Monday, February 22, 2010


Let them trust in God who does not fail those who seek Him with a simple and righteous heart; nor will He fail to impart what is needful for the way until getting them to the clear and pure light of love.... The attitude to allow the soul to remain in rest and quietude even though it may seem very obvious to them that they are doing nothing and wasting time.... They must be content simply with a loving and peaceful attentiveness to God. ~St. John of the Cross

Make a little experiment. Walk outside your house. Try to find one square inch of quiet in your corner of the woods unbroken by human noise. How far would you have to travel to get to such a place? For the past 25 years, this has been the quest of Emmy award winning sound recorder, Gordon Hempton, who has recorded the sounds of nature on nearly every continent.

Sitting on a moss covered log in the heart of the Olympic National Park, Hempton, sets up his sound recording microphones and meters to listen, claiming the Olympics to be the quietest of all our national parks. According to Hempton, our silent spaces are dwindling. “In 1985”, writes staff reporter Lynda Mapes of the Seattle Times, “[Hempton] recorded 21 places in Washington state where natural quiet was unbroken by noise intrusions from 15 minutes or more during the daytime. By 1989, there were only three.”[i]

The most aggressive invader of natural quiet spaces? The jet airline industry. Alaska Airlines alone accounts for more than 30 flights over Olympic National Park per day. By happy accident, Olympic National Park happens to lie west of most of national and international flight patterns. Still, the scarring sound of jet engines accounts for the most disruptive human sounds heard in the Olympics.
Over the past few years, our family has enjoyed fifty-mile backcountry treks into the heights of Olympic National Park. We practice “leave no trace” camping, packing out all our garbage and literally leaving no trace of our presence, preserving the space for the next camper. The jet airline industry does not believe in “leave no trace”. During our recent week-long family vacation in the Olympic backcountry, the natural quiet was interrupted several dozen times a day by jet airplanes. Long after their five minutes of roaring had cleared the skies, their vapor trail was still evident as it dissipated thousands of feet above our heads.

We spend days of hiking, carrying all our gear and food in backpacks, in order to arrive at serene alpine meadow, twenty-five miles from the nearest parking lot. There we sit, listening to the footsteps of a Great Blue Heron stalking frogs along the lakeshore. We hear the peeping of a Water Dipper chick looking for her mother and the tune in to the symphony of bees gathering nectar from alpine wildflowers in that pristine wonderland. 

A jet airplane flying overhead in such a place is like a kid burping for five minutes during a church service. It’s like that annoying person sitting in the seat behind you at the symphony, the guy who keeps clearing his throat and finally gets out a throat lozenge, only to spend several irritating minutes crinkling the wrapper before getting the lozenge into his mouth. It is like a group of kids noisily giggling over magazines in the corner of the public library while you’re quietly trying to do some research. You get the idea. 

Sound invasion goes on all the time. According to Hempton, natural quiet is so rare that most people under age of thirty know nothing of the experience. “Whenever someone tells me they know a quiet place, I figure they have an undiagnosed hearing impairment, or they weren’t really listening,” admits Hempton. “Most people believe they know what natural quiet is, but they have not had the experience; it is not the same thing as sitting in an empty theater, a church, a library.”[ii]
Sound engineer, Ron Sauro of Tacoma, Washington, convinced me that we are raising a whole generation of young people who are hard of hearing due to listening to loud music through earphones. He explained to me the physiology of our sense of hearing. Sound waves vibrate the meadows of cilia in your ear canal, setting off signals which are sent along to your brain. When you expose your ear canal to intense decibels of sound for too long, the cilia break off and do not grow back. Oddly, the hearing most commonly lost due to excessive exposure to high decibels is the middle range, the range of the human voice.

In my experience, humans tend to be uncomfortable with silence. Try it out the next time you get into a good conversation with a friend: experiment with periods of silence from your side of the conversation. See how your friend responds to the gap, how quickly he attempts to fill the gap with words. In quietness and trust is your strength, but you would have none of it (Isaiah 30:15).

