The Basics Of Deep Prayer
|Table of Contents|
Focus: Page 1
Virtue: Page 1
Contents of Page:
Yin and Yang
When we first attempt to focus, we often complain that our thoughts wonder so much and far that spiritual poverty will always be impossible, but even the Olympic runner had to learn to stand, take steps, and go through the toddler phase. Ours minds are much more complex than a large building, and it takes more time to build the focus than it does a large structure. By practicing these techniques, we will be on our way towards spiritual poverty. The techniques should be used in conjunction with our meditation regardless of which meditation we prefer.
We might be overwhelmed by the number of things that focus involves, but at this point, we are only learning how to do some exercises. We do not need to worry about doing them all at once. At the end of the section on virtue, we will learn how to gradually put these exercises and virtue together to reach spiritual poverty.
Visual Meditation: To reach spiritual poverty we need to pray with all our appetites which are located throughout our body. If a part of our body has feeling, then it has appetites that need to be focused. Visual meditation is one of the techniques we use to bring the focus to different parts of our body.
Most of us can close our eyes and visualize something. We form a mental image of what we want to see. If we are unable to do this, then we should practice it until we have it down.
Of course, when we "look" at something with our eyes shut, we don't actually see it. We can, however, recall it from our memory or even construct it from our imagination. When the image comes from our memory, we might strive for the highest accuracy; but the image that comes from our imagination will likely have nuances or modifications that suit our fancy. We are not like a computer that stores an image and recalls it, we are rather like the Internet which stores and modifies the image many times in different places with various biases.
If we wanted the people on the Internet to focus on a certain subject, we might ask them to submit their images that pertain to the subject of focus. Within our body, we can focus on a meditation by asking a certain part of the body to recall or construct an image of the meditation. In other words, let's suppose the meditative image was Jesus hanging on the cross. We could try to see the cross within our stomach, heart, or mind, and we could also ask those parts to visualize the image somewhere else. For example, at first we might visualize the cross in our stomach. As the stomach picked up the feeling that is associated with the meditation, the stomach would gain the ability to visualize the cross itself. Then the stomach might visualize the cross a few feet from the stomach. If the stomach is able to feel the presence of Jesus, the visualization will be even easier.
We want to visualize with our stomach and other parts of our body to give the stomach the ability to worship independently of our other parts. In spiritual poverty, we have all parts worshiping independently, and the importance of the independence can not be overstated. For example, when Aquinas proves the holiness of Jesus or Mary he demonstrates that each part of them was acting free of the other parts. We can not be fully worshipping God when parts of us are busy making other parts of us pray. Each part of us should be able to visualize and meditate without assistance from another part.
Audio Meditation: If we don't use audio to help our focus, it will probably become part of our distraction. We don't need to turn our thoughts off to have a passionate and loving prayer experience, but we do need to focus our thoughts on our meditation. In fact, we must gain control of our audio thoughts to have focus. Most of us our accustomed to forced audio concentration, but for the purposes of deep prayer, our audio focus needs to be more relaxed and complete which are techniques that should be used all the time. It takes too much energy and effort to dictate our thoughts. We need to use a cooperative approach that is accepted by all parts of us. Every part of us has an appetite for God, and we want bring all parts of us together to worship our Lord. Our audio meditation is one of the most effective means for doing this.
We practice audio meditation and visual meditation in nearly the same way. We hear things inside our head, but we can also imagine hearing with something other than our mind. For example, we can listen with our hearts or stomachs. We might think that by listening to our stomach that we will know when to eat, but we are striving to stimulate the spiritual appetites in our stomach and other places. Each part of our body has many different appetites, but as was demonstrated by Aquinas, all parts of the body have an intrinsic appetite for God. We are trying not to listen to the predominant appetite that is normally associated with some body part. With our vision, we strive to see something holy, and with our hearing, we want to hear something holy.
We control the meditation by picking some picture and saying that relates to the daily meditation. Then we try to see the picture and hear the saying with different parts of our body. For example, the picture might be Jesus hanging on the cross and the saying could be, "Lord have mercy." Then, we would try to see the picture with our stomach while hearing "Lord have mercy" with our stomach. We would then repeat the process with our hearts and then our minds. If we become practiced at it, we can meditate with all parts (these three and all the rest) at the same time, and we would not be that far from spiritual poverty.
At this point, it might seem that the meditation is getting complicated, but we are only covering meditative techniques. We want to gather a set of techniques which will be tools that we later build with. It is not necessary to combine the audio, visual, and other meditations at this time. That will come later. We want to build with those things that are comfortable to us, and we can pick up more skills as they attract our interest.
Local Exercises: When we are in church, it is distracting to us if some of those present are not participating. It is no different for our focus which is within us. The more participation we have within us, the more focused and ready we are. We can't use force to get the people in church to participate because participation implies a voluntary effort. In the same way, we can't stuggle to force participation within us, we need to evangelize and engage the nonparticipating parts of us. To be completely focused, we need full voluntary participation from every part of us.
At first, full participation might seem to be an impossible task, but the focus is contagious because spiritual appetites are in all parts of us. As one part of us begins to prays, it awakens the spirituality of another part of us.
With constant prayer, all parts of us will eventually be evangelized, but the passive approach takes too long. As He was ascending into Heaven, Jesus sent his disciples into all parts of the Earth to proclaim the Good News. We need to take a similar approach by evangelizing all parts of us.
If it is on the center stage, it should be the primary focus at every location within us. We have covered visual and audio meditation which are two local evangelical methods, but any meditation can be carried out in any venue. While it might seem impossible to get all parts to participate, in practice, every part voluntarily participates after it has been evangelized. We should not accept any excuses from parts that don't want to participate. While we don't force participation, we know we can evangelize all parts because they have an appetite for God.
Breathing Basics: Breathing can either work for us or against us. It can be a source of distraction, or it can help our focus. We have so many appetites at cross purposes which make us inconsistent. To consistently get outstanding prayer times, we need to have a sense of timing and rhythm, and breathing can become a big part of establishing this harmony.
