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KATE OLSON: Mt. Desert Island, off the coast of Maine, widely known as the home to the spectacular Acadia National Park. Here, at St. Andrew by the Lake Episcopal Church, a community of spiritual seekers gathered recently to hear about the Christian practice of contemplation from Martin Laird.
MARTIN LAIRD: (Speaking at St. Andrew) To navigate this ancient way of prayer is to “put out into the deep,” as Luke says, let down our nets for our catch. Paradoxically, we discover that it is we ourselves who are caught and held in this net…
OLSON: This is the central insight and discovery in the practice of contemplation, Laird says that the God we are seeking has already sought and found us. We simply are not aware of this union.
LAIRD: The great obstacle that actually creates the illusion that we are separate from God and therefore need to seek God as though God were in that room over there is what I call the great cocktail party going on in our heads — interior noise and that creates the illusion that we are separate from God. As God’s creation, we can’t be separate from God.
OLSON: We can quiet this inner chatter in our minds, Laird says, by learning the same practical skills used by the early Christian contemplatives. The practice emphasizes the cultivation of concentration through a short prayer or prayer word, often inspired by Scripture, united with the breath.
LAIRD: That’s really is a classic example of something that is simple but not easy. If one practices with a prayer word in one’s breath, as soon as you become aware that your attention has been stolen, which is every nano second, you bring it back. The practice is never trying not to be distracted. As St. Theresa of Avila says, “If you try not to have thoughts, they will come from the four corners of the Earth.”
OLSON: A scholar of the early church, Laird says Christians can trace the practice of contemplation back to Jesus himself, citing Evagrius, one of the early Christian contemplatives of the 4th century.
LAIRD: Listening to the account of Jesus’ temptation in the desert, Evagrius observed something about Jesus, that Jesus avoided getting caught up in any sort of conversation with Satan. Jesus broke the cycle of inner chatter by a word from Scripture.
OLSON: Early Christian contemplatives known as the desert fathers and mothers, followed Jesus’ example and quoted passages from scripture, even the simple name of Jesus, to break free of the snare of thoughts and enter into silent prayer.
LAIRD: “No thought can capture God,” St. Gregory of Nissa says, “If you form a concept of God, you’ve made an idol of God.” St. Augustine says, “If you think you have understood God, you may be sure it was not God you understood.” And so in the deeper levels of the practice of contemplation, you are even letting go of holy pious thoughts.
OLSON: Laird now teaches at Villanova University near Philadelphia, which was founded by the Augustinians in 1842. For the past ten years, he has taught a course on the classical Christian texts and practice of silent prayer and meditation. In his course, Laird offers what he calls a “lab” to his students. Each class begins with 15 minutes of silence, and he asks his students to spend ten minutes a day in silent meditation outside of class.
The day we visited, Laird was reviewing what the students had learned about quieting the inner chatter in their minds, and dealing with distractions around them, such as the construction noise outside their classroom window.
LAIRD: What do I do if I’m bothered by all the machinery outside?
STUDENT: Well, that’s the purpose of the anchor. When your mind wanders to the machinery, you can remind yourself with the simple word or the simplicity of your breathing. It gives you something to say, “I need to bring it back.”
STUDENT: As you develop a practice – it’s a practice just like working out – you start to realize there is a part of you that’s independent of your mind. As you get deeper into the practice, you cultivate that place of inner stillness, and after you recognize that, you can let thoughts in your head just be there like you let the sounds around you be there.
LAIRD: As the process deepens, and it does deepen, it will unblock things that are getting in the way, some of these things, that we would rather not see. Contemplation is not an aerosol spray to get rid of bad odors we just don’t want to encounter. We meet our self-centeredness, we meet our wounds, our flaws, our faults but at the depths of it, if you look deeply enough into your own wounds, you see not your own face but the face of God. But there one finds freedom, a fundamental peace. All hell may be breaking loose in your life, or everything may be going well or some combination of the two, but there is a bedrock peace that is you.
(Speaking to class) Evagrius said once you obtain this state of “apothia” – this deep calm gives birth to love.
It is our love that brings us into communion with God, not our knowledge about God. It’s the difference between looking at a photograph of someone you know and looking into the eyes of someone you love.
OLSON: This abiding love leads one out into the world to truly serve others, Laird says. He quotes a spiritual mentor, St. Thomas of Villanova:
LAIRD: “That the doorway into the service of the wider church is through contemplation.” So first, you must become a contemplative. Then you’re qualified to serve others.
What awakens in this awareness is the sanctity of the other, and to see how all things are reflections of this mystery that we call God. We’re simply one with all that is, the way that God is one with all that is. And the illusion that we can possibly or have ever been separate from God falls away.
OLSON: For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, this is Kate Olson on Mt. Desert Island, Maine.