We Document Almost Everything, but Should We Document Contemplative Prayer?

There’s hardly a day that I don’t take a picture of my kids or something noteworthy in my surroundings. I can take as many shots as I like in order to capture a moment, save the best ones, and delete the rest.

There are plenty of times when I’ve captured a perfect expression from one of my kids, picked up the brilliant shades of red, pink, and purple in a sunset, or preserved an especially important moment for us to look back on in the years to come.

Yet, I often wonder how often I’m removing myself from participation in life when I shift into documentary mode. This is especially true when it comes to our kids. How often have I disengaged from them in order to take their picture? Are there times when I could have had a more meaningful interaction if I kept my smartphone in my pocket?

I confess that I’m quite contrary about the ways smartphones document everything from meals, to date nights, to shoes, to quirky selfie expressions. How often should we step back from a moment, an interaction, or the simple rhythm of daily life in order to put our documentary hats on?

I view myself relative to our culture as a documentary minimalist, and yet I often find myself asking how often I’m removing myself to document something rather than to be fully present for it. Documenting becomes a habit of sorts, a way of interacting with the world that wasn’t really possible until digital cameras, smartphones, and social media increased both the ease and the social opportunities for extensive photographing and sharing.

This tendency to document feeds into a common tendency among Christians who practice contemplative prayer to document or savor any notion of spiritual consolation or a spiritual experience.

Thomas Keating shared in Open Mind, Open Heart that we are always tempted to hang onto a spiritual experience as if we are taking a picture of it, preserving it for reference and consolation later. Rather than allowing ourselves to be present for God in silence, we run the risk of demanding spiritual experiences each time we pray, turning to our preserved memories if we can’t feel the way we want.

Martin Laird notes in An Ocean of Light that such spiritual experiences are mercifully few and far between lest we spend our time journaling about them and comparing them with each other.

Contemplation invites us into a practice that remains deceptively simple, merely being present for God without any demands for a particular feeling or consolation. This prayer invites us to trust in a pure faith that God is present and at work in us regardless of how we feel.

This may prove to be a disappointment at first, but it can also prove liberating. We only have to receive what God gives us, no more and no less.

There is no ideal outcome or result we have will ourselves to have.

There is no technique, trick, mindset, or chant that will make prayer more effective.

God is present based on grace and our prayers are rooted in the reception of that grace whether we know it or experience it in a particular way. There is nothing for us to capture in the moment because we are already being held by a loving God.

 

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How a Prayer Journal Helps Me Pray

My life changed on the day my sixth grade teacher handed out notebooks that we could use for anything. I filled it solid with stories and drawings from front to back, even resorting to the margins of the times tables as I ran out of pages.

I didn’t realize the significance of this moment until much later in my life, but I now can see that I was made to write. Something comes alive with possibilities inside of me when I have a chance to write. It shouldn’t have surprised me that journaling became a vital part of my prayer journey over time.

While I had typically kept a more conventional journal with my thoughts about Bible study or my reflections on the day, my prayer journal has served a somewhat different purpose even if there is some overlap with my past prayer practices.

Prayer journaling is an opportunity to process my thoughts, to put my feelings and reactions into words, and to move myself out of the cycle of reacting and responding to the events of the day without proper reflection.

If swirling thoughts make it difficult to pray, my journal offers a place to store them, to see them in black and white, and to process them before I even begin to pray. This freedom to reflect may simply lock the thoughts away on the page or it may guide me in what I need to pray for as a request or as a simple practice of trust.

Even a few sentences of reflection can make all of the difference in my mental and spiritual outlook for the day. If I am unsettled, distracted, or worried, a brief review of my journal offers a telling clue about how much time I’ve had for reflection and perspective.

I’ve shared in The Contemplative Writer and in Pray, Write, Grow that prayer and writing tend to draw from similar practices of reflection, and a journal can offer a particularly helpful meeting point of these two related practices.

While I may journal about a particular insight or change in perspective, the goal of my journal isn’t to record my fantastic spiritual experiences and insights. Rather, I’m hoping to clear away the clutter of my mind preemptively before entering a time of prayer.