Spiritual seekers welcome silence, both the outward form of natural quiet in places such as the Olympics as well as that inward form of creative silence found through such practices as meditation and journaling. “We spend our lives in containers”, observes Hempton. “Cars. Buildings. Planes. Natural quiet is in open, living space. It’s alive.” His current campaign is with airline executives, attempting to reduce the number of flights per day over the Olympic National Park. Like those visionary folks who set apart our national parks in the last century for future generations, Hempton strives to preserve and protect the gift of silence, declaring to anyone who will hear: “Quiet places are the think tank of the soul.” There we begin to learn not only to listen but to truly trust in the Voice of the Shepherd of our souls.
[i] Lynda V. Mapes, The Seattle Times, August 1, 2005 (Seattle, WA: Seattle Times Co., 2005), A1.
[ii] Ibid., A9.

Monday, February 15, 2010


Martha, Martha, you’re worried and upset about many things. But Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her (Luke 10:41-42).
I recall waking up to the monastery bells while it was still dark out, shuffling across the foggy courtyard of the Trappist Abbey. It seemed to me like the middle of the night as I entering the building, headed up the carpeted stairs, and quietly settled down on one of the kneeling benches to attempt thirty minutes of silent meditation. It was a disaster. 

Though I love times of quiet, I fidget a lot. Once I’ve settled down into a posture of rest, my long legs get jumpy with nervous energy and shout out to be stretched. My skin prickles, calling for various places to be itched. My clothes get rumpled and need to be readjusted. While kneeling in dark, I snuck quick peeks at the monks gathered in St. Anne’s Room. They were still as gravestones. Strange sensation. Sure, they’re monks. This is what they do. Meditate and pray. Still, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head that some insect was crawling slowly across my scalp, from front to back. I used sheer willpower to refocus my mental attention away from the itching feeling on my scalp, turning back to the simple breath prayer they taught me. But there it was again. That odd sensation persisted. An insect, maybe a large insect, seemed to be crawling slowly across the surface of my scalp, making its way through the forest of my thick brown curly hair. 

Ignore it, I told myself. I tried, but kept thinking maybe there was a real insect up there. Distractions. Our inner life is filled with distractions. Remove the external distractions and your mind becomes a roomful of jumping monkeys, demanding your attention. The more you try to ignore them, the more they jump and screech for attention. This is the initial work of meditation. Settling down those monkeys. This takes time. Don’t expect it to happen this week. Keep practicing. Breathe slowly. Say a simple prayer inwardly, refocusing our attention on God. Keep coming back. Be patient with yourself. Don’t fuss over it. These are the wise words of the monks when I asked them how to deal with mental distractions.

Finally, I gave up in St. Anne’s Room. That itching feeling just would not go away. I reached my hand up to check for bugs. There it was, a beetle crawling along my scalp. Strange. I plucked the creature with a squeamish grip, threw it across the room, and attempted to get back to the slow, rhythmic breathing the name of God. Two minutes later, the bell went off, signaling the end of the thirty minutes. I believe I managed to sit in focused meditation for about thirty seconds over the past half hour. Ah, well. Thirty seconds of sweet Mary Time is better than thirty minutes of anxious Martha Time.

Mary Time. You may not know the story of two sisters, Mary and Martha. Their home is on the outskirts of ancient Jerusalem, in a town called Bethany. They have a brother who became quite famous after he died, a man named Lazarus. Jesus and the group of grown men he hung out with come to visit Jerusalem. Whenever Jesus comes to the big city, he always stays with Mary and Martha. It may be Martha’s cooking. It may be Lazarus’ hospitality, giving up his bed. Or it may be Mary’s devotion. You see, whenever Jesus comes with his entourage, the afternoons are spent resting in the coolness of the great room, listening to Jesus tell stories about God and God’s way of life. 

On one of these occasions, we hear Martha banging pots off in the next room, in the kitchen. She’s pretty steamed up. Finally, she comes storming out and asks to have a word with Jesus. There was no way not to overhear the words she speaks, whispered in loud angry tones from the kitchen. “Tell my sister Mary to come back here immediately please! I’m in here cooking all afternoon, which I’m glad to do for you and all the others. But Mary apparently thinks she’s one of the men. She is an embarrassment to my family. Her place is here in the kitchen, preparing the evening supper. Please my Lord. Tell her.”

