DESMOND TUTU wrote,
“Our relationship with God is a love affair and ultimately the greatest joy is just to be with the Beloved, to drink in the beauty of the Beloved in a silence that will become ever more wordless and imageless —the silence of just being together.”
Preface by Rev. Leo Armas
A retreat is an invitation to enter more deeply into intimacy with Christ who waits outside the noise and busyness of our lives for a space wherein truthful connection can take place.
It is an invitation to solitude and silence, a communication and communion with Him who is always present even when our awareness (of things about us and inside of us) has been dulled by distraction. It is a journey of spiritual transformation in the deepest places of our being, a journey that will result in greater freedom and authenticity and surrender to God.
While the retreat, at the outset, opens for a time of rest for the body, mind and spirit, it is not to be treated as something casual; it is an invitation from God’s very heart into the depths of our being. It is a quest for something we have been longing for all our lives. In another perspective, it is a journey that requires a willingness to momentarily say ‘good-bye’ to life as we know it because our hearts are longing for something more.
Such a journey requires commitment—a willingness to press on through minutes, hours, and even days of solitude and silence that leads one to places of the heart filled with beauty, pain, darkness, and unmet longings. In other words, it will not be a retreat that is all easy that as one enters deeper into the retreat, he or she may feel too bored, or would begin to feel the ‘restlessness’ the silence brings, thus he or she may want to run away from the retreat or to go back to things more familiar (listening to music, reading emails, texting, surfing, or picking a book, etc.) that will ‘entertain’ the heart and not have to face its own. So a true spiritual retreat can be perilous and but is also a priceless inward journey that brings me at the center of my being where God dwells.
Others may wonder why a retreat of solitude and SILENCE and not solitude and scripture, nor solitude and prayer, nor solitude and journaling. All of these are important elements of the spiritual life and also during the retreat, but in a good retreat, silence is the most challenging, and the most needed (and more particularly in our evangelical protestant tradition).
We are a very busy, wordy and heady faith tradition. We use our rational thinking almost all the time (and there is nothing wrong with that, except, when it is the only place we could be in our way of relating with God. Sadly, many are stuck there). With all of our emphasis on theology and Word, cognition and service (as important as these are) we are starved for mystery—to know this God as one who is like us but is also totally unlike us (totally OTHER, as others writers out it).
In our depths, what we want is to experience God in ways we can see and feel and know in the very cells of our being. We are starved for rest—to know God beyond what we can do for him. We are starved for quiet—to hear the sound of silence that is the Presence of God himself. The retreat is an invitation to all of this, and it is an invitation where we really do have a choice. We can say yes or no. God waits for us to respond from the depths of our desire.
As the psalmist tells us: “. . . but I have stilled and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me” (Ps 131:2).
Before you get afraid, here is what silent retreat means. It is entering into the presence of God. God is within us indeed but too many times, we have ignored His presence and drowned out His voice within us. Solitude is a time to do nothing but listen to that voice and attend to that presence.
The greatest prayer is to say, not my will be done but Thy will be done (Luke 22.42). 1 John 5. 14 says, whatever we pray if it is according to the will of the Father, it will be done. The key really is knowing His will.
It is listening prayer compared with talking prayer. It is adoration compared with action or obedience or sacrifice. Most of all, it is rest, peace and joy. For the more rested we are, the more we can hear God.
It is also a scientific fact. As we progress in silence, we can hear more. Sound gets louder. When I arrived at the isolated house in the mountain, I could hear the distant sound of a chain saw cutting wood. As the days of silence grew, the chain saw got louder. As we enter deeper into silence, we begin to hear the leaves, as the wind gently flows through them.
The fruit of solitude is peace and joy:
God’s presence is experienced mainly as peace. And when we are in love with Jesus, we also have joy. Most of the time, we are in love with our spirituality and not Jesus. Our spirituality then becomes a burden. It is why Teresa of Avila was able to warn us, that our own spirituality could also be an obstacle to knowing Jesus. It is because we love our spirituality more than we desire or miss Jesus.
Catherine Doherty also warns us that those who come out of poustinia, what she calls silent retreat, should be mantled with peace and joy. It is the signs that one has been in solitude.
This spiritual discipline works to balance a highly cognitive and cerebral Christianity that tends to reduce Christ to an idea, a thought. Americans are criticized for engaging so much in speculative theology. Silent retreat brings us back to an experiential form of spirituality, as a balance to speculative or highly cognitive theology.
