Preparing for Contemplative Prayer
Oral prayer is a conversation among Zoe students, clarifying what is on our hearts and minds right now, to prepare ourselves for silent contemplative prayer that draws us into spiritual communion with the agape love who is God.
The prayer leader speaks:
“Let us prepare for contemplative prayer by sharing with each other what is on our hearts and minds. If you are moved to speak in each section of our prayer sharing, please share what is true for you as briefly as you can. If you are moved to remain silent, bring your silence into the presence of God with us.”
“Let us start with sharing briefly what is on our hearts and minds about our personal lives and the lives of those closest to us.” (Leader sets a time limit)
“Let us continue by sharing what is on our hearts and minds about what is happening on our campus.” (Leader sets a time limit)
“Let us continue by sharing what is on our hearts and minds about the wider world.” (Leader sets a time limit)
“Let us bring all that we have shared with each other into contemplative prayer. In silence, let us be mindful of our inner experiences: observing our feelings, ideas, worries, joys, urges, physical sensations –observing and then letting go of our judgments and opinions about them, attending to them with the compassion of Christ – until we know and feel that Divine Love is at our center.” (Leader sets a time limit)
At the set time, the leader says “Amen” and then the song leader leads the group in singing a repetitive chant.
BEADS for Christian Contemplation
Beads are an ancient, multi-faith way to enhance the experience of prayer and meditation.
The word “bede” in Anglo-Saxon means “prayer”. Beads have been used for prayer for millennia, all over the world, in many religious traditions.
The Hindu mala is a necklace of 108 beads. Each bead is fingered while repeating a mantra. The Buddhists use mala beads in a similar fashion.
The Muslims may have copied the use of beads from the Hindus and Buddhists. They have a rosary of 99 beads, each one marking one of the names/attributes of Allah – with a head bead for Allah. An alternative form is 33 beads, used 3 times to complete the 99 names. The Bahá'í faith uses a similar rosary.
The Catholic Christians may have copied the Muslims in creating rosary beads. “Praying the rosary” involves a series of prayers marked by five “decades” of ten beads each, with a cross at the head of the necklace.
In your ZOE group, make your own prayer bead necklaces of any number of beads, with a "head" or larger bead on each one.
Contemplative practice with beads: hold the necklace in your hand. Hold a bead next to the head bead in your fingers. Get into a comfortable position where you'll stay alert. Practice mindful Christian contemplation: observe, one at a time, each thought, sensation, emotion, or urge that arises - with compassion and releasing judgment about it. As a new experience bubbles up into awareness, roll a bead in your fingers until that experience naturally dissipates. As the next experience arises into your loving, curious, open-hearted and open-minded attention, move to the next bead and roll it with your fingers. When you get to the head bead, hold it in your fingers and savor the source and center of your compassionate, agape attention itself – the Christ within you!
ZOE integrates academic life into spiritual life. How can you integrate your study, in any field, with your contemplative practice?
“Never in any case whatever is a genuine effort of the attention wasted. It always has its effect on the spiritual plane and in consequence on the lower one of the intelligence, for all spiritual light lightens the mind.” So wrote the 20th century philosopher/theologian, Simone Weil in an essay entitled “Reflection on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God”.
She believed that academic work cultivates attention, which translates into prayer. Studying any subject, even if remote from the subject of spirituality, leads to a divine disposition toward humility and receptivity.
God is love. And love is open, non-judgmental, genuinely curious attention. So if you are paying this kind of unconditional, compassionate attention to anybody or anything, you are communing with God. You are doing God. You are experiencing God.
This means that you can get to God by studying statistics, even if you are not particularly adept at the subject. The careful attention you pay to it, the humble curiosity you direct toward the subject of your study, is by nature prayerful. Sacred. Divine. You can get a “C” in statistics but be delivered into the presence of God by it nonetheless.
Your soul can be served by your study. And your study in turn can be enhanced by your awareness of its sacredness. Worship and contemplative prayer with your fellow students in your Zoe group will entrain your ability to be deeply attentive in all other aspects of your life, including your academic pursuits.
What matters most is love itself. The love that is attention. The love that is God. And out of that love may flow an enhanced capacity for academic work.
“Love your enemies,” said Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount. And the Greek word in the Bible for “love”, in this passage, is “agape” – unconditional, purely attentive love. Sometimes we hate the subjects of our studies. Math or physics or biology or political science problems can become our enemies. The Christ guides us to love them anyway. Jesus doesn’t ask us to like our enemies. He asks us to love them. To sit with them, pay deep attention to them, and set aside our judgements about them, whether positive or negative. Give your studies some good agape – especially in the subjects you find most challenging.
Here’s a practice you can do in your Zoe group, or by yourself.
