There are many lessons I have learned about trying to be spiritual in my lifetime. Here are a few.
4 Life is like a cross-word puzzle. I had a Lectio Divina reflection on this idea. When you enter the spiritual domain or universe, you are given all the pieces of the puzzle of life. Some of those pieces you fit into place as you grow older and wiser. Some pieces are not of this puzzle and won’t fit. You won’t know which ones to use unless you get some help. Christ gives you help in this, but will not help you with the puzzle. If you follow Christ and his ways, you will find the truth and the life, or which pieces of the puzzle are true and which are false. You still have to take a lifetime to fit the pieces together to see if they fit. The picture of the puzzle is the center you have chosen for your life. It is the reward for which you have taken time to see what fits together. It is the purpose of your life.
If you want to read an excellent book on Cistercian spirituality as expressed by Lay Cistercians, read Carl McColeman’s book, Befriending Silence.
Although I try mightily, I am constantly tempted to stop any attempts at contemplation. This is like a runner who must find a mental challenge, as well as the physical one of running the distance. In one of my Lectio Divina meditations, I found myself thinking about why it is so difficult to focus on being in the presence of God. I think the reason has to do with original sin, the condition in which all humans find themselves. Spirituality is the act of raising us up beyond this natural default of our nature, to attempt to think about invisible reality. Spirituality, much less contemplation, is not natural. It takes work, it demands focus, it requires energy, and not the energy you get from working out at the gym. I think of that when I am driving the five hours (one way) from Tallahassee, Florida to Conyers, Georgia, once a month. My wife keeps haranging me that I don’t need to travel to the Lay Cistercian Gathering Day at Our Lady of the Holy Spirit Monastery. I can pray anywhere. Why waste money we don’t have (actually we do). This is taking up the cross DAILY to follow Christ, being tempted that all this God stuff is irrelevant. Even when trying to move from self to God by using the Lectio Divina method, contemplation is always with its temptations to do something that is profitable, that will make a difference, that won’t take so much wasted time. Contemplation is an illusive treasure and demands my full attention.
Contemplation, in a manner of speaking, is like a diet. Your physician tells you that you need to lose weight. Now comes the hard part. What diet will you choose, or, if the physician gives you one, will you take it seriously? Based on my own feeble attempts to diet, here are some observations of how a diet that applies to contemplation.
As an aspiring Lay Cistercian, I would like to share with you some of the practical and real ways in which I pray, using silence, solitude, work, prayer, in the context of community. These reflection are my own and do not reflect any official monastic or Lay Cistercian opinions. I am just a broken-down, old temple of the Holy Spirit who is writing down what I receive in contemplatio. Here is what I try to do consistently and persistently every day.
HOW I USE THE CONTEMPLATIVE APPROACH TO SPIRITUALITY
The following pages are samples of the horarium (hourly agenda) I use to organize my day as a Lay Cistercian. I must tell you that I am retired and have time to devote to the practice of how to love as Jesus did. Not everyone has the great opportunity I have to pray the Liturgy of the Hours and Rosary in the parish. If I don’t keep it, no big deal, but it is an anchor.
My Center: Have in you the mind of Christ Jesus. –Philippians 2:5
Five or Six Practices to support my center: These are Cistercian charisms and practices.
Silence—When I think of silence, I think of lack of worldly noise. But, it is more than just lack of external noises, like television, children playing, going to work, and traveling in a car. For me, I try to be conscious that all these sounds give glory to the Father through the Son, in union with the Holy Spirit. I try to make a space where I can reflect on my center with some degree of privacy. Silence of my heart helps me sustain the other Cistercian charisms and practices and so grow in fierce love.
Solitude— Solitude, for me, means carving out a space and quiet time to focus on how to have in me the mind of Christ Jesus.
For the Cistercian monks, solitude means carving out a time and space that permits them to focus on loving God with their whole heart, whole soul and whole mind without external distractions. For the Lay Cistercian, we also concentrate on fashioning a little prayer nest but we live in the secular world and therefore embrace all the distractions as part of our prayer to the Father. St. Benedict says, “That in all things, God be glorified.”
Prayer—Prayer is lifting the heart and mind to God. As a Lay Cistercian, I actively put myself in the presence of God using prayer, both public and private. Even if I sometimes feel that prayer is repetitious and rote, I have noticed that the more I try to grow deeper using prayer, rather than fighting the externals, the more peace there is in my spirit. It is resting my heart in the heart of Christ that helps me love fiercely.
