A Contemplative Journey
As a child I was blessed with two gifts in particular, a burning compassion for the poor and a natural contemplative bent. I used to go into our neighborhood Catholic church after school just to sit in the presence of the Eucharist, bathed in the love of God and loving Him in return. Walking home after receiving communion, my senses would be hyper-charged and I would experience every flower as a bouquet placed in my path by my Beloved. Once I must have appeared so disoriented, pausing to gaze with delirious delight at all the shrubbery, that I was stopped by the police, who said that I was behaving in a suspicious fashion! I tried to explain to them that I was just a little girl on my way home from church.
However, when I was in college the modern feminist movement arrived and I became scandalized by my Catholic Churchs refusal to acknowledge the equality of women or to grant us control over our fertility. I also could not accept the Churchs condemnation of homosexuals. I felt that if the Church could be so tragically and destructively wrong about women and human sexuality, then it must be wrong about everything else, too, including the existence of God. As a result, I lost my faith. I developed a hatred for the Church as an oppressor of women, particularly poor women. I didn't hate God, but a terrible despairing grief set in over the loss of my great Beloved. Even apart from the errors of the Church, I could not believe that the God of love could exist in the face of the appalling suffering I saw in the world. I didnt blame God for this suffering, I just could no longer believe in Him.
I became a lawyer and began to live among the homeless and poor immigrants from Central America and to serve them out of compassion and a thirst for justice, though not out of faith. My work met with success, though the death of my spiritual life produced a terrible, mostly hidden depression which grew for about 15 years and which I believe would have cost me my life eventually. During this time I had some affairs and tragically, an abortion as well. I then got married and when in my thirties found a talented therapist who enabled me to begin to heal from some of the wounds of my life. I believe that this psychological healing was a prerequisite for the spiritual healing which then followed.
It was after I became pregnant for the second time that I had the first experience of the presence of God in my adult life. One day during a hypnotherapy session, and without any suggestion of this on the part of my therapist, I spontaneously experienced myself as a tiny infant resting on the breast of God, who was a most tender father. It was an ecstatic sensation, like those I had experienced in childhood. After that, from time to time I would be overtaken by this Presence at various times throughout the day. I rejoiced greatly at His return but I did not go back to church.
During my years of darkness I was struck by the spirituality of the people that I served from Central America. Some, particularly the young mothers, had unimaginably harsh lives. They lived in nightmarish slums where rats attacked their children. Yet they seemed to be sustained by an unwavering faith in Mary in her manifestation as "Our Lady of Guadalupe," who they believe appeared to a Mexican peasant with a motherly message of loving care. Also, their relationship with Jesus was intimate and familiar, as mine had been. I remember seeing them walk right up to the tabernacle and kiss it, something that no one ever would have dared to do in the Anglo churches of my childhood. All in all, these women seemed to have a superhuman strength in adversity. I marveled at this but could not understand it since I no longer could accept the reality and power of faith.
Then something happened which in retrospect makes me think of Augustine who said, "Were it not for the miracles, I could not have believed." My parents had a "childlike" faith and used to amuse me no end with their na´ve and wild tales of miraculous shrouds, cloaks and apparitions. I had an educated intellectuals contempt for all these things.
But one day my mother sent me yet another book about a Marian apparition site. This time I opened it and read just one paragraph, which allegedly was a message from Jesus. The words were exceedingly tender and I felt as if a burning lance had been thrust through my heart. My being erupted into flames of longing. I cried for days and had an overwhelming thirst for the Eucharist. I felt that if I could not get back to it I would die. I sought out a priest, who fortunately didnt tell me to go through the long drawn out folderol of the modern RICA routine for returning Catholics. He simply heard my confession and welcomed me back. I returned to the Eucharist and now experience it as the authentic source of my real life a life that transcends mere physical existence His life itself shared with me.
After this conversion experience I had to endure a prolonged period of contempt and derision, bordering on hatred, from my husband, who was shocked by this sudden change in me. But over time he has reconciled himself to it, as he has observed me "coming to life" in a way that neither of us could have imagined before.
My life is extremely busy with work, family, and a new enterprise that God seems to be asking of me the formation of a group of interfaith professionals to serve the poor. So there is little time for contemplation, thought it still overtakes me, mostly when I am in nature. But my days are animated by a joyful experience of His companionship and by the feeling, quite simply, of being madly in love. I go to daily mass and have learned to play the piano again so that I can provide music for the service. I love to play Him love songs in his church home, though this has gotten me in trouble with the more sedate parishioners who prefer more traditionally austere liturgical music!
