Many of you know that this year I’m participating in something called the Clergy Contemplative Renewal program, based at Holy Wisdom Monastery, the ecumenical Benedictine monastery six minutes away on County M. (It seems odd to just call it a monastery; I don’t know if it’s a monastery with a prairie or a prairie with a monastery, but the land is a huge part of the place and its spirit and mission.)
Anyway: I was there for a week last July, when the program began. I was just there for six days recently, and I’ll be there for a final, shorter gathering with my cohort and our leaders in June.
There are 18 of us – clergy from around the Midwest and various denominations: Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, UCC, Methodist, Mennonite.
The program is relatively new; we’re the fourth cohort.
The goal is to help clergy explore contemplative practices, to tend to our spiritual wellbeing, our capacity to rest, to listen, to grow.
For the benefit of our churches, but also for us as human beings beloved by God.
People in the parish have not really asked me what “contemplative” means. Maybe you all know all about it already!
Maybe some of you have the same impression I did before I started this program: That it has something to do with a lot of sitting still, and with an attitude of vague, kindly disapproval towards busyness, bustle and noise.
It was hard for me to make up my mind to apply to this program.
I don’t sit still easily. I like things busy.
People tell me sometimes, “I read the Enews and there’s just so much going on!!” – I worry that that means, “You exhaust me!”
In my defense, everything in the Enews isn’t me. But it’s true that I always have more ideas and projects than I do time and capacity.
It took me a long time to decide to apply for this program. I was afraid of it. Afraid of being shamed for being a priest wrong.
And when I did apply, and got in, I dreaded it. I dreaded it right up to the first day, last July, when one of our leaders, Winton Boyd, told us, “You may have been on other clergy renewal programs where they get you together and tell you you’re doing it wrong. This isn’t going to be that.”
And it’s true. It hasn’t been that. It has been about listening, and noticing, and, yes, changing; but it has been so gentle, so kind. It’s one of the best things I’ve done, as a priest and as a human being.
There are definitions of contemplative spirituality, offered by various noted figures in that world.
I thought about finding and sharing some of their words, today. But then I decided it might be more helpful – and more authentic – to share my own fumbling, half-formed impressions with you.
The word contemplative comes from the word contemplate, which sort of means, to look at something reflectively. To spend time really paying attention to something.
And in many ways that is the heart of it. But how the heck does that become a whole way of life – a whole spiritual path?
Today’s Scripture lessons connect with three threads or themes in contemplative spirituality. The first thread has to do with Creation-consciousness. The Psalmist praises God by naming some of the wonders of the created world: “You count the number of the stars and call them all by their names… You cover the heavens with clouds and prepare rain for the earth… You provide food for flocks and herds, and for the young ravens when they cry.”
In our Isaiah text, too, the author looks to the stars in wonder:
“Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name.”
I don’t know that Creation-consciousness is essential to contemplative spirituality, but it is a big part of it for many contemplative teachers and traditions, and certainly for the way of contemplation shared and taught at Holy Wisdom on the prairie.
The idea of finding some sense of renewal in Nature is so commonplace that it’s a cliché. Consider the saying “Stop and smell the flowers” – or the phrase “touch grass,” which in some corners of the Internet has become a way of telling someone that they’re too wrapped up in whatever is happening online and need to take a break and check in with the physical world.
There’s nothing wrong with pausing to appreciate a flower, or to step outside after a long day on a screen. But the underlying assumption is that a little bit of Nature can help us dive back in to business as usual – rather than deeply reorient us, and change our sense of what really matters.
Many of us – maybe most of us here – enjoy Nature. In my experience, contemplative Creation-consciousness isn’t fundamentally different from that enjoyment; it is, perhaps, just deeper, and wider. I’ve spoken about this before, but I genuinely thought prairies were secretly kind of boring until I had several days with not much to do except walk the prairie at Holy Wisdom and pay attention. I met coneflowers, baptisia, lead plant, several types of clover, compass plant, butterfly weed, wild quinine, shooting star, cinquefoil, rattlesnake master, plantain, hoary vervain, coreopsis, and many others.
And then there were the many insects, birds, and creatures who are also part of the prairie ecosystem. It is so alive, and so diverse; anywhere you look there is something worth noticing. I can’t wait to start watching spring arrive on the prairie, with these new eyes.
Paying deeper and wider attention to Creation – wherever we are, whatever landscape or non-human neighbors are close at hand – shows us lots of things. The Psalmist and other voices in Scripture find that contemplation of Creation points them toward God, the creator, in gratitude and awe. That’s true for me too – but I find that reflective dwelling with Creation shows me lots of things besides the glory of the Creator.
When we spend time in contemplation of the natural world, we see the subtle ways light changes hour by hour, and seasons change day by day. We see cycles: rest and renewal; death, decay, and new life. We see beauty, and strangeness, and beauty in strangeness. We see the focus of the bee at the flower, the tree’s clarity of purpose. We see that there is always, always change. We see that there is so much more than us.
At Holy Wisdom last month we were invited to write our Rule of Life – a set of intentions about how we think God is inviting us to live, to be most fully our holy and beloved selves.
In my Rule of Life, I call myself to cultivate my relationship with land, place, and creation. I have come to see this as something that I need, something that feeds me. Even the grief of loving Creation in a time of climate crisis is essential to my full humanity.
