Non-Religious Christian Spirituality

the way of descent

If you think about it, there are four ways we typically approach God in our churches today: intellectually, emotionally, liturgically, and legally. All four describe ways of ascent toward God—studying, feeling, reciting, obeying—and all are valuable as parts of a whole. But there is another way, a fifth way, the contemplative way that comes to us from our most ancient Christian traditions and directly from an eastern Jesus before any of those.

Contemplation—understood as simply being present to God’s presence, the practice of a content-free mind directed toward awareness of God as a living reality—points to a stripping away of everything that blocks God’s presence from our moment; it’s a descent that must precede any ascent. Turns out we don’t value the way of descent much today—we don’t even generally recognize it as a viable spiritual formation. Our western churches speak fluently of the spirituality of ascent, but miss the fact that the way of descent complements and completes the other four just as Jesus tried to explain: “If you cling to your life you will lose it, and if you let your life go, you will save it.”

When I speak of this way of descent, questions arise as people try to get their arms around a tradition that we have largely lost in the modern era. But questions and answers fail here since the contemplative way sidesteps the intellectual, being experiential without being emotional, practical and structured without being ritualistic or legalistic or in any way based in judgmental notions of reward and punishment. This is really hard to explain in words. The best explanation is to simply set out—begin to experience the contemplative descent that eventually infuses and fulfills the ways of ascent.

Twenty five years ago I first encountered this contemplative way, and it was as hard to understand then as it is to explain now. The more I understood, the more I suspected it was the missing ingredient in my life, but it wasn’t a cognitive suspecting or understanding that changed my course, it was a physical doing. Because though contemplation is a way of living all our moments, a basic attitude toward life and spirituality, it is also a discipline that must be practiced, and it wasn’t until I started practicing that I moved from understanding to knowing.

I began with centering prayer, a modern adaptation of the ancient Christian practice of hesychastic prayer, wordless prayer of rest in God. To practice the skill of centering prayer is to learn how to be prayerfully mindful, to step away from our thoughts, quiet our minds, and become fully present to the moment and God’s presence within it. When we get good at this under ideal circumstances (solitude and silence), we can then use the same technique in all the other moments of our day, because the most important aspect of centering prayer done regularly day by day is not what happens in the prayer session itself, but its effect on everything else. Each prayer session, rather than being an end in itself, is more like a practice session in which a musician learns scales and patterns not to play flawlessly in the practice room, but, now burned into muscle memory, to be instinctively accessed on stage under the pressure of hot lights and expectant audience.

When we’re stressed, being triggered to negative emotion, when we realize our minds are wandering from what we’re doing, when we’re obsessing over something not present, we can re-center and come back in for a landing, rejoin Kingdom and connection. We become the continuous prayer that Paul writes of—not continuous words in our minds, but continuous awareness of God’s presence and the connection we have with him and all else. Ultimately it’s all about mindfulness, being really present in as many moments during the day as humanly possible. And though centering prayer is just a technique—it contains no magic or spirituality in itself—it is a concrete place to begin.

To routinely let go of our thoughts, everything we think we know, is the letting go of our lives that Jesus describes, the descent that makes all the ascending meaningful and real. Just as a musical note can only be heard and defined against the silence from which it comes and to which it returns, any good musician will say you can’t play the notes if you haven’t also mastered playing the rests, the silence.

If you’ve been studying scripture and trying to feel God’s presence in worship, attending church and following the rules of your faith and moral code and yet still feel there’s an ingredient missing, it may just be this way of descent, a learning to play the rests that will more clearly define the notes of your journey.

 

To dig in deeper, here is a link to an article on our site that will give you a primer on centering prayer–what it is, how to do it: guidelines, pitfalls, what it does, does not. You’ll find links to various sites dealing with contemplative life and to books that have been very helpful, while below is a link to a related audio message.

Related message delivered @ theeffect, 7/20/14. Here for audio message. Full message archive.

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2 responses

  1. WendyWarde

    Hello Mr. Brisban,

    I am writing to you because you sent me a link to your Twitter account. I am a Christian and as I read your website I am grieved by your statement that you “do not care WHAT people believe”. When that is all that matters. You ask people if they have been trying to feel God’s presence in Worship, presumably unsuccessfully, and then you offer “Contemplative Prayer”. If you do not believe that Jesus is who He says he is, The Son of The Living God, then why are you praying to Him? And if you are not praying to Him, who are you and those you presume to teach praying to and worshipping? If you have the courage read The Holiness of God by RC Sproul and find out who and what the God you claim to worship is really like.

    Sincerely,
    Wendy Warde

    December 24, 2014 at 6:18 pm

    • Hi Wendy, I’m certainly sorry I grieved you–that was not my intent. But my intent was to be provocative, to make a point hard enough to break us out into new territory. With you, and many others I’m sure I went too far, but then at least we’re having this conversation, and that’s a good thing.

      The point I’m trying to make is that though I do believe Jesus is exactly who he says he is, that belief made no difference in my life in terms of my choices or attitudes or fears until I actually experienced him in my life–as he is and not as I expected him to be. As long as my faith was based on intellect–concepts and ideas gleaned from others–it had no power to transform. Making my own journey, experiencing the living God in contemplative prayer, everyday relationship, and service made the intellectual belief come alive. This experience of God can’t be transferred to another person; each one of us must make our own journey, which I think is exactly what Jesus meant by counting the cost, selling all we have, picking up crosses, and following. I was making a call to move our faith out of the classroom and into the streets of our lives so we become truly convinced of what we say we believe and actually begin to trust that belief through our actions of faith.

      We may not be as far apart as my posts led you to believe, Wendy, and if you’ve already experienced the intensity of God’s love in your life, then you already know what I’m trying to get across, if a bit too aggressively. But there are many people, like me, spending years thinking hard, studying, trying to believe, and wondering why nothing’s changing. I wish someone had hit me in the forehead a couple decades ago with a stick hard enough to break me out of the idea that all I had to do was think right thoughts about my God for my life to transform. I am convinced that we meet God in motion along the Way–the only Way to the Father that Jesus showed us. The things we believe with our minds can help put us on that Way–that’s their value–but scripture tells us over and over to know God, and to know in Hebrew means “intimate experience,” and that’s what the journey along Jesus’ Way gives us–the ability to move past mental understanding to intimately knowing God. I don’t know if any of this will open common ground between us, but I hope so. Regardless, I wish you all the best and hope we can keep the conversation going.

      December 26, 2014 at 1:43 pm

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