Congruent reflections: Silence and daily meditation

June 15, 2008

[This is a rambling essay I wrote near the end of May for an online course offered through the Church Divinity School of the Pacific’s CALL center. The course was called “The Uses of Silence” and was moderated by Maggie Ross.]

Reviewing April:
A Comment on the Serendipity of Congruent Readings.

By Allan Roy Andrews

Forward Day by Day provides daily meditational readings for Episcopalians. Published by the Forward Movement in Cincinnati, Ohio, the quarterly journal is endorsed by The Episcopal Church. Its daily selections, based on the lectionary, are written by anonymous writers identified only by the editor’s notes. Each writer provides a month’s worth of meditations, and each of the quarterly volumes provides three-month’s worth of readings that follow the daily lectionary for the church year. The readings range from highly academic to pedestrian in their approach; from expositional to metaphorical in their interpretations; from conservative to liberal in their theology.

In some instances, the writing is broken up among more writers. The current volume covering May, June, and July of 2008, for example, is written by the 11 deans of the 11 seminaries of the Episcopal Church. Each of the academics has written eight or nine meditations. Typically, a meditation on a scriptural passage and the optional inclusion of a brief prayer runs to about 330 words.

The cover of each issue often displays a well-known piece of art (or a detail from such artwork). The issue for February-April, for example, shows Italian Renaissance painter Bergognone’s Christ Risen from the Tomb, a 1490 oil painting from the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

The Forward Day by Day selections for the months of February, March, and April, 2008, were unusual in that they were written by a single author identified by the editor as “a lay woman from the American Southwest who is a widely published spiritual director.”

Coinciding with my reading of the selections for April, 2008, was my participation in a course taught by Maggie Ross (an Anglican solitary and writer who spends a good part of every year living in relative isolation in Alaska) called “The Uses of Silence,” an online offering of the Center for Anglican Learning and Leadership (CALL) at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, Calif. What astonished me at this time was the congruence of what we were reading, discussing and experiencing in our online course and what was being presented by the author of April’s meditations in Forward Day by Day (FDD).

The April 1 meditation in FDD begins with a verbal look at Fra Angelico’s painting of the Annunciation. I learned here that the artist did this painting as a fresco on the walls of the monastery of San Marco in Florence, and that the painting was done at the head of the stairs leading to the monk’s upper dormitory at the monastery.

The writer says of the painter: “He placed the Annunciation . . . as though he meant the monks literally to approach and enter—to inhabit—the encounter between the Virgin and the archangel.”

Silence is implied in this encounter, and the writer says, “one is invited to enter more deeply all the unanswered questions, the still-listening freedoms in our own lives.”

The meditation, incidentally, is on verses from Luke’s gospel that include the Virgin’s words: “Let it be with me according to your word.”

The April 2 meditation on the Vine-Branches “I am” statement of Jesus focuses on discipleship. The writer provides a tiny critique of contemporary Christianity that echoes almost all of the discussion and readings in the “Uses of Silence” course, especially the invitation to contemplation by Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land (Laird, 2006). Laird offers a guide to contemplation that begins with the assertion “We are built for contemplation.”

The writer of the FDD April 2 meditation writes: “I suspect we often firmly believe . . . that the active part of our discipleship is way more important than our contemplative vocation to abide in Jesus.”

I don’t intend to go through the 30 days of April comparing the author’s meditations with the content of the CALL course (though that might be a worthwhile exercise), but having this kind of reinforcement of ideas with which one is grappling strikes me as a delightful example of the serendipity of the Holy Spirit.

One of the most important books we read in “The Uses of Silence,” I think, was The Paradox of Intention by Marvin C. Shaw (Shaw, 1988). Its subtitle stresses a phenomenon particularly important to any Christian’s striving for spiritual growth and direction: “Reaching the Goal by Giving Up the Attempt to Reach It.”

Having been steeped in the Logotherapy of Viktor Frankl as an undergraduate and graduate student of psychology, I was delighted to find Frankl’s therapeutic principle of paradoxical intention supporting a guide to spiritual growth, and I found Shaw’s conclusion that “The Way to Do is to Be” a wonderful antidote to the moralizing pedantry of evangelical attitudes in which I have been nurtured.

I see paradoxical intention in the FDD April 9 meditation on the passage from Matthew 3, where John the Baptist says to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

The FDD writer points to this as an illustration of the humility of Jesus, and writes in clear though perhaps unwitting exposition of the paradox of intention: “It is shocking, the humility of God. That God would choose to share our human nature at all defies logic. That Jesus, without sin, would choose to join sinful humanity in ritual repentance makes no sense.

“But that is the heart of the mystery of love, the mystery of God-with-us.”

A favorite of mine among the FDD meditations for April focuses on the words in Colossians 3: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.” The writer confesses an uneasiness at the word “rule” expecting it should be a more contemplative term such as “rest” or “dwell.” Yet, she points out that the peace of Christ means “yielding to God’s sovereign authority over every aspect of my life” (FDD, 12April2008).

Quoting a poem by American William Alexander Percy, she notes that the disciples who cast their nets into the Sea of Galilee were,

Contented, peaceful fishermen before they ever knew
the peace of God that filled their hearts brimful, and broke them too.

 

This poem of Percy’s, which mulls what the FDD writer calls “this dangerous sort of turning-life-upside-down peace” is in The Hymnal of the Episcopal Church as number 661 and known as “They Cast Their Nets in Galilee.”

I read the entire hymn and was struck by the closing verse:

The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife closed in the sod.
Yet, let us pray for but one thing, the marvelous peace of God.

Perhaps I’m stretching here, but the sentiment of Percy’s poem is similar to that expressed by St. Ephrem the Syrian, whose words are brought to us in the obscure but important text of Sebastian Brock, The Luminous Eye (Brock, 1992).

The FDD writer explained a dream she had about peaceful sinking (FDD 16April2008) that she interpreted as a dream of “resting in God.” God wanted her to let go and allow God’s love to support her. She concludes: “Since then, I have learned that resting in (not striving for, not racing after, not talking about) the presence of God is a definition of contemplative prayer.”

Finally, let me share the FDD writer’s exposition of St. Paul’s words to the Thessalonians: “Pray without ceasing.” She focuses on the fourth-century men and women known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers, who went into the wilderness to live in silence and ponder what it meant to pray without ceasing.

“They realized,” she writes, “that it was only possible to pray constantly if prayer descended from the head, as it were, and entered the heart—if prayer somehow became not a conscious enterprise, but as constant as breathing.”

What would it mean, the writer asks in conclusion, “for us to attempt to pray—to breathe, to live—this way?

I don’t know what it would mean, but I think I’ve learned it must begin in silence.

References:

(FDD, April2008) Forward Day by Day. February/March/April 2008. Cincinnati, Ohio: The Forward Movement.

(Brock, 1992) Sebastian Brock. The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual World Vision of Saint Ephrem the Syrian. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications.

(Laird, 2006) Martin Laird. Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation. New York: Oxford Press.

(Shaw, 1999) Marvin C. Shaw. The Paradox of Intention: Reaching the Goal by Giving Up the Attempt to Reach It. Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press.

The Hymnal 1982. New York: The Church Pension Fund (No. 661)

 

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