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“When are we actually going to discuss the book?” he asked. I smiled and said, “I have bad news for you: we aren’t.”
Being still is the point of these “practice groups” around the book, The Universal Christ.
Compared to a typical book discussion group, it may feel stilted, even frustrating. It’s full of silence and listening and so little talking! What sharing we do is in brief and then no one answers the speaker but simply receives what they share. There’s little “back-and-forth” or “exchange of ideas”—which, for many of us, is the very path toward learning and understanding.
But there is another way to grow: by being still. It’s at once more direct and more unsettling, because it’s beyond our control.
You can try at home what these St. Paul practice groups are doing: a “contemplative sit.” Be still for 10 minutes with the verse from Psalm 46: “Be still and know that I am God.” Find more guidance at: www.saintpaulclinton.org/contemplativesit
“Nicodemus came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.’”
“We know,” Nicodemus said. But Jesus confounded and even canceled what he knew.
What do we know about Christ? This meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus gets me second-guessing what our knowing is worth. Will Jesus draw us, like Nicodemus, into unknowing?
“Be still and know that I am God,” is our theme this Lent. At evening prayer on Wednesdays, St. Paul people will tell stories about when they were still and knew God was God.
But the knowing born of stillness seems to be entirely different than the knowing Nicodemus asserted.
“The Cloud of Unknowing” is a small guide to contemplative prayer, written by an anonymous Christian mystic in the Middle Ages. It advises the student, “For God can well be loved, but God cannot be thought. By love God can be grasped and held, but by thought, neither grasped nor held.”
Is this what Jesus was showing Nicodemus? Nic resisted. Then he let go a little. Then at the cross, he let go completely.
“The Book of Privy Counsel” (a kind of second volume to “The Cloud of Unknowing”) says, “And so I urge you, go after experience rather than knowledge.”
Ask God to help you hold what you know lightly, or even to let go of it completely. Can you seek simply to love God and to be loved by God? --PC
More at peace. Less compulsive and competitive. More patient with others. More loving. More at ease with not knowing. More able to include and accept imperfection. Needing less to prove myself or to create and maintain a certain image of myself. More open. More grounded. More realistic and also more hopeful. Less judgmental. Happier. Less in my head and more in my body. More able to say no. More often and more naturally saying yes to what moves myself and others toward liberation, joy, and deep purpose. More invested. Bolder. More able to receive grace amid pain. More whole and healed at the deepest level. More present.
This begins to describe how being still has changed and is changing me.
Being still means leaning into love. It’s an inward posture of resting in God’s unconditional love for you and for the world. There are many ways to “do” it. You can rest in love while you’re on the move. And your capacity to do so grows as you practice being still outwardly—stilling the body, the tongue, the mind, and being in silence. The key is being patient with yourself and all the inevitable distractions.
Stillness is not just for monks or nuns cloistered away in a monastery. God invites you as you are into stillness. Being still is possible amid your real life and all its busyness, grief, imperfection, and joy. Can you imagine being still today? --PC
They say you attract more flies with honey. But what if our honey attracts no flies? What if the wicked are not converted? If people in need are ungrateful when we are generous? If we love but our enemies continue to hate us?
Jesus asks us to check the good we do. Both the hows and the whys.
As for how: Do we love beyond our tribe? Beyond our own kind? Beyond our party, country, and religion? Do we love God’s own enemies?
Of course, for Jesus, love is not a feeling. It’s concrete action that benefits the other, including the enemy. Jesus himself does and wants us (in the words of one scholar) “to break the rule of reciprocity and cost/benefit analysis.”
To do that, Jesus goes even deeper: surfacing our hidden motivations for the good we do. We expect something in return.
“Let go of that expectation,” Jesus seems to say, naming only one motivation. Do it because God does it. God is good to everyone, and it usually has no apparent effect on the evil. “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Jesus did and does what he commands us to do. So it’s the invitation at the heart of Jesus’ life: “Follow me.” Or, “Do what I do.”
The only person I can change is me. The only person you can change is you. And virtue is its own reward. Jesus shows us the way. Jesus is the way. Ask Jesus for the faith to follow and to trust that following is enough, no matter what anyone else does. --PC
Once, when I was in the deeply depressed aftermath of a breakup (and my parent’s divorce and my dad’s suicide attempt), a friend lent me a CD: Jeff Buckley’s acclaimed 1994 album, “Grace.” If you know it, you’ll know why she now admits that, all things considered, this may have been a grave mistake.
I was sad, and so is the album. But didn’t so much make me sadder as it gave me a language to express the fullest depths of my sadness. (Psalm 13 did too.) One song stood out: Buckley’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Almost a cliché now, it said what I still hold as the truth:
And Love is not a victory march
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah
It’s the darkness that resonates with me. And also the Hallelujah. Love is both. It’s always both. If it’s not really both, is it really love? Isn’t this what the cross of Jesus says too? That Love is not a victory march? Love is suffering and our salvation. Only love can include both dark and light. Only love bears the darkness until dawn breaks.
We Christians should know this better than anyone, and many do. We’re just as good as anyone (and sometimes even better) at insisting on a love that’s only the good parts. Thank God for a Jew who dabbled in Buddhism (Cohen) and a kid raised on Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd (Buckley).--PC
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