For the second thread of contemplative spirituality in our readings today, let’s turn to the Gospel. “In the morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”
This is something Jesus does repeatedly in the Gospels – going off by himself to pray, when he can. Even Jesus, who was God as well as human, did not have an inexhaustible well of energy, kindness, insight, and healing power.
He knew he had to get away, now and then, to re-center and recharge. To come back to the God he named as Father, and back to himself.
Part of my Rule of Life involves sitting in quiet for seven minutes, every morning… ideally as the first thing I do.
There’s nothing magic about seven minutes. I used to do five and it felt like not quite enough, but I’m not sure I can commit to ten. So I’m trying seven.
Our leader in this program, Nancy Enderle, says there’s no such thing as a bad sit, and I’m coming to believe that this is true.
Sometimes – often – I spend most of the seven minutes just trying to gently clear away the thoughts that rise up, and get to a little bit of inner quiet.
Rarely: something else happens. Maybe an insight rises to the surface, or I feel a connection with deep peace and love.
But even if all that happens is that I manage to spend thirty seconds out of that seven minutes paying attention to my own breath and just being: I still start my day from a better place than if I hadn’t done that.
Let me tell you, nobody is more surprised than I am that this has become part of my life. Something I hunger for, and miss when I don’t do it.
But set-apart times to sit in quiet aren’t the only way to step away. I remember learning about contemplative prayer in seminary and feeling deeply frustrated: I was a full-time student and a full-time mom of a toddler – there was no “away” for me.
Instead I started working on a practice of presence – having a few minutes each day when I was just fully there, in the moment, with my kid, in my messy living room. No agenda, no thinking about the next thing that needs doing.
That, too, is a kind of quiet – a little space of inward peace.
I’m opening myself to those kinds of moments again now, too. Seeking inner quiet, presence, stillness, even among the clamor of needs and tasks and priorities that fill my days.
Notice, in the Gospel, that Jesus gets called back. His disciples seek him out and say, “Hey, what are you doing here? People need you!” I don’t think Jesus ever gets as much away time, as much quiet, prayerful time, as he wants and needs. But, apparently, he gets enough to be able to keep going, to know what matters. So can we, I think. I hope.
To get to the third thread of contemplative spirituality, I want to look at part of our text from Isaiah. The young and strong will grow weary and exhausted, but those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength. It’s a passage that suggests a resilience, a capacity for perseverance and renewal, that has nothing to do with age or physical wellbeing.
Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength – shall rise up like a young eagle testing the strength of her wings.
It’s a famous verse; while preparing for this sermon I stumbled on some of the many Amazon products that feature Isaiah 40:31. But it’s also a somewhat cryptic verse. What does “wait for the Lord” mean, here?
I don’t know for sure. But I think that waiting for the Lord has something to do with trusting that God is present – in your life, in your situation.
And it has something to do with attention – with openness to how God may be present, and what God may be doing.
About ten chapters earlier in Isaiah, there’s another well-known passage about the true source of strength: “For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel: In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” (Isaiah 30:15) If you recognize those words it’s likely because they’re woven into one of the most beloved prayers in our prayer book – it concludes: “Lift us, we pray, to your presence, where we may be still and know that You are God.”
Return and rest, quiet and trust, waiting on God. All these phrases and words resonate with the theme of seeking quiet times of prayer that I just talked about. But there’s more here, too. We’re not talking about quiet for quiet’s sake, like the relief when a too-loud TV is finally turned off. We need that relief sometimes, for certain. But the quiet, the rest, the waiting here is to help us be awake to the world around us, to God, even to ourselves. It’s a quietness that gives us space to notice. To listen.
Listen is a core word in contemplative spirituality. It’s often noted that it’s the first word in the Rule of St. Benedict; Benedictine monasticism is one of the wellsprings of contemplative spirituality. I came home after my first retreat at Holy Wisdom with a plan to get the word “listen” tattooed on one of my hands. I still might.
I hope it’s obvious, but this listening isn’t just about ears and sound. The listening of contemplative spirituality is about openness and non-judgmental attention.
A release of preconceptions, distractions, outcomes, and plans, to be present to what is.
Attending deeply to what is doesn’t mean we release our agency, our capacity to act, our hopes and concerns. Listening doesn’t mean becoming passive. It means that we are able to exercise our agency more wisely, in the direction of futures that want to become true. Not fighting with intractable reality.
There’s a lot that’s still mysterious to me here, and a lot that’s hard to put into words, but I think that this is part of how waiting for the LORD renews our strength. Because when we listen well, to the situation, to others, to ourselves, to God, we are able to discern how best to use the strength and capacity we have.
Creation-consciousness. Time apart for prayerful quietness. Waiting for God – listening, with the ears of the heart. These are some of the core practices of contemplative spirituality, as I am coming to know it – as I am coming, fumblingly, to practice it.
This sermon resists an ending, because I am a beginner. I can’t tell you where I think this path leads. I can’t promise you results. All I know is that I’m finding nourishment here, and grace. If anyone wants a conversation partner, or just to walk on the prairie together, I would love to do that. Maybe there’s something here that sparks reflection about a Lenten practice for you.
Someone in the congregation is thinking about starting a centering prayer group; let me know if you are curious about what that would feel like.
And let me offer, in closing, a prayer we often use at Holy Wisdom – the Prayer for Presence. Let us pray.
In the gift of this new day
In the gift of the present moment
In the gift of time and eternity intertwined
Let us be grateful
Let us be attentive
Let us be open to what has never happened before
In the gift of this new day
In the gift of the present moment
In the gift of time and eternity intertwined