First Coming – a poem by Madeline L’Engle

We cannot wait until the world is sane.

– Keep the faith!


Arrival

First Coming

by Madeleine L’Engle

He did not wait till the world was ready,
till men and nations were at peace.
He came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.

He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
He dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine.

He did not wait till hearts were pure.
In joy he came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.

He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.

We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

 

“First Coming” From The Ordering of Love:
The New and Collected Poems
of Madeleine L’Engle

The Shortest Prayers Say the Most

I had one of those speechless days in which there was so much emotion going on in my head and in my life and in the lives of all those around me (hey… it’s a week until Christmas!) The itchy, unsettled, squirmy thoughts and emotions spun around so much that the more I tried to center on any sort of prayer or reflection, the fewer words came.

It always starts off with some snarky question that’s not really asking anything: “Hey God. Answer me this….

And then before waiting for whatever response (if any) there is going to be, with the very next thought I’m off on some diatribe of head preaching at God about whatever it is that has pissed me off  today. It’s not so much “Hey God, I want to ask you something” as it is “Listen up God, I’m going to TELL you something.”

Even in prayer, that isn’t conversation: it’s nagging.

I grew up in a religious tradition of very long, very verbose, and very pointed praying so that by the end of it, those who were still awake and alert had absolutely no question about what was on the pray-er’s agenda that day. Add lots of filler catch phrases about taking this food as nourishment to our bodies (that makes its way into nearly every blessing at meals my extended family says.) Mix in a bunch of “to the glory of Your name.” And in the last bit, top with a shake of “if it so be Thy will” (like the pray-er is giving God a choice) and pop it back in the oven for another minute under the broiler, et voila! Fifteen minutes of reciting every catch phrase in one’s larder and finishing with a prayer that has said Absolutely Nothing.

And most times with more thee, thou, and thine than Shakespeare would have used. Trust me here: God does have a full comprehension of contemporary English (or whatever your primary language is.)

But hey: we prayed, right?

I graduated to a standardized form of public prayer in which one could go to the book, look up an event type (or a date, or a Saint’s day) and there would be the prescribed prayer ready to go, no additions needed (or appreciated.) Those are in a standard 3-phrase context of

  1. Say something good about God
  2. Tell God what God has done for us around the topic at hand
  3. Ask God for whatever it is that the prayer is seeking on this same topic

It’s great for read-along and speak-along public services because everybody knows the words and it’s like a hymn or a psalm. And the assumption here is that the pray-er has an internal understanding of the message of the prayer, by reciting those words in community with others. The downside is that some folks out in the pews think of these communal prayers as “inpersonal” and even more “saying a bunch of phrases” and not off-the-cuff as the lengthy recitations above.

Do you think God really cares? It’s not so much which songs we sing and what words we bring forward to the proverbial Throne of Grace, so long as we sing and pray.

Some days, neither of those schemes works.

Within  these years of a centering prayer and contemplative practice, some days my human feelings get in the way. I don’t’ feel like spouting on forever until the gravy gets cold, or simply saying rote that which has been said a billion times before. I want to get out what I need to get out, and I want to be true to both my feelings and that spiritual relationship.

For those times, I have my shortest prayer. Very simple, a single line, with no attributions or “in Jesus’ name we pray,” etc. It speaks in just a few words my feeling that yes, God, I want to (OMG! need to!) talk to you about something, AND the words just aren’t there right now, AND I need you to know that I am here, the other part of this relationship, and any guidance is appreciated. Even though I have said these words just as many “millions” of times, always exactly the same, this action is so brief and so close to the bone that it becomes a prayer from all that I know and all that I want to know.

The words become more than just words.

When emotions get high all around me and within me, I go to this simple prayer to summarize all that I feel, all that I want to get off my chest, and how I do not want to sit in my own sorrows and fears. Instead I want to do whatever it is that I am to do next, even if all I can do next is to sit in that moment of quiet and let go of those wiggling distractions. I want release from this moment so that I can proceed on to the next moment and see what there is to see of this thing we call relationship, our communion. I want to drop my own nagging, and become open to receiving whatever it is that I am to see, to feel, to experience in this moment that seems so very dark.

The realization comes that no matter how distracted and upset I am, many others out there need help too. My own troubles fade in the lending out my alone time with God – by being with God in the sharing of God, in a sure belief that all this distraction will calm. We learn that we come the closest to that which we think of as God, by sharing. Divinity is not a thing to be hoarded.