Many mechanical functions and all living things have a cycle. For example, the Church has a liturgical cycle that starts each year but repeats itself every three years. These cycles take us through all critical parts of salvation. Then, inside the liturgical cycle is an obligation to gather at least on Sunday and a few other days for Holy Mass. The Mass has its cycle and cycles inside of cycles. We would do well to observe the wisdom of this design. Within these pages, we will setup various cycles in our prayer life, and breathing constitutes a basic and bridging cycle.
Breathing has several bridging characteristics. It has voluntary and involuntary attributes. It is a physical cycle that we want to tie to a spiritual cycle. The Church sets the example for us by tying spiritual year of the Church to the physical year of the earth's orbit. In our prayer time each breath should be the beginning of a new spiritual cycle.
With each breath, our lungs are replenished with oxygen, and each breath should begin a cycle of renewal within us. In particular, we should renew the audio and visual themes of our meditation. For example, if the visual meditation is the, "Crowning of the thorns", then we should visualize this at the beginning of each breath. If the audio meditation is, "My Lord and my God," we should hear this at least once during the breath. Before we take in a new breath, we should get into the habit of checking whether we engaged the audio and visual meditations during the last breath.
Besides the audio and visual meditations, each breath should be a renewal of our virtuous practices as they relate to our prayer time, but we will leave that discussion to the next chapter.
Each breath should be the beginning of a new cycle that is a part of a larger cycle. We could emulate the Church which has three years of scripture readings but begins a new cycle each year. A new breath should revisit a local exercise. If we break the exercises into 3 areas such as the stomach, heart, and mind, then we would start a new breath with the audio and visual meditation in the stomach. The next breath would move to the heart. The last breath in the cycle of local exercises would move to the mind. Then the cycle would start over again in the stomach.
The physical breathing cycle has two parts: inhaling and exhaling. We can't be using the full cycle, unless we are using parts of the cycle. We should assign tasks to each part of the cycle. For example, we could begin the inhaling with the audio and visual meditation in a new part of the body. Then as we exhale, we could quickly revist the other parts of the body and check whether we are still thinking about the meditation. Practices such as these will lead us toward a spiritual flow which is a more advanced meditation. Each part of the cycle should help us to maintain our focus.
We might protest that all of these items forced into a single breathing cycle make prayer difficult, complex, and unpleasant, but this attitude means that we are forcing the issue. If this is too many things, then we are trying to accomplish too much too fast. Our focus takes time to build. We should start with something that is comfortable but not too relaxing. As we grow accustomed to what we are doing, we can add to it. The focus should not be too taxing.
We might also be under the impression that all of this busyness seriously detracts from the prayer experience, but as it turns out, this is more of an excuse than a valid complaint. We have already demonstrated the need to collect our thoughts during deep prayer. If we didn't do these exercises, our minds would still be very busy. We can't slow our minds down, but we can think about things that build a focus. The busyness of the meditation is distracting, but it distracts us from the pleasures of our own vanity.
Theme Variety: We are more comfortable in neat and organized environs with everthing is in its place, but God doesn't fit. God doesn't fit in our hearts, minds, beings, or even our imaginations. God is wider, longer, smarter, nicer, happier, and and greater than anything else. When we constantly use a single meditation, we are narrowing our scope of what God could be to us. While we can never know all things about God, we should try to know and relate to God as much as possible. God can never be put into any place, because our experience of God is always expanding.
When our meditations always focus on one thing, it makes it harder for us to know God in multiple ways. For example, if our only meditation is Jesus hanging on the cross, we would not be as likely to see God in a child, infant, or woman. All things have their creation and being in God, and therefore, all things bear witness of a part of God. While God is expressed in all things, God is infinitely simple. The simplicity of God is in all things. We can not find the simplicity of God, without discovering the common simplicity between all things. This concept of discovering God reaches across all attributes of God. By consistently taking a narrow meditation theme, we are taking a longer path in the spiritual journey.
Different people relate to God in different ways, and different parts of us relate to God in different ways. Our spiritual banquet should have something for everyone. Our stronger appetites might try to convince us that this is not necessary, but each part of us needs to identify with the theme and be fed by the theme of the focus. Our conversion and conviction will be much stronger if we vary the theme of our meditation to meet the needs of all parts of us.
The Church sets a good example for us. We celebrate Lent, Christmas, Easter, Assumption, and a number of other feasts and observances. When moving from feast to feast, the point of focus can change from a baby, to a man, woman, or spirit. The themes range from repentance to celebration. Our meditation sequence should not only emulate this variety but also synchronize with the theme on a daily basis for we are all part of the same body.
Since most of us are not students of meditation, it may seem difficult to find a meditation that varies the theme and follows the liturgical calendar, but we have a number of meditations that meet these requirements. To give us a feel for how all of this comes together, we will look at two of the more common meditations that do all things well.
Lectio Divina: Lectio Divina is a reading, meditation, application, and contemplation of a passage from the Bible. There are many good discussions on this ancient practice, so we will not repeat them here. We should, however, offer a few words for those of us who are beginning this practice. We often make the mistake of reading the Bible as a handbook from God, but we should read it as a personal letter from God. In a more pluralistic and practical application, we sometimes see people filling out work sheets during a sermon. While there is nothing wrong with this, God is more about agape then legalism. It is possible to know many things about the Bible without knowing much about God. In other words, it is good to search for biblical principles, but it is better to build a relationship with God. If we are going to use the Bible as the focus of prayer, we should use Lectio Divina. Pope Benedict XVI is convinced that the promotion of Lectio Divina would bring about a renewal in the Church.
In Lectio Divina technique, a significant emphasis is placed on the audio meditation, but the other practices (e.g., visual meditation, local exercises, and breathing basics) need to be followed as well. The practices that we will cover, such as virtuous, will also be needed. In short, all good practices are still used within the Lectio Divina method.
The actual passages from the Bible are not specified, but we would do well to practice passages that are consistent with the liturgical calendar of the Church. An easy way to accomplish this is to simply use the readings from the Mass. In particular, we should meditate upon the Gospel reading.
