Posts Tagged ‘prayer’

Why I’ve Hit the Pause Button on Dialogue

Not so long ago, most of my writing was devoted to dialogue. Dialogue and Donald Trump. Dialogue and the debate over guns. Dialogue and why my website isn’t called Dialogue Venture anymore. A whole book about dialogue.

All of which makes my current approach to dialogue so curious—and maybe fruitful. For the past year or so, I’ve hit the pause button on dialogue and everything related to it.

This pause has gone through many iterations. Right now it’s in something like a steady state. I’m avoiding political conversations with friends and relatives. I have myself on social media brownout, following my beloved hobbies but little else. I’ve found an inner emotional “set point” for news intake: I keep abreast of current events up to that point and no further.

The reasons for the pause may sound familiar. The shock following the U.S. presidential election last fall. Repeated attempts—and mostly failures—to find dialogue partners on the other side of any issue. The viciousness in too many social media messages. The damage to my mental health that all of this wreaks.

Strangely, several things dialogic are occurring even within the pause.

For one thing, I am trying to listen selectively—for depth and the ring of truth and the “story behind the story.” So my attention is drawn to God, to my deepest self, to the few media I trust to articulate the world to me. I am shunning noise, like the sensationalism and repetition that characterize much of today’s news (and social) media. I find myself reading books more than tweets. I am writing less and reflecting more.

The medium of all this, where it takes place, is solitude and silence: large stretches of time and space to let the news turn over in my soul. This is a distinctly contemplative approach to dialogue—the way nuns and monks, sages, Zen masters, and their counterparts might practice it. Solitude, silence, prayer, meditation, listening, and then acting in the world are what we do.

Must everyone do it this way? Not at all. After the election last November, a great deal was said and written about the need to stay engaged: to redouble our outreach to the “other side,” to confront the president’s excesses at every turn, to oppose injustice. We need people to do that. Conditions could get very bad very fast without that kind of presence in the public square.

But such activity is not the only response. The pause is no less important. It fosters the depth and perspective that can transform activity into something more soulful. It raises larger, deeper questions than we can get to otherwise. It serves as a corrective against shortsighted or impulsive reactions that inflame and do little else.

We all bring different gifts and character traits to whatever issue comes before us. Why would we assume that only one set of those can generate the “proper” response?

So my colleagues in dialogue may engage and mobilize. I pause—perhaps for weeks, perhaps for years. I cannot imagine I’m the only one. We need both. More than that, we need every offering of every individual gift to see our species through such dark and difficult times.

Hurricanes, Prayer, and Gazing at Barbuda

Before Irma, I had never heard of Barbuda. How could I have known it would alter the way I pray?

The hurricane had sent my wife and me scurrying to Google Maps for a crash course on Caribbean geography. For whatever reason, I had never got round to figuring out the names of all those islands and exactly where they were. I had heard of Antigua but never knew it was part of something called Antigua and Barbuda.

Like millions of others, I learned more about both islands, and their many neighbors, as Irma thrashed its way across them. I heard the reports of total devastation on Barbuda and other islands.

At one point, wearied by the wall-to-wall TV coverage, I switched from Google Maps to Google Earth and zeroed in on Barbuda. The view was not up to the minute, so no effects of the storm were visible. But it did show what had once existed and now, presumably, was devastated: low, flat buildings with metal roofs, dirt roads, churches with names like Living Faith, a marina, a small airport, acres of forest.

For a while I simply gazed at the view—clicking around to look at the island, take it all in, and absorb what it was.

Eventually it dawned on me that what I was doing was prayer.

One thing I learned in my training program to become a spiritual director: pretty much anything can be prayer. Asking God for help, giving thanks, liturgy, yes, but also sitting in silence, journaling, drawing—anything done while sitting in, and paying attention to, the presence of God.

That’s what this felt like. Me, sitting on my sofa, gazing at Barbuda before the storm, holding the island and its people in my heart, all while connected with the God who was there with me, closer than my own breath.

Some might call this a useless first-world response to a catastrophe. That criticism is worth pondering in many contexts, but I don’t think it applies here. Far from being “self-absorbed navel gazing,” my experience illustrates how many contemplatives approach the world.

Here’s what I mean. My experience of prayer that day connected me, in a deep part of myself, to a place I’d never heard of. That connection seems lasting: when the news cycle moved on to Cuba and Florida and then to the next hurricane, I could not get Barbuda out of my mind. Just now I returned to the view from Google Earth, expecting the same view of Barbuda, only to be sickened by new views of the decimated landscape.

Right now, as a result, I’m seeking out organizations through which I can support Barbuda recovery. My wife and I have talked about going there in a year or so; we are not first-responder or disaster-recovery material, but maybe our tourist dollars can help in some tiny way. (Apparently, this is a legitimate form of tourism if done ethically.)

