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.
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