Mary hadn’t been doing anything wrong really. Just sitting at Jesus feet listening to his stories. So Jesus speaks up with a voice that all of us can hear. Martha, Martha, you’re worried and upset about many things. But Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.

Mary Time. Sitting quietly at Jesus’ feet listening. Food for the soul. That’s what brings me to the monastery to St. Anne’s Room. I hunger for Mary Time. I want to learn to meditate. So I sit there with a small group of monks, trying not to fidget too much, learning to settle one distraction after the next, helping my soul learn to listen. I already spend plenty of time with dear sister Martha, anxiously doing all the many, many things that need to be done. Why not spend a little time every day learning from Mary? Why not take hold of that which will not be taken from us, that which is described as the “better part”? Mary Time: Learning to be silent, with my soul attuned to God.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Hartman Rocks Sunrise

Rock formations such as the one in front that looks like the Lion King, glow in the light of sunrise at Hartman Rocks Recreational Area near Gunnison, Colorado.


Think of the first picture that comes to mind when you hear the word ‘meditation’. Many see a robed figure sitting cross-legged with upturned hands, closed eyes, humming or singing a simple, resonating chant. For westerners, meditation often is associated with eastern forms of spiritual practices. With the introduction of eastern meditation into American mainstream culture in the last century, the practice of meditation is often associated with sitting on a mat in a specific posture breathing and emptying the mind to relax and become calm. Yoga has offered millions of Americans a particular pattern for meditation, but it is one pattern among many. In today’s multi-cultural world, the marketplace of global spirituality offers a wide variety of forms of meditation, including the ancient Christian meditation.

What does the Bible teach regarding meditation? Is there such a thing as Christian meditation? Where can a person learn about meditation as a Christian pattern of prayer? In my quest to understand ancient Christian meditation, I’ve discovered Biblical approaches to meditation that vary dramatically from eastern forms of meditation described above. The heart of Christian meditation involves filling our minds rather than emptying them. The focus of Christian meditation is God rather than self. The practice of Christian meditation centers upon Scripture rather than posture or breathing. Sacred musing upon Scripture offers quite different understanding of meditation than eastern forms of meditation. Eastern meditation calls us to lay aside words, images and all mental activity, and to become like a blank white page. Ancient Christian meditation focuses our mental activity upon a specific text of Scripture, going over the text again and again until it is known by heart, word for word.

Ancient Christian meditation involves sacred musing upon a passage of Scripture. We learn to meditate by verbal repetition of Scripture until we have the passage in our memory. The goal is maturity and wholeness in God. Christian meditation calls us to become “perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). As we write passages of the Bible upon our mind, we see a marvel taking place within our inner life. God’s Word is living and active, shaping the way we think, the attitude of our heart, the motives of our will. Memorized passages of Scripture feed us from within, internalizing the truths and spiritual radiance of God’s Word. Then we discover we are beginning to live according to those passages in the daily habits of living, including daily work and prayer.

We are told over and over in the Scriptures to meditate upon God’s Word. The psalmist encourages us to take our delight in God’s Word, and meditate upon Scripture day and night. “His delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night (Psalm 1:2).” Many other classic example of Biblical meditation may be seen in Scripture. Here are a few selections from Psalm 119: “I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways. I lift up my hands to your commands, which I love, and I meditate on your decrees. Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long. I have more insight than all my teachers, for I meditate on your statutes. My eyes stay open through the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promises (Psalm 119:15, 97, 99, 148).”

Early Church teachers encouraged people to memorize long passages of the Bible through the practice of ancient Christian meditation. For example, in the early sixth century, Benedict told his monks to spend two to three hours every day reciting passage of Scripture, using an approach to meditation called Lectio Divina, or sacred reading of Scripture. In this ancient approach to meditation, we repeat passages of Scripture over and over on our lips until we have the text memorized. Visit any Benedictine monastery today, and you will find an architectural feature to assist monks in this basic habit of spiritual growth, the cloister walk. A covered walkway, often lined with beautiful archways looking in upon a peaceful garden, lies at the heart of the Benedictine abbey, allowing monks space to quietly memorize Scripture while walking. In essence, ancient Christian meditation is memorizing, studying and learning Scripture by heart. Here’s what Benedictine scholar, Timothy Fry has to say about this pattern:

