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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Saving Our Souls from Social Media Division, Despair, and Deception

social media distraction

There’s nothing like a national crisis to stir up a bit of trouble on social media.

I frequently turned to social media for curated reflections in 2016 and early 2017, and it proved to be severely detrimental for my mental health.

So far as I can tell, I had relatively good motives. I was seeking out the opinions of a wide variety of experts in real time.

Why would that leave me feeling anxious, sad, or hopeless?

Divisive, Extreme Views Thrive on Social Media

The challenge with social media is that it rewards the most divisive, shocking, and reactionary voices with more attention, not less. Taking the most recent news of Greta Thunberg’s advocacy to take action against the global climate crisis as an example, the critics who shared some of the most controversial or even cruel responses to her received the most attention on social media this week.

That’s just how social media works.

As I have used social media with more awareness (and MANY more limitations), I’ve noticed how the most extreme and divisive views tend to get the most interaction and responses. Even if I want to seek out helpful perspectives on social media, I’m also exposing myself to the toxic actors as well.

Most bloggers and social media users know that the easiest way to draw a crowd online, or anywhere really, is to start a fight.

Even worse, numerous reports and studies of social media trends have found that more groups and nations than ever are employing automated “bots” or programs written to promote certain content. Pew Research estimated in 2018 that 66% of links shared on Twitter were shared by bots. In other words, there is an unknown amount of manipulation to social media trends.

We Are Exposed to Despair on Social Media

If you’re already a bit nervous about an issue, event, or an individual, you will most assuredly be exposed to a wide array of responses on social media that may leave you wondering about your own views.

Perhaps the person voicing reasons for despair or a lack of hope will place just enough doubt and unease into your mind to leave you feeling unsettled. In fact, you may even know on an intellectual level that such a despairing view is most likely wrong, but just knowing of the possibility may be enough to disrupt your day.

Even when I’m expecting to find people on social media who are drowning in despair, their comments on otherwise informative posts can still change my mindset.

Social Media Can Spread Deception

If the primary way to get noticed on social media is to trigger a reaction of any kind, then the truth of a statement is less important than the sentiment it stirs up in readers. In fact, we all struggle with confirmation bias that expects people to act in certain ways.

Narratives, whether based in reality or in a twisting of the truth, can be woven on social media and passed off as factual because they fit within our expectations.

If we’re already despairing of a situation on social media, then we may be more likely to believe a story that alleviates that despair.

If a particular narrative, whether true or not, has already left us angry or divided from others, then we may be more likely to believe a story that justifies that anger or those divisions.

Finding confirmation bias in my own social media use has been humbling but quite good for my soul.

Saving Our Souls from Division, Despair, and Deception

Now is a great time to ground ourselves in silence before God and awareness of our family and friends immediately around us. Social media can sweep us away in a current of emotions that can leave us feeling fearful, angry, or uncertain.

There’s only so much we can do in a given day, and most of what we can do that will make the most difference for our souls and for our neighbors won’t require extensive time spent on social media or any digital devices.

If you need to check on the news, consider going to a few different news websites rather than subjecting yourself to the chaos of social media. While there may be a time to engage experts on social media or to share posts on social media, beware the way that we can be swept away by the emotions, divisions, and narratives placed before us.

Social media is not designed to help our souls to thrive, and any benefits it offers for connection come with perhaps even more serious threats for disconnection from one another and from God’s present love for us.

Reconnect with Soul Care

I’ll be sharing more about these ideas in my newsletter and in my upcoming book, Reconnect: Spiritual Restoration from Digital Distraction (releasing June 2, 2020).

Sign up here

 

 

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Learning Contemplative Prayer with Richard Rohr in Everything Belongs

“I believe contemplation shows us that nothing inside us is as bad as our hatred and denial of the bad. Hating and denying it only complicates our problems. All of life is grist for the mill. Paula D’Arcy puts it, ‘God comes to us disguised as our life.’ Everything belongs; God uses everything. There are no dead-ends. There is no wasted energy. Everything”
― Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer

 

I would not have believed Richard Rohr at one time. Surely my sins and failures are a much bigger deal than my denial of them!

Contemplative prayer has gradually shoved my illusions and misconceptions about myself into the light. I’ve seen how my wounds and failures influence my identity and decisions.

The pain from the past plays a larger role in my daily interactions and relationships than I care to admit. My failures are often tied in some way to my pain. It’s all a part of who I am, how I see myself, how present I am for others, and whether or not I’m present for God.

If my pain and failures play such a large role in my perceptions and actions, then any hope for healing and wholeness is tied to my ability to face them with bracing honesty. Shame and denial only leave me far worse off, as they create a dissonance when I experience the pain and shame I deny.

As I’ve let myself accept the possibility that God desires my healing, wholeness and restoration, I’ve begun to ponder the possibility that Rohr is on to something when he writes that everything belongs. It’s not that everything has been desired or predestined by God (I’m no Calvinist), but everything must be acknowledged and faced.

