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Bites of bread in the wilderness

Thursday, March 7, 2019

From Psalm 1
Blessed is the man or woman who delights in the law of the Lord and meditates on his law day and night.

On this second day of our fasting season, I keep thinking of sandwiches. Crusty, chewy, warm bread and inside, some cheese, some meat, some lettuce and mustard and mayonnaise. But that’s just the start. I could slice an avocado, add some French dressing, pile on pepperoni and sprinkle some grated parmesan on the whole thing. Dagwood! Come and get it.

I think of these sandwiches because during Lent I want to sandwich my day between two twenty-minute slices of fine artisanal meditation. This meditation might involve what’s called “kataphatic” prayer, perhaps with a review of moments of my day when I’ve turned toward God and moments when I’ve turned away, which St. Ignatius called the Examen. Or I could repeat and consider quietly the phrases of what we usually call the Lord’s Prayer.

I could repeat the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner) thirty-three or a thousand times, and join millions of Orthodox believers down through the centuries since Christ. I could revel in imaginative excursions through Scripture, thinking of myself as Peter or Paul or Mary, or David or Isaiah or Ezekiel: read a story, become a part of it. Use all my senses. Be with Jeremiah or Joseph in their wells. Or sit at the feet of Jesus while he preaches in the village square.

I could feel the dust between my feet as I follow Jesus and his disciples down the road. What do I hear? What do I smell? What do I taste? Maybe I can eat some dark green olives, stashed away for just such a time as this. I could slowly read a verse of two of a psalm over and over. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

But this timely slice of meditation can also be “apophatic,” which is to say it would be without images or intentional thoughts directed toward God. I could just sit there at the dawn of day and repeat a sacred word, a mantra (the root of mantra means “mental tool”). Perhaps as Fr. John Main suggests, I could say the Aramaic word “maranatha,” which means “Come, Lord.” All four syllables, over and over, amen.

Here’s a simple description of one way to pray the apophatic way, from Thomas Ryan’s Prayer of Heart and Body:

Sit still and upright, relaxed but alert, with your eyes tightly closed. Silently, interiorly begin to say a single word or phrase selected from the context of Christian faith. Listen to it as you say it gently but continuously with faith and love. Do not think or imagine anything, spiritual or otherwise. If thoughts or images come and your attention strays, as soon as you become aware of this, return to saying your word. Meditate each morning and evening for between twenty to thirty minutes.

Routines, rhythms, disciplines, whatever you want to call them … don’t come easy for me. But I began this a week ago and can surely make it through Lent. Right? Maybe by that time I’ll have the habit. Change your habit, change your life.

So how will I choose to pray in these crusty slices of my time? I think mostly the apophatic way. But that kataphatic stuff looks really cool. Either way, I will be giving up my busyness forty minutes each day.

And a few sandwiches too.

Lord, teach me to walk in the way of my heart, to settle into prayer and prayer and prayer. For thou art with me., thy rod and staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table for me, and my cup runs over.

* * *

Thomas Ryan, SJ, Praying with Heart and Body: Meditation and Yoga as Christian Spiritual Practice, Chapter 5, “A Method for the Journey: The Use of a Sacred Word,” Kindle location 1006, 1995

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