But most of all I love Him because of how I now can see Him present with the poor. In Jesus telling of the Last Judgment, He say, in essence, "When you saw the poor, you saw Me." That complete and unreserved identification with the poor, lice ridden, drug addled, homeless man lying in the gutter, is what makes me so helplessly in love with Him. He has not abandoned the "least" among us, but has completely identified Himself with them to the extent of saying, "When you look into the face of a homeless man, you look into My Face." This is the God man who has fused his identity with that of the poor, who has captured my heart in its entirety.
I can feel His Presence among the poor in a tangible way that I dont feel among other groups of people. Sometimes when I am with folks who arent poor I find myself looking around, feeling like something is wrong or missing. Then I realize that its Him that I dont feel the immediacy of His Presence the way that I do when I am with the poor. Now I understand that even though we, and the poor in particular, suffer terribly, He is intimately with us and all is in His hands and that this can be trusted.
I still believe that the Catholic Church is wrong and unjust in its positions regarding women and gays, though I have come to realize the tragic mistake that I made regarding abortion. But I will never again let the Churchs human decision makers separate me from my God in the Eucharist.
My faith now has a childlike quality similar to that which I used to despise in my
parents. After my return to the Eucharist I went to a site of a purported apparition of
Mary to thank her for her role in bringing me back to her Son. While I was there with my
four-year-old child, we asked Mary to bless our rosary and as we did so, its chain turned
to gold in our hands. These days I am particularly drawn to her image as Our Lady of
Guadalupe. I never tire of looking at it. It has a beauty that touches me deeply and
evokes for me all of her tender motherly compassion for the poor. Similarly, the image of
Jesus face that has been reconstructed from his purported burial shroud has
captivated my heart and I could contemplate it endlessly. For me it is the face of my
dearest Beloved, the source and end of all desire.
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Another Spiritual Journey
I was surprised and interested to see this Web site. I stumbled on your site as I was researching a paper on contemplative prayer for my graduate studies in Theology.
Contemplative prayer and mysticism have become the center of my whole life since I am convinced that all people are called to union with God. For Christians this union occurs through Christ.
My own journey over the past 6 years has brought me to this conclusion. My journey seriously began in June, 1993 when I had an experience of God's presence that can best be described as 'every cell in my body vibrated with the knowledge of God'. This experience lasted for 2 1/2 years and changed over time becoming quieter ('low hum', 'remnant of heat')until it finally left the day after Easter, 1996.
I went through a dark night that has no comparison in my life. I had fallen in love with God in those 2.5 years and I was devastated when God's presence disappeared. They were a glorious 2.5 years that I shall never forget! I felt abandoned, alone, and heart broken when He left. Once God's presence left I got sick for 8 months with chronic fatigue syndrome.
The fatigue began to lift when I accepted my illness and gave my health to God. About this same time I had the insight that God was with me as a nothingness. I could only describe God as 'negative zero'. God was less than nothing and was the 'less than hole' I felt inside myself. Yet I suddenly knew it was God. Imagine my elation to know that I had not turned away or gone down the wrong path!
The dark night experience continued for about 2 years. It was not just the feeling of losing God, but the knowledge of my own weak and sinful humanity. That was devastating and only became bearable when I accepted my humanity and my nothingness before God.
About this same time I had an experience of what I believe was kundalini energy. I was very distraught one night to the point that a friend wanted to spend the night with me. I awoke at midnight lying on my stomach. Suddenly I felt something like static electricity running from my thighs up my body. It felt as if my body became cross-wise, vibrating static electricity. No longer did I have a sense of my body or skin and the bed. As the energy moved towards my head I simply became this vibration with no sense of my physical self. As this was occurring I also had noise in my head like water rushing down a waterfall. I literally could not hear and yet I distinctly remember hearing three knocks, like on a door. I thought I was dying and simply prayed Jesus' name over and over again as this was happening. I don't know if this lasted 5 seconds or 5 minutes. It just began to subside and then ended. My extreme anxiety was gone and was replaced by extreme fatigue. The next morning when I got out of bed I felt like a truck had run over me. Every muscle in my body ached.
After this occurred, each evening before bed or at prayer time (centering prayer or Liturgy of the Hours) I would get so wound up that I couldn't sleep or sit still in prayer. It was as if my nervous system was on high speed while my body was exhausted. I felt just like screaming or running. I called my spiritual director who figured it was kundalini and she gave me some body movement exercises based on Taoist movements. Amazingly this worked. After several weeks everything was back to normal in my life.