Part I Why we go into solitude
“Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed”
Our biggest problem is loneliness:
Imagine living outside of the Garden of Eden, having been kicked out of the garden because of sin. This symbolizes our being estranged from God, being separated from God. God who is our ultimate intimacy has been taken away from us, from our existence so we can no longer have full intimacy.
My wife, in one great moment of intimacy in tears told me, Papa, even if I love you perfectly, you will never be happy.
Only Christ can fill this vacuum, said the famous French Mathematician and philosopher, Blaise Pascal. This vacuum in our hearts came about after the fall. Now, no amount of filling it with worldly things, wealth, power, celebrity, can remove it. Only Christ can fill it.
But not only are we estranged from God, we are also estranged from each other – we fight, suspect, push away, malign, look down, and sue each other. We are so isolated from each other.
What we have mostly in this planet is emptiness, felt as an inconsolable ache, according to C. S. Lewis. It’s an ache that we try to salve with all kinds of medicinal balm, we try to scratch it and massage it but we never can locate it or pinpoint it. We feel this emptiness as a mysterious and deep seated pain within our soul.
How we deal with loneliness is important. We either move away from God or towards God. Loneliness makes us move away from love ones or towards love ones, we also move away from false intimacy (prostitute, pornography, etc.) or towards them.
After a difficult and shameful court trial as a practicing attorney, I can go home and when I enter the door, call all the members of my family, my loving family, all three wonderful sons and my warm and relational wife, to all come and gather around me and give papa a group hug because I feel so small and insecure.
Of course, it takes all heavenly courage and might to do that. It is shaming and feels so weak. Admitting the failure and weakness adds more shame also. So, very few people do it. I listened to a professor from Biola Christian seminary, on YouTube, talk about his loneliness, as a single man and suspected gay, and in the middle of his sermon, say to the audience, how he wanted to call this couple-friend, close friends, husband and wife, to ask them if he could come over because he was feeling really lonely that night. When he said those words, I felt my world shaking.
How many people will rather face their loneliness than quickly in a most abbreviated fashion, jump into pornography or prostitution (abbreviated because they cannot even see their loneliness, they cannot see they are lonely – they can just see sex or food). They have simply and automatically sexualized their desire for intimacy and instead of looking for companionship, legitimate intimacy, they run towards false intimacies – binge eating, shopping, pornography, busyness, ministry, prostitute or masturbation.
And the more we don’t call out for a group hug, the lonelier we get. The more we don’t see how lonely we are, the more powerful loneliness gets. And with that, loneliness becomes the god that drives us. We reach out not with Christ but with our emptiness, like leeches seeking blood. We will not direct our longings to God, but to fellow human beings. We demand life from others when we know full well only God can give that Life to us.
Our Christian ministries move out to people not from Christ within us but from our restlessness and drivenness.
In solitude, we learn to reach out from our center, Christ. We learn to impact others from the Christ who is in us, instead of from our loneliness. How many Christians impact others more from their anger or lust than from Christ in the center of their hearts? How many times have we reached out more from our fears, insecurities and shame than from the peace and joy at the center of our hearts? How many times have we responded more from our woundedness, unresolved conflicts and trauma than from Christ within us?
Solitude is all about intimacy:
It begins with the un-intimate self, lonely, isolated, scarred, running away from intimacy, waging a war against the deepest longings. Self-awareness is the key. We need to face our loneliness and embrace it fully. We have to look deeply into the estrangement of living outside of the Garden of Eden, isolated from God and from fellow human beings.
Without such self-awareness, we cannot begin this journey into solitude.
Embrace our true self:
Our worse fear in silent retreat is really meeting our real selves. When we enter solitude, we start to embrace this sullen, vengeful, and smarting individual that we are. If we cannot embrace who we are, we cannot imagine God embracing us at all except in a very amazing and once in a lifetime way. But intimacy cannot be just once in a lifetime, it needs to be daily and in the ordinary ways.
Who do you think that is who comes to Jesus? Is it us, our true selves or our false selves? If we live in self-protection, fully un-self-aware, then the one who comes to Jesus is our false selves. When we are fully self-aware, when we come as our real selves, only then can we truly come to Jesus. Jesus wants us to come as we are, warts and all. But we first need to see the warts and all.
Oswald Chambers boldly claimed that the only thing we can really give to Jesus is our sins.
Solitude begins with embracing that unacceptable, unworthy, intolerable self. Once we have done so, intimacy can begin. We begin with a desire for Jesus.
It is so challenging and painful to see that for John of the Cross, the great doctor of the church, a novice or one who is just starting the spiritual training to priesthood must begin with this desiring, this longing, of which we have all our lives waged a war against.
