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FIVE WAYS TO PRAY

Always

Once we get beyond the idea of a fast-food God and tune in to the life around us, we can be filled with the fullness of God.

By Brian J. Pierce, O.P.


PHOTOS BY DON NESBITT

Contemplation Today
Breathing God's Breath
Eating in Solidarity
Seeing Through God's Eyes
Walking With Jesus
Speaking From Silence

Y ears ago, when I was a novice, one of my Dominican brothers suggested one day that we pack a picnic lunch and spend our free day enjoying the autumn colors in the mountains of North Carolina. It sounded like a great idea, and an hour later we were in the car heading north from our home in Columbia, South Carolina, enjoying the sense of "fall freedom."

We drove frantically for several hours, stopped at a national forest, got out and ate our lunch, and sped home in time for evening prayer! I was so dizzy during prayer that I could hardly focus on the psalms. In fact, now that I look back, I ask myself if perhaps we didn't miss the real prayer--the chance to praise God for the wonders of creation-in order to fulfill an obligation. I think I know the answer.

How do we pray in a world that seems to be moving in fast-forward? How do we grow in the contemplative dimension of our Christian life in a culture in which the only public service that hasn't installed a drive-through window--at least not yet--is the Church?

We've become accustomed to a quick fix for losing weight and a quick method for learning French. The oil in our car is changed in 10 minutes and our photos are developed while we wait. And yet we open the Bible and read that the Kingdom of God is like a woman who kneads the yeast into the dough and waits for it to rise, or like the farmer who sows the seed and patiently awaits the harvest.

The 40 days of Lent used to seem like a natural part of our Catholic life in the past, but now 40 days might seem like a bit much. Some may think: Why not cut it back to 20 days? God just doesn't seem to fit into our fast-food world today.

No matter how we cut it, though, Israel's 40 years in the desert and Jesus' 40 days of struggling to be faithful to the Father's call cannot be cut in half for good behavior. The number 40 for the Hebrews was a way of saying "many." In other words, the spiritual life isn't a weekend affair; it's a lifelong commitment. The living water of faith cannot be boiled in a microwave. Following Jesus means pacing ourselves to the rhythm of a lifetime of contemplative discipleship.

Today's Challenge: Contemplation

Those of us who live our Christian lives out "in the world" have to fashion a spirituality that fits our way of life without looking for a fast-food cop-out. Maybe we will choose to pray the rosary on the way to work--it's certainly better than much of the radio garbage polluting the airwaves these days! What is important is that we find creative ways to pray. We need to deepen our call to love and serve God in ourselves, our neighbors and in all of creation. And we don't have to become monks or nuns to do it.

The path before us may seem overwhelming at times, so we must choose a spiritual practice that will prepare us for the long haul. But that's O.K. The good news is that we do not have to hurry. God has graced us with a whole lifetime. But we have to turn off our mystical microwave for a while and begin the journey--one step at a time.

Our purpose here is not to give an overview of contemplative prayer. For that there are classical and contemporary authors who are masters on this topic. What we will do is to look at how to discover the contemplative dimension of everyday life, in other words, how to do the things we do each and every day with contemplative ease. The sun rising in the kitchen window, the walk to the post office, the church bell ringing on Sunday morning, the little niece's kiss on her uncle's cheek, the bright red tomato in the salad: They are all an opportunity to breathe deeply and "be filled with all the fullness of God" (Ephesians 3:19).

We will look at five dimensions of daily life: seeing, breathing, walking, eating and speaking. There is no trick or magic blessing to convert these raw materials of daily living into a life of contemplative ease. All we have to do is downshift our frenetic pace and begin to live with mindfulness, the prayerful awareness that all that is contains the fullness of God's glory. Each of us can be contemplative. The first of our five ways to pray always is by opening our eyes.