Work—Work as the world sees it is a means to make money. Work with a spiritual approach is transforming the ordinary tasks of the day into those that give glory and praise to the Father. Work is prayer, if offered up as praise and glory to the Father.
Community—Lay Cistercians gravitate towards communal gatherings to refresh the soul and to transform themselves deeper in the mind and heart of Christ Jesus. Even though there is great distance between us, we link together as one in our commitment to each other because we are all linked through the mind and heart of Christ Jesus. Sharing Christ with each other nourishes the Spirit in me.
If you think I am some kind of religious fanatic, let me assure you that I am not. What this blog topic is about is ten days of contemplation using the Lectio Divina method. I didn’t always have success at waiting for God, which is what contemplation is all about. I didn’t spend all day fixated on how I would get angry if God did not talk to me. Now, that would be a fanatic. As an aspiring Lay Cistercian, I try to do Lectio Divina (lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio) for at least twenty minutes a day. I only profess to be a beginner at this, so many times I don’t contemplate more than twenty minutes. I am growing, imperceptibly, to a deeper practice, but it takes time. The Lectio Divina stages, or rungs in the ladder, are based on Guido II’s steps to enter the inner self through contemplation. http://www.umilta.net/ladder.html
The key here is doing Lectio every day without fail, even if all you have to show for it is the time you put into it. This reminds me very much of a book I read called The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, particularly as it refers to the advice the fox gives to The Little Prince on the meaning of friendship and the time it takes to develop it. I recommend that you go on-line and read the chapter. http://www.angelfire.com/hi/littleprince/framechapter21.html
Once you have read it, do you see any similarities between taming and contemplation? Isn’t that a beautiful explanation of invisible reality and the power of persistent contemplation? It works!
Just like the Little Prince, I waited each day for God to be with me, not just in my mind, and my heart but my whole self. (Deuteronomy 6 and Matthew 22:37.)
Read two important quotes from The Little Prince.
“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
“What is essential is invisible to the eye,” the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember.
“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”
“It is the time I have wasted for my rose–” said the little prince, so that he would be sure to remember.
It is the time I took in contemplation to be in the presence of The One who is beyond cancer, and has conquered death, that is important. There is no wasted time in contemplation. I said it once more, so that I would be sure to remember.
• Contemplation is part of a five-step process. I don’t just jump into contemplation right away.
• Contemplation is all about feelings not the mind, like being wrapped in a warm, security blanket with The One.
• In contemplation, no words are spoken, no thoughts to drive my personal agenda, and no images in my mind to explore how the lectio (Phil 2:5) would look.
• Lectio is about reading the Word.
• Meditatio is about how that Word impacts my life.
• Oratio is asking that the Word be made flesh in my life.
• Contemplatio is waiting for God to share His energy with me on how to love with all my heart, all my mind, and all my strength.
• Actio (recommended by Pope Benedict XVI) is doing what God instructs me to perform.
THE THREE IMPERATIVES FOR CANCER PATIENTS
While in contemplation, here it what came to me, without my leading God, so to speak.
1. Don’t be afraid. That is exactly what happened to me, when I began to rationalize all the possible worst-case scenarios about dying. I had lost control of my life, not realizing that I never did have full control over it, My thoughts went to the times in Scriptures when angels appeared to Elizabeth and then Mary (Luke 1:13, 31). They sought to calm down Elizabeth and Mary. How would you react, if you saw an angel standing before you? Don’t be afraid, they all said. I think that statement is significant because it shows how sensitive God is to our feelings. This statement just popped into my hear, out of the blue. This is not just the intellectual statement of not being afraid, it is the warm feeling that everything is as it should be and I am going to be alright. All this happened in an instant.
This first statement is the perfect way God would approach me. A gentle way, one which takes into account my wild rides of emotion and intellectual instability when facing serious illness or death. Don’t be afraid is what God would say to us as He meets us for the first time. He did that to me. But there is more…
2. I am with you. God’s response to me in the depths of my being was: Don’t be afraid. I am with you. This was not just any I. This was the only I there is, as in, I AM THE ONE WHO IS. If God is with me, I thought, who can be against me. All of this happened instantaneously.