By  sharing this need for our Maker during  the bad times, and realizing that we are not alone, that message also lives in the air around us as a prayer.

Lord,
For those who need you more than I.

Amen.

Meditating in Tongues

Even though I believe that The Gift of Speaking in Tongues as the Pentecostals practice it is a malpracticed theology that is closer to group hypnosis and the madness of crowds than it is of any true spiritual event, we often take on a useful variation on the concept which takes us farther away from daily distractions and closer to a place of meditation and the contemplative life.

Think about how many times in you life you quote lines of scripture using the archaic language of the King James Bible:

thy kingdom come, thy will be done….

Or in school, reading:

Life’s but a walking shadow,
a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
and then is heard no more;

it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, 
signifying nothing.

Most people outside of Quaker circles no longer use variations on thee, thy, and thou in daily conversation. Yet by using those words in the language of spirituality, we place ourselves in a different emotional state – more reflective than using you and your. How easy it is to change our mental state by changing the pronouns we use or to add -eth onto the end of verbs:

He hideth my soul in the cleft of the rock.
that shadows the dry thirsty land;
he hideth my life in the in the depths of his love,
and covers me there with his hand,
and covers me there with his hand.

In talking to my friend Rev. D-Frazz about teaching religious ideas to non-religious people, this idea of speaking in tongues came to me, but not in the way the Bible speaks of it.

The Pentacost story speaks of the Holy Spirit falling upon men as if tongues of fire and by this visitation they all began to speak to each other in other languages, as the spirit enabled them. Not everyone could so speak, and some could instead hear.

This is the point at which my Pentecostal friends seem to stop reading and comprehending. It’s what happened next that is the making of the story:

At this same time, God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven were there in Jerusalem. When they heard this enormous sound (of the visitation,) the crowd came together and they were utterly amazed, because each person heard the sound in their own language. There was no incoherent babbling in ancient Sumerian, what they heard was in their own words. They asked the question of the day:

How is it that each one of us hears them in our own native language?

And so it is with our meditations.

The story above is a lead-in to teaching us about the Ministry of the Word to all nations and all peoples by coming to them and speaking in a language that they can understand. Using a language of both words and actions. Oh a second level it is also the story of how we can use language to speak within ourselves in a tongue understood by the heart.

The perfect example of this is the mantra. Oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ is the most familiar of the Buddhist mantras and is a series of seven syllables used in a spiritual practice of repetition. By removing focus from the outer world and focusing on the meaning of the syllables (rather than parroting the sounds) the practice leads to focus and inner peace. And even though the phrase is universal, probably only a small percentage of its users can speak or read Sanscrit.

A couple of decades back, Gregorian Chant was all the rage as the album Chant by the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos was marketed as a $15 answer to finding peace and serenity.  But this is something contemplatives had known all along.

Again, by moving the conversation away from our daily home tongue into a now dead language (Latin), the focus became not so much on what we were saying, but how it was being said. By taking away the challenges  of “trying to form a sentence” in a prayerful moment, the prayer comes through the cadence of the sounds of the chant, and through the body vibrations of sounding the Om mantra, deep within our diaphragm. In that moment of simple movement of sound through the air, we catch a glimpse of the definition of prayer being “the breath within the breath.” It exists also as the silence beyond all silence, and as a simple hum.

How does this relate to non-religious or non-spiritual people? The same way that hymn singing does: when beginning a contemplative practice, any particular belief (or non-belief) is not a requirement. The must-have lists includes things like patience and persistance, a desire to self-learn within a great silence, and to work through what an early anonymous writer called The Cloud of Unknowing. Some form of spiritual enlightenment is the goal of such a practice. When you get there, please send me back a post card.

 Practices vary greatly. My own includes the use of a single “sacred word,” same as is taught in the tradition of Contemplative (Centering) prayer. Some friends us visualizations or guided meditations in a yoga practice, and some recite rosaries or concentrate on plainsong. In each of these examples, the practice demands our moving away from the everyday words that we use and moving toward the words that we understand. The deeper knowledge of that which we seek then enables us to better respond to those around us, to see beyond words for words’ sake, and to hear instead the voice of the universe all around,

in our own native language that we can understand.

Keep the faith!

 

 

Zen Garden

 

Russian Polyphonic Chant

Plainsong

 

Sacred Harp

The American Song Book