There has been much more but the bottom line of this all has been the journey to God. Truly I have died and risen with Christ. The dark night ended about 1.5 years ago and life is fine. I think that I may be in the unitive state but I have finally learned not to worry about the stages. The only important thing is to let God be in charge and to always say "Yes". The strange phenomenon or special little gifts from God are apparently given by God because a person needs them. It may be that people who don't experience any of this phenomenon have the faith or maturity to simply say yes to God without them. I may have needed more help because I have a strong ego and a scientific analytical mind. God didn't get me through my head though, He touched my heart and nothing has been the same since then.
I felt rather uncomfortable writing up my short story. One, it is so personal that it is hard to put it out on the airwaves and trust that other people will hold it as tenderly as I do. Two, I am a bit leery of Web sites and people who might log on just for a vicarious experience or something spiritually easy. There are no easy answers in the journey, but simply the trust in God that grows as we mature in our relationship with God. Much of my spiritual journey the past 6 years has involved unusual phenomenon but I am uneasy writing about this since it is not the essence of my journey, but simply the way the journey manifested itself in my life. My experience has been primarily "lights on" (see Ruth Burrows, Guidelines for Mystical Prayer) but that may only be because that's what God needed to get through my strong intellect. Who knows? I agreed with your warning about wanting spiritual or paranormal experiences. Experiences can lead to pride (I know) which is anathema to the journey. So I just printed an abbreviated version of the most important and compelling parts of my journey. It may help some people without them wanting these experiences.
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I practice both vocal prayer and silent meditation on a daily basis. Usually I start in the morning by saying a few prayers and just vocally say what is in my heart to God, giving thanks and praying for petitions, etc. I try to sit and meditate in the morning about 1/2 hour, sometimes longer if I feel moved to do so. I usually pray in my bedroom, but occasionally if there is a lot on my mind I'll go to my church and meditate before the Blessed Sacrament.
The effects of my prayer life have been tremendous. It brings into focus the direction I'm moving in. Things become more clear to me. At times it has stirred up emotions of past hurt and pain that was essentially locked away. A great deal of emotional healing has taken place since I have begun to pray.
I didn't start meditating and praying until I was 35 years old, about 2 years ago. I decided to enroll my daughter in CCD classes at the age of 6 and thought I should attend Church with her on Sundays. I thought I could just "go through the motions" so to speak. I had been away from the Church for almost 15 years. I grew up Catholic and went to Mass each week as a child. I left when I was 20 after my 21 year old brother was murdered. I could not find any comfort or solace in God or the Church. I was in fact quite angry and directed that anger toward God, believing he could have prevented this from happening to my family. For years I asked the question "Why?"
Spiritually I was dead, but I always believed in God/Jesus even though I didn't practice any religion or prayer during this time.
When I began taking my daughter back to Mass, slowly I began to sense that this was a piece of my life that was missing. I had everything that I planned, a career, wonderful husband, two beautiful daughters, nice home, material things; but was still feeling that something was missing.
My attending Mass each week was beginning to fill that void. I went to see one of the Parish priests in confession at around Easter last year. At first I did not go into detail about my brother's death and why I left the Church in the first place. On some level I did not want to be there, yet felt the urge or need to be. I still find this experience hard to put into words. I was definitely not looking or wanting to come back into the Church, but I was having all these feelings of needing God. The Catholic Church was my only experience of knowing Him, so it was there that I turned.
At any rate, the pain of my brother's death and the feelings associated with my leaving the Church came back like a flood soon after. I began praying vocally every day, was drawn to the Blessed Sacrament, and sat in the Church crying my eyes out.
I went back to see the same priest when the words would not come in prayer. This time I explained why I left in the first place. He introduced me to "the prayer of the Heart," as he coined it, explaining that words are not necessary for prayer.
Almost immediately the pain was lifted and I became insatiable for info about contemplative prayer. I read everything I could get my hands on and began praying every day, sometimes throughout the day, having long chats with God, developing a deep personal relationship. This was never taught to me as a child, so it was all so new and exciting. I began keeping a spiritual journal and was always searching for more info to try and understand where this was all taking me. At this time I had trouble finding the time I wanted to put into my prayer life. I was living your typical middle-class mom life, working, taking care of a family and large home. I wanted to read, pray and write, but could not fit it all in. I began using my lunch hour to read and meditate, and the time spent in my car going to and from work to pray. Often I find myself in prayer throughout the day when engaged in otherwise mindless tasks (recollection?)
Soon after I began to reassess my life and decided to quit my job as a special education teacher at the end of the school year. I felt I was being led in this direction by God. This would be the first of many decisions I would make in the same way. I have tried especially to remain open to where and what I'm being led to through my prayer.
Most recently, I have felt compelled to forgive those responsible for my brother's death. This has taken much prayer and the gift of grace in order to get to this point, but I cannot describe the overwhelming feeling of peace that has come with this forgiveness.