If you don’t hold to all this God business, you have your family who is with you as you confront the cancer phase of your life, you until you die.
I find it a strength in my struggle to believe all this, that someone who lives in three universes (physical, mental, spiritual) is my friend, even to the point of making me an adopted son. If you have a friend, you want to be with him or her, want to be close to them, to share the joy and happiness of their presence. That is the way I feel about God communicating with this broken-down, old Temple of the Holy Spirit.
• God with me means I can live whatever time I have to the fullest.
• God with me means I can share with family and friends that death is not the end, but a door to be opened.
• God with me means I am humbled by the fact that Jesus became one of us, suffered (like those who have cancer) and died so that we could live…Forever as adopted daughters and sons of the Father.
• God with me means I can sit in silence and solitude and wait for God to approach me when He wants, knowing that I am valued.
• If God is with me, who can be against me, even with cancer or cardiac arrest.
• If God is with me, life is good, even if my road is rocky; at least I know I am on the right path.
But there is more…
3. Good and faithful servant, come share your Lord’s joy.
My contemplative experience gave me great joy, which may seem like an oxymoron. How can you have joy, when you have cancer? How can you experience fierce love, when you know you will die, maybe sooner than later, but you will die. Remember there are two meanings for joy: the worldly one, and the spiritual one. In the worldly one, joy means, among other things, happiness with your family, contentment that you have run a good race with your life, and the satisfaction that you are leaving the world a better place than you found it (if that is so).
Joy, in the spiritual sense, is a sign of contradiction. It means you have happiness with your family, contentment that you have run a good race with your life, and the satisfaction that you are leaving the world a better place than you found it (if that is so). Plus, you look forward to continuing that joy with your loved ones and your positive experiences of what life is all about, in Heaven…Forever.
In my contemplation, I had feelings of great joy and contentment, that I was on the right road, and that the words of Jesus to all of us were true, “Come, Good and Faithful Servants, share your Lord’s joy.”
There were three parts to my contemplatio, all experienced with great security, joy and peace. Compared to anything I will face during the rest of my life, even should it be the end of the world, I am with someone who will lead me, if I sit silently and alone in the silence of my heart.
The scary thing for me is, I know that I have only scratched the surface in contemplating the riches God has given us. As St. Thomas Aquinas, probably the greatest mind to explore how we interact with God, is said to have written before he died, “I can write no more. All that I have written seems like straw.”
When I deal with cancer or cardiac arrest, or any other ailment, I will always keep my experience of the three in mind:
a. Don’t be afraid.
b. I am with you.
c. Come, share Your Lord’s Joy.
If you are fortunate enough to attend a retreat at Holy Spirit Monastery, Conyers, Ga., in the silent dining room, you will find a sign on the table that reads, “Silence spoken here.” Likewise, if you are committed to seeking God, you will need learn the language of love using the language of silence and solitude within you. To do that you need the code Jesus gave us.
If you have read the reflections I made on perspective, you know my thoughts about living in two universes verses three universes. Living in two universes is not bad, it just is not the whole scope of reality. I think of this, when I hear physicists and astronomers announce with great confidence that you can’t see God, therefore God does not exist. Of course you can’t see God. God doesn’t exist here, in the same way that you do. God doesn’t use words to communicate. He is the Word, three persons of pure energy, the energy of Love, as Teilhard de Chardin wrote. It is into this universe that the human race is propelled and how each individual is compelled to confront the totality of all reality and figure out the mega question: is earth a big spaceship hurtling through space and time towards a universe composed of pure energy with just the right atmosphere to allow us to live for seventy years, or eighty, if we are strong, according to Psalms? Think about that! We are rapidly moving towards a universe where all of us can live in perfection, consistent with our human nature, and never die. It all goes back to the underlying meaning of the Genesis myth, that marvelous drama about who we are, why we are, and where we are headed.It details how we are imperfect yet called to live in absolute perfection, not according to our human nature, but God’s nature—pure energy. In this universe to which we are all aspire, termed Omega by Teilhard de Chardin, there is only The One, there is no two. There is a tick but no tock. Heaven is God’s playground, and if, by some chance, we figure out the code God left us, over thousands of generations and millions of years, and use it to the best of our ability, it will unlock how to live in absolute love (the language of perfection), absolute trust (faith) and absolute service (energy)…Forever. For me, this is called the Jesus Code, or how to speak the language of God by doing what he revealed through Jesus and acting now as though we were already with him. Christ gave us the key to unlock the mysteries of three universes. No all keys fit the lock, only ones that Jesus forged by his death on the cross.