I can still remember the shock of reading that “God uses everything.” It almost seemed like a blasphemy. Even my sins? Really?

At first I had to play a game with myself, pretending that something like this could be true. Does God really want to see and use it all?

What I’ve found in my limited experience is that every sin and every failure speaks to something deeper that takes me closer to God’s presence and truth. There is a desire or a wound that is linked to that behavior, and if I don’t face everything without shame, I’ll never bring it all to God.

I could very well let my shame or illusions define me, clinging to what I have instead of the unknown love that God offers. I could let my pain simmer below the surface while denying it and wondering why so many parts of my life appear to be burning up.

If everything belongs, if it’s all grist for the mill, then I have nothing to lose in unreserved honesty toward God. I have nothing to fear in my self examination. I can only lose if I guard myself with shame and illusions.

Facing ourselves as we are requires a great trust in a loving God. Sometimes we can’t imagine a loving and merciful God who believes that everything belongs.

I take comfort in my own experience of God’s mercy and in Rohr’s assurance:

“The people who know God well—mystics, hermits, prayerful people, those who risk everything to find God—always meet a lover, not a dictator.”

Learn more about contemplative prayer in my book: Flee, Be Silent, Pray: Ancient Prayer for Anxious Christians.

 

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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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How Thomas Keating Gently Introduced Me to Centering Prayer

prayer-parent-child

When I first learned to how to pray with the centering prayer method taught by Thomas Keating, I had no shortage of obstacles to overcome. My thoughts ran all over the place.

  • I thought that I was a failure at prayer.
  • I worried that I was somehow cut off from God’s grace or mercy.
  • I felt guilty that I didn’t pray enough.
  • I felt bad that nothing seemed to happen when I did pray.
  • And I thought that I had too many thoughts.

As things turned out, the last point was very much true, but Thomas Keating introduced a word that helped me cut through the rest of the noise in my mind. Throughout his books, Keating encourages us to “gently” return to the sacred word as a sign of our intention to be present for God.

Growing up in the rough and tumble, wild at heart male evangelical subculture, I didn’t use the word “gentle” a lot. There was a lot of language about commitment, obligation, effort, and dedication. While there is always a place for discipline and commitment, I had completely missed out on the gentle grace of God calling me to a place of rest and silence, trusting that God is near and making the first move toward me out of love.

My resistance to the gentleness of returning to God with the intention of the sacred word betrayed a belief that I deserved to suffer, to cower in shame, to bear the brunt of my failures alone. The sacrificial life of Jesus, his resurrection to new life, and his presence through the Holy Spirit can be lost while immersing myself in shame and fear.

Establishing a routine of contemplative prayer and making it stick as a habit can feel like work and effort, sometimes a lot of both! Yet, the practice of prayer is so deeply infused with God’s grace and love that the word gentle is one of the most fitting descriptors.

Have I imagined a gentle God?

Could I conceive of God asking me to be gentle with myself?

So often I imagine that I deserve punishment, to make things somehow harder as misled act of repentance.

As Keating reminds me to gently return to a sacred word, such as beloved, mercy, grace, or Jesus, there is space to trust in God’s mercy and power. I can let go of what I think I ought to do in order to receive what God has already done.

 

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How Habits Can Help Us Pray

I stumbled into the practice of the best practices of habit formation backward as I began to make more space in my life for prayer. I found the connections between spiritual practices and habit formation after the fact, reading books like The Power of Habit and Atomic Habits when certain prayer habits had already taken root in my life.

As I read these books on habit formation, I couldn’t help thinking that I really could have used them as I was getting started with a more regular prayer schedule. As a disclaimer, it would be a mistake to reduce spirituality to a simple habit-based schedule, nor do I limit my prayer to certain times or practices.

One of the reasons I struggled to make space for prayer was my lack of habits to add order to my life. Habits aren’t the silver bullet for prayer or other spiritual practices, but they offer a useful place to make space for prayer on a smaller scale than say a more rigid monastic community.

Here are a few ways that habits can help you make more space for prayer.

Set a Time and a Space to Pray

This is nothing new or revolutionary, as Christians have been praying at set times for centuries, to say nothing of the Jewish roots of Christianity. A set time for prayer in a specific place makes it significantly easier to pray since my body now seems to almost know instinctively what will happen next at specific times and places.

Begin Small and Grow in Prayer

I began to pray in silence for just a few minutes. That grew to five minutes, and then over time I experimented with ten, twenty, and even thirty minutes. Habits are more likely to stick if you can start small, keep consistent, and then increase the time for the habit.

It helped that I invested time in learning how to pray, such as the practice of centering prayer where a simple word offers a way to refocus my intention to be present for God.

