On occasion, it is worthwhile for us
to sit back and reflect on what is happening in our daily practice of
contemplative prayer. Each day twice a day for twenty minutes, we sit in
silence and repeat our mantra. In this process, it is important to remember
that during these periods, the Holy Spirit enters into our lives and this is an
act of love on the divine’s part. This is vital because unless we are loved, we
really cannot become full human beings. The faithful love of us by the Spirit
is a great gift because in human life, we cannot find such unconditional love.
In human life and despite the promises of the other, human love can come and
go. So the love that the Spirit gives to us is a great gift that should impact
our whole life. We do not have to worry about infidelity on the part of the
Spirit because He/She is always there. This is a wonderful gift to us because
we are humans and our life is subject to the effects of our failings and
selfish. We are plagued with these things until our years on earth are over.
Despite our many imperfections, the Spirit is present to us and loves us and
ultimately transforms us into followers who can love the Lord and our neighbor.
This gradual transformation of
ourselves by the action of the Spirit reminds us of the story in the gospels
where the apostles were very confused by the crucifixion and death of Jesus and
locked themselves into the upper room afraid to go out. The gospel story tells
us that Jesus appeared to them in their midst and breathed on them saying
‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’ At that point, the disciples became new people, not
afraid any more of the police and Roman soldiers but left the room and began to
preach the good news that Jesus has risen from the dead and offers us a new
life in God.
Our daily fidelity to prayer over
time should give us also this transformation. The presence of the Spirit in our
mediation sessions is making us new men and women like what happened to the
disciples in the upper room. The same Spirit is present and within us, loving
us and inviting us to do the same. This is a great gift. No longer do we have to wander on earth
aimlessly but the Spirit is on our side leading us to greater Christian
maturity. There are many ways to live our life, some good, others bad which can
be detrimental to us and our world.
The essence of contemplative prayer
then is this action of the Spirit within us during our meditation. This is the
important part. It is action directly by God. It also puts into perspective our
fidelity to the discipline of meditation. We are called to be faithful to the
two twenty minute periods of prayer daily. This is very important because it
shows our reciprocity to the Divine action. But we have to remember that our fidelity
to meditation is not the primary action but the secondary one. The primary action is the presence of the
Spirit who loves us and breathes new life into us making us new men and women
as what happened to the disciples in the upper room. If we grow in the
realization of this primary action of the Spirit in our prayer, over the years,
we will wonder at this action and be grateful that the Divine has made us the recipients
of this love.
I was fortunate to have the
opportunity to make a pilgrimage to Montréal, Trois Rivières and Québec, Canada and visit the many shrines
that lie in the Saint Lawrence River valley. It was a contemplative pilgrimage
because I went alone for two weeks and had plenty of time for meditation and
silence. There are many shrines in this part of Canada which always have had a
deep spiritual meaning for me. There is the beautiful one of St. Ann de Beaupré
on the outskirts of Québec city. Devotion to St. Ann, the mother of the Virgin
Mary, has a long tradition in Western and Eastern Christianity and the French colonists
brought this to the New World when they arrived many centuries ago. In the city
of Québec, I visited the chapel and tomb of Marie de l’Incarnation who was a
great mystic and lived there in colonial times.
She was recently canonized and her writings testify to the depth of her
contemplative life. People call her the
St. Theresa of Avila of North American. I had also the privilege to go to the
shrine of Our Lady of the Cap in Trois Rivières where there were manifestations
of the Virgin Mary at the end of the 19th century. In Montréal, I
went to the Oratory of St. Joseph and the tomb and chapel of Saint Bother
André. He was a religious brother who lived in the 20th century and
had unusual gifts of counselling people and was a healer of physical
infirmities. Crowds still come to this shrine to be beneficiaries of his help.
In the same city, I also visited the shrines of Padre Pio, the famous stigmatic
who lived in the 20th century and that of Mary, the Queen of Heaven.