Doesn’t that blow your mind? We are moving relentlessly through time in the direction of Omega while not moving in space. What Jesus did was to show us where to find the key and how to interpret the code that unlocks the doors of eternity. It is within each of us and we can access it through silence and solitude, if we choose. Some will unlock the secrets of reality, many will not get it, many more will not even care, calling the whole effort a feeble attempt by some minds to coerce the rest into believing as they do. Those who have struggled to discover the way, know the truth, and, as they begin to live the life prescribed by God to live in the presence of pure energy, are not phased by three universes because they know what awaits them. St. Paul says, “But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” (KJV)
For me, I discovered the key when I was in 8th Grade at St. Francis Xavier Grade School, Vincennes, Indiana in 1950. Of course, it took me the rest of my life to learn how to use the code to open it. I learned how to access my inner self through contemplation and receive the source of energy that sustains me, even with cancer and cardiac arrest (2007).
The morning is dark and lovely with the silence that comes with listening with the ear of the heart (St. Benedict’s Rule, Prologue) to the insights and love only God can share. The cool air of the third day of Spring smells fresh and with just a hint of flowers about. My lectio divina (http://lectio-divina.org/index.cfm) for today, as it has been since 1963 is: Have in You the Mind of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 2:5) It is my purpose in life, the reason why I get up in the morning and drag these old bones out of bed. I have found, to my utter amazement, that my encounters with God the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit, using just these eight words, produced over thirty books, with five more on the drawing board. I just write what comes into my head.
This blog is the attempt of a broken-down, old temple of the Holy Spirit (with lots of cracks) to share some ideas. Four years ago, at the age of 72, I was accepted as a Lay Cistercian novice by the abbot of Holy Spirit Monastery at Conyers, Georgia (Trappist). I still aspire to turn my life toward God’s will each day, taking up the struggle to choose the good verses the faux temptations of the secular world that seek to derail me from my purpose. It is a daily struggle to take up my cross and keep myself focused on the prize, as St. Paul says. I have chosen and been selected as a member of the Lay Cistercian family associated with the monks. (www.trappist.net/lay-cistercians). I don’t promise you lofty ideas that change the world. These practices and charisms of Cistercian spiritual have changed me, however, and that I can share with you. My style is personal and meant to be from the heart, so you may find these ideas a bit fragmented–just like life. I don’t care what your religious affiliation is or even if you don’t have one. My own heritage is Roman Catholic and for that I can only give thanks to my parents for handing on to me what they themselves received.
It is my hope that some of these ideas find a home in the ear of your heart and help you discover the meaning of love. “That in all things, God be glorified.” –St. Benedict
The following excerpt is from my still unpublished journal on You Know You Are Going to Die, New What? Three Questions You Must Face Head On
Sometimes is it easier to write down your thoughts before you attempt to express them with others. As a cancer survivor of Leukemia, CLL type, that is what I did and I thought you might like this non-intrusive way of organizing your thinking about the fact that you may or may not die as a resut of cancer, some other like-threatening illness. or AIDS.
Whether you have some faith system or no faith system at all, you have a value system, know it or not. That is your default system of what you hold as your center. Only you can choose what you place at your center, be it money, fame, fortune and glory (as Indiana Jones said in The Temple of Doom) or nothing at all. Before you accuse me of flying under false colors, I will tell you that I am a Lay Cistercian (Trappist) member of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, GA. Although it has influenced my view of reality, I am not trying to make you this or that. I don’t care. I do care about contemplative practices of silence and solitude and conversion of my life to the purpose I have selected. I do care to share with you some reflections on how contemplation helped me secure a North on my compass when I learned I had cancer. I hope that you can apply at least one or two ideas to your situation, given that you know you are going to die soon. I do care that you have an opportunity to write down YOUR thoughts and feelings as you confront yourself and the situation in which you find yourself.