We haven't covered the meditative commemoration yet, but the Lectio Divina technique will make this harder to build than it is with some of the other methods. This is by no means a red light, but it is something we want to take into consideration. If we keep in mind (i.e., try to commemorate) the actual presence or relationship with Jesus, Mary, or some other representation of God, we can overcome some of this. We should also remember that virture (to be covered later) drives the meditation (the commemoration is more of a prop).
Besides a slight weakness in the commemoration, Lectio Divina has an extremely strong pacing attribute. As beginners we can read more, and the readings tell us about God. As we learn more about God, we can actually begin to experience God as we advance in meditation. By watching what we are interested in (either reading or meditation), we can figure out how to implement a prayer time that is most effective for us. Since we usually have very little spiritual direction, this aspect of Lectio Divina is priceless. No other technique paces the pilgrim as well as Lectio Divina.
Rosary Meditations: The rosary is probably the most common of all meditations which speaks volumes about its effectiveness. Millions of us say a rosary nearly every day.
By some accounts, the rosary got its start from the Divine Office which uses a recitation of the Psalms, among other things. The monks advised the peasants to simply say a Hail Mary rather than recite the Psalm because the peaseants didn't know how to read. In this way, the peasants were able to join the monks in the Divine Office.
Saint Dominic added the mysteries to these Hail Marys. In the legend, Dominic received the mysteries directly from the Blessed Virgin after he had spent some time in prayer and penance. We are not sure whether the legend is true, but we are certain that the mysteries demonstrate a keen (or better, miraculous) spiritual wisdom as we shall see.
In any meditation, there is a trade off between the theme variation and meditative commemoration. As we have shown, we need to vary the theme, but as we shall see, the commemoration can't be varied too much without losing many of the benefits of previous meditations. We can't imagine a meditation that surpasses the rosary in this area.
The rosary doesn't just vary the theme, it varies the theme with a number of cycles that balance the meditation in a number of ways. We can often find more than one theme variation balanced in a single cycle. The entire system has such extreme spiritual insight that we are drawn into spiritual orbits without always being aware of the process. For example, the mysteries of the rosary evenly cycle through the Holy Trinity with Joyful Mysteries demonstrating the attributes of the Father, the Sorrowful Mysteries concentrate on our redemption through the Son, while the Glorious Mysteries exude the charismatic power of the Holy Spirit. To put this another way, in the Joyful Mysteries, Jesus and Mary demonstrate how we are called by God and how we are to answer the call. In the Sorrowful Mysteries, Jesus shows us how to be saved through reconciliation and sacrifice. In the Glorious Mysteries, we are promised a new life in the Spirit, and we are shown how the Holy Spirit works through us. Besides the Holy Trinity, the rosary meditation balances the the theme variation from the young to the old, between the divine attributes of the masculine and feminine, from God as spirit to God as man, and in many other ways. The Rosary provides all of these balances simultaneously without sacrificing any cycles, and even more importantly, the meditative commemoration seems to complement the theme variation rather than distract from it which would seem to be a necessary problem. While it would seem to be impossible, the theme variation and meditative commemoration of the rosary make each other stronger.
Since so many themes are balanced in a single cycle, the rosary is able to cycle at an optimum frequency to build the meditative commemoration. When we cycle too often, we might grow tired of the meditation. Besides being boring, we can often place many of our own appetites into a meditation that moves too slow which slows our spiritual progress. On the opposite side of the spectrum, if we visit the meditative theme too infrequently, we won't be able to build on the past experiences as easily. Besides being forgetful, we won't be taking as many steps on a single theme. It is as if we have too many pots to stir. With 15 mysteries, the rosary is able to hit an optimum frequency. By taking one mystery per day, we cycle about twice a month which is a very good frequency.
The road from meditation (the starting point) to contemplation (the finish) can be a long one, but the length of the journey is determined by the consistency of the focus. By including the intermediate tactics into our prayer routine, we will make the journey as fast as we can.
While the journey to contemplation is not exactly a ladder, we can build on past experiences. To put this in a different context, repetition will help.
We can find an excellent example of how to build the commemoration from the liturgical cycle of the Church. We have seasons and feasts that occur once in the annual cycle. An annual event tends to become a large and traditional event. Since so many people know about an annual event, it tends to act as an evangelization tool that brings more attention to the event. For example, a number of people cooperate with, participate in, or even celebrate Christmas who are not Christians.
By now, Christmas happens to everyone, and many people make an effort to feel the Christmas Spirit. In many ways, this gathering Christmas force at Christmas time is very much the same as a successful prayer time, so let's look at how it developed in more detail.
Over the centuries, various Saints left their marks on Christmas by establishing traditions that are still with us today. These experiences add to the Christmas time of today and make the Christmas season more spiritual. We can be sure that God worked through them to create such a glorious and happy season.
Saint Nicholas, with his generosity, started the Santa Claus myth, and certainly generosity plays a part of the Christmas spirit. The magi from the East also contribute to this tradition.
Saint Boniface started the Christmas tree by both modifying and adopting the cultural traditions of the German people.
As an aside, the concept of modifying cultural traditions needs to be applied to how we evangelize our body. We need to treat different parts of the body with respect by adopting and modifying the attributes of that part of the body. For example, we don't want to insist that thinking is bad; we want to modify and adopt thinking to add to the prayer experience. The ascetics felt emotions were a distraction from logic, but the universal or Catholic way is to use these ardent desires to long for God. In the same way, the energy and identity of our sexual side should be modified and adopted to add a vibrant and exciting part of God. In other words, all parts of the community are celebrating in the spirit of prayer. We are not trying to force any part to be quiet or still. By modifying and adopting the practices of all, we hope that our prayer will enjoy universal participation. Christmas welcomes everyone.
Saint Luke wrote the quiet and beautiful Christmas narrative into his Gospel, and Saint Jerome decided it belonged in the New Testament. The Christmas story is a way of attracting new Christians, and it evangelizes new areas inside of us. When the story of Christmas is told over and over, it begins to become an audio commemoration of Christmas. We may not be aware of it, but the tradition of the Christmas story has been a part of us so long that it is recognized by our DNA. As the Christmas story is told, parts of us are propelled toward the Christmas Spirit without our understanding or direction. The Christmas story has become an audio commemoration that evangelizes everyone.