Even if I don’t have spiritual ends in mind, journaling brings these benefits as I gain a better handle on my thoughts and move out of a reactive stance into a more reflective and even receptive position.

I don’t necessarily even call my journal a “prayer journal.” It’s just my journal. Who knows what I may write in there, but the spiritual benefits are why I carry it just about everywhere.

There is a lot of freedom in knowing that I can deposit any thoughts on my mind in the journal. To my surprise, they often stay there, unable to withdraw themselves unless I go searching for them.

 

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Preserving the Foundation of My Ministry

Without sharing my presence, my undivided attention to others, I’m not sure I have much to offer others.

Whether I’m writing books or listening to someone, a division or distraction in my attention can undermine my ability to fully take in what others are saying, to empathize with them, and to act in meaningful or constructive ways. If I have trained myself to be distracted, to look for something exciting and engaging, or to divide my attention as often as possible, my ability to be present, let alone to serve others, has been undermined at the most foundational level.

In review of my online activities and smartphone use, I can easily fall into the trap of craving a steady stream of distraction or stimulation that trains me to look beyond the present moment.

Even when it comes to the life of my mind, the more I fill my mind up with distressing, angering, or emotionally charged events, the harder it is to be present. Since social media is chock full of such material, the more time I spend there, the more likely my mind will be spinning with thoughts of the latest outrage.

Far from encouraging a head in the sand approach to the issues of our time, I’m more concerned that we run the risk of being flooded with distressing or enraging thoughts to the point that I become overwhelmed by what I can’t control and struggle to be present for what I can do to serve others and to love the people closest to myself.

The foundation of my ministry to others is presence, preserving enough of myself to hear others, to assess how I can help, and to share generously what God’s presence in my life has given to me.

The more disrupted and distracted I am, the less I can receive from God and the less I can give to others. It’s not rocket science, but it requires a good deal of intention at a time when we are flooded with more information in a greater variety of ways than ever before.

If I can’t preserve space to be present, to enjoy the silence of prayer before God and to step away from the noise of life, then this loss will catch up with me in one way or another down the line. I can’t offer others the stillness and stability of my presence and attention if I haven’t first made that space for myself.

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What Happens During a Season of Rest?

soul care rest image

After some much-needed time away on vacation completely disengaged from client work (editing books, writing blog posts, etc.), social media, and the daily practice of writing, I’m still not quite sure what happened to me.

The intensity of life grew especially acute before we left since I had a major book draft to wrap up and a pile of work to set in place, to say nothing of packing and planning for our three weeks away. Our car always has an expensive repair right around this time to boot.

Stepping away, I felt like I flipped off a switch in my brain, and coming back, there are moments when I’m not quite sure if I should flip it back on again or if I really have any say in the matter. Perhaps I had simply woven a narrative of being busy and it took a time of rest to shut it down.

Then again, there are legitimate seasons of increased intensity that need to be faced.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of this season of rest is that I stepped out of my mindset of constant urgency, reacting to each successive challenge. While certain challenges in life can stir us to urgent action, my sense is that urgency and reaction can become default responses at times.

The perfectly normal and even the mundane can be viewed through a lense of urgency and reaction that makes more of them than warranted.

This season of rest has offered a welcome time for greater awareness of my outlook each day, how I respond to the events of each day, and how other practices and responses could help.

During my time away I had a chance to step away from many things that appeared urgent or vitally important, to replace them with things that were better for my soul, such as reading, silence, or a walk, and to assess the impact on my life.

While I certainly can’t live each week with the same amount of time alloted for reading, recreation, or silent prayer, I was able to see how many of the urgent parts of my life were more of a mirage, an image conjured in the heat of the moment that then became imprinted in place. Even worse, the urgent, reactive parts of my life had been crowding out or at least interfering with my already limited time for silence, rest, and reflection.

Making space for rest continues to remind me how my view of reality can become distorted, skewed by what appears to be urgent or important. Rest has allowed me to remind myself what it feels like to live without impediments on the soul care practices I value the most.