Do we miss Jesus?
The novice begins with this longing – a desiring of Jesus. “I want to see him, I miss him.”
This is found in Song of Solomon 1.2 –
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth– for your love is more delightful than wine.
I cannot sleep if cannot see you. I cannot eat if I cannot see you, Jesus. I long to be in your presence. This is what a novice says.
Now contrast this with Christians today who go home each day to spend hours watching TV and never ever missing Jesus.
We hate our longings so much that we wage war against it; we do all things to destroy or kill it. When we long freely, we get terrified, we are afraid where it will lead us. It is unpredictable, unmanageable, and specially, it can be disappointing and frustrating. But it is embracing our longings which ultimately lead us to becoming human again.
Intimacy entails a lot of complications common to all relationships – pain, boredom, losses, etc. all of which we do not want to have.
Carl Jung frequently makes his patients take a moment of absolute silence, to spend a week or a few days in silence as part of the psychotherapy. One patient did so but instead of complete silence, he spent the days listening to marvelous classical piano music. When he returned to Dr. Jung, he complained that the silence did not work. Jung asked him what he did and when he found out that the patient listened to music during that time he was asked to spend in silence, Jung exploded in anger. Jung told the patient, it must be absolute silence.
Then Jung made this comment: how can we offer our selves to others each day, when we cannot even tolerate or stand ourselves? Silence was Jung’s therapy to make us face our loneliness. What Jung is saying is this, if we hate ourselves so much, we run away from ourselves so much, how is it that we so easily and so quickly give ourselves to others?
Life in a fallen world:
We need to correct our theology of life, and take a good look at Genesis and the Fall. What does life look like in a fallen world? What does godliness look like in a fallen world?
Imagine a goldfish inside a fishbowl. Take out the gold fish and lay it on the hot pavement, under the noon day sun and ask it, how it feels and what life is like living outside of the fishbowl.
I have asked many of my Christian seminary students, if life on earth was more happy or more sad. It is tragic how many of them will say, life is more happy. This is what Psalm 90 says:
All our days pass away under your wrath;
we finish our years with a moan.
10 Our days may come to seventy years,
or eighty, if our strength endures;
yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow,
for they quickly pass, and we fly away.
11 If only we knew the power of your anger!
Your wrath is as great as the fear that is your due.
12 Teach us to number our days,
that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
Interestingly, someone noted that Psalms, all 150 of them can be classified into three: Psalms of Orientation, Psalms of Disorientation and Psalms of Re-Orientation and that there are more Psalms of Disorientation than the other two combined or added together. It means, there are more Psalms that are sad, angry, disoriented and desperate. It is the same with life. Life is more sad than happy.
We have this arrogance that life outside of the Garden should be happy. We desperately want it to be happy. We cannot in our demandingness accept that we live in a fallen world.
And on top of that, we insist that our union, our fellowship and our intimacies happen only during times of joy, during times of victory. With this wrong theology, we miss out on the great fellowship and intimacy we get during times of grief and tragedy. We forget that most of life is sad so most of the time, we have no union, no communion because we only want to be together when we are ok.
The truth is that we have more union and communion during brokenness and tragedy, in times of failures and defeats than in happy and triumphant moments.
Before we can embrace ourselves, we need to accept that life is that way – Job said, we cannot just accept the good things from God, and not also the bad things. When we live so self-protectively, we only notice very few things around us and in us. For the less we notice, the more manageable life gets. We need to learn to live vulnerably. We need to learn to receive both good things and bad things, happy things and painful things. When we do so, when we live vulnerably, we then can hear everything, see everything, and notice more. Life also gets more complicated, more difficult.
We can only listen and hear if we stop living self-protectively. When we choose to be vulnerable and be willing to suffer loss, as we always suffer losses in a fallen world, then we can hear everything. We can hear all that is around us. We can also hear God.
This is the main principle: what we do in our human relationships, is also what we do in our relationship with God. When we choose to minimize the world, to notice less so that our life becomes more manageable, then we also make God manageable. The fiery terror that is God becomes a docile and obedient puppet god.
And so, we find a need for Jesus. We need to trust in Jesus. But we won’t need Jesus if we live so self-protectively – preventing pain from getting in, noticing less so life is more manageable. Christianity is simply a game where we pretend to trust in God but we really don’t. Only when we live vulnerably will we truly trust in God.
We live most vulnerably when we desire relationships. When we embrace our loneliness and honestly seek intimacy, then we will desire God, we will trust God or else, we will face hell alone.