Studia Divina (Latin for “divine studies”) is based on Lectio Divina (“divine reading”), an old Christian spiritual practice. In Lectio Divina, a passage of scripture is read aloud a few times (lectio), followed by a period of meditation in which all assumptions or meanings about the reading are released (meditatio). This is followed by a prescribed oral prayer (oratio), and the prayer is followed by contemplation (contemplatio) – in which the soul enters into union with the divine.
In Studia Divina, use a study problem or focus as the reading. It can be a challenging passage from a novel or a mysterious aspect of a poem, a thorny question from the study of history, or a math problem. What problem do you admire – whether you have solved it or not? What’s the most interesting “unknown” in your field of study? The problem may or may not have a clear answer. It can be a simple one: “If the cost of a bat and a baseball combined is $1.10 and the bat costs $1.00 more than the ball, how much is the ball?” (answer: $0.05) Or it can be sublimely challenging: “What is the ideal structure of a democracy?”
Here’s a current example from the study of public health:
Lectio: “What is the correct balance of health risk and risk to educational outcomes in determining response to infectious disease in public schools?” Repeat it slowly aloud, twice.
Meditatio: Sit with this question, letting go of any preconceptions or opinions about it. Don’t try to answer it. Consider its many implications and connections to other questions and issues, its significance and complexity. Admire it lovingly for ten minutes.
Oratio: Say aloud: “May divine love grow in my heart, soul, and mind through my attention to this problem.”
Contemplatio: In this period (10 minutes), release your attention to the problem, and pay attention to whatever arises. It can be anything. A thought, a reflection, an insight. Or a physical sensation or an emotional experience. Attend to each arising experience, one at a time, observing with compassion and acceptance, and then gently releasing to make way for the next, until you rest in awareness of attention itself. The attention that is prayer. The attention that is love. The love that is God…
14 Questions of Jesus - for Lent
For Lent, engage students with 14 of the questions that Jesus asked his followers during his ministry. Post 14 "stations" (similar to the 14 Stations of the Cross) at which students can take slips of paper and write responses to the questions, and put them in boxes at each station, as they choose. These slips can then be displayed during Holy Week.
This selection of questions of Jesus is intended for open-ended, contemplative, prayerful personal meditation and group conversation. Here, the questions are presented out of their contexts in the gospel narratives. Those contexts are well-worthy of study and consideration. But here, you can fit Jesus' questions into your own contexts, imagining how they address or challenge your own life-experience. The questions are presented here as "koans" - spiritual "monkey-wrenches" - tossed into our minds to break us loose from habits that get in the way of Divine Love. There are no right answers. It may be enough to contemplate the questions rather than trying to answer them! How can these questions bring us closer to the true Divine Nature within, and draw us closer in loving community? After each question, prompts are offered for reflection and response.
14 Questions of Jesus
And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? (Matt 6:27-28) (What are your worries? When and how do they arise? How do they manifest physically?)
2. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? (Matt 7:2) (What are the logs in your own eyes? What prejudices and assumptions and judgments get in the way of your ability to see things as they are, on their own terms? How clearly can you see these "logs"?)
3. Why are you afraid, you of little faith? (Matt 8:26) (What are you afraid of? What is the root of your fear? When/how do these fears arise? How do these fears affect your life and the lives of others? How do your fears manifest in your body?)
4. Do you believe that I am able to do this? (Matt 9:28) (What do you need to do? Do you believe you can do it? Examine your beliefs about what you can and cannot accomplish.)
5. How many loaves have you? (Matt 15:34) (What do you have to work with - what are your resources to deal with the challenges before you? Are they sufficient? Can you "make do"?)
6. But who do you say that I am? (Matt 16:15) - What is your name? (Luke 8:30) (Who are you, in your essence? If you lovingly observe yourself in prayerful, mindful contemplation, who/what is it that is doing the observing?)
7. What do you want me to do for you? (Matt 20:32) (What kind of help do you need? Are you willing to ask for it?)
8. So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? (Matt 26:40) - Simon, are you asleep? (Mark 14:37) - Why are you sleeping? (Luke 22:46) (In what ways are you "asleep", spiritually/emotionally/mentally/socially/politically? What would help you come "awake"?)
9. My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me? (Matt 27:46) (Is there any part of you in despair? What is the root of that despair?)
10. Can you see anything? (Mark 8:23) (In what ways are you blind - unable to "see" important aspects of life within and around you?)
11. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? (Luke 22:27) (In what ways are you a servant, and in what ways are you a master? What is it like to be in each of those roles? Are there situations in which those roles should be reversed for you? How can you be more of service to your community, country, and the world?)
12. What are you discussing as you walk along? (Luke 24:17) (What chatter is going on in your mind right now? What are you thinking right now? What kind of inner dialogue is going on in you right now?)
13. What are you looking for? (John 1:38) (What do you want? Is anything missing in your life? What do you want to do about it? What are you willing to do about it?)
14. Do you want to be made well? (John 5:6) (In what ways are you not well? What is your level of desire to become well? What difference might it make if your desire was stronger?)