In the two weeks of visiting the
shrines, I reflected on their role in a pilgrimage. They are usually connected
to holy places where religious people take time out to make a trip. They are
looking for a renewal of their Christian faith and help in resolving the
problems that beset their everyday life. In visiting these shrines, pilgrims refresh
themselves in experiencing the many ways that God has been at work during the centuries
in the saints to build up the Christian community. In a very existential way, God
has taken the initiative to love these holy people and give them life on earth.
The Lord has loved them before they loved Him. Pilgrims stand in awe and
adoration at this fact. The Divine made a covenant with all people and is
always faithful to it.
shrines remind us that God is still active in our world and community working
to bring people to salvation. In the visit, there are various religious
activities, liturgical ceremonies and opportunities to meet other Christian
people. In these, we feel that God is active now working to make us better
people and Christians. It is part of the renewal of the Christian community.
Thirdly, the shrines have us look
into the future and give us confidence that someday we will arrive at our
heavenly homeland. We are pilgrims on earth and the visit to these gives us
signs of hope of where we are going. Like the pilgrims in the Old Testament,
they sang and were joyful to be in the presence of God in the holy temple. In the same way, in this visit, we pilgrims
await a conversion and renewal of ourselves and our community. In this change
for the better, we have a glimpse of the new heaven and new earth to which we
are called. We look into the future and have confidence in our voyage there.
This earth is not our true home but we are destined for another place.
In reflecting on my two week
pilgrimage of silence and meditation to the various shrines in the province of Québec,
Canada, it was a rich experience of the Christian life. Each had its own
experience, different saint, beauty of the church building and being situated
on the lovely Saint Lawrence River. Two weeks were ample time to immerse myself
in this religious experience. Like all
the pilgrims who have made similar trips through the centuries, hopefully this
visit will renew my Christian life and allow me to be active to build a better
In religious traditions, eternal
life and God are spoken about as the goal of our human life, as going home
after our pilgrimage on earth. It is a place where we will be unconditionally
accepted. Jesus spoke of this when He told his apostles that He is leaving in
order to prepare a place for them in his Father’s house. In the eastern
religions, this desire to go home is expressed in the three steps of our life’s
journey. In the first 25-30 years, we are busy growing up, going to school,
learning our work and profession, etc.
After that from 25 - 55, we are occupied in the world working in our
profession, getting married and having our family and using our talents to
accomplish our responsibilities. After
55 – 60, the eastern religions describe this time as when the leaves fall off
the tree, we are no longer so active in our tasks and obligations. Time opens
up for us and opportunities arise to get closer to the transcendent. These
years of semi-retirement and retirement can be times of growth in contemplative
prayer and God touches people to grow in a deeper relationship with Him/Her. If
we look at the contemporary contemplative prayer movements in our country such
as the John Main Movement and the Centering Prayer Movement, many of the
members have been touched by God to enter this deeper relationship in their
later years, in the third stage of their life. In a very real sense, we are
preparing ourselves to enter into the house of our Father that Jesus said that
He would prepare for us. We are going and coming home.
This desire to go home is also
present within us in our younger years and especially felt in our growth in
contemplative prayer. At the heart of contemplative and mystical prayer is the
entry into silence, darkness and emptiness where we encounter a presence – the
presence of a Beloved one who woos us to love Him/Her. This divine presence at
our center is more intimate to ourselves than we are to ourselves, yet it is
also transcendent and a mystery to us always slipping through our fingers. As
we grow in mystical prayer, this divine presence becomes the rock of and
defines our life. In a very real sense,
this desire on our part to go home, to encounter and receive that unconditional
love begins on earth. This divine presence at our center is our home because we
know that the earth that we live on is not our true one. Our life here is very
fragile. Sudden illness can burst in on us and deprive us of many things,
earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis threaten us and human relationships come
and go, wars, etc. The universe we live in, in its human and material
dimension, can be very unfriendly. If we anchor ourselves in contemplative
prayer, however, and hear the call of the divine presence at our center, we
begin to get a taste of the home to which we are called - our Father’s house.
