Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Contemplating Meditation

So I've talked about my prayer beads before, and how they have helped me develop a prayer and meditation routine at a level that I have never been able to approach or maintain while in Fundamentalism. As I have continued to examine the concept of Christian contemplation, I have been surprised by the rich tradition of contemplation/meditation throughout Church history.

Part of exploring this concept occurred this past Lenten season when I began to participate in a church service called "Taizé" (pronounced Ta-ZAY).

I had no idea what to expect the first time I went to a Taizé service.  In fact, I brought my then 7-month-old son with me - partially because I thought there would be child care available, and secondly because it was right at his bedtime and I assumed he would sleep through it.  (Neither of which happened, of course.) 

Anyway.  The program I picked up on entering the sanctuary said, "Please enter the worship space in reverent silence. You are invited to use the icons, candles, cross and altar as 'windows' to the Presence of God."  In the altar area of the church there were 4 apparently Orthodox-style icons, each surrounded by many small candles. It was very quiet and still.

Once the service started, we sang simple, repetitive songs a capella whose texts were usually Psalmic in nature and whose tunes evoked monastic chant.  The songs alternated with a leader reading a scripture passage, a brief one-paragraph lesson, and a brief prayer. The main portion of the service is a period of silence ended by a bell.  That's right - silence.  At least 20 minutes of the 30 minute service, to be exact.  After the silence: The Lord's Prayer, invitation to pray individually around the altar, another song-prayer-song, and the service is closed.

Honestly, it's an introvert's paradise.  No one has to talk to anybody else, yet we all feel a kinship with each other singing and praying together.  It's solitude and community at the same time.

I was intrigued after the first experience, despite having to deal with a squirmy, occasionally noisy child the whole time. Why the icons?  Why the long silence?  Where did that complex yet deceptively simple music come from?

Upon returning home that night, I turned to Wikipedia and read that Taizé is a village in France; a Swiss man began a monastery there in the 1940's whose focus was to "live in the spirit of kindness, simplicity and reconciliation".  It was also unusual in that there were both Catholic and Protestant brothers there. The monastery took care of WW II refugees until the Nazis kicked them out; after the war they returned and continued their work. In the 1960's their monastery, because of their simple message, became a place of pilgrimage for many Christians - especially youth.  The community draws on traditions of multiple groups of Christians, which explains the mix of icons, candles, and quasi-chant in a small-town American protestant church.  I was fascinated.

The contemplation and meditation time was so rejuvenating that I spent the next month or so trying to find an artist to commission a triptych of Christ's birth, crucifixion, and resurrection for me to use at home for contemplation and meditation with prayer beads.  (I finally realized that the kind of quality I wanted was way out of my price range, and bought reprints of famous artwork instead.)  And I bought a few candles. And then I bought some incense cones...  Before I knew it I had a whole ritual developed at home. 

The next project? A prayer garden - a secluded outdoor space surrounded by favorite plants.  While researching that little undertaking, I discovered that there are whole books written on the subject (not to mention the rich history of plants in cloisters and monasteries).  Between my interest in medicine and my love of plants, I think I might have made a good nun back in the day - except for the whole getting married thing.  But there's always the New Monasticism...

I am still astonished that this important portion of historical Christianity is so new to me.  And I'm even more astonished at how enriching the practice of contemplation is - this restorative time of reflection has been making an extraordinarily difficult time in my life much more bearable.  How very sad that Fundamentalism doesn't value any of it.

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