Rest has reminded me what life can feel like when I preserve space for spiritual restoration and attempt to maintain a more measured perspective of each challenge in my day.

Perhaps rest could even remind me what it feels like to live by faith, that a sense of urgency won’t really help me transcend my very normal limitations. Rest reminds me that pushing myself to my limits really isn’t adding all that much in the grand scheme of things and that perhaps a bit of soul care could do far more for myself and for others.

 

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Am I Growing in Compassion or in Anger?

I knew I had to change how I follow the news when I couldn’t stop thinking about certain stories and policies while mowing the lawn.

Listening to the radio became a hard way to manage how much I could take in or process at a time. Scrolling social media exposed me to so many different reactions and responses that left me fearful, anxious, or angry.

There are plenty of issues and stories in the news today that can spark legitimate anger. If asylum seekers being separated from their children doesn’t spark anger in us, then we have certainly lost our way as a society.

As sure as we can become angry over the news, I have grown concerned over my ability to remain compassionate and loving toward others. It’s bad enough to be in the grip of fear and anxiety over the news–I know this first hand–but the ways we consume media and news can certainly undermine our ability to remain compassionate and loving toward others, especially those we disagree with.

MIT researcher Sherry Turkle has written extensively about the impact of social media and technology in general on our relationships in her books Alone Together and Reclaiming Conversation. Turkle is one of the many researchers raising alarms about our loss of compassion and empathy when we interact with people over social media.

When we can’t see nonverbal cues, notice the impact of our words on others, or even just see other points of view as flesh and blood people with complexity and dignity, we can lump them together into groups that are easy to fear, insult, or hate.

I was an early adopter of social media, and I have felt compelled to use it less and less because of how much I feel it pulls me away from in-person, flesh and blood interactions and empathy.

I live in a very conservative area, and I routinely interact with people who hold views on gender and equality that I find oppressive. They vote for politicians I consider dishonest, cruel, and often racist. If we interacted only on social media, we would surely fragment over our ideas and lose touch with each other’s common humanity.

Adding to the complexity here: even being present for others on digital devices is difficult. We don’t have to sacrifice much or give much of ourselves on social media, and I can see myself slipping into the relational equivalent of slacktivism.

Although I try to think of ways to use technology to be more present for individuals and to share myself in ways that are more sacrificial and loving, there is a difference in being fully present for someone in person vs. being present over technology.

The times that I could be present for others may well be undermined by technology as I consume news and view reactions that could give rise to anger or fear. The more I develop imperfect caricatures of others and apply them to people I meet, the less likely I am to see them, to be present for them, and to treat them with love and empathy.

While anger will always be a legitimate part of the human experience, the ways I consume media can also send it spiraling out of control. And let’s face it, mowing the lawn is a hard enough chore with allergies and intense southern heat.

Who wants to stew on the news while mowing the lawn?

Recognizing the presence and power of thoughts and then meeting them with contemplative practices have helped me identify and respond to the clutter of my mind. Thomas Merton offered the following diagnosis that has often been on my mind:

“The greatest need of our time is to clean out the enormous mass of mental and emotional rubbish that clutters our minds and makes of all political and social life a mass illness. Without this housecleaning we cannot begin to see. Unless we see we cannot think.” -Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, pg 72

I would add, if we cannot see and we cannot think, we cannot love.

 

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How Good Are We at Figuring Out What’s Wrong with Us?

 

I found it personally revolutionary to take a few minutes each day for an Examen practice where I assess the highs and lows from my day, look ahead to the next day, and offer everything to God. A little self-reflection can go a long way.

From clarity over anxiety to sources of fear and anger, I had a much better grasp of my day and how I was reacting to it. On my best days, I could develop better responses and habits to meet its challenges.

However, even with a daily practice of self-reflection in place, I couldn’t quite pin down some of my most obvious struggles without help. The low hanging fruit here, of course, was smartphone and social media use.

How Often Did I Use Social Media?

When I began tracking my smartphone and social media usage, I was simply astonished at the amount of time they consumed each day. It was beyond absurd.

