our true self, does not keep score, but only keeps heart. May our spiritual practices lead us ever more deeply into contemplative being and living. Day by day, this will set the stage for a contemplative new year.

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2 Comments on "Setting the Stage for a Contemplative New Year"

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Nancy Corson Carter
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This is such a wise, helpful writing, Winston. Thank you!

Winston B. Charles
Guest
Winston B. Charles

Thank you, Nancy. Whatever wisdom is here is born of the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat”! 😎