Saint Francis of Assisi augmented the audio commemoration with a visual representation of Christimas by inventing the ubiquitous Nativity scene. This is a visual meditation that helps us feel the Christmas Spirit. When we see a Nativity set we are likely to be reminded of a joyful, happy, and holy season. The church often receives special decorations for Christmas. For example, Christmas trees and lights are often set up. A few years ago Christmas plays were a part of the school year for both public and private schools. As in a social distraction, this visual commemoration of Christmas has weakened, but we can be sure that the demand lingers. By now, Christmas has many visual commemorations, but all of them stir the same feelings.
When we have Christmas today, we use all these signs, stories, and traditions, of the past, to get into the spirit of Christmas. Our prayer time should not be any different. We should have a certain regularity in our meditation that brings the same meditation to our spirit on a regular basis. With each meditation, we draw on past experience to enrich the present. If we have focus, it will be our best meditation yet, and it will become a tradition to our future meditations.
While these things stir our memories, we are participating in a mystery that is much deeper, richer, and more animated than any memory. In fact, we are contributing to a functional relationship that goes back many centuries. Our contribution, no matter how small, becomes an invaluable attribute of the mystery of Christmas. As Jesus, Mary, Joseph, Nicholaus, Francis, Boniface, and many others continue to contribute to the Christmas mystery, so too, our participation builds a part of mystery, love, and appetite of Chrismas. Commemorations are our guides that stir our appetites to the deeper experiences and love of God.
Let us now exchange the Christmas celebration for that of the Eucharist. Among other things, the Eucharist commemorates the death and resurrection of Jesus. There are many symbols that are typically used, but the crucifix definitely reminds us of the death of Jesus. The Resurrection is represented in the breaking of the bread among other things, because we recognize the risen Christ in the breaking of the bread. The ceremony includes a theme, yet sometimes there are exact words. There are parts of the ceremony that are often set to music. Saint Pious X didn't like to see much variation in the music, and we probably have too much variation of music in the Mass. All these things point to certain principles that allow us to have the most rewarding prayer time.
All Catholic Masses have certain expectations, and all prayer times should have similar expectations. For example children's Masses are not quite like Teen Masses, and Teen Masses are not exactly the same as the normal Masses. While the Masses for younger people are a little different, we try to build an expectation of what the Mass is. We have some latitude when we adjust prayer times to individuals, but we also have to own up to certain expectations if we want the prayer experience to be maximized.
Since there are no official prayer time rules or rubrics, we might get the idea that different prayer times work better for different people, but in reality, much of the prayer time should be structured the same for everyone. During the Mass, we are trying to unite many different people into a common focus, and during our prayer time, we have many different parts that need to cooperate with a single focus. On a global scale, all the churches worship the same with the same theme, it shouldn't be any different for the members of the churches. While all us and each part us make individual choices, our salvation comes from participating in the same structure that is provided to everyone in the same way.
We are trying to build a common behavior across billions of cells that have different appetites and personalities, and a systematic plan of organization can reap huge rewards. Like the Mass, a regular and structured prayer time builds an expectation of what we should experience. An expectation can only be based on a previous experience which means we will want some repetition in our worship. The power of the prayer comes from different cells praying the same prayer. To follow the Church's example, the same Mass is said everywhere across the world. We need the same prayer in all parts of our body. As more of us participate, we have a stronger experience. When we are dealing with a multitude of diverse opinions and appetites, we need an organized plan to be successful.
To put this another way, the degree of repetition is an important part of our prayer time. We need enough repetition to build the expectation that we plan to commemorate.
Every part of us has to participate in the prayer. The parts of us that are not praying tend to disrupt those parts of that are praying. We have all experienced that at Mass.
When we are at Mass, we don't allow other groups to have dinner parties, ball games, or other distracting activities in the sanctuary. All are welcome, but all are expected to participate. The Mass has a long list of rules, and we encourage every one to heed the rules. We will even enforce the rules as necessary. We can't force people to pay attention at Mass, but we do ask them to pay attention. In other words, the rules extend beyond external behavior and into our inner beings. As Saint Paul put it, we are to have discipline and order at Mass.
At Mass, we are expected to behave in a certain way, and we expect certain things to happen at Mass. These expectations are some of the building blocks of our prayer experiences at Mass, and hence, expectations are vital connections with God.
The Church allows each Mass to have its own personality but keeps many things the same in all Masses. For example, we commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ at every Mass.
We should have the expectation in our prayer time to commemorate previous experiences. Any regular commemoration in our personal prayer should involve our personal relationship with God. In other words, no prayer time should be without it. If it is left out, then it we can't call it a prayer time. The commemoration is critical because it becomes the building block of our prayer time.
When dealing with the focus, we have three aspects of the commemoration to consider.
Audio Commemoration: The Church uses very little silent prayer during the Mass. During most parts of the Mass, the Church exercises an audio commemoration which comes in various forms and frequency. The Priest might be saying prayer, we sometimes sing, and we have readings, among other audio worship. Some of this (usually the most prominent) is repeated at every Mass, and most of it is repeated at one time or another. Is it not obvious that the Church uses the audio commemoration to keep our thoughts focused?
The Mass teaches us at length about how we should build the audio commemoration in our prayer time. For example, we strive for focus more than we want quiet. This doesn't mean that we want to turn on gospel music when we are striving for deep prayer, but a silent mantra will help deep prayer. The external gospel music holds us captive to some sound track. If the mantra doesn't work for us, we could allow some external stimulation (such as gospel music) at the beginning of the prayer time. The goal, however, is for the music to flow out of us (not into to us). At Mass, the music is meant to encourage participation. In the same way, the mantra is meant to get all parts of us participating in the meditation. Both the Mass and the meditation are meant to be active (not passive) experiences. When the external stimulation is used, the goal is still internal participation. In prayer, we seek a spiritual (not musical) experience.
