Contemplative awareness and prayer is like being a birdwatchers says Roman Williams (and many others). You watch patiently and then ‘something extraordinary bursts into view.’ ((Being Disciples, chapter One)
Sometimes in birdwatching as with contemplative awareness you might have to wait a long time. I am not an expert ornithologist but I do love birdwatching and was recently given a new pair of binoculars.
I have been using them in Sri Lanka which is a birdwatching paradise. Sitting on the balcony of my room at the Cinnamon Citadel hotel in Kandy I am overlooking the Mahaweli river.
You don’t have to wait long here for something extraordinary to burst into view! Kingfishers, fish eagles, flying foxes, ibis, storks, herons, parakeets, orioles…It is a great encouragement for a beginner.
I think the process is the same for contemplative prayer and birdwatching, if perhaps in a different order. In birdwatching I am just looking at the river and the sky with open awareness, able to hold it in panoramic view. And then every few minutes a bird bursts into my awareness. I can then follow it with focused attention through the lenses of my binoculars.
With contemplative prayer we normally have to begin with focused attention before we can find a place of open awareness. But once we find that place we might find a sign of the kingdom beating its wings across our awareness.
Here in Sri Lanka it has been an awareness of the sheer creativity of God as Creator.
Please see below for an attentive review of my latest book on watchfulness by Father Richard Peers Director of Education for Liverpool Diocese…
I am sitting in Abbey House, the Diocesan Retreat Centre for Bath & Wells, overlooking the ancient ruins of Glastonbury Abbey,that look like something from Tolkien’s imagination.
This afternoon in the space and time set aside for practising the presence of God, I walked up to Glastonbury Tor, for the panoramic view of Somerset. As I write this someone is walking in the grounds of the Abbey ringing a bell as it is closing time.
It reminds me why I am here teaching on mindfulness of God. The first time I came across the phrase mindfulness of God in the writings of 5th century Greek Bishop, Diadochus of Photike – the words rang me like a bell. But not a bell to leave but a bell calling me into the exploration of ‘mindfulness of God.’
The presence of God magnetically calls to my senses, to our senses as human beings. As an analogy we can talk about the way we are called magnetically to other people. At the top of Glastonbury Tor, by the tower, there is a helpful little map that points in the direction of different towns.
Twenty two miles in one direction is the city of Bath, where my son is studying at the university.
Fourteen miles in another direction is Yeovil, near where my parents live. I could feel the magnetic pull in these directions – so close to them and wanting to go and see them, but unable to. I could physically feel the tug on my heart.
Prayer remagnetises us to the pull of God. That’s why I’ve come away. As we become remagnetised to the presence of God, so we become more attentive to others, to creation, to our own self…we feel the relational pull – the interconnectedness of our lives with all that is around us. But so often we live in an unaware state. Stress and busyness demagnetise us.
As we are remagnetised we begin to live life in all its fullness. And our senses become once again instruments of grace.
Where can we find silence? Outer silence is difficult to find, although it is not the absence of noise. Inner silence is even more difficult because of the noise in our heads. I write this in Spain on holiday where it is possible to find both outer and inner silence.
I can hear the UK from a small patio in Spain, it seems very noisy with no one listening to anyone else. T.S. Eliot in his poem Ash Wednesday wrote:
‘Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence…’
(Collected Poems 1909-1962, 102.)
Today is Sunday, and it is rare for me not be in church preaching, but it is possible today for Sabbath rest, which includes silence and solitude. Sabbath rest also includes community, a chance to listen to God, to each other. For that we need to turn down our inner noise. But we don’t know how to do it…
Fr Christopher Jamison (OSB) says that ‘silence is the gateway to the soul and the soul is the gateway to God.’ I wonder if silence is the gateway to the soul of a nation?
It is not just the soul of the UK that is conflicted…it seems to be a world-wide phenomenon. Perhaps some silence in order to listen to others may help.
I am surrounded by sparrows and swallows here. The sparrows have noisy wings when they fly. The swallows fly silently. I would like to teach my mind to free run silently. The macro decisions are out of our control as individuals (most of the time), but we can make micro decisions. Silence and listening as micro decisions begin with me. A lot of micro decisions can impact the soul of a nation.
On retreat at El Palmeral Retreat House one of the beautiful things was having all the swifts, swallows and house martens flying around you.
One of the intentions of this retreat was to notice the thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations flying around in the sky of our minds. Often our focus, usually out of our awareness, is on a narrow threat-based band, full of birds of fear, worry and anxiety.
We were trying to expand from the narrow threat band to a wider more expansive awareness where you can pick up a bigger picture view, and also see happy thoughts, creative thoughts, responses rather than reactions. These are also flying in our minds, but are less noisy than the birds screeching ‘what if….’ We are not denying the existence of the threat birds, or trying to avoid them. What we were learning to notice, though, was to distinguish between the real worry and the hypothetical worry.
Just now I had a flock of swallows, swifts and martens swooping around me, surfing the winds and breezes…I realised in that moment that I have swallow thought-birds, swift sensation-birds and housemarten feeling-birds surfing the breezes in my inner landscape – and just for a moment I was aware of them.
These are the joyful, creative, happy thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations. They have always been there…in my mind-scape they swooped around me, glad to see me and looping the loop with the fact that I had come into the larger house built by them, just for me to visit.
Here is the first podcast in a series of six on my new book Putting On The Wakeful One: attuning to the Spirit of Jesus through Watchfulness. They have all been recorded on location and are designed to be used in small groups using the book and the study guide at the end of the book.