Zen Christianity – Zazen & Centering prayer

For the first in this series of posts which will begin to explain what I mean by ‘Zen Christianity’ – I want to start by looking at the practice of Zazen which sits at the heart of Zen. It is this practice which gives Zen its very identity, and sets it apart from other sects or schools of Buddhism.

It is this practice which means that Zen is not actually a religion, nor even a way confined to a particular religious group.Zazen literally means ‘seated meditation’ and refers to the core of the Zen way, the primacy of stillness meditation. Of course different Zen schools vary in their ways of teaching Zazen, but at its most basic, most fundamental, the practice is of sitting still and disengaging with conscious thought.

Meditation is a discipline common to a variety of religious traditions, and you will find practitioners of various kinds of meditation in all of the Abrahamic traditions, as well as the various streams running out of Hinduism and many others besides.

Fr Thomas Keating

In relatively recent years the Zazen practice has been well incorporated in to Christianity by means of the Centering Prayer movement, developed by the Trappist monk Thomas Keating and others.

But while the popularity of Zazen may have spurred on the Centering Prayer movement, the practice itself is developed out of Medieval Christian practice as outlined in the spiritual classic ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’. Indeed it is apparently true that Centering prayer was originally called ‘Contemplative Prayer according to the Cloud of Unknowing’ – not quite as catchy.

Put simply and in practical terms, Centering Prayer is a form of meditation which uses a ‘sacred word’ to still the mind. The word is repeated partly in order to simply help the mind keep from engaging in thought. If it is not needed, the word is put aside, but when thoughts begin to encroach again, the word is repeated again until it is no longer needed. I am not aware of many people who have no need of a word.

The difference then, between this and other forms of meditation is simple, a mantra or other form of concentrating meditation seeks to fill the mind, to exclude thoughts by focusing on one particular idea. A similar practice is used for those beginning or learning Zazen.

Centering Prayer is Zen like in its aim of stilling the mind, of disengaging with thoughts altogether, the focus is simply upon gently repeating the word.

When thoughts come, as they continue to do, you simply do not engage. No matter how worthy the thought, your meditation time is not the time for that thought, it is time for meditation.

There are a number of ways that we engage with thoughts, and they basically fall into three categories. You can retain thoughts. Alternatively you can resist thoughts. And very often you can resent thoughts. All of these happen very naturally – but with Centering Prayer the idea is to do none of them.

Retain no thought – so don’t enter in to it. Resist no thought, do not try and rid your mind of anything which enters it, and resent no thought, don’t bother wasting your time getting cross about a thought which has entered your head unbidden.

By simply repeating a sacred word, you have the opportunity to do none of these things.

So much for the fundamental practice, but what is the point of this kind of meditation?

With Zazen one is essentially aiming to achieve a realisation of a greater reality, which exists beyond thought. With Centering Prayer the same is basically true – the difference is primarily how as individual practitioners we understand that reality.

For my own practice, I take as a starting point the idea that there is an ultimate ‘divine reality’ underlying all things, which is most essentially Love. I appreciate this is not a given, but it is an element of faith on my part. I believe it wholeheartedly (and sometimes doubt it almost as sincerely) and it is that which  serves as a foundation for my understanding of the universe and the human condition. I further believe or understand that this divine reality, this ultimate love, which we may know as God, is there to be engaged with. It is there to be loved, and to love. But I acknowledge that as soon as I begin to use words, images or concepts,then my expression of love, and my understanding of God is immediately limited. That is not to say a limited engagement is not to be wished for, but I would rather see it as a way marker than a destination.

Chapter three of The Cloud of Unknowing begins like this: “This is what you are to do. Lift your heart up to the Lord with a gentle stirring of love, desiring him for his own sake and not for his gifts.” It goes on to explain the method of using one word, or one syllable to express this love. This explains the basis of Centering prayer: to express love for, and live in the love of, God without limiting that by imposing words upon it.

Meister Eckhart taught that ‘God is a word, a word unspoken’. By this he meant that while God is ultimately or eventually knowable – God cannot be known fully by any word or concept which we can yet humanly articulate.