Seeing Through God's Eyes

The essence of contemplation is seeing all of creation through God's eyes. We've all had contemplative experiences, but perhaps we didn't know it was contemplation. Watching the slow, multicolored sunset with simple, childlike awe to the point where we simply become engulfed by the red-orange horizon: This is contemplative seeing. We are told in the Genesis story of creation (Genesis 1) that after marvelous acts of creative artistry, "God saw how good it was." Contemplative people see all of the universe with the compassionate, delight-full eyes of God.

This contemplative seeing, however, requires training and hard work. We tend to zip through life so quickly these days that we fail to notice the dandelion that has pushed its way up through the hot pavement or the lovely but pained eyes of the young mother in front of us in the grocery store checkout line.

Luke's Gospel says that when the prodigal son neared the last bend before reaching his home, ready to weep in repentance at his father's feet: "his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him." The father saw the son with the eyes of God, making possible his response of mercy and compassion (see Luke 15:11-32).

Our eyes are open most of the day, but do we really see the world's truth as God sees it? Is not racism rooted in our blindness to see the beauty of all people having been created in God's likeness? What a different world it would be if government and big business recognized the oceans, rivers and rain forests of our earth as the beloved garden of God--and not just as a means to turn a profit.

God is inviting us to slow down, stop and look, notice the details, the surprises, the unexpected. Before raking up the autumn leaves with a humdrum sense of boredom, why not stand in awe and watch the bright yellow leaf dive off its towering limb and dance its way to death? We, too, like God, will see that all is good.

Breathing the Breath of God

One of the post-Resurrection accounts in John's Gospel says that Jesus extended his peace to the disciples and then breathed on them saying, "Receive the holy Spirit." It is the very same breath of God that the Creator breathed into the nostrils of the very first human being, formed from the clay of the earth (Genesis 2:7). Every moment of every day we breathe in and out the very breath of God. Contemplative breathing is simply becoming aware of that Spirit-breath within us.

For centuries Buddhist and Hindu contemplatives have been observing the natural rhythm of their breathing as a way of experiencing their oneness with Ultimate Reality, with God. Christians have known this since ancient times, too. As the medieval Dominican mystic, Meister Eckhart, said, "I will sit and be silent and listen to God's voice within me." God is as intimately close to us as our very own breath.

For many years the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has shared his very simple teachings on observing our in-breaths and our out-breaths with rhythmic mindfulness as a way of remaining fully in the present moment, "our true home." He says, "Peace is all around us--in the world, in nature and within us-in our bodies and our spirits. Once we learn to touch this peace (through mindful breathing), we will be healed and transformed."

It works. It doesn't cost anything but a little effort and patience. One doesn't have to be a foreign missionary or a diplomat in the United Nations to be a peacemaker. We can practice mindful breathing when we get up in the morning and before going to bed at night, driving the car or waiting in the doctor's office, when we feel angry or when we are bursting with joy. We, like Jesus, can breathe peace into our troubled world, a peace that flows from the very center of our being. As St. Paul says, we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit makes intercession for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in speech (Romans 8:26).

Walking With Jesus

We are accustomed to saying, "I'm going to take a walk"--a phrase which points to a kind of possessive, "I'm in control" attitude. Perhaps it's because we usually view walking in terms of going somewhere, accomplishing something, getting from here to there. What would it be like to walk just for the sake of walking, to simply enjoy a walk?

Our Judeo-Christian tradition has a long history of holy walking, what we call pilgrimage. The people of Israel have had a tradition for centuries of making an annual pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem, and we Christians have always considered visiting holy places part of our spiritual heritage. In many ways, though, our pilgrim spirit has gotten swallowed up by our "gotta-get-somewhere" living in the fast lane.

Walking can become a way of contemplation for us who live in the goal-oriented busy-ness of today's world. There is a wonderful word in English which comes close to describing what is meant by contemplative walking: strolling. "Let's go for a stroll" carries with it a gentle invitation to rest, to walk without purpose--the way lovers walk on a beach or down a country road. There's no beginning and no end, the present moment is eternity. That's what it means to be a pilgrim: to stroll lovingly with God.

