Tuesday night centering prayer

Maplestar and I are blessed to be part of a parish that has two Centering Prayer groups; one meets Tuesday mornings, and the other meets Tuesday evenings.  I also feel blessed that the facilitators of these groups aren’t overly dogmatic about what we must be doing when we spend the time together in silent prayer.  We may be in a centering prayer place, or it may be more of a meditation or even a contemplation.  There is a form, a liturgy, to what we do.  We gather together, have a little small talk as we welcome each other into the space.  There is a reading, a prayer or devotion, sometimes a prayer or a reflection.  Then the chime rings, and we begin twenty minutes of silence.  When the time for silence is over, the chime rings again.  As the ring fades into the silence, we pray the Lord’s Prayer together, and then we have time for sharing.  Sometimes the reading has spoken to us in the silence, and sometimes we have had other experiences or apprehensions.  Sometimes, the sacred word feels like a hammer, as we beat out willful minds into submission; at other times, we float effortlessly into the silence and the presence.

Tonight, our reading came from My Utmost for His Highest, by Oswald Chambers.  We had a little time to read through it ourselves before we began, because it is rich with content and meaning.  Our facilitator asked something of us that is not normally part of centering prayer.  She invited us to — if we found ourselves in a place of contemplation — to try to focus that contemplation on the second person of the Trinity, on Jesus.  The invitation went a little deeper, too, as this reading uses the word noble so often; we were invited to contemplate not so much the gentle, loving, shepherd Jesus, but Jesus the king, Jesus the strong, Jesus the noble, Jesus the challenger, Jesus the angry, Jesus the asker of difficult things.  And then she read the reading to us, and our time of silence began.

Fairly quickly, I found that this would not be a normal session of centering prayer for me.  My sacred word (Listen) just felt limp, not right, and a phrase replaced my sacred word in my mind and heart.

All noble things are difficult.

I’ve said something similar to my children on more than one occasion: nothing worth doing is easy.  Many important things are simple, but so often those simple things are far from easy.  Love is worth doing, and it’s hard work.  Forgiving.  Living in a marriage, in a family, surrounded by the same people every day.  Getting along with the people at work.  Being Christ-like when we’re driving during rush hour.  Doing the right thing.  This is hard stuff, even if it is simple.  At least the author recognizes that this is hard work.

All noble things are difficult.

After a few side-trips, with gentle reminders from this sacred phrase, I knew that tonight was not a night for centering prayer, but for a different prayer practice.  If we find ourselves in a place of contemplation?  Okay.  Then I guess I’ll have to invite Jesus to be with us here.

I did.

He came.

All noble things are difficult.

Jesus sat right next to me, on my hard wooden pew.  His feet reached the floor, so he didn’t pull down a kneeler to rest them on.  I could feel the heat of his body next to mine, could smell him there — not offensive, stinky BO, but just the slightest whiff of man, close by me, present with me.  I kept my eyes closed as I wondered: what now?  I invited him here, so what should I say?  What should I do?  What should  I ask?

All noble things are difficult.

My thoughts spun and raced through the stories in the gospels: the healings, the belief and the unbelief, the stories, the parables, the simple teachings and the hard ones, the prayer he taught us, the way he responded to God in his last days.  It was a whirlwind of images, and I couldn’t settle on just one to ask him about.

Two pews in front of me, another person coughed.  My entire body tried to jump up, to put my hands on her shoulders in the silence, to let her know that we were still here, that all is okay, that she is loved.  I held it back, and I wondered: is this what Jesus would want?

All noble things are difficult.

There is a hand on my knee, a warm hand resting on my right knee.  I know it is okay.  I open my eyes for a moment, and the woman with the cough looks fine.  She is sitting up straight and is in prayer.  I close my eyes, and my inner voice says Thank you, Jesus.

I know I am drawn to those who are hurting, to those who are suffering, to those who are marginalized or outcast, to those who have been damaged by the church I so love.  But I’m often afraid to approach them, even when I recognize the neighborhood they’re going through.  I’m afraid I’ll seem creepy or overbearing.  I’m afraid I’ll say or do the wrong thing, and do even more damage.  Jesus is next to me, still; he is quiet, but there with me, and warm.