When I limited myself to 40 minutes of social media use each day on my computer, the minutes flew by as I composed replies to posts and tweets, watched short video clips, or scrolled through the posts by friends, colleagues, experts, and random people on my daily feed. If 40 minutes flew by, how long would I spend without a buzzer giving me a five minute warning that my daily limit was fast approaching?

The Moment app suggested a starting goal of 40 smartphone pickups and 2 hours and 30 minutes each day of screen time on my phone. That struck me as a bit excessive, but sure enough, I was picking my phone up and logging time very near those targets. How bad was my usage without this tracker sending me periodic reminders?

While self-reflection can help us begin to understand WHY we may indulge too much into social media or turn to our phones far more often than needed, I was either unable to unable to or too unwilling to see the scale of my misuse of technology with clarity.

Do We Underestimate Our Vices?

Generally speaking, I think most people tend to underestimate our vices. We may recognize some bad habits, but we may never fully see their size and impact without some kind of wakeup call from outside ourselves. Thankfully an app that tracks our usage isn’t very hard to use and learn from when we’re ready for the truth about ourselves!

Certainly social media and smartphones aren’t our only vices. They simply strike me as some of the easiest to recognize–with a little help.

A dramatic increase in depression among teens and young adults correlates strongly with smartphones becoming pervasive. Most people recognize that they probably shouldn’t use their phones or social media quite so much.

However, most of us remain unable to see just how dramatically these tools for connection are leaving us disconnected, fragmented, and even isolated because we don’t even know how often we’re using them. It runs counter to what we would expect, and perhaps that’s why it’s so hard to recognize with clarity.

Having taken some time to assess my own  mental health when I am on social media or off it, I have since decreased my daily time significantly,  turned to third party tools like Later or Buffer to manage my posting, and slashed my smartphone usage by a wide margin as well.

While working within these constraints can be a challenge some days, I can safely report that by and large these changes have been quite good for me and I’m grateful for the freedom these boundaries provide. Perhaps the counterintuitive nature of these boundaries is what makes it so hard to make better choices:

Removing boundaries on smartphone and social media use can level us disconnected from ourselves and the people closest to us, while we gain more freedom by placing boundaries around social media so that we can connect to the people closest to us with real presence and undivided attention.

 

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The Challenge to Pray in a High Tech Consumer Society

Distraction from a mind filled with thoughts is one of the greatest obstacles to spiritual formation according to most Christians I’ve heard from in the past few years. This comes as no surprise since we are immersed in a distraction-rich ecosystem.

If our smartphones and other digital devices leave us feeling distracted and a bit at the mercy of their content, what is driving that distraction?

I would argue that, in part, our consumer economy that relies on advertising for entertainment and business revenue can’t be overlooked as a factor in filling our minds with thoughts. Some estimates say the average person is exposed to 10,000 advertising messages per day.

In other words, we can’t even process how many ads we’re seeing and hearing.

Adding to the complexity of our advertisement-driven economy, these ads are often selling us the comfort, status, and efficiency that we either crave or try hard to resist. These ads are appealing and tap into real needs and desires that may or may not be good for us.

The pursuit of comfort and the use of elegant interruptions are detrimental to the flourishing of Christian spirituality because they distract us and can even give way to a resignation. We may accept that the distractions and diversions of our smartphones and other screens must be accepted at face value.

What can we do about distraction? We may well feel helpless as advertisements distract us while pushing and pulling us toward the latest product or lifestyle.

In 1983, the journal “ETC: A Review of General Semantics” published an interview with French philosopher and devout Christian Jacques Ellul about the role of technology in society and the wider trend of efficiency and manipulation. Ellul shared his concerns about advertising:

“Advertising has now created a new type of man . . . Publicite is one of the ways to shape a new mentality for modern man. It has succeeded in making modern man into a consumer and has pushed him to take advantage of consuming. And now, advertising has shaped a conformist man . . . a man who is more into pleasure. He is a lot less worried about his work, more worried about consuming than living the agreeable part of life . . . I think for this reason we find ourselves in a society which more and more tries to strip the individual of his responsibility. And it seems that we are in a completely different world compared to other societies. And being in the presence of such complicated phenomena, we do not have the impression of being able to do much.”