The mystics in their deep
relationship with God which they grew into in contemplative prayer have tasted
this ‘coming home’ for which we yearn. Their relationship with God was central and
defined their life. Despite the
unfriendliness of earthly life which they also experienced, God touched them
giving them a calmness of being home. Theresa of Avila had this sense of coming
home and being at peace in her Father’s house and expressed it beautifully in
her famous poem ‘Only God Matters.’
‘Do not let anything disturb you.
Nothing should bother you.
Everything will pass on.
God does not go away.
It will all work out.
To those who have God
Nothing will be wanting.
Only God matters.’
Theresa of Avila’s poem expresses
the goal of our contemplative prayer and path. As we get closer to God and feel
the divine presence at our center, we will share Theresa’s confidence. We will
have that sense of coming home and experiencing that place of unconditional
love that we desire despite the ups and downs of our life on earth which will
someday end. We will taste that coming home which we will fully possess someday
when we reach eternal life.
Cutting onshore winds
from ocean chill me to the bone
drive me to walk
along harbor’s side.
Winter trees there
and land calm sharp gusts
offer me shelter.
Bright sun – blue
calm water –low tide
invite me to walk
Curving shore line –
brown sand – white bleached sand
sea gulls looking for
food in newly freed earth
rocks – old stone
walls – bricks uncovered in low tide
leafless bushes –
islands in the distance – all populate my walking.
A few humans like me
are daydreaming – taking it all in.
Low tide changed
contours of shore
things once hidden,
Is not journey of my
life like the zigzagging shore line?
So many events –
currents – movements
some painful – others
My life – a big
mystery like rising and falling of the tides
tides open up
surprises – then cover them up.
Silence permeates ebb
and flow of water
shore is silent.
Silence covers it all
– embraces all.
I feel it
silence of my Beloved
– silence of God.
In ebb and flow of
in ebb and flow of my
He stands next to me –
will not let go. I am not alone.
Mystery of my life –
mystery of the sea
mystery of my Beloved
He has a guiding hand
– invisible hand – warm and firm.
Hand of God!
CONFIDENCE IN GOD
In the summertime, we might have
more time to reflect on our life and where it is going. Our schedules may slow
down and we can think of our prayer life of contemplation and where it is
leading us. In our meditation, we have our discipline of prayer and attempt to
touch God’s presence by repeating the mantra and watching our breathing in and
out. Of course, there are always distractions, worries about our life and its
many facets and the constant tumult of the world and its wars. But we put those
thoughts behind us and again return to our mantra and breathing. This constant
putting aside the many distractions, worries and cares that come into our
prayer is a sign that God is more important in our life than the many concerns
we have about the present and the future. For twice a day for twenty minutes
each time, we set our sights on the Lord because He is the primary object of
our life and guides us. We have confidence that the rest of life with its cares
and worries is not important as the Divine.
This putting behind us and away the worries
and concerns of our daily living and those of the world reminds us of the
teaching of Jesus. In the gospel of St. Matthew, the Lord tells us to put aside
our constant worries about having enough to eat and drink and clothes for our
bodies. He mentions that life is more than these material concerns.These worries are basically about survival
and Jesus in his teaching tells us that life is more than survival. Rather we
have to concentrate on the Kingdom of God and its justice and the Lord will
provide for the rest. This is quite a challenge for us because we are immersed
in the world, can be sucked into its dynamic of desire for material things and
security, etc. and be overwhelmed with the injustices and wars around us. It
will take a life time for us to put aside these concerns and fix our sights on
the Kingdom of God and grow in such confidence that Jesus proposes to us.
Our contemplative prayer where we
put aside these concerns of our material life and the world requires a trust.
