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.
One of my favourite mindful awareness or meditative practices is mindful walking. Within the formal meditation you take a certain number of steps, with your focus of attention on the soles of your feet, the movements that make up a step, and the streams of awareness inside you that are your senses. Along with this focused attention you can cultivate an open awareness to gravity as it acts on your body as you slow your movements down, your balance, sounds around you…
You can of course go on an extended walk as a mindful awareness practice, a walk of being rather than doing. As I’ve practiced the more formal meditation, in places like this little garden in the grounds of the Royal National Orthopedic Hospital (RNOH) in Stanmore I noticed that my mind began to clear and difficult decisions became easier as if in the process of walking the negativity within was trailing out behind me.
I was reminded of a story about Desert Father Moses, which is quoted in Rowan William’s little book ‘Silence and Honey Cakes’ (p.29). In the story Moses is invited to a meeting where a fellow monk is to be judged because he has sinned. First, Moses refuses to go, and then when someone goes to fetch him, Moses takes a leaky jug filled with water with him.
When asked why, Moses replies, ‘My sins run out behind me and I cannot see them, yet here I am coming to sit in judgement on the mistakes of somebody else.’ (Williams, 29)
Moses here is talking about the existence of our sinful trail through life as a negative reality. However, through my experience of mindful walking I’ve realised we can use such a walk in a contemplative way, where we intentionally allow what has been sinful in our life, the mistakes, to run out behind us in confessional awareness – to bring us to a state of forgiveness in our relationship with God.
This active way of contemplating through a walk, may help us to actually let go of our mistakes, and when we have noticed them, asked and received for forgiveness – actually move on, rather than clinging endlessly in negative rumination to those mistakes.
In the process we arrive, not at a place of self-critical judgement, or a projected judgement of others, which Jesus himself asks us to leave behind (Matthew 7:1-5) but a place of clear seeing in which we can take the ‘rain forest’ out of our own eye before we try and take the speck of dust out of someone else’s eye.
Fear and anger, guilt and shame stop us seeing clearly, and silt up our ability to respond wisely to our mistakes. In our contemplative and confessional walking, we can let this silt run out behind us. Usually, then, we can find a place of wisdom and compassion and freedom rather than fear and continued slavery to our sinful habits.
Early yesterday as I went outside the car was covered with sticky ice. The sort of ice that takes 10 minutes to scrape off. Often on the school run you can see cars driving along with the driver peering out of a small cleared hole in the windscreen, with the rest of the windscreen and windows still clouded with ice.
It’s a picture of how the windscreen of our mind is much of the time and how we rush around with limited perception. Rowan Williams in his beautiful little book ‘Silence and Honey Cakes – the wisdom of the desert’ talks about this inattention, ‘the failure to see what is truly there in front of us – because our own vision is clouded by self-obsession or self-satisfaction.’ (p.26)
We rush along in the icy morning without clear vision, and we do the same in life. If we pay attention to the ice, truly pay attention to it with a de-icer we can clear the windscreen of our car. If we pay attention mindfully to the sticky cloud of self-obsession or self-satisfaction, or any other ruminative pattern that stops us seeing clearly, this mindfulness de-ices the windscreen of our mind.
Then we begin to see clearly.
Rowan Williams is due to step down as Archbishop of Canterbury at the end of the year. I don’t think he has been fully understood or appreciated during his 10 years in office.
I read his biography Rowan’s Rule by Rupert Shortt a while back. I understand that during his time at Canterbury he was sent faeces through the Royal Mail, by evangelical Christians. As Iconoclasts we seem to have lost the icon of dialogue and grace.
However, he also seems to have been seriously misrepresented on a number of issues. One of the problems is that theologically he is not easily put in any camp. But there is much in his thinking and writing that makes him a friend of evangelicals. He encouraged fresh expressions of church, is orthodox by conviction and has a high view of Scripture.
Although many comment on how hard some of his writing is to understand, because of the complexity of his theological language, it is because he is dealing with difficult questions in what he calls ‘critical’ theology. He tackles apologetic issues, questions our culture raises, in a subtle, poetic and highly intelligent manner – and speaks to people outside the church that black and white thinkers repulse. He sent a beautifully clear and charming letter to a six year old called Lulu, who had asked the question of God, ‘how did you get invented?’
In particular many find his spiritual writings like Silence and Honey Cakes, an exploration of the wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, luminous and helpful. Someone I know who has met the Archbishop says that he is a deeply spiritual man and has a charismatic presence with other people. Surely this is the real mark of a Christian – how they are face to face with real people, not how they are in the virtual world of the media?
I was at Worth Abbey a while back and a phrase of the Archbishop’s leapt off the page I was reading and shook me spiritually – it seemed to be no coincidence that just outside lightning and thunder were shaking the building.
He said that ‘Jesus Christ was a person in whom the freedom of God was completely at work.’ I asked myself, what would it mean for me, to be a person in whom the freedom of God was completely at work? I was left shaken by the implications. But at a smaller but no less important level, I think it would mean this for evangelicals.
We need to dissent and dialogue with grace and love. One thing Rowan Williams is renowned for is the way he listens to every side of a debate. Even as a Bishop in Wales he found time to pastor and counsel ordinary members of his flock, people that others dismissed as unimportant.
I think it means in the present that each one of us should write to him affirming many of the good things he has done since being in office, and to say thank you for doing an impossible and thankless role. Perhaps some of us could even send him some honey cakes. I know that he acknowledges the letters and expressions of support more than counteract the hate mail.
He is also someone who tries to live out this idea of being someone who allows the freedom of God to work without obstacle within. This has led him to be accused of holy naivety. But it also means that in a genuine crisis, the courage of Christ comes out. If you are not sure about this, read the account of how he nearly died in the September 11 bombings of the World Trade Centre in Rupert Shortt’s biography. It is deeply moving.
Being mindful means seeing beneath the stereotypes, and seeing through the eyes of God. I for one am going to find some honey cakes to send him. Perhaps you will join me?