So we take someone, something—like an island, or its people, or its natural resources—into our hearts, and that “taking in” fuels compassion. And action born of compassion. That’s one way contemplatives act in the world to make it better. And sometimes it starts with praying by looking at a map.

Things Change Slowly Because They’re Bigger Than We Think

It takes a long time to turn a big ship.

This maritime lesson keeps popping up in my life these days. It has profound echoes for much of my work: for dialogue, for spiritual direction, for our lifelong transformation from people of self-interest to people of God.

It also sheds light on world affairs, as today’s readings for Morning Prayer indicated.

The lectionary—the fixed schedule of psalms and Bible passages to be read during the daily cycle of prayer in churches and monasteries—brought me to Psalm 83, a difficult psalm for us 21st-century folks. The psalmist asks God to wreak havoc on Israel’s foes, and a picture emerges: that of Israel, a beleaguered nation, all alone in the world, surrounded by enemies that wish to obliterate it.

Sound familiar? Listen to the commentary from Israel and its friends in 2017, and you get the same picture.

The point of this post is not to assess the accuracy of this picture, or tout one side or the other, or analyze the endless complexities of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Other people are far more qualified to do that. What strikes me today, instead, is simply this: the way that Israel perceives itself in 2017 is old.  Very old. More than two millennia old.

Maybe that’s one huge reason why Israel and the Arab world can’t “just settle their differences”—why they just can’t sit around a table and dialogue through the issues and come to a tidy resolution. This has been going on for century after century. It’s a big ship. Maybe 50 years is nowhere near enough to turn it.

Our individual lives reflect this same dynamic. In my first meeting with a new client, I’ll ask what brings them to spiritual direction, and they’ll provide some sort of “presenting issue.” At this point, I assume we’ll work through the issue for a few months, maybe even a year, get it squared away, and then go deeper into this person’s spiritual life.

Wrong. As it turns out, the presenting issue is not some tidy, compartmentalized quandary. Rather, it’s rooted deeply in the entire infrastructure of that person’s soul. We might spend the rest of our professional relationship coming back to it. It’s a big ship.

What do we do with the big ships, in our lives and in our world? The obvious response is patience: as a monk in my monastery puts it, we must learn to “make haste slowly.” That’s especially relevant in our go-go culture, where intense speed and 24/7 availability and overcrammed schedules are touted as virtues.

But there’s a hitch. Whenever things move slowly—particularly when I have some responsibility for helping them move—it’s easy to wonder whether they’re moving at all. Am I really helping, or are my actions making no difference? Is there a way to speed things up that I’ve missed? Should I devote myself to some more productive pursuit, with more tangible results?

Have you grappled with this too: times when life’s difficulties don’t resolve as fast as you’d like? Times when nothing you do seems to move the needle? How do you manage in that reality?


P.S. Just in case you’re in the market for arcane knowledge, here’s a fun read about big ships and, especially, how to avoid getting killed by one.


A Time for Dialogue, a Time to Shut Up

You may find the title of this post somewhat odd, especially for a blog about dialogue. But the aftermath of the U.S. election has brought up some things for me, and they have to do with silence.

Silence looms large for me. For years I’ve been practicing contemplative prayer, in which we sit silently before God, opening our hearts wide to the susurrations of the Spirit. This practice has changed my life in all kinds of difficult and wonderful ways.

Not surprisingly, then, silence has been my go-to place since November 9, when the wreckage of this savage, unending campaign became all too apparent.* I was not ready to take up the facile calls for “healing” and “reconciliation” that pop up at the end of every campaign. To me, this earth-shaking event required serious reflection. So I opted for a season of silence and introspection—or, as I wrote on Facebook, “just sitting before God with the damage we have wrought.”

One side effect of silence is that you start to notice things. In the past week, two things have come to mind.

For one, I’ve been dumbstruck by how, as a collective culture, we never shut up. Not ever. Right on the heels of the election came a torrent of words: angry rejoinders, petitions, redoubled commitments to causes, new strategies for dialogue as a response to the election, and yes, the usual calls for unity. All of them facilitated by the relentless 24/7ness of social media.

None of these are bad things in themselves. Quite the opposite, in fact. They’re the very stuff of our life together, and certainly of a robust democracy. But in that maelstrom, the value of silence easily gets lost.

So does the value of the other thing that’s come to mind: simply living with the “negative” for a while. Many commentators would like to speed past the rage, fear, and dread to get to new plans and initiatives and countermeasures for a brighter future. Again, Lord knows, we need plans and initiatives and countermeasures. At some point.

But when we sit with the “negative,” I think, we tap into a deeper place from which our actions became more heartfelt, more authentic, and maybe more fruitful.

For example: In my reflections over the past eight days, my horror has moved to lamentation—which connects me deeply to the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures. Large swaths of their writings are consumed with bewailing the utter ruin of their beloved Jerusalem in 587/586 B.C.E. Some of the psalms written in this period paint a terrifying picture of loss, despair, and rage.