There are three questions that I asked myself, upon learning that I had cancer. I used contemplation (going into the rich interior of my inner self) to seek peace, purpose and forgiveness all within the silence of my own heart. While it is true that you are diagnosed with cancer or some other life-threatening illness as an individual, you can be sure you don’t have it alone, as soon as you allow your friends to share in your diagnosis and how you assimilate it into your way of thinking. Cancer is always a family disease.
The first part of this workbook, I will give you my take on the three questions that I faced. No apologies. It is what I did, not what you did or will do. In the second part of this book is a journal so that you can write down your answer to these three questions. No one needs to see what you write, unless you share it with them. I encourage you to do so. I will read it, if you want me to do so.
This is the big, elephant-in-the-room question, the so called question everone knows but no one wants to talk about. It is classic avoidance and we all do it. After all, who wants to die? Who wants to be told they are going to die? It affects both patients and physicians. Physicians are petrified because they don’t know how their patients will accept it; patients are stunned when they hear the “C” word and begin playing an endless loop of doomsday scenarios in their minds.
The question is not, nor will it ever be, “Am I going to die?” Name one person you know who will not die? I can’t, except for two persons, but that is the subject of another set of assumptions for another workbook. I received a phone call from my primary physician, Dr. Judith Lewis, M.D., Internal Medicine, one day in September of 2014, stating she had reviewed my WBC count (> 20) and wanted to make an appointment for me with an Oncologist, Dr. Robert Tetreault, M.D., in Tallahassee, FL. She said to me, “Y ou know what we are talking about, don’t you?” I said, “Yes. You are telling me I probably have cancer but you want to make sure with a bone-marrow biopsy.” I thought is was nice that she called me. I hung up and had no thoughts in my mind, which some say is normal, but I did fall back on my center, the set of values and meaning that give worth to my life.
Each of us has a center, one which we alone can choose, based on what we value as meaningful in our lives to that point. When there is trauma and urgency, such as when you are told you are going to die, prisoners get religion all of a sudden, those about to die, want to confess to a Priest, if they are Catholic, people think of their value system, as their life moves before their eyes. You may have experienced this. If what we have selected as our center is substantial and meaningful, we stand on the solid grounds of our humanity, if our center is like Jell-O, we don’t do so well with the news that we are going to die.
Here are three lessons that I learned, when confronted with my mortality.
Lesson One: Keep life simple. Your center is the one ground of your being. The default emotions and feelings, when someone says you are going to die, can be like Kubler-Ross’ five steps of grief:
1 – Denial.
2 – Anger.
3 – Bargaining.
4 – Depression. Also referred to as preparatory grieving. …
5 – Acceptance.
See Google for “Kubler-Ross’ Five Stages”
Not all centers are capable of sustaining you as you work your way through these five stages of grief, let alone provide you with what you need to move to the next stage of your life. When I was told I had cancer, it was like saying, “The world will end in ten minutes.” I don’t remember being depressed or angry, when I actually found out that I had a football-size mass of CLL cells in my liver. Not good. The worst part for me was not the chemo-therapy, the liver biopsy, twelve sessions of at least five hours apiece, but the MRI and PET scans. I am severely clostrophobic.
2. Lesson Two: You die yourself, but you don’t die alone. The family goes through the stages of grief with you. If your family sees you as a defenseless victim they will never raise the one question I need to hear about my dying and what that would mean. Unless someone from the outside (a friend, minister, rabbi or priest) brings this up, it probably won’t be addressed. Every time you meet together, there is the great unspoken taboo that needs to be addressed. What I learned is, it is my death they are talking about, so I must bring up the subject and address it head on. I could not do that unless my ground for walking was concrete and I was in control of my dying well. I don’t control that I will die, but I can control how to die well.
I had my wife and daughter accompany me to the Oncologist, Dr. Tetreault’s office for the results of my tests. I wanted them to know what I know and not begin conjecturing or playing the “what if” game. It worked out well, in terms of them knowing what I know. In terms of the type of lymphoma, it was CLL type and there were a bunch o these cells in my liver the size of a football. I had to have a liver biopsy to see what was going on. Like most non-medical types, I had no idea what that meant, although I did know a little about liver functioning. Modern research in oncology is fantastic and I was given a newly approved drug.
Lesson 3: Be realistic. You know you are going to die, but you have the opportunity to die well.
In the next installment, I will discuss the impact of using Cistercian contemplative spirituality as a way for me to gain control of my life. I cannot control my death.