I used to think of myself as a failure if I couldn’t pray for a long time, but James Clear emphasizes in Atomic Habits that it’s far more important to keep a streak going for a habit than to skip it if I can’t do it perfectly. If I only pray in silence for a few minutes one day, that at least maintains the routine of praying daily and makes it easier to begin again the next day, hopefully adding more time.

Give Yourself a Prompt to Pray

A prompt is a reminder or cue that helps me remember what I intend to do. For instance, I leave my running clothes out in the morning as a reminder to run–that also makes it easy to choose to run.

Leaving my prayer book out helps me remember to pray each morning, while driving my car in the morning also helps me remember to spend some time sitting in silence. The “prompt” is as simple as turning my car on and then sitting in silence for 5-10 minutes. It took discipline to make prayer a habit in the car each morning, but now, it is far more automatic and requires less willpower.

Make It Easy to Pray

Closely related to the prompts or cues pray, making it easy to pray ensures that I remove any barriers or distractions. For instance, I don’t have to look for my prayer book because it’s already out. I don’t have to force myself to choose a time to pray because I have chosen some simple cues.

I sit in silence when I turn the car on in the morning, or I open my prayer book before I begin my work in the morning. It’s not hard to pray at these times, and while these aren’t the only times I pray, I have set moments throughout the day where I make it as easy as possible to choose prayer.

I’ve already made the choice to make space for prayer, so it’s not major decision each time I think of praying.

Consider Your Motivation to Pray

My motivation for prayer called for deeper scrutiny than I had imagined. I share in Flee, Be Silent, Pray: Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians, that I had prayed because of fear, duty, guilt, and obligation. I imagined that God was disappointed in me because I was such a slacker who never prayed enough.

I hadn‘t considered that God was already present and loving, accepting me as I am and craving an intimate relationship with me.

Moreover, the simplicity of the Christian contemplative prayer tradition pulled me away from a performance mindset where I tried to demonstrate my piety or commitment. While silence or centering prayer aren’t the only ways I pray, they have been the most healing for me as I learn to turn to God in faith, waiting patiently in silence for the Lord.

While habits aren’t essential for making space to pray, they can make it significantly to find space each day for prayer. I have found that the best habit formation practices have a lot in common with the schedules of monks and nuns, and it seems that they may have a thing ten to teach us about making space for prayer and work.

If you aren’t sure where to begin with prayer, it may help to rethink your spiritual practices as habits that can start small and grow over time.

 

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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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Better to Have Imperfect Spiritual Practices Than No Spiritual Practices

There is one significant disadvantage to learning spiritual practices and disciplines from the likes of Thomas Merton.

While Merton hid out in an abandoned tool shed to pray each day or ventured off to his hermitage for days at a time, most of us can hardly string together 10 minutes of silent prayer before an inevitable interruption comes along. It’s easy to become discouraged when comparing our time for prayer to someone who dedicated large blocks of time to it.

I can get caught up in the challenges of pursuing solitude in a family of five in a relatively smallish house with thin doors and bedrooms clustered closely together. Even if I carefully plan my time, a child will pee on something other than a toilet, the pharmacy will take longer on a prescription, extra homework will show up unbidden, or a work project will take hours longer than anticipated.

These aren’t things that can generally be put off until later, and so plans and disciplines need to be adapted or dropped for the day. The perfect version of a spiritual practice isn’t a guarantee most days for a parent, and it’s not like Thomas Merton has a wealth of experience in this department, even if he frequently complained about how busy the monastery kept him.

[As a side note, Merton complained about his packed schedule to the point that he likely was sent off into the woods by himself to tag trees. I know about this because he cheerfully documented these romps throughout his journals in great detail.]

This week I was practicing silent breathing and centering prayer while driving around town.

That’s not the ideal situation for that practice, but it’s the time I had while navigating an unexpectedly full schedule.

At another point, I was praying the divine hours in the pharmacy pickup line.

That’s not my preferred place to pray the hours, but it was better than not praying them at all.

It’s easy to turn to our phones for podcasts, social media updates, emails, text messages, or videos to pass the time.

What can you do with five minutes in the pharmacy line?

What good will ten minutes of imperfect silence in the car really do for you?

What I’ve found is that doing spiritual practices imperfectly is still better than not doing them at all. When anxiety, sloth, and lack of discipline show up in my life, I can always trace them back to a schedule that filled up and completely crowded out spiritual practices like praying the hours or centering prayer in silence.

By hanging on to these imperfect practices, I kept myself somewhat stable and maintained the habit of making space for them.

On the following day I wasn’t juggling a mountain of unexpected projects, and so I could maintain a certain level of continuity with my spiritual practices.

I still wouldn’t say that they were on par with the quality of Merton’s reflections in the hermitage, but of course he would scold me for even suggesting that one person’s contemplative practices could be compared to another. Perhaps that is the most significant reason to accept “imperfect” spiritual practices in the first place.

 

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)

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