We have even tainted our idea of pilgrimage, unfortunately. Travel agencies are making lots of money these days selling trips to holy places for people hoping to experience God or to see the Virgin Mary. Nothing could be further from the essence of pilgrimage. God is not over there in a grotto or on a mountaintop. Flying halfway across the world to snap a few pictures in front of a miraculous statue is not to be a pilgrim in the spiritual sense. To be a pilgrim means to stroll with God in faith, aware that wherever we are is a holy place, wherever we walk is holy ground.

"How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings glad tidings,/Announcing peace, bearing good news..." (Isaiah 52:7). Isaiah knew what it meant to stroll with God, to allow the holy walking to be a way of announcing peace. We glimpse it again in John's Gospel account of the Last Supper when Jesus washes the disciples' feet (John 13), readying them to be servants to one another. Our feet are holy, beautiful to God, for they enable us to go out to the other, to serve. Jesus' call to the disciples, "Come, follow me," called for a response from the head, the heart and the feet!

Jesus taught his disciples how to stroll, how to wander gracefully through the Galilean towns and villages of his time, observing the women making bread and the fishers mending their nets, chatting with folks about mustard seeds and fig trees. These small details of the Kingdom are missed when we zoom to and from our places of ministry and work as if getting there were all that mattered.

Maybe it's time to kick off our sandals, like Moses, and stroll upon our precious earth, our holy Mother earth, and again allow our walking to be a proclamation of glad tidings, a Good News of peace for God's pilgrim people.

Eating in Solidarity

Most of us spend a good bit of our waking (and even dreaming!) hours thinking about, planning, preparing and eating food. It's one of those very mundane tasks like reading the newspaper and washing behind the ears. What we eat and how we eat don't just determine how many pounds we will gain or lose this month; these actions deeply affect our spiritual lives.

Eating is at the heart of being a Christian. The last thing that Jesus did with his friends before he was taken away to be executed was to share a meal with them. During his three years of public ministry he had dined with quite a colorful array of folks: prostitutes and lepers, Pharisees and tax collectors, drunkards and revolutionaries.

Jesus even shared his final meal with Judas, his betrayer. It was at that last supper when Jesus took some bread and wine and said, "This is my body. This is my blood. Take and eat." What a way to end a holy life-becoming bread for a hungry world.

What, then, does eating have to do with contemplation? Everything! To eat is to commune with God who is present in all of creation. To eat with mindfulness, with deep gratitude and joy is to praise God, our Creator. We become one with the bread we eat, one with the earth, one with God.

Unfortunately, though, eating has become a competitive sport in many First World countries. We no longer remember the origin of the milk that makes our cheese or the wheat that goes into our pizza dough. The farmers who work the land, many of them poor immigrants, are faceless in our tidy world of supermarkets and restaurant chains.

It is as though we have thrown our precious earth into a coliseum of hungry beasts who maim her and leave her, like rotting carrion, for the world's poor to gnaw on for survival. Forty-four thousand people will die today of starvation while we build yet another fast-food restaurant.

Contemplative eating requires that we stop shoving our food down a bottomless pit and recover our spirituality of the Eucharist.

In his book Making Friends of Enemies Jim Forest tells the story of a Russian im-migrant woman who found a job clearing tables in the restaurant of a gambling casino in Las Vegas. One night she returned from her work in tears and told the Franciscan sisters who had helped her find the job: "I cannot continue this work. They make me throw away the body of Jesus." The sisters, confused, asked her to explain.

"If there is any bread left on the table, even if no one touched it, you have to throw it away...throw away the body of Jesus." The poor immigrant woman had understood the essence of the Eucharist: all bread, all food, all of creation is, in a sense, the body of Christ.

Do our children know the consequences of our wastefulness for children of the rest of the world? Do we dare turn off the television long enough at the dinner table to pray together as a family and to recognize Christ in our breaking of the bread?