Alone and lonely:
When we refuse intimacy, we remain in our isolation and our loneliness.
But there is a difference between being lonely and being alone. Jesus said near the end of his life, you will all desert me and I will be left alone but I will not be alone because the Father will be with me (John 16).
Solitude is to be alone with God.
To be alone is to stand alone with God – this is solitude. To be lonely is to be cut off from God and the whole the world. This is hell. God invented hell as a way of cutting off people from Him. Those he sends to hell cannot ever again communicate with Him. All their prayers will not be heard because Hell is sound proof.
When we are lonely, we often seek intimacy elsewhere, i.e. false intimacy. We seek intimacy from pornography, prostitute, and illicit affairs. We sexualize our longings. We are blind to our loneliness and we think we are after sex when in truth we are after intimacy which pornography or sex will not give except exaggerate and aggravate our longings till it becomes an addiction.
Sex always feels like intimacy. It is the great imitation. Eating also mimics the effects of intimacy. Our loneliness feels assuaged when we eat and when we have sex. These false intimacies are easier to get and easier to have than real intimacy. Sex within a godly marriage actually accentuates and heightens intimacy. But it is necessary that it is intimacy that is grown and nurtured in sex. Too often, sex is sought for its own sake without intimacy even within marriage.
Real intimacy entails a lot of complications – complicated relationships, complex arrangements, difficult personalities, unbreakable bonds and commitments. While with illicit sex and eating, we can do it on demand and in an instant.
For that reason, the bible equates the church with marriage. This is the great mystery of the church. But it is really no mystery. The bible does not use mystery in the worldly sense of something we cannot understand. Mystery is something we know only because God reveals the understanding to us. The church is like marriage because there is a permanent bond. This is what St. Benedict introduced into the monastic movement, the Order of Permanence. Our church bond is permanent just as our marriage bond is permanent. There is no divorce except for infidelity which is a parallel also to our church relationship with God, who is the Bridegroom (we being the Bride). Also, like in the church, God is present in our marriage as a kind of silent partner. We think only two people are bonded together in marriage, till death do us part, but Jesus is bonded there also. Single people can just get up and go when they don’t like their roommate or their classmates. But spouses cannot just leave their mates. And if we married the wrong person, if ever there is such a thing, then all the more it gets very complicated.
My wife falls into such mind boggling theological dilemma once in a while. She will quietly recount how she prayed fervently that God would give her the right husband (what olden day Christians call, “God’s best”) and slowly, like waking up in a bad dream, she begins to realize that maybe God made a mistake. As she looks at me, her wrong husband, she feels the burden of having made a mistake in choosing a spouse. As we fight and disagree, more and more she is convinced that perhaps I am not really God’s will or God’s best, the one God intended to be her husband. Of course, after a while, she recovers and embraces me.
Relationships and bonding take a while to develop, takes lots of tears and patient waiting.
It is the same with being vulnerable. We can call for group hug but it feels weak and defeated. We want to be strong and intact. We don’t want to be vulnerable. We don’t want to tell people that we are lonely. We grit our teeth and endure our isolation rather than confess our loneliness and need for others. We are so independent.
There is a demand that life has to be good, nice and meaningful. Relationships have to be orderly and neat and responsive to our needs. People have to cooperate, not betray us, not die, and not hurt us. But life is not like that.
Experiential Christianity versus Cerebral Christianity:
The biggest problem in spirituality, especially for believers who have known the Lord for many years, is the increasing lack of experience of the presence of God. Nowadays, we have a very cerebral kind of Christianity (uutakin), an approach to spirituality that relies mainly on the power of their mind or reason, to believe God is present or that God exists.
The faith of many has become more dutiful than passionate. Deep within their hearts they feel God is so far away and all that sustains them day to day is the idea or mental assent to an idea about God whom they do not really experience.
A sustainable spirituality:
Besides wanting to have an experiential spirituality, we also want to have a sustainable spirituality. A spirituality that is sustainable means one that will help us to survive ministry among the poorest of the poor, in the most depressed slums of the world. For those of us especially who work among the poorest of the poor, the rate of burn out is very high. A form of spirituality is needed that is will help us to journey with the poor through their pain and doubts.
We need a spirituality that will enable us to go through the tough demands of urban poor ministry, a spirituality that is one with God, that is closely and intimately in sync with the Holy Spirit as well as a spirituality that moves from the depths of the Holy Spirit.
In John 5 19, Jesus replied,
“I assure you, the Son can do nothing by himself. He does only what he sees the Father doing. Whatever the Father does, the Son also does. 20For the Father loves the Son and tells him everything he is doing, and the Son will do far greater things than healing this man.”