For the ancients, the term 'meditatio' meant something different from what it does for us today. I was not a purely interior activity ("reflecting upon"), but involved the repetition of a text aloud. Associated with reading (which was done aloud), it meant that the reader repeated passages over and over again in order to learn them by heart. Once learned, these texts could then be repeated from memory without a book. This latter activity, which could be carried on during work or other activities, was also called 'meditatio'. The meditation or 'rumination' of scriptural passages while performing other tasks required extensive memorization of Scripture (Timothy Fry, O.S.B. RB1980, 446).

While in Morocco a few years ago, I saw a white haired man in his 80's, dressed in a brown long woolen robe with a white knit hat, pacing back and forth in a cafe area, quietly mouthing the words, reciting texts of the Qur’an over and over for memory. Our Muslim host mentioned that this activity is very common among the devout Muslims, especially the elderly. Many faithful Muslims make it a lifelong goal to memorize the entire Qur’an, something akin to memorizing the New Testament. Muslim and Christian meditation then are cousins, with both approaches to meditation focusing upon writings which are methodically memorized by vocal recitation, over and over, until they are learned “by heart”.

Most people I’ve talked with associate rote memorization with boring school assignments. Certainly, there is something mundane about memory work. Christian meditation is not sexy. It doesn’t offer mass-media appeal. Celebrities seldom talk about this way of spiritual growth. Few people look back to their school days and think fondly of memorizing word lists, math formulas or historical dates. The act of memorization is hard mental work. When I encourage people to memorize, they often look at me as though I just suggested they sprout wings and fly to the moon. For centuries though, millions of Christians have focused their brain power upon rote memorization of long passages of the Bible, learning the text of Scripture, word for word, word by word. Hear what Benedictine scholar, Aquinata Bockman, has to say about this ancient approach to Scripture as practiced by Benedict fifteen hundred years ago:

Meditating is mentioned in "The Rule of St. Benedict" as the first activity of the novices, even before eating and sleeping . . . . The subject of 'meditation' is above all, Scripture, and it is furthermore connected with reading. In old texts, 'meditare' means to read, learn, repeat, learn by heart, explain, study, to acquire knowledge; and translating what one has read into actual living is also part of such 'meditating'. The center of all this effort is Sacred Scripture (Aquinata Bockmann, Expanding our Hearts in Christ: Perspectives on the Rule of Saint Benedict, 117).

How might someone in the 21st century practice this ancient form of Christian meditation? Here are five steps for learning the ancient way of Christian meditation.

1.Choose a passage of Scripture. If you do not currently have a habit of Bible reading, choose a short passage from one of the Gospels, from Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. Consider writing the passage on 3x5 cards and carry them with you through the day.

2.Read the passage slowly. Connect your eyes and ears in this passage by reading the passage aloud, in a quiet, slow manner, allowing the words to fall both upon your eyes and ears, and thus penetrate into your mind, word by word, phrase by phrase. Repeat. When you get to the end of the passage, go back to the beginning and start over, slowly reciting the whole passage aloud, quietly, allowing the words to be spoken upon your lips, while your eyes rest upon the passage, word by word, phrase by phrase.

3.Get up and walk around your house or through a neighborhood park, reading the passage aloud as you walk. As you read the passage again, slowly reciting the words again, pondering their meaning, reflecting upon the passage. Read the familiar words and ponder the unfamiliar meanings behind the words. Walk slowly, step by step, reading word by word through the passage several more times.

4.Recite the passage for memory as you walk slowly. As you become familiar with the words and sentences, recall the passage from your memory, getting each word in its proper place, reciting the Scripture passage “word perfect”. Check back in the Bible or on the hand-written cards for accuracy. Memorize the passage so that you can say it without looking at the written words.

5.At the close of a time of meditation, offer a prayer of thanks to God for hiding Scripture in your heart, and ask God to reshape your thoughts, attitudes and inner life by the living and active Word of truth. Seek practical ways to live according to the truths you’ve discovered in God’s Word through sacred musing.