The silent audio commemoration could be any of different types of sound that are a part of Mass. For example, it could be a Scripture reading, common refrain, musical refrain, consecration phrase, or some other part of the Mass as long as it keeps our mind on the theme of the meditation. These all work for us, because the commemoration of the Mass is the DNA (the appetite) of the our personal commemoration.
While the meditation should always have the same theme, we don't have to use the same commemoration throughout the meditation. The audio commemoration can change to assist different parts of the prayer time.
In general, the commemoration is simplified as the prayer time advances which we can see from the commemoration used at Mass. Mass starts with commemoration of repentance which are mostly ad-libbed, moves to readings of scripture which repeat usually seasonally, proceeds as incantations of consecration which follow exact prayers, and is often silent at Communion with perhaps a meditative song for the more restless members.
Since the Mass is the heritage of our personal commemoration, we should copy the process. It is in our DNA.
When we begin the prayer time we are often distracted by any number of things on our mind which we need to start dismissing. If we are mad at someone, we forgive them. Should we feel guilty, we ask for forgiveness. When we are anxious, we need to place our trust in God. The idea is to start the prayer time with the mind as a clean slate. Yes, there will be some indelible markings, but we do our best to come clean. For if we don't try to rid ourselves of distractions, we can't give our attention to God.
After we empty ourselves of our own vanity, we acquaint ourselves with the theme which should be the theme the Church has chosen for the day. We can do this in any number of ways, but we should think of the theme. The daily scripture readings would work, but we don't have to be that formal.
With our theme in mind, we should begin following the strict rules of the focus. At this point, the audio commemoration would be something we have used many times before, and we would have feelings that we remember from previous times. We want to build on those feelings. This part of the commemoration should not be too long. If the words flow without us thinking about it, then we are fine. The words should assist in making us pay attention to God. When we are distracted by the words, the words are too long. If the words don't hold our attention (provided that we are saying them), then they may be too short (of course there could be other issues as well). At the beginning of this discipline, we may feel uncomfortable because we are not yet mesmerized by God's presence, but we hold to the rules of the focus.
With any success, the focus will become more easy, relaxed, and comfortable, as the prayer time progresses. It often feels so good that we don't want to quit, but the prayer time should begin on time and end on time.
As in the Mass, the prayer time also has a dismissal, but this is covered in the last section, constancy.
Visual Commemoration: That, which we visualize in our mind's eye, also needs to be commemorated during our meditation. Along with the audio commemoration, we need to have an appropriate visualization of the theme we are meditating on. These visual experiences become part of the tradition that is associated with the theme. For example, the Nativity set or Christmas star could be a part of a Nativity meditation. As we revisited this theme time after time, the scenes would start to trigger experiences from past Nativity meditations. Rather than moving the visualization from one thing to the next, we would commemorate the scenes that we have by using them over and over again. We should be able to build on them which is what we strive for in the commemoration process.
In the same way that we moved the audio meditation to different parts of the body, all parts of the body should participate in the visual commemoration. With a little practice, we can imagine that we see things with parts of our body that are not normally associated with vision.
As a matter of fact, this is a very significant tool in our quest for self control. Temptations come from appetites, and appetites are usually heavily associated with a certain part of our body. For example, hunger is usually associated with the stomach. When we fast, we don't gain as much if we don't substitute the hunger pains with spiritual feelings. We begin to do this by having our stomach visualize the meditation theme. If we can control the feelings in different parts of our body, we are begining to acquire the self control that we need in every area of our life.
At first, all of this self control might seem extremely boring. How can we live life with so much discipline? This pessimistic attitude is nearly opposite of how it works out in real life. If we give God (actually ourselves) some time, the spiritual delight crowds out sinful delight. We seek delight which comes when our appetites our satisfied, but we often forget that our most innate appetite is for God. While other appetites can fade, our appetite for the divine will last forever. We can not know how exciting and joyful life is until we exercise feelings associated with our appetite that longs for God.
Commemorative Frequency: How often should a theme be repeated? The answer has several dimensions that include religious, psychological, and physical.
Religious: Let's start with the religious. As we have shown, the theme should agree with the Church calendar. We are all one body. If we are not working together, we are working against each other. The Church repeats its calendar with different frequencies, and our prayer time would necessarily have the same repetition.
Physical: Organisms that are physically larger need a slower repetition than smaller organisms. A mouse's heart beats about 700 times per minute and an elephant's about 30. Smaller things such as nuclear physics are measured in billionths of a second, but larger things such as planetary motion are measured in years. The repetition of a church will be much slower than the repetition of an individual in the church.
Psychological: On the psychological side, the theme should repeat often enough that we can remember it. The Mass is construed to grab our attention and hold it, and our prayer time should follow the same flow. We want to begin by asking forgiveness for anything that is bothering us. Then we pick a theme out of the readings. Then we concentrate on the theme by commemorating it with a frequent repetition that holds our attention.
The most frequent (or fundamental) repetition stives to keep our thoughts from straying. Thoughts are always continuous and changing. Since thoughts are always moving from where we are now to some new point, we need to target the new point to be a memory of a past experience, if we want to continue the feelings associated with the experience. During each cycle of the fundamental repetition, we need to recommit ourselves to our destination by reviewing the audio and video commemorations.
The appetites associated with traditions and commemorations are very small which means the fundamental repetition needs to be very frequent. Each day in each of our lives, our DNA is changed with each experience. Then the DNA is passed on to the offspring. Carl Jung may not have proved this with logical deduction but he certainly proved it with empirical observation.
The DNA creates the appetites for the tradition that is passed through the Church. It is not the customs of past generations that interest God, but rather God longs for the feelings which are made possible through the appetites that were inherited from past generations. On the road to Emmaus, Jesus explained how Scripture foretold the death and resurrection of the Christ, but the disciples didn't recognize Him until He commemorated the Last Supper. Traditions and commemorations open the treasury of feelings and appetites which allow us to experience the relationship. Relationships need to be felt, if they are to be real.