By engaging in a Centering Prayer type meditation, we draw closer to the point where we can engage with the unspoken nature of the word that is God. We set aside for a time our human understanding with all of its inadequacy, and go towards the light of love.

24 hour meditation and quietness retreat

I’ve just set the date for a 24 hour meditation and quietness retreat, which will be taking place at the Endsleigh centre, a former convent in Hull, in November.

If you’re interested in joining us for a very peaceful time at the beautiful Endsleigh centre, then do let me know. Even better, you can book straightaway here.

I’ll be posting more info about the event on the Emmaus Encounters website soon, but if you want to beat the rush, then get your tickets now and make sure you’ve got a place.

The rooms are ensuite, the event is fully catered, it’s a peaceful location with lots of chance for peace and quiet, including a labyrinth and prayer tree.

We’ll be offering a group meditation workshop as part of it, and all in all should be a great time.

an earthy eucharist

I had the pleasure and privilege today of sharing a communion service at our local YMCA – the service was for staff rather than residents, but I knew before hand that I was likely to have a mixed bunch of people, from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. That’s fine with me, I prefer ‘mixed’.

So anyway, I chose as the focus of the half hour session, the idea of the sacrament as ‘a visible sign of an invisible reality’ – and took time to relate this not just to the ‘last supper’ but also other meals Jesus shared, and looking more widely, to the earth itself.

Obviously we didnt have lots of time for talking, and I wanted to keep the atmosphere quite reflective and calm, but the focus of the time really became the idea that in the earth, God has given us a moment to moment reminder of sacrifice and provision. And in our response to the earth, we provide ourselves with a moment to moment reminder of our callous disregard of anything good which comes our way. A betrayal of all the good we have been provided with.

We took a moment or two to consider our reactions to the sharing of the body and blood of Christ, and our reaction to the sharing of the body and blood of the earth, which the bread and wine, two extremely earthy substances, remind us of very neatly.

Sometimes I find it a little disheartening to share communion and find that the ‘bread’ on offer is some kind of fluffy white substance which has no flavour, no texture, nothing to remind the eater of its earthy origins. In taking time to reflect on the relationship between us and the earth, and in sharing bread that actually tastes of something, we can help to restore that balance. For a decent and easy communion bread, I tend to mix some self raising flour, about 4oz perhaps, a little bit of strong wholemeal flour, some olive oil, some water and a few pinches of herbs or spice. I mix them till the dough is smooth and pliable, and then I roll it out and cook it in a pan. Try it, its quick and its good.

We finished with the lovely prayer that is often attributed to St Francis, although I dont know anyone who has ever managed to show it was truly his. I find the Franciscan way  to be one which most clearly demonstrates our corporate commitment to waging peace on the earth, rather than carrying on destructive behaviour patterns, and often use them as an illustration when talking to non-Christians about a Christian response to environmentalism.

However, until we all begin to remember more actively, our personal responsibilities to the world in which we live, its all just talk. Taking time to pray and reflect on the sacramental nature of the earth may just help, I hope it does.

The Prayer of St Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury,pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen


New Year’s Revolutions

As the new year begins, I am tempted to write out a series of thoughts and resolutions about how this year will be different to years gone by. How I will do more of this, and less of that, how this time life will be really different.

But the more I stop and reflect, the more I recall how every time I have resolved to change my ways at the beginning of a year, the resolutions have dissolved by about April, becoming dissolutions I suppose.

So instead I pledge to spend more time than usual this month in reflection and recollection. To spend time remembering, thinking ahead, prioritising and reprioritising, and then – if it seems right – to resolve.

There are things I am convinced would make my life, and the lives of others better, but these are not suprises to me. They are the same things I have been convinced of for the last number of years.

The need for a more committed discipleship, in myself and in those around me;  the need for a more wholesome rhythm of life; the importance of reintegrating ancient practises into contemporary existence; and of course the need to just do things, even though they may be difficult.