We postmoderns don’t like this sort of thing. We want to get right to the good stuff. But the prophets teach us that dwelling with suffering connects us deeply to life as it is, and to others who suffer (which is all of us). When billions of our human compadres suffer daily, don’t we do well to get (as the prophet Isaiah writes) “acquainted with grief”? What deep wells of compassion and empathy for others might be tapped when we live with suffering ourselves?

Maybe this difficult silence is only for me. Maybe we really need millions of hands on deck, right now, to start changing things for the better, fend off the tide of racism, etc. But maybe we need some of this silence too. I know I do. What about you?

*Full disclosure: I have been truly interested in seeking dialogue with Trump supporters, and I still am: their sense of feeling left behind, to name one thing, has been massively underheard over the past 20 years. At the same time, I see the election of Mr. Trump as a travesty, and since understanding that view is essential to understanding this post, I’m admitting it here.

While I’m Incommunicado…

The next three weeks have me engaged in activities that, unfortunately, will take me away from our weekly discussion here. I’ll pick up again with new thoughts in January, but in the meantime, here are a few worthwhile sources to check out: 

  • The Interfaith Amigos. A priest, a rabbi, and an imam discuss—with extraordinary grace and intelligence—the very issues we cover here. Check out, for instance, their article about dialogue with people who believe their way is The Only Way.
  • The Clearness Committee. A brilliant method for hearing the Divine voice, Clearness Committees come to us from the Quakers. A person with a life decision or issue gathers five or six others whose entire job is to ask honest, open-ended questions—no judgment, no advice, no chitchat—in an atmosphere of quiet attention. Typically, these questions (and the person’s responses) generate ever deeper questions and responses, clearing the way for the person to hear the “divine teacher” within. I’ve participated in one or two of these, and they can be life-changing for both the “focus person” and the questioners.
  • The Prior’s Column. The prior of “my” monastery (I’m an associate) has lived the spiritual life for many years, and his insights—particularly around meditation, prayer, and the monastic way—carry a great deal of wisdom.

That’s it for now. I wish you the most blessed of holidays.

Dialogue and the Prayers We Don’t Like

On Tuesday evenings, several of us in the local chapter of the International Thomas Merton Society get together for prayer, including the ancient monastic rite of Compline. Because of the liturgy we use for Compline, we always pray Psalm 91.

I don’t like Psalm 91.

Psalm 91, for me, is so upbeat as to be out of touch with reality. It includes verses like these:

Because you have made the Lord your refuge,

and the Most High your habitation,

There shall no evil happen to you,

neither shall any plague come near your dwelling….

[His angels] shall bear you in their hands,

lest you dash your foot against a stone.

I pray these words as my inner realist chimes in with “Yeah, right.” But I do pray them. That puts me in good company: people across faith traditions have prayed sacred texts for millennia. I’m sure most, if not all, have recited a text that did not fit their mood or mindset that day. Sometimes they’ve prayed texts that chafed against their whole outlook on life, as Psalm 91 chafes against mine.

So why even bother praying this way? Because it does so much good. Among other things, it orients us toward dialogue.

The key is what happens inside us as we pray words we don’t like. In this prayer, we allow the deepest part of ourselves to encounter wisdom outside ourselves, and the conflict between the two stirs up all sorts of things: 

  • For one thing, the conflict awakens us to the fact that we—our feelings, our concerns, our schedules—are not all there is. We recall, instead, that we are part of a larger flow, which allows us to put our place in the universe in the proper perspective. In other words, the praying of sacred texts fosters humility.
  • For another thing, the conflict with a sacred text confronts us with the disturbing possibility that God, life, other people, the universe are not exactly the way we understand them. This brings us to the mindset of I don’t know. The more I realize what I don’t know, the more curious I become about what you know, because together we might understand more clearly.

That curiosity, that realization of our own incomplete knowledge, drives us into dialogue with one another.

Have you prayed sacred texts as part of your practice? How have they changed you? Use the Comments function below to share your experiences.

When Words Fail Us

The next post for this blog is all ready to go. It deals with dialogue and airport security. I’m very interested in getting your thoughts on it.

But I can’t bring myself to post it. Not this week.

The complete devastation in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, overshadows everything else for the time being. Our divisive issues melt away, at least for a while, in the face of such suffering. While our daily work is certainly important, calamities like this remind me, at least, that it’s just one part of the human endeavor.

At times like this, other parts of the human endeavor take precedence.

There will be plenty of time for dialogue on Haiti, especially in addressing governance, susceptibility to natural disasters, and the grinding poverty that plagues so many Haitians. Now is not that time.

If you are a person of faith, I invite you to pray, or meditate, or light a candle—whatever your tradition calls you to do—for the people of Haiti. My prayers for them inevitably start and end with silence, because words fail me. But God hears silence too. 

Just as important, please give whatever you can to the relief effort. is a great place to start. 

We’ll talk more next week.