In deep prayer, we want to experience the love of the Divine Master, then we want to build upon those feelings by focusing on the relationship through the use of commemoration. If we haven't had a personal experience, then we should build upon our collective commemoration. Since we are all one body, the collective commemoration should always be the central theme, anyway. In other words, all of our sensitive appetites in every part of our body know God, we only need to open our feelings to the 6,000 years of our collective relationship. The key to unlocking those feelings is the collective commemoration that we have experienced through the Church with its Sacraments and Tradition.
While the commemoration of a traditional theme is not our only tool, it is a critical tool that we need to build our personal prayer experience. The religious appetites that were formed by our DNA usually begins as an extreme minority, but the commemoration will help it take the center stage of our attention. Of course if the commemoration is not from tradition, it will not resonate with the audience of sensitive appetites which were formed by the DNA. Without the commemoration of a traditional theme, we will be forced to reinvent the proverbial wheel. Our relationship with God goes back thousands of years. We definitely do not want to start over.
The commemoration of the traditional theme may seem to be off the subject of frequency, but we need to point out that we are dealing with something that is small which requires a very fast repetition. While spiritual appetites are in all parts of the body, they are not likely to be the predominant appetite in any part of the body. Since one appetite influences another appetite, this also means that the commemoration needs to be revisited very quickly.
While we are born with appetites, we need to build our relationships. We can't build on a relationship that we can't remember. By reminding ourselves of experiences with God, we stimulate our appetites for God. In deep prayer, we need to keep coming back to the same themes to allow ourselves a chance to build our relationship with God around them.
If we don't want to get in a rut and stay in a rut, we need to make some determination of whether we are in a rut. It is not enough to have a map that charts a course; we also need instruments that we will call quality tests to make sure that we stay on course. We will make much better progress if we utilize quality tests to make sure that we are mentally and emotionally on course.
What is the course? In terms of the focus that is required by deep prayer, the relationship is the course, and we follow the relationship through the commemoration. In other words, we are on course while we are practicing the commemoration and virtue, but we will leave virtue to the next chapter.
We need to strive for constant commemoration. Before this occurs, we will nearly be checking for quality on a constant basis. For example, we can start with a quick quality check during each breath which we covered before.
Each breath is the fundamental quality check, but we should also add multiples (called harmonics) of the breath to the test. For example, we could (or better - should) count the breaths for a specific number of counts. Since we have other things going on inside our thoughts, we should count exhaling and inhaling each as one count. In other words, if we breathed out to two, then we would breath in to three. If breathing out is always even and in always odd, then it is easier to keep count. Then depending on how experienced we are, at the end of 4, 10, 20, or 100 counts (the smaller the count the less concentration) we review our thoughts during the count to determine whether we kept the commemoration. With this check, we are trying to find out if we made the wrong turn before we are in the next state. Counting allows us to establish a hamonic test that helps us stay focused.
We should be able to maintain our focus during most count cycles. If we can't, the count is too long. If the focus is no problem, the count is too short.
All of this counting might seem to be a severe distraction, but with the regular practice of deep prayer, the counting becomes a part of the focus. We need to remember that our minds are always wandering towards the direction of our appetites which are often sinful and seldom as holy as we would like, and we need to bring them back to the focus. In the other methods that we discussed, repetition is used to maintain the focus. Lectio Divina does not specifically use counting, but the Rosary does. The Rosary refocuses and changes the commemoration every tenth fundamental repetition. This isn't exactly a quality test, but it is an attempt to correct the focus at short intervals. We don't typically complain about the counting during the Rosary, so maybe the counting is not a problem. The counting is absolutely necessary if we are going to structure the focus.
When the counting is lucid, the focus is sharp. If the count is a problem, the focus is absent.
Counting is a relational discipline that allows us to give the focus a harmonic (i.e., a fundamental repetition with multiples of the fundamental) structure. It so easy to follow the procedure and say the words but yet be distracted. The most progress is made with the most focus. For example, if we exchange formalities with a friend in passing, we don't build the same relationship as we do in a heart to heart talk which requires that we pay attention. The harmonics, which are made possible through counting, allow us to put a second layer of control on our wandering thoughts.
Since the counting comes from inside of us, we don't have to keep track of some external event to maintain the count.
It is wise to use the count to time an external control such as a clock. To do this, we would check the clock after some set number of counts. For example, we might check the clock after 100 counts to see whether 5 minutes have passed. With all of our various complex appetites, we need a certain rhythm to assert control. The clock become our metronome for establishing a sense of timing and rhythm to our meditation. In our example, if our thoughts were wandering, 100 breath counts would come to 8 minutes or 3 minutes. A breath count that is on time means that our rhythm and its underlying focus has the integral features that deep prayer requires.
These tactics can be used by those who have practiced consistency and focus for some length of time (usually several years).
Yin and Yang:
To pray deeply and intently on a regular basis, we need a mechanism that internally drives the focus. In the last sectioned, we cycled the meditation through the body. We started with lower torso, moved to the upper torso, and then to the head. We would break it down further as we became more advanced. If we had six places of meditation, we would take three breaths to repeat a part, and the meditation could be lost in a part before we returned. As that happens the meditation does not pick up strength.
Any internal propagation system needs to cycle between two parts, but we are only pushing the same thing and cycling between different parts. In this way, the meditation exists, but it does not thrive.
We can change the entire paradigm, and create a growing force by introducing a complementary factor.
God did this in the Garden of Eden. When Adam was alone, it was not good. Most of us read this as that Adam was lonely, but good means that Adam did not expand into something more. God introduced Eve (the complementing factor) which allowed the human race to grow. By the comingling of masculine (yang) and femine (yin), the human race would grow, so therefore it was good. In this case, good means that it gets stronger and grows.
We find the same sort of model all through nature. For example, by themselves the electric and magnetic fields go a few inches, but when they are combined into a complementing electromagnetic cycle they propagate to the ends of the universe.
