A reader named Allen writes:
With what is going on in the world, how do we as contemplatives take care of our spiritual health? I find it more challenging to sit now as there are a lot more distracting thoughts than normal. I’m not anxious about the virus — more about how we are managing it. I get frustrated and really hate the scare mongering by the media. I feel a lot of things are out of my control. I think contemplative practice can help immensely here. What are your thoughts?
My first thought is, you are not alone.
I certainly have noticed that my prayer time seems more distracted than normal — and I tend to be distractible under the most ideal circumstances. I have a feeling I’m not alone. There’s a reason why Buddhists refer to the human mind as a “monkey” — like simians, our egos tend to chatter a lot and swing from tree to tree — i.e., from thought to thought, from idea to idea. It seems that consciousness is like a kaleidoscope: lots of thoughts and feelings and images and memories, jumbled together in an ever spinning wheel of changing awareness.
Silence, in prayer, is a way to pay attention to the spaces between our thoughts and feelings and images and memories, where we hope to obey the invitation of Psalm 46:10: to “be still and know” the God who is present in our hearts (Romans 5:5).
But like Allen, I too “find it more challenging to sit now as there are a lot more distracting thoughts than normal” — and again, I bet I’m not the only one. Indeed, the US Center for Disease Control has a webpage acknowledging that this time of pandemic can be stressful for people, which can include increased feelings of anxiety or exacerbated mental health issues such as depression.
Interestingly, among the many helpful suggestions that the CDC offers for coping with stress and anxiety during these troubled times, one of the suggestions is to meditate.
Which brings us back to the question: “how do we as contemplatives take care of our spiritual health?” To help answer that question, I’d like to turn to two voices in the Christian contemplative tradition, one from the fifteenth century (St. Ignatius of Loyola) and one from the 20th (Kenneth Leech).
St. Ignatius on Dealing with Times of Desolation
St. Ignatius of Loyola is the author of the Spiritual Exercises, one of the founders of the Jesuits, and probably the principle architect behind what has come to be known as Ignatian Spirituality. One of the hallmarks of Ignatian Spirituality is that it offers plenty of practical advice related to discernment — spiritually informed decision making.
Ignatius invites us to recognize that, in prayer, we can experience times of consolation and of desolation. This is not just a matter of happy feelings and sad feelings, or of feeling close to God compared to feeling far away. Times of consolation are best described as times when we sense ourselves moving closer to God — so therefore, times of desolation are times when it feels as if we are moving away from God. What matters is not the feeling so much as the process that seems to be at work in us. Consolation implies we are growing in grace, in virtue, in a desire for God or for more consciously responding to God’s love. Desolation, by contrast, implies that we are nurturing fear, resentment, cynical or bitter feelings of victimization or unhappiness, or simply a kind of selfish self-involvement.
Most of us mere mortals tend to be a mix of consolation and desolation much of the time. We can be moving toward God in some ways and away from God in others. We can get lost in a “two steps forward, two steps back” treadmill. If we persevere in prayer and our hunger to calibrate our lives toward the love of God, that can turn into “two steps forward, one step back” — but if we aren’t careful, we can get lost in desolation and it ends up being “two steps forward, three steps back.”
I bring all this up because, during times of stress or anxiety or excessive mental chatter, we might feel like we’re stuck on a treadmill — or slowly losing ground. It’s possible that, on a very deep spiritual level, we are slowly and steadily growing in grace. But if it feels like we’re moving in the wrong direction, we have to deal with those unhappy feelings.
St. Ignatius has very simple but explicit advice for when we feel like we are stuck in a time of desolation — and I think his advice makes sense whether the “desolation” is just an unpleasant feeling or truly a time of withdrawal from God. In either case, Ignatius’s advice is worth considering: he insists that times of desolation are not times to make a change, especially if it involves abandoning a commitment we made during our happier times of consolation (Spiritual Exercises #318).
With this in mind, my first recommendation for managing prayer and spiritual health during this difficult time is to persevere in the spiritual practices you adopted before the pandemic. If you were practicing centering prayer on a daily or twice-daily basis, do the best you can to maintain that kind of a regular practice — even if your mind and heart seem more distracted than ever. It’s not about doing it “perfectly” but about being as faithful as possible, even given how messy and crazy and imperfect our spiritual efforts may seem.
