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Paul and Contemplation

[Remarks by Beth Adams shared during Contemplative Prayer at Christ Church Cathedral  April 28, 2015]

Lately, Fr. Richard Rohr’s daily meditations have been concentrating on Saint Paul, and I feel like they’ve been addressed to me. I’m one of those Christians who’s often uncomfortable with Paul, mainly because of his writings about women, sexuality, and our relationship with our bodies. Rohr has encouraged me to look beyond some of these difficult passages – which he agrees have caused suffering for many people down through the ages – noting that many of them were later additions to the texts we are sure Paul actually wrote.

Saint Paul in PrisonI really sat up and took notice when Rohr said that that we can learn a great deal from Paul about contemplation and how to work with the mind. He notes in particular Paul’s letter to the Philippians, written during one of his many imprisonments. Paul sounds happy and positive in this letter, and yet it was written while he was enduring genuine hardship in prison. This tells us he had learned what to do with the rebellious and angry mind, and his letter gives advice to his followers about how to pray.

Rohr writes:

First, (Paul says) you must begin with the positive, with gratitude (which might take your whole prayer time). Second, you need to pray however long it takes you to get to a place beyond agitation, or to find “peace” (whether five minutes or five hours or five days). Third, note that he says this is a place beyond “knowledge,” beyond processing information or ideas. Fourthly, you must learn how to stand guard, which is what many call “creating the inner witness” or the witnessing presence that calmly watches your flow of thoughts (mind) and feelings (heart). Finally, you must know what the goal is: your egoic thoughts can actually be replaced with living inside the very mind of Christ (en Cristo).

Paul then goes on to suggest that we fill our minds “with everything that is true, everything that is noble, everything that is good, everything that we love and honor, everything that can be thought virtuous or worthy of praise” (Philippians 4:8). .. If you don’t choose love and compassion, the human mind naturally goes in the other direction, and a vast majority of people live their later years trapped in a sense of victimhood, entitlement, and bitterness.

We are not free until we are free from our own compulsiveness, our own resentments, our own complaining, and our own obsessive patterns of thinking. We have to catch these patterns early in their development and nip them in the bud. And where’s the bud? It’s in the mind. That’s the primary place where we sin, as Jesus himself says (Matthew 5:21-48). Any later behaviors are just a response to the way our mind works. We can’t walk around all day writing negative, hateful commentaries about other people in our mind, or we will become hate itself!

Since contemplative prayer is by definition word-less, we may want to begin or end our prayer session with other sorts of prayer. I have often started with gratitude, and ended with intercessions for specific people or situations, with a long period of wordless silence inbetween. But I think we can all recognize that in this letter, Paul is pointing us toward the mind-traps that often fill our prayer time as well as our normal daily thinking, even if we are trying to be still and silent. We dwell on negative emotions, we complain, we worry, and most of all we obsess about ourselves. If we were facing a long imprisonment, would we want to be trapped with a person like this? And yet, that’s exactly how many of us live our lives internally. Contemplation, as Paul teaches here, is about learning to control our own minds so that we can be liberated from the tyranny they exert over us.

Paul writes:

…I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.

We have heard words like this from long term captives, from holocaust survivors, from victims of long illnesses, and from the poor. Isn’t it ironic that we, whose lives are for the most part so much easier and better, are the ones who do not know the secrets of being content no matter what the circumstances?

Two weeks ago, I talked about my experiences in Mexico City during a long Good Friday meditation where I felt trapped, at first, but eventually, settled and free. I was chagrined to realize how long it took for me to see what was happening, identify my resistance, and then use contemplative techniques to settle down and find peace — but it was a clear example for me of how contemplation can help us in exactly these sorts of situations, which occur in daily life all the time.

See for yourself in a simple way, the next time you are stuck in traffic or waiting in a line, or at a boring meeting or annoying social gathering. Contemplation is training-work for the mind, because as Jesus, Paul, and all wisdom teachers know very well, the mind is the root of most of the troubles that plague the human race. With all our progress since the year 1 AD, each person still has to learn this for themselves.


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