As far as religious tradition, I am Catholic mainly because it is my religion from birth. I believe that there are many paths to God and it is important to follow one. For me, religion is nothing without spirituality. Yet I also have trouble remaining spiritual without the support of my organized religion. I find them to be dependent upon each other. I also believe to truly be spiritual one must pray often, although I admit there is no one "right" way to pray. That is as individual as the person despite their tradition. I have not had any formal spiritual direction, although from time to time I have spoken to my parish priest who has urged me to look at things more differently, or to ask certain questions of myself. I have done some spiritual reading: Thomas Merton, Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, although I can't say I always understand everything I'm reading! I have no real spiritual friends, as I find my prayer life difficult to share with others. It's not a part of myself I find easy to discuss with others. The exception to this would be my priest who is the only one who knows what I have been going through.
As far as extra-ordinary experiences, many years ago I had the experience of my dead brother standing at the side of my bed calling to me. Initially I thought it may have been a dream, but more and more I believe it was truly him. I also have had the sense that my dead father was present in my home. The feeling was so strong at times that I could also smell him. This began right after my return to Church and lasted several months on and off until about the spring. I have not had the sense since then.
I have also had the experience of being led to a person or place in an answer to my prayer. Also answers would come in the form of images, and then later I would receive confirmation of the answer another way; through reading or by another person.
It's not very clear, but to me it is significant given the number of times it has happened. I can only say in the last two years I have grown tremendously. My prayer life seems to have an ebb and flow about it. Sometimes I prayer very little and am satisfied, and other times can pray throughout the day and sit to meditate and am still insatiable. I just wish I understood more.
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1. What kind of prayer or meditation do you practice?
A. What do you do? I usually do a short reading from a sacred text or spiritual book, then attempt to quiet my mind and "listen" for God. I may begin with focusing on a short phrase from the reading or silently repeat the liturgical prayer, "Create in me a clean heart, oh God and renew a right spirit within me..."
B. Do you have regular times for it? In the morning shortly after rising. I also try before retiring to reconnect for a few minutes and to request resolution to the day's issues during my dreamtime. Also at odd times during the day I may have short conversational prayers to God.
C. A special place? For my morning meditations there is a chair in my bedroom that I use, otherwise I pray wherever I happen to be. Long drives in my car seem to be good times.
D. What are its effects? I'm not sure. I have the sense that my day runs more smoothly when I begin with morning meditations. I don't feel as rushed or pressured. I also have been more able to catch myself when I become cross or upset and shift into a more conscious choice for shaping my mood. Answers to questions or dilemmas also seem to come more frequently through readings, random thoughts, things other people say, etc. Then there are other times when nothing feels any different at all and I wonder if these other things are just my imagination.
E. What happens if you skip it? Nothing I've noticed except that I miss the quiet time. And sometimes it's harder to concentrate during subsequent meditations.2. What got you started? I've always had little conversations with God in my head. During some of them, I felt like he answered back! But these occasions were not very regular. I was never very good at formal prayer. It never felt quite right and as I got older it seemed superfluous to pray about things God already knew. Then I went through a series of serious personal disasters - very intense, one after the other over a period of several years. It set me on a course of trying to understand why this was happening and what I was supposed to be learning from it. I did a lot of searching within rather than without. I began studying how to meditate. It's been about a year since I started meditating on a regular basis. I have done a lot of healing since that time.
3. How has your prayer or meditation changed over time? I alluded to that in the previous question. Basically I've changed my goals for prayer from looking to God for things I want to realizing that what I really want is God and just sitting quietly in his presence.
4. What expectations do you have for the future? What would you like to see happen? I'd like to have my connection to God deepen so my life is lived consciously in his presence. I'd like to be able to more clearly read His guidance for my life. I'd like to more often respond to people out of a sense of love and be less anxious about my life choices.
5. Do you belong to a particular religious tradition? Missouri Synod Lutheran.A. How has it helped your life of prayer or meditation? It prepared me for a God-centered life and gave me some tools for my spiritual search. It taught me that God was accessible and loving and that my relationship to God was secure no matter how I might neglect it.
B. How has it hindered? I don't know of any meditative or mystical tradition within the Lutheran church. I could use a spiritual director to help me understand the meditative process but don't know how to go about finding one. Also my search has led me to other religious disciplines which has led me to question some things about my tradition. Whenever I dig around a little more I find that what appears to be fundamental truths also seem to be universal. I am a new student at this but in general, I've found my faith strengthened and that most of the doctrines I grew up with are actually quite compatible. My concern about finding a spiritual director extends to wonder if most of them are tied very strongly into one spiritual tradition and not open to exploration.