It’s important to remember that spiritual practices yield blessings over time. Spirituality rewards perseverance — it’s for the “long haul” or as Eugene Peterson so eloquently described it in the title of one of his books, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.
Which means that, even though it feels unpleasant for our efforts to be still and silent before God to be met with a mind that is more frantic and frenetic than ever, it’s helpful to remember that these are extraordinary times and to be gentle with ourselves. After a time of illness, one does not waltz back into a gymnasium and begin working out like an olympic champion. It takes time to get back into peak performance. We call spiritual practices “exercises” because in some ways they’re very similar to working out. Just as nutritionists and therapists are encouraging people to be more forgiving of themselves if they gain weight during the pandemic, so too we need to be gentle with ourselves if our prayer is more scattered than normal. Allow it to be imperfect. Be forgiving of that reality — but try to be keep “showing up” for prayer anyway. If not every day, then at least as often as you can, with God’s help.
Kenneth Leech: Contemplation’s Context
For our second insight into how to care for our spiritual health during these challenging times, let’s turn to the English contemplative author Kenneth Leech, who just died about five years ago. I quote from Ken on this blog all the time, and the following quotation is my favorite words of his, so if you’ve been reading this blog for a while you’ve probably seen these words before. But they’re worth reading again and again. They come from his book The Social God.
Contemplation has a context: it does not occur in a vacuum. Today’s context is that of the multinational corporations, the arms race, the strong state, the economic crisis, urban decay, the growing racism, and human loneliness. It is within this highly deranged culture that contemplatives explore the wastes of their own being. It is in the midst of chaos and crisis that they pursue the vision of God and experience the conflict which is at the core of the contemplative search. They become part of that conflict and begin to see into the heart of things. The contemplative shares in the passion of Christ which is both an identification with the pain of the world and also the despoiling of the principalities and powers of the fallen world-order.
Ken wrote these words in the 1980s, and if anything they are more relevant than ever, almost 40 years later. And I think they can be very helpful for navigating the pandemic.
We live in a time of chaos and crisis. Contemplation now, like always, does not exist in a vacuum. When you seek to be still and silent before God, you are bringing your mind and heart and body to God, just as it is, right here, right now. Which means, you are bringing the context of the pandemic, of our political polarization, our widespread social unrest, our economic insecurity, our collective fears and anxieties and grief and depression with you into your prayer time.
Is it any wonder that many of us are finding our prayer time more distracted or jittery than ever?
Ken’s words seem to be saying this: don’t be surprised you have a monkey-mind. Lean into it. Pursue the vision of God right in the midst of your distractions and scattered feelings and memories. Experience the conflict — it is at the core of your search for God, for it is at the core of what it means to be human today. Try to make sense of your jangly, unsettled mind as a subtle way in which you identify “with the pain of the world” but also as a sign that, by praying, by seeking God’s silence and stillness even in the midst of these challenging times, that you embody the very movement of the Spirit toward healing and toward greater intimacy with God.
It’s not easy when you are in a noisy place and want nothing more than to be silent. But that desire is the golden thread that will lead you, sooner or later, out of the chaos and into the quiet.
Just the simple fact that Allen is asking these questions tells me that he is already committed to nurturing his soul as best he can during these challenging times. And if you’ve read this blog post this far, that’s a pretty good sign that you want to take good care of your spiritual health, too.
Let’s trust the subtle movements of the Spirit in our hearts. We desire silence and stillness, peace and gentleness, the inner spaciousness that only reveals itself when we pay attention to the gaps between our incessant thoughts and feelings. Those gaps are always there, because the silence and the stillness is always there, resting beneath the turbulence of our surface consciousness.
During these troubled times, let’s allow our prayer time to feel a bit more unsettled or distracted than normal — but let’s keep praying. And when we notice just how chaotic or conflicted our awareness seems to be, let’s remember that this is just a symptom of the world at large, and when we enter into silence, no matter how imperfectly, we are praying not just for ourselves but for the entire world. So let’s offer that inner turmoil to God, just as it us. And trust that the Spirit will love us and guide us and lead us by the right road, even though we “may know nothing about it” (as Thomas Merton once prayed).
Let us pray for one another. Let us pray for the world. Let us pray for our nation and for the healing of our political divisions. Let us pray for the triumph of justice and peace, and especially for those who are vulnerable, sick and in need. And finally, let us pray for an end to the pandemic and for a more hopeful tomorrow.