We have to grow in the belief that God is there for us and will never let us
out of his sight. In the gospel, Jesus tells us to look how his Father takes
care of the lilies of the fields, the grass and birds.If this is so, He will extend to us the same
care. Jesus exhorts us not to worry about tomorrow since it will take care of
itself. This is one of the challenges that we face over the years; we are to be
faithful to our daily meditation where the focus is on the Lord. Our
relationship with Him will grow. Our love will deepen and so to the confidence
of His care which Jesus promises us. This is an important horizon of our life
and if we are persistent in growing in this, a peace will come within us. We
will not be torn in every direction but keep our sights on Jesus and His
promise who then will guide the boat of our life to a safe landing.
As we enter into summer time, it may be an occasion
for us to enter more deeply into our understanding where our life is going.
Summer can bring on a slowing down of our schedule and commitments so that we
can take a breather from our many activities.
Those of us who live in these big modern cities, the never ending
schedule of many meetings, telephone calls and commitments overwhelm us – so
many things to do. I myself look forward to a break where there is more time
for myself, enjoying the summer garden and taking a ride to the seashore. This
slowing of our schedule can be a time to deepen our understanding of
contemplation and the meaning to our meditating for twenty minutes each day. Our
daily contemplation takes us on a mystical journey to an encounter to meet
someone, the Divine. We are not thinking about deep theological issues or the
dogmas of our faith. Rather it is a journey and quest to have an experience of
God’s presence in silence.
In the quiet of contemplative
prayer, we are entering into a new level of consciousness. We leave behind the
rational world of our daily living and enter into a new way to experience
reality. We reject our self-orientated way of living where our ego is the center
of attention. The quest in contemplation opens us up to a newer way of seeing
things and living due to our contact with God. Slowly we begin to see things as
the Lord sees them and who invites us into have a relationship of love. We
realize that we are being loved by someone and it is imperative to us to
respond to this with reciprocal love. We are now not enamored of our ego and its
needs and importance but our life is now orientated around our love
relationship with our Beloved.
This new way of living and our
understanding of it are very important and can help us orientate our life in a
more authentic way. We will not find real happiness and meaning if we are just
concerned with our material success and prosperity in society. This is a big
temptation because the material world and its attractions are overwhelming with
the mass media; it constantly bombards us with messages and images to
participate more in consumer society. This causes unhappiness and restlessness
since these things cannot really fulfill our deepest needs as humans. There are
other dimensions which need to be fulfilled and answered. Our journey into
contemplative prayer leads us to the center of our human spirit where we
encounter the spirit of God in silence and darkness. It is a path to the love
of the Lord around which then we orientate our existence. It does not mean that
the problems of our personal life and those of the world will disappear but we
will put them into perspective which then gives us a sense of hope and
security. Our life then is in the hands of Someone who loves us and takes our
hand to lead us through the years.
If we read the lives of the great
mystics who lived before us, this is the discovery which they made in their
prayer and contemplation. In the silence of meditation, they met Someone at
their center and still point which opened up for them a new way of existence.
Today through the contemplative prayer movements, we are lead to the same path;
we do not have to live in a monastery. We are now living in a ‘monastery
without walls’ where we receive the invitation of the Lord to travel the same
mystical journey. We do not have to look around in the world to meet this
presence of the Divine but to travel within ourselves, to our center and still
point. Here we meet the spirit of God who is our Beloved. The slowing down of
our schedule in the summer time can be an occasion for us to take stock of this
opportunity and grow in authentic living.