The Holy Spirit has guided the Church into this type of a complementary system. The Church tries to do this by having both the Magisterium (yin) and the spiritual (yang) sides of the Church. The Magisterium tries to keep everything running smooth in a general way, while the spiritual drives evangelization that both introduces and deepens the Faith, in specific ways.
Until now, we have looked at moving the meditation from point to point in the body (yang), but we have not discussed a continuous flow of meditation moving through the body (yin).
The combination of yin and yang can be used to take the flow to new levels which is call chi or qi, but the yang and yin have to be constantly changing to drive the chi. The chi flows in and out of certain centers ( chackras) and through the body.
The chi has been discussed in terms of accupuncture and so forth, but the existence (or not) of chi isn't relevant to the prayer experience. We are not trying to scientifically prove the existence of chi. Science relies on observable evidence. The mind can imagine sight, but sight can not see thoughts. Our intelligence is higher than our sight, so intelligence goes beyond science. In addition, feelings are also higher than sight, and prayer is a relationship. We could say that love doesn't exist, because we can not physically measure it. Yet, that would just be dumb. Our objective is to drive the chi to get us past our distractions, so we can relate more intensely to God. The mechanism, that we use to enhance the relationship, is not relevant to the relationship. For example, you might use your car to go on a date, but the carnot cycle that drives the internal combustion engine is not relevant to the relationship of the date.
The flow is setup by believing and hoping that we will have it, and by feeling the presence of the focused personality. We have the flow, when we can feel it in all parts of our body at the same time (i.e., spiritual poverty).
We can build an internal propagation by creating a flow that is flowing through our body so that all parts of our body are praying. The flow is the Magisterium, and we already had the evangelization. By cycling between focused evangelization (yang) and universal flow (yin), we can cause intense focus.
The Hindu system of meditation usually speaks about chakras which are usually described as energy centers. In most cases, we are left with the idea that if we develop the chakra that we find a new energy or something mystical. Most systems have between 6 and 10 chakras which are located mostly in the head and torso.
In the greatest commandment, we find the heart and mind centers of meditation. Jesus tells us to love God with all our soul which is everywhere in our body. The real twist in the greatest commandment is to love God with all your might which probably makes it unique from all other meditation systems. In other words, the greatest commandment touches on chakras with mentions of the heart and mind. The whole soul would be the whole body in our experience. Ten or more chakras pretty much cover the whole body. The whole "might" or "strength" doesn't relate to other meditations systems, but in Catholic Mysticism, St. Catherine of Siena covers desire almost as a chant. Let's begin with the common theme among all meditation systems, which is moving the meditation to different places.
Visit Chackras: Nearly all systems require us to move the meditation to various or all parts of the body. As Saint Thomas of Aquinas pointed out, we are the product of our parts. In other words, we know as a Church that we need to evangelize all parts of the world, so it is for sure that we also need to evangelize all parts of ourselves. In meditation, this evangelization occurs by moving the meditation from place to place.
Some of the advice on the chackras make them seem like they unlock mystical energies. While every part needs to be evangelized as much as any other part, some parts tend to be more strategic.
As you can see from the preceeding writings on focus, our focus is like a traveling priest who carries the commemoration from parish to parish, but this is only the beginning of the evangelization.
Confess Sins: Jesus certainly knew how to read, and He most likely knew how to write. Even if He didn't know how to write, many of his disciples knew how to write. Jesus knew all about Holy writings and religious law. He wanted to extend His teachings and start His Church. Yet we don't have any of His writings, and we don't know that He ever wrote anything. His teachings were written down years later, and even those teachings are usually disguised as parables. When Jesus was getting ready to ascend to Heaven, He told his disciples that they should spread His words to the ends of the earth, but still, nothing was written down! The lesson is clear; we are evangelized through relationships (not words).
Different parts of the body are different. We need to know them before we can evangelize them, but we might protest by asking how we could not know our own parts?
Our conscious is the ego leader. It is very easy and common for a leader to be unaware of the plight of those who are led. For example, most couples launch chemical attacks on their reproductive systems. These couples are willing to overlook the damage that the agression causes. When we are at war with ourselves, how can we be at peace with our neighbors?
As Jesus demonstrated with the parable (Luke 18:10), we need to make peace with our neighbors and ourselves before we will make much progress with meditation, but in most cases, we are not aware of the injury that we cause until we come to know the victims.
The road to friendship begins with respect. No friendship has any value unless we value the friendship.
In the greatest commandment, we are told to love with our whole soul, and all parts of our body have a soul. Since each physical part or ourselves has a spiritual soul, it has human dignity which requires our respect.
While we want to move the focus through all parts of our body, we must also listen to each part of our body to show respect. If the focus is broadcast without allowing feedback, then we have ego tyranny rather than respectful communication.
How do we listen to parts of our body? Aquinas pointed out that the parts can not be different from the whole, so we can look at how we evangelize people. By providing no writing, Jesus gave us a clear example of how people are evangelized by relationships. When we come to know Jesus at a deeper level, we are usually moved to tears that come from either the beauty of the moment or guilt from our past. We may not have tears for a variety of reasons. We may not be moved. We could be distracted before things go too far. Regardless of the outcome, we are always feeling something. We might be feeling different things in different parts of our body. Those feelings are the key that allows us to build the relationship that evangelism demands.
In inner healing, we reenact the feelings and have Jesus enter into the feelings which is very close to the method used in Eastern meditation to open chakras. Since nearly the same method works on the whole and its parts, we can be sure that the method is effective.
To be clear, the method means that when we move the meditation into a certain area, we want to pay attention to the feelings that it evokes. If we feel guilt, we need inner healing. If we feel tempted to sin, we need to confess the desire to sin while we feel the personality of the focus (e.g., Jesus, Mary, or the primary person of the focus). By feeling the focus and temptation together, we open the chakra that allows us to evangelize the area. We can feel many other things besides guilt and temptation. In all cases, the feeling is the key or feedback that allows us to more fully evangelize that area.
As we advance in prayer, we are not fully praying unless we engage the feelings of each part. As Carl Jung pointed out, if we don't deal with things, they will deal with us. We want to be moral, but supression is not a valid relationship. At some point, these suppressed feelings will get their way. By evangelizing the feeling, we turn a powerful foe into an ally.