All noble things are difficult.

My mind whirls with questions and images to ask Jesus about.  And somehow, the only thing that stands out strongly is the story in John’s gospel about the woman caught in adultery.  It’s a great story, but it doesn’t appear in the earliest manuscripts of this gospel, and many scholars believe that it was added later.  So this is what I finally ask Jesus.  Was this you?  It sure sounds like you.  Did you really say this?

Jesus laughs.  Every time I encounter Jesus in contemplation, he laughs.  It’s how I’ve come to recognize the experiences as genuine; if Jesus doesn’t laugh or say something wonderfully smart-alecky, then it probably isn’t really Jesus.  He agrees, you’re right, that is my style!  But no, this wasn’t me. I can see him writing in the sand.  I’ve always wondered what he was writing there.  Maybe the name of the man who was caught in adultery with the woman?  Maybe the names of those in the crowd who had cheated on their spouses?  Or just idle doodles and swirls?  But now I can’t even ask him, because Jesus just told me this wasn’t really him!  Jesus laughs again.  What does it matter? he asks me.  It’s a good story, and I wish I had been there.  What would you have written in the sand? I laugh, too, in my inner self.  He’s right, of course.  It doesn’t matter which stories actually, literally, physically happened, and which were added to the gospels later.  What matters is doing the right thing, behaving with love for our neighbors, doing those difficult noble things.

All noble things are difficult.

My entire body felt light, as though I was floating in another world, even though I could still feel the wooden pew beneath my bottom, the cool tiles beneath my feet.  Jesus was next to me, and I could feel his warmth.  I opened my eyes and took in the silent church.  Light streamed through the clear windows, reflecting on the white colonial walls.  Birds sang outside, some chirping busily and others complaining.  The physicality of this world had come together with the symbol and light and sublimeness of the next world; I sat astride both worlds at once, both combined in this thin place.

I closed my eyes again, and now I could see the others around me, at prayer.  I had not turned around while my eyes were open, to see everyone, but now I could see them all.  I could see their warmth, their light, their yearning for Jesus.  Did they know he was here, right here among us?  Could they feel him or see him?  I had an urge to stand on my pew and call for their attention: Look!  Here is Jesus!  Here is the gentle loving Jesus, and the funny smart-alecky Jesus, and the strong and angry and challenging and difficult Jesus.  Here he is! As suddenly as the urge came, it subsided, and I could feel Jesus next to me, grinning.

All noble things are difficult.

After our time of silent prayer ended, we prayed the Lord’s Prayer together.  I could feel the warmth next to me, where Jesus had been, fading, as we returned fully to the physical world.  Three of us admitted to experiencing Jesus in a time of contemplation, and we all felt the need to process this, to spend some time re-calling our contemplation and learning what it means.  We talked some about the reading, about things that are difficult and how we practice them.  We asked ourselves what it means to fail in a time of crisis, and whether we agree with the rather harsh evaluation Mr. Chambers gives us in this reading.  Our facilitator challenged us: what have you done today that was noble?

I didn’t have an answer.  None of us really did.  We’re conditioned to be humble, or at least, not to brag… especially not about spiritual things.  Noble acts were pointed out to each of us, and every one of us tried to shrug it off, aw, that isn’t really noble.

I wonder whether the answers would have been different, if we’d been asked what we had done today that was difficult.

All noble things are difficult.

Maybe.  But they do become less so with practice, with reminders.  Jesus gave us plenty of good words to use to remind ourselves and others to do those difficult noble things.  God gives us grace to help us choose the difficult noble things.  And the world is filled with other people — some difficult, some noble, some both — who need us to do noble things for them.

Even if it wasn’t Jesus, somebody saved that woman caught in adultery.  That was a noble act, and standing up to that crowd — that mob! — was certainly difficult.

What noble thing will I do tomorrow?  And what noble thing will you do?