After walking along the road with the two disciples on their way to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35), the resurrected Jesus began to continue on his way. The two disciples, confused and shaken by the events of the previous days, still had a spark of simple Christian charity in them. They invited the stranger to rest for the night before continuing his journey. He graciously accepted their kindness, and at the meal that evening he took a piece of bread, broke it, gave thanks to God and gave it to them. Eureka! The tired journey now made sense. The stranger was not a stranger after all.

Now it's our turn, our table. Our hungry world is knocking at the door.

Speaking From Silence

"Talk is cheap," grumbled a man in front of an airport television after Haiti's recently returned president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, spoke of peace and reconciliation as key issues for the remainder of his interrupted presidency. Are words cheap or do we speak them cheaply?

One of my preaching professors remarked years ago, "For the elderly widow who sits day in and day out in her room at the nursing home, waiting for someone to visit, the words of the nursing assistant who pokes her happy face into the room with an upbeat, 'Good morning, Mrs. Johnson!' are anything but cheap." They are Mrs. Johnson's lifeline, her bridge to the rest of the world. They are the voice of God in what may seem to her as an otherwise empty universe.

Our speaking becomes contemplative when we allow our words to be born out of a contemplative silence, a silence which is in communion with God. Words and silence go hand in hand like a pair of figure skaters gliding in tandem across a fine sheet of ice. Without prayerful, contemplative silence in our lives, we will never know what it means to speak the word of God.

All people of faith are called to let God's voice and word be heard in our own fragile act of speaking. We can argue like Moses that we are "slow of speech and tongue" (Exodus 4:10), or with Jeremiah we can protest, "'Ah, Lord GOD!' I said, 'I know not how to speak; I am too young'" (Jeremiah 1:6). In the end, though, we have to face the challenge and let God use our mouths as instruments of divine love and the gospel of peace.

Words born from the silence of God's heart are not cheap. Words, in fact, can change the world. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke four simple words back in the 60's that have kindled the fires of social change for three decades: "I have a dream." The nursing assistant who greets Mrs. Johnson every morning may not be aware of the life-giving impact her simple greeting has on the elderly patient in room #42-B. The Word becomes flesh in a simple, "Good morning, Mrs. Johnson."

Contemplative speaking is to speak as God would speak. It requires that we cultivate a quiet space within us, a place of listening, a field sown in compassion and love. Several years ago I was walking down a sidewalk behind a mother who was walking hand in hand with her daughter, who looked to be about four years old.

The little girl stumbled and fell and, after quickly jumping up and brushing off her tiny knees, exclaimed, "Mommy, I'm sorry I fall down all the time." Her mother could have missed the moment, laughed at or even spanked the girl, but she didn't. She lifted her daughter up into her arms, kissed her and said, "That's O.K., honey. No matter how many times you fall down, Mommy will always love you." Talk isn't cheap when we talk like God.

Jesus spoke healing, life-giving words to thousands of people. They were not complicated, theological homilettes; they were words which welled up from a profoundly human heart: Your faith has healed you; Know that I am with you always; Be not afraid; Your sins are forgiven; Peace be with you.

When we rush through life at supersonic speed we don't even have time to think nice words, much less speak them. And so we have a world full of deceitful politicians, long-winded preachers, gossipy neighbors, angry spouses and TV programs filled with violence. Many of today's speakers have lost the capacity to speak words of life. Yet words of life are needed now more than ever.

It is time to stop, to slow down, to seek the silence of the desert and learn again how to speak like God. Simple words like "thank you" and "I forgive you" can transform our divided world into a global village of compassion and understanding. Taking a few moments to breathe deeply and ask God for help before responding to someone in a tense conversation is a good place to start. Our words can open the door for God's Word to break into human history, and once again our world can witness the Word becoming flesh--this time in us.


Brian J. Pierce, O.P., is a Dominican priest and member of a community of Dominican preachers in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. The community works in the training of lay Delegates of the Word and university students, as well as in the care of persons with AIDS.

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