In the spring of 2011, I made a
pilgrimage of silence to Castilla y
where the two great mystics, John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila lived and
died. It was a pilgrimage of silence in so far that in visiting these holy
sites and spaces, I was lead into contemplation trying to touch the presence of
the divine at my center and still point. I did not bring along books to read
but did bring one of the poems of John of the Cross. While on the trip, I read slowly his major
poems which helped me focus on the presence of the divine. The poem of John, ‘A
Dark Night,’ helped me feel that this inward journey of contemplation to meet
God at our center and still point is one that is always wrapped in mystery. It
leads us to an encounter with God who is transcendent and completely other from
ourselves and the natural world around us. In that sense, it is very different
from relationships we have with other humans. In spite of this dimension of
transcendence and otherness, this relationship is much closer and deeper to us
than other relations can be. In human relationships, the other is always in
front of us and exterior to us. But in this encounter in contemplation and
silence, we feel the divine presence deep within us where no one else can
enter. So this relationship has a dimension of mystery and darkness which John
of the Cross so well celebrates in his poem. We note also that although this
relationship is completely different from our ordinary experiences, it is an
encounter of love where the divine touches and reminds us that He/She loves us
and asks us to respond to this invitation.
As John of the Cross so well puts, it is an encounter in darkness but
one that is also burning with fire of love. We are meeting our Beloved who
takes us by the hand and asks us to respond with our love. While I was on
pilgrimage to Segovia
where John lived and is buried, his poem about the dark night was always
present to me and helped me feel the presence of the divine within me.
On this pilgrimage also to Castilla
y León, I made it a point to visit several Marian shrines with statues of the
Black Madonna and I wanted to enter more into their symbolism. Statues of the
Black Virgin are all over Europe and are
centers of pilgrimage for many people. I was able to visit such statues in the
Basilica of Our Lady of Atocha in Madrid.
I made a trip also to Toledo
and in the cathedral, I visited the chapel of Our Lady of the Sanctuary and the
beautiful statue of the ‘La Virgen Blanca.’ These two statues are very famous
and attract many visitors to the church. I sat in meditation in front of these
and the dark complexion of the mother and child had an aura of mystery. Because
the faces and skin were black, I had the feeling that the Virgin was leading us
into the mystery of the dark night that John of the Cross speaks about in his
poem. With this dark color of the face and skin, Mary directs us in our inward
journey to meet the transcendent God who is completely other than we are but
loves us and wants to have our friendship. I believe that these Black Madonna
pilgrim shrines not only in Europe but in many
places in the world attract people for this reason. Darkness is a symbol which draws and leads us
into mystery of God to whom we want to orientate our life. Our daily life is
full of many things, interests, occupations, concerns, etc, and it is a
challenge to find the central focus which will push our life in the right
direction. This focus is God and we have the challenge through our faith and
prayer to know and love God better so that the divine can be the center of our
activities and relationships and put them into the right direction. This is the
challenge of our life and the Black Madonna is in these pilgrimage shrines
reaching out to many people and assisting them in this journey of faith.
The color black is also symbolic of
the earth and fertility which are deep human realities. We come from the earth and our mother’s womb.
Looking at the Black Madonna, we ask her to help us with the many problems of
our life and the world we live in. In a pilgrimage, we go to a holy space where
we have a special encounter with the divine.
We bring the problems and cares of our daily life back home to this holy
place asking God his help with these things. The Black Madonna celebrated and
honored at these particular shrines can be an intercessor in this regard.
In conclusion, in making the
pilgrimage of silence to Castilla y León, I am always drawn to visit the place
where John of the Cross lived and is buried.
I read his poems which set the tone for the trip and this year, I read
many times his poem ‘In a Dark Night.’ We are on an inward journey of contemplation
to meet God in silence and darkness. It is a meeting of love where the divine
invites us into a relationship of friendship.
This year, I also coupled this pilgrimage with a visit to three chapels
with statues of the Black Madonna. The darkness of the statues exudes mystery
and invites us to take the hand of Mary who will lead us into the presence of
the transcendent God who awaits our friendship.
Since this is a journey to meet God who is completely other and different,
we must be content to make this trip in mystery and darkness. The poems of John
of the Cross and the statues of the Black Madonna will help us find our way to
this beautiful meeting with the Lord.