Monday, February 1, 2010

5 Minutes Later


Be still, and know that I am God.
~Psalm 46:10

While listening to a new compact disc, one of the first things I do is read the liner notes. I like to know when the lyrics were written, who wrote them, and any special notations given by the artist about the creation of the music. With classical compact discs, the liner notes often contain biographical information about the composer, as well as performance notes surrounding the recording.

Like 21st century compact discs, ancient music often included liner notes, giving the reader an explanation of how the song was written, how the lyrics were to be read, or biographical details surrounding the composition. A classic example of such ancient poetic “liner notes” can be found in the Book of Psalms. Scattered throughout the 150 songs you discover short descriptions, liner notes, offering us a peak into the life of the composer. Take Psalm 63 for example: “A psalm of David, when he was in the Desert of Judah.” No wonder then that the song includes such lyrics:

My soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you,
in a dry and weary land, where there is no water.

Or flip back a few songs to Psalm 60 where the liner notes read as follows: “For the director of music; to the tune of ‘The Lily of the Covenant’; a miktam of David; for teaching; when he fought Aram Naharaim and Aram Zobah, and when Joab returned and struck down twelve thousand Edomites in the Valley of Salt.” These liner notes include a list of four details to help the music director know how the song is to be used: 1) the tune (‘The Lily of the Covenant’); 2) the style of song (a miktam of David); 3) the purpose the song was written (for teaching); 4) the historical background behind the lyrics.

One of the most interesting liner notes in the Book of Psalms is something of a mystery. Even a quick flip through these 150 songs, you can’t help but notice a little word tucked into the lyrics of these ancient song-prayers: Selah. The odd thing about this little word is that no one knows exactly what it means. Guesses abound. The first time the word appears is in the middle of Psalm 3, just after verse 2. A footnote offers this vague description: “Selah: a word of uncertain meaning, occurring frequently in the Psalms; possibly a musical term.”

As a jazz musician, the word Selah makes good sense to me. How many times I’ve played music with drummer, bass and myself at the keyboard, laying down a crisp rhythm behind a jazz vocalist. Often, the lead singer wraps up a verse, turns to the rhythm section with a nod as if to say, “hit it boys”. The lyrics cease as the musicians pick up the song, improvising on the melody, offering our creative variation upon the melody. After a 12 bar instrumental break, she will pick up the melody once again, while the rhythm section lies low once again in support of the vocalist. Selah: a one word direction given to the singer to turn the song over to the musicians, letting the music play awhile, giving people a short time to reflect. Then the lyrics pick up again, allowing the musicians to slide behind the singer in the ongoing dance of vocalist and instrumentalist common to musical performance in every era of music.

Selah. This simple, mysterious ancient word offers us something more than directions for vocalist and instrumentalist. What does this ancient word have for non-musicians? A way of listening. This word invites the listener to pause in the middle of the day, to take time to reflect upon what you are hearing.

Selah. Stop and really listen. Listen with your soul. After too many pages, too many television shows, too many power-point presentations, we become word weary. Selah. Take a breather from words. Listen to the wind. Listen to the creative variation of nature. Clear your head with a short walk around the block.

Selah. Take time off to relax and listen. A friend recently told me he was planning to take some “selah” time after the youth soccer season was over. Though working full time, fifty to sixty hours a week in the city, he was also coaching his two sons through twelve busy weeks, three or four nights a week of practices with games on Saturdays and Sundays.

Selah. Rest. Recoup. Stop and enjoy a few days with your kids, letting them be kids without having to rush them off into the next sports season of basketball practice or dance lessons or play rehearsals for the Christmas show. Selah: a way of balancing family life. A healthy way of living.

Selah. This ancient word invites us into a rhythm of life which allows us to catch our breath in the middle of the muddle. Body, mind and soul need a little space in the middle to play, to create, to listen. The vocalist will jump in soon enough, picking up where she left off, singing the next part of the song. There will always be more words and lists and pages and projects and presentations. They pile up like snow drifts in Saskatchewan. Sit down by the fire. Warm your soul. Have a cup of hot tea. Breathe in the aroma of the moment. Rest. Listen to your soul. Selah.

Psalm 3:2, note g.