Expand Personality: When Jesus gave His disciples the Great Commission, they didn't even know the names of "all the nations". They were mostly men who lived around the Sea of Galilee, and they probably didn't know much if anything about India, China, Scandinavia, or the Americas. It was going to take some time for them to build relationships with all these peoples and convert them to the Faith.
As it was led by the Holy Spirit, the Church adopted the customs, traditions, cultures, and spirit of the evangelized. In other words, the Church passed the Light of Christ to these peoples, but she did not insist that they become Galileans or even Jews. The Church respects all nations.
The Greatest Commandment is our personal Great Commission. We received the Light of Christ at Baptism, and we are ordered to pass the Faith to all parts of the body. As we have shown, Faith is passed through relationships, and relationships are forged from respect.
We are like the Galileans in that we know Jesus, but we don't know the parts of body. We see ourselves as living in an ego dictatorship, because that is what we do until Jesus sets us free. As Aquinas put it, holiness can be measured by how each part of the body independently worships God which is also one of the definitions of contemplation.
Under the ego dictatorship, no one is free to follow the inspiration of the contemplation. It it a top-down system that permits little joy. As Jesus sets us free, we begin to operate as a bottom-up system that allows us to live our Faith.
For most of us, it is not so easy to respect our body. Our minds are like wise men whose primary purpose is to flatter the ego king. When we try to feel our mind, our thoughts our shaped by the molds that were set long ago. The vegetative appetites (sex or food) often rule their areas, because that pleases the ego. As we focus on the feelings in these areas, the strong men (read vegetative appetites), who have ruled these areas in the past, step forward to promote the decadence that traditionally pleased the ego.
We can't pour new wine into old wine skins (Mark 2:22). A new system of independent thought is needed in the mind. The vegetative appetites have their place, but they should not be the rulers of their respective regions. All parts are worthy of the focus, and we should exert active evangelization that is guided by the holy spirit.
We need to remember that the focus is meant to evangelize these areas which is not the same as control; in fact, it is often the opposite of control because it is bottom-up organization.
This doesn't mean that we give up our morals, because these regions receive the Light of Christ. As they grow in their love of Christ, they will keep His commandments, as Jesus promised.
The ego is no longer the dictator, but it is still the commander. It is now more content and sympathetic, because it leads a multitude of strong allies that are united in Faith rather than a weak and dreary tyranny of subjects with questionable loyalty that infected the old system.
Integrate Chackras: We move the meditation from chakra to chakra and find that each part has its own personality. Then we individuate the personality of the chakra which is a yang (masculine) process. While this is the beginning of holiness, it won't go very far without the yin (feminine) integration. For without the yin, the other chackras will lose their focus while we concentrate on a certain chackra. With the yin, all parts of the body consistently participate (integrate) in the focus, while we simultaneously individuate a particular chackra.
With the yin flow, we will find a certain part already actively participating in the focus as we move the focus into the area. The yin and yang complement each other to build the intensity of the focus.
We might notice that the Holy Spirit guides the Church to do the same thing. Each local parish has its feast day that the whole Church celebrates. For example, "Spirit of Christ" would have a feast day on Pentecost, and "Nativity of Our Lord" would have a feast day on Christmas. Yet "Spirit of Christ" celebrates Christmas and "Nativity of Our Lord" celebrates Pentecost. Each parish participates in the flow of the liturgical cycle (yin), and each parish has a feast day to help it individuate its personality (yang). The complementing cycle builds the Faith of each parish which of course builds the Faith of the Universal Church. As Aquinas repeatedly demonstrates, the whole can not be different than the components that make the whole.
The Hindus use a number of chakras. The greatest commandment uses heart and mind while implying that we need to be more thorough. By definition, spiritual poverty demands that we pray with every part of our being. In other words, we want to cover the whole being. To borrow from the church example, we want to have small group communities, and we want everyone in the church to be in a small group. For a parish, the small group is the chackra.
If every part is going to be in a chackra, we need more than two chackras. Six chackras seems to be more conducive to spiritual poverty. We might use roughly sexual (including the legs), intestine, stomach, heart, throat (including the arms), and head chackras. It is important to experience the feelings and culture of each place.
As we develop in prayer, we get to know each chackra (yang), and at the same time, we become more familiar with the flow (yin) which is an energy that we can feel traveling through our body. The chackras and chi (flow) start as separate exercises, but as we advance they complement each other. With the chi, the chackras never lose the focus between visits, so each cycle become stronger, and chi keeps building in stength on the witness of the chackras. So the yang creates and stonger yin, and as the yin increases, the yang builds strength. The ever increasing yin-yang cycle takes us to places we would have never imagined to be possible.
The spiritual journey should always be moving forward, and prayer standards can help to ensure that we experiencing a ratcheting effect (i.e., only moves forward) during our prayer time. As we begin to reach consistency, a constantly improving prayer experience probably seems to be an unrealistic ambition, but unlike our physical limitations our relational ability is nearly infinite which allows each prayer experience to be better than the last. Our inattention and distractions prevent us from relating as well as we could. Prayer standards alert us of substandard attention while we still have a chance to correct it.
We can't just commune with God and never do anything with this empowerment. God will not allow it. As Saint Dominic put it, we must become active through our contemplation. To become active, we must develop our vocation which goes beyond the scope of what we are discussing here, but it is more than picking something to do that is good (yet, there is nothing wrong with that). We must act upon what is revealed in our prayer time, but not every notion that comes into our heads is a command from God.
While we might not know what to do, it is a mistake to do nothing. Our prayer life needs an active expression; even if it is only tithing of our time to God.
Our vocation and identity are both part of who we are. As we find our identity in prayer, we will find our vocation. There can be different parts of our vocation, but they should ultimately form a single theme. We have as many vocations as we have identities. We have one vocation, and it never changes.
There are many more things that can be said about vocational development, but we will leave them for another time.
Focus: Page 1
Virtue: Page 1
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