C. How much have you looked outside your own tradition? I began with reading the Tao de Ching and other Eastern philosophy. I've also done some reading about Judaism and the Kabbalah and some reading about Catholic mystics. I will soon be doing some additional reading in all these traditions plus the Koran and Hindu literature. I've also read some "new age" authors such as Marilyn Ferguson, Barbara Marx Hubbard and Carolyn Myss, some literature describing shamanism and Native American or aboriginal traditions. I have participated in email discussions with people from a variety of traditions but I live in a very isolated area where the ability to meet people from these traditions is very limited. I figure this is because it is now my time to search within and when I'm ready my spiritual partners will appear.D. What hopes and fears do other traditions inspire in you? It's a big mystery and I love mysteries. I suspect that each of the major religions of the world has evolved from God's original revelations about Himself/Herself. Perhaps the story of the Tower of Babel illustrates how we became so culturally fragmented. I was in a group therapy class once where everyone was given an object and matched up with a small group. We were told there was a relationship among our objects but we could not speak in order to find it. It turned out we had pieces to a puzzle, and if we had the courage to share our piece with the rest of the group, we could solve the puzzle. I think that's a wonderful analogy for the differing cultural viewpoints about God. I suspect they are each pieces of a larger puzzle that we should put together and share but that we tend to hold tightly to and protect. I would love to see how they fit together and wish I knew more so I could play with all the puzzle pieces myself.
E. Have you ever switched your tradition and why? No, I've gone through periods when I was less active in my church but then renewed my interest. Luther is a personal hero to me and there is much I love about the Lutheran tradition - especially the music! I feel sorry when I see people get mired in dogma but I feel it has given me such a good foundation that I doubt I'll ever leave. My husband is giving serious consideration to becoming a Lutheran minister.
F. What are the good and bad points of your own tradition? The intellectual traditions for Biblical exegesis, the music and the creative traditions for worship, the commitment to education - an educated laity and scholarly ministers, and the willingness to look outward and forward - the LCMS was among the first to use TV and radio, programs such as "This is the Life." Now it's also using satellite and the internet. Bad points: the Synod can be very conservative - at times rigid - in its theology. This is true of most religions though, I think.6. What effectively taught you about the life of prayer and meditation? My religious upbringing, and the reading I've been doing over the last few years. I would like a spiritual teacher but so far have not met anyone who can help me. I taught a social work class this summer in which I added some of my spiritual experiences and found this helped me crystallize some of my thinking. So ironically BEING a "spiritual teacher" taught me a lot.
7. How has your spiritual teacher helped or hindered you? Does not apply.
8. How does your life of prayer or meditation effect your emotions? This has been kind of strange. The past several years have been a very emotionally trying period from which I've needed a great deal of healing. Sometimes after particularly peaceful meditations, I'll go on with my day and almost immediately get very cranky! When I catch myself, I try to figure out where the negative emotion is coming from and then try to release it. This happens a lot. I suspect the meditation is helping to lance emotional boils. On the whole, I feel much better, much more calm - but it's funny how quickly my peaceful meditative state can switch over!
9. Have you ever had out of the ordinary experiences connected with your prayer or meditation? Not really. At first I was really hoping for that but believe it may be distracting to my ultimate purpose and so God has wisely not allowed it - or at some level, I haven't allowed it. It's really important for me right now to let go of the ego and I think most of that could lead to ego gratification of a kind that would set me off course. I have experienced a few strange physical sensations though - a kind of clicking in my head or around my neck and shoulders. It feels funny - almost makes me dizzy. I figure it may be the release of some old tensions.
I have had out of the ordinary experiences however on other occasions, most often related to music, although I've had some visions during dreams that had spiritual significance for me.
10. What lifestyle issues effect your life of prayer? There are very few quiet, private spaces in our house. My family's schedule can disrupt mine. Mine is also quite varied through the week and that is a problem for me although I do have a lot of time alone that I can make up for lost time - it still seems less effective though if I miss my morning time - as if my rhythm for the day is slightly off.
I (more or less) read your book online From St. John of
the Cross to Us. Thank you particularly for the survey and analysis of contemporary
authors. I have read people like Green, Burrows, Merton, and Gabriel de
Sainte-Marie-Magdeleine, etc. As much as I appreciate their wisdom and insight, I have
never been satisfied. I only know this topic by experience, not scholarship. And my
experience is crammed full of what some people call "mystic graces". In an
effort to understand what was going on with me (for several years I couldn't even tell my
spiritual director), I read Teresa of Avila--frequently and a lot--because her
autobiography reflects my experience with God (complete with mid-life conversion).
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