This creation of a society that conforms to the demands of advertising and resigns itself to accepting the distractions can feel hopeless. How can spirituality thrive when there is a daily avalanche of offerings that demand a reaction and push us toward action?

While some may prefer drastic measures, most of us will benefit from a commitment to become the kinds of people who can sit in silence and intentionally move away from our screens for set periods of time.

Even two minutes of intentional silence (heck, use a timer if you want) can help us get our bearings and lay the foundation for a habit of daily silence.

Give yourself a bit of silence in the car on the way home from work or the store and then work on expanding the time a little bit each week.

Learn what it feels like to be free from the noise and appealing colors of your screens so that you can be fully present for God. Over time you’ll get a better handle on what it feels like to be present in the moment rather than at the mercy of technology.

Some Next Steps…

If you’re ready to remove some of the prompts to use your smartphone more frequently, consider this list of changes you can make to your phone via the Center for Humane Technology.

As you remove these prompts and make more space in your life for prayer, consider new prompts you can create for prayer. For instance, you could take a few minutes to write down some thoughts about the previous day each morning and use those as a prompt for prayer. Or you could read the morning office and seek a word from scripture to carry with you throughout the day.

 

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The Trouble with Offering Religious Goods and Services

I write books about Christianity, prayer, and spiritual practices, so you could say that my books could be considered religious goods in a consumer society.

When I sit down to write these books, I’m always trying to think of ways I can minister to and help my readers. However, drawing a line between helping readers and telling them what they want to hear can prove challenging to authors.

Staying positive, giving a “Rah, rah, you can do it!” message of abundance and prosperity may sell well. Honestly, there is a positive element to the Christian message that can take on a life of its own at times, but there are two big caveats that I’ve found in genuine Christian spirituality:

  1. Abundance and joy is preceded by a surrender or death to certain priorities or ways of living.
  2. Abundance and joy rarely look the way we imagine they will look.

While writing Flee, Be Silent, Pray, I was constantly trying to avoid a consumer-focused sales pitch for contemplation:

  • Cure your anxiety!
  • De-stress!
  • Find inner peace!
  • Find security in God!

These are all results that come over time in contemplative prayer, but they are not necessarily guaranteed, especially in the short term.

Contemplative prayer can offer a deeper, more foundational fix to these issues by addressing them as part of the larger picture of prayer, identity, and surrender.

When Jesus spoke of the life he offered, he certainly used terms that we would associate with abundance–springs gushing with water or trees that are plentiful with fruit. He also warned that our lives must go into the ground and experience a kind of “death” in order to produce fruit.

There really isn’t a program other than surrender and sacrifice to a loving but unseen God. It’s not easy, and oftentimes it’s counterintuitive to wait in silent expectation.

The sales pitch, to use consumer language, for contemplative prayer is summed up more or less in the word surrender. It’s much easier to add something than to give something up! That’s what makes consumerism so powerful.

When Thomas Merton shared the writings of John of the Cross or Teresa of Avila, both offer a demanding path forward that involves sacrifice, discipline, and purity of heart. Yes, they wrote of the deep love of God for us, but they also oriented their lives around this pursuit.

We need contemplative prayer because it offers a simple yet structured way to become present for God each day. Silence and resistance to distracting or afflicting thoughts through a prayer word can open up a space for God that we didn’t even know we could find.

Arriving at this point is hardly easy going. It’s costly. It’s a leap of faith. It calls for the disciplined pursuit of God through surrender and silence.

Far from providing yet another spiritual good or service to acquire, contemplative prayer in silence before God will challenge us to surrender what we have.

Our hope is that what God gives us in return will far exceed the worth of whatever we can purchase on our own.

 

Read More about Contemplative Prayer…

After years of anxious, hard-working spirituality, I found peace with God by practicing contemplative prayer. I’ve written an introduction to this historic Christian practice titled:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray:
Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians

On sale for $8.49 (Kindle)

Amazon | Herald Press | CBD

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Did Thomas Merton Predict the True Impact of Technology?