These are, in the main, my new years revolutions, things which come round every year. So my revolutions notwithstanding, I resolve to take January, in the spirit of the WH corporate rhythm, as a prayerful time, with extra reflection and time for inspiration – and perhaps then some new insights into the year ahead. Then, perhaps, I will make some new resolutions which will not be the same old revolutions.

The Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer

An interesting film and book project coming out of the states that may be worth having a look at if you are interested in Monastic spirituality/Christian primitivism – as I am.

At first I was unsure, thought it might have been a wind up because of the names of the two principal people involved, but that was just my Anglo Saxon ignorance showing, this looks like a genuine and fascinating project.

I am guessing that the mysterious Jesus Prayer of which they speak is ‘The Jesus Prayer’ – which is well known I think, but then again it may be something quite different, and it will certainly be interesting to get a look into some of these ancient places.

I’ll blog more if it gets more interesting.

Totally Devoted by Simon Cross – extract six

I suppose the first half of the book really is spent setting the scene for a look at some of the communities which exist today, and there really is a lot of context to be explained. For instance there is the role of Anglicanism, and the movement which was born around the same time, but which in many ways is its opposite, Anabaptism. Both of these wings of the church have played important roles in the formation of new kinds of monasticism.

…within a few years of the Reformation, Deacon Nicholas Ferrar founded an Anglican lay community at his home in Little Gidding, Cambridgeshire. The ripples of that particular wave are still being felt in the UK today. More details of this community are to be found in chapter 10.

Other Anglican orders have had significant impacts upon the worlds of monasticism and religious life. The Community of the Resurrection, for instance – who were visited by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1935 as he sought to find practical ways for starting his new sort of monastic community – are an Anglican order who are best known for their pioneering work in apartheid-era South Africa. The brothers of the community had deliberately chosen to base their religious life amid the grime and soot of industrial Yorkshire; in doing so, they were, and continue to be, a model for other monastic and religious life expressions found in urban locations.

Returning to the Reformation of the European continent, and we begin to find people using the terminology ‘new monastics,’ which became a kind of derogatory term used by supporters of the Reformation leader Martin Luther, in reference to the Anabaptist movement with whom Luther was in serious dispute. Luther himself had been a monk previously, and after leaving the cloister is said to have denounced barefoot friars as ‘lice placed by the devil on God Almighty’s fur coat.’ The Reformer Wolfgang Capito wrote worriedly about the former Benedictine monk turned Anabaptist leader Michael Sattler, who he thought was bringing about ‘the beginning of a new monasticism’.

Extract taken from ‘Totally Devoted, the challenge of new monasticism’ by Simon Cross. Copyright 2010 Authentic Media.  ISBN-13: 978-1850788683  Available Online via Amazon.co.uk or Eden.co.uk.

See previous extracts:  1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

New Monastic Gap Year anyone?

Interested in new monasticism? Looking for a Gap Year? Want to combine those interests?

World Horizons have been running gap years for a long time now, and I think its fair to say that their gap year, which combines elements of cross cultural training, leadership development and missiology with a six month long placement, is one of the best ones I have seen.

I personally took a gap year between A-levels and University, and am very glad I did. The impact it had on my life has been huge, and while I know gap years arent for everyone, I do think its a good idea to strongly consider one.

*Note* Gap years are NOT just for 18 year olds, they are ideal as career breaks, sabaticals and for post university too.

Anyhow – this year World Horizons are offering, as one of their gap year placements, something called ‘The Novitiate‘ – which is  a ‘new monastic’ placement.

What does this mean in practise?

It means living in a community setting, in a deprived urban area of the UK, and developing a life whic his about being, more than it is about doing. It means developing a rhythm of prayer and study, of practical work and inevtiably of service. It means visiting other residential communities, and making your own pilgrimages to ‘thin places’. It will doubtless also involve going on Horizons style overland expeditions overseas. And that’s a lot to do in six months.

Full details of the Novitiate placement can be found here, and if you’ve just found yourself in a place where you think you would benefit from taking a gap year, then I would urge you to consider it. Be warned though – if you do, you’ll be spending quite a bit of time with me!