What do we make of someone productively typing on a sleek Mac computer?

What do we think of someone efficiently swipes left and right, up and down, on a well-cared-for iPhone?

It’s likely that we will think this person is organized, successful, hard-working, and even wealthy. In fact, iPhones are often associated with wealth:

“Economists at the University of Chicago recently published a paper (PDF) with the National Bureau of Economic Research that examined the best indicators of wealth over the last few decades. And it found that in 2016, the last year it analyzed, there was a 69.1% chance of accurately guessing that a person was wealthy if he or she owned an iPhone.” Fortune

Them reality that I have found, as a user of fairly dated but still functioning Apple products is that the source of my efficiency and work can easily become the source of my fragmentation and distraction. I have felt the pressure to be on social media for the sake of my work as a writer, and so technology becomes a highway of sorts into the collective anxiety, rage, and fears of our culture.

What if we stopped imagining that the person on a phone or computer all of the time could actually be in a state of danger? Perhaps the sleek, efficient device at someone’s fingertips is more of a threat to their mental, physical, and spiritual help than a help?

I probably lean more toward a heavier use of technology than the average person since I live far from all of my family, I work remotely, and all of my colleagues are far away. I need a phone and a computer for almost everything I do for my work, and that has prompted me to seek limits and barriers so that I can track my use and prevent myself from slipping into overuse and the fragmentation of disconnecting from reality as a stream of updates flows in front of me.

Thomas Merton’s book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander has been deeply formative for me over the past two years, and he was quite prophetic about the impact of technology on humanity.  I’ll leave you with a few quotes to consider, including a passage he quotes from Bonhoeffer’s Ethics:

*****

It does us no good to make fantastic progress if we do not know how to live with it, if we cannot make good use of it, and if, in fact, our technology becomes nothing more than an expensive and complicated way of cultural disintegration. It is bad form to say such things, to recognize such possibilities… The fact remains that we have created for ourselves a culture which is not yet liveable for mankind as a whole.

Never before has there been such a distance between the abject misery of the poor (still a great majority of mankind) and the absurd affluence of the rich.“ pg. 67-68

*****

“Technology and science are now responsible to no power and submit to no control other than their own. Needless to say, the demands of ethics no longer have any meaning if they come in conflict with these autonomous powers. Technology has its own ethic of expediency and efficiency. What can be done efficiently must be done in the most efficient way.” pg. 70

*****

“I thoroughly agree with Bonhoeffer when he says:

‘The demand for absolute liberty brings men to the depths of slavery. The master of the machine becomes its slave. The machine becomes the enemy of men. The creature turns against its creator in a strange reenactment of the Fall.’“  pg. 71

What They Don’t Tell You about 30 Pieces of Silver

Here’s the thing about 30 pieces of silver: you can buy a lot of stuff with 30 pieces of silver.

You could buy a pretty big field with that kind of money.

The people who have the power and resources to pay you that kind of money will demand respect and regard. Don’t rock the boat with them.

What can the people in front of you deliver today? Can they beat 30 pieces of silver?

Who knows what could happen next. Is there any guarantee about tomorrow? Doesn’t it sound wise to steward those 30 pieces of silver well?

You could invest those 30 pieces of silver and get yourself some security for the future. You could even donate some of it to charity.

Are you really giving up so much for those 30 pieces of silver?

Doesn’t wisdom say to make alliances with people who can take care of you, give them what they want, and take your 30 pieces of silver to the bank? Wouldn’t that be the respectable thing to do?

Don’t look at the consequences or fall out of your choice. Compromise always has some unsavory aspects. But focus on the prize: those 30 pieces of silver.

You’ll be set up for years to come with 30 pieces of silver. You may not have the higher moral ground, but the higher moral ground isn’t going to protect you, offer security, or take care of the stuff you worry about at night.

They didn’t tell you how great those 30 pieces of silver are.

You can buy a lot with 30 pieces of silver.