Jesus said, “I only do what I see the Father doing.”
Jesus talked about a close synchronization with the Holy Spirit as the means of sustaining his work and ministry. He said, “the Son can do nothing of his own; he does only what He sees the Father doing.”
Most of what we do is not from God, not powered by the Holy Spirit. When I ask my students how much of what they do in ministry is actually done through the Holy Spirit, many will say 30% or even 50%, some are so brazen and will say 90%. But they do not realize that even if just 20% of what we do is powered by the Holy Spirit, we would turn the world upside down. We would set the world on fire!
In reality, less than 10% of what we do is by the power of the Holy Spirit or done in accordance with the will of God. That is why our Christianity today lacks the impact many of us are desperately looking for.
If 10% of what we do is moved by the power of the Holy Spirit or even less. J, just
imagine resting 90% of the time! What energy we would save. We would rest more. If we could know the difference (the difference between working with the might of the Holy Spirit and without it) we could just do what He wants and then take the rest of the day off, take a long rest, sleep more, and not get too busy.
The busier we are the less we are able to pray and listen to God. Ministry becomes the work of the flesh.
Sustainability and discernment:
In addition, a sustainable spirituality is developed when discernment grows. The participant in the silent retreat comes home with a greater sensitivity to the movement of the Holy Spirit and less prone to become driven and get busy again. He is apt to be more prayerful and spiritually sensitive to where and how the Holy Spirit is moving in his life and in the lives of others around him. Cooperating with the Holy Spirit becomes a regular discipline. He is more disciplined to listen than talk, to wait than move, to be present than act.
Sustainability and becoming more human:
Sustainable spirituality also means we become more human for the more human we become, the holier we get. And we become more human only when we are in community. Solo Christianity dehumanizes and is a contradiction. The world is becoming more individualistic and independent leading to more dehumanization.
To counteract this dehumanization, we need to become more human which is to embrace more of Christ’s humanity. This humanity is also seen clearest in community. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote thus – the closer we are to one another, the clearer Christ becomes.
“What determines our brotherhood is what that man is by reason of Christ. Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us. This is true not merely at the beginning, as though in the course of time something else were to be added to our community; it remains so for all the future and to all eternity. I have community with others and I shall continue to have it only through Jesus Christ. The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us. We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we do have one another, wholly, for eternity.”
There can be no solitude alone, in an individualistic fashion. This may sound like an oxymoron but solitude is still a community affair. It cannot be pursued by lone ranger Christians. The image of Jesus which we seek to become can only be seen in the Body. The community in solitude is the only way we can be truly silent.
Bonhoeffer also adds this:
“Let him who cannot be alone beware of community… Let him who is not in community beware of being alone… Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.”
These are heavy and profound words that we need to listen to carefully.
It is community that goes up the mountain to seek solitude together. I listened to a fine preacher, a Benedictine monk. He lived in a monastery and was an expert in Christian spirituality. And yet, on closer look, we know that this monk is very individualistic. The same capitalist values of individualism has permeated their monastery so that the value of privacy and private ownership is held higher than Scripture’s call to community and Body life – a new commandment I give unto you that you love one another as I have loved you, by this all men shall know you are my disciples, said Jesus.
Whenever we read the Epistles, every time we see the phrase, “one another” we will notice two things. The Christian spirituality is lived out only in community and we cannot demonstrate Christianity to the outside world apart from community – Christians living together or what Bonhoeffer calls The Common Life.
In your silent retreat, there will be many occasions for group solitude. Actually, there is more intimacy in group solitude than in normal group interactions. You will notice after some time that in group silence or solitude, you attain a deeper intimacy with the community more than when you spend time talking with each other. Remember, that normally, words are used by people to hide their true meaning and very seldom do people engage in honest conversation. Words are used to make things more palatable, more respectable. There is always an effort to make our true meanings become more acceptable.
But waiting on the Lord together forms a holy conversation that brings greater intimacy more than wordy conversations does.
“Calling people together, therefore, means calling them away from the fragmenting and distracting wordiness of the dark world to that silence in which they can discover themselves, each other, and God. Thus organizing can be seen as the creation of a space where communion becomes possible and community can develop.”
Nouwen, The Way of the Heart
Is God silent? Is God distant?
When we say God is silent or God is distant we are really admitting we are isolated and lonely because the truth is, God is always reaching out to us, always calling out to us, always talking to us. He is certainly not distant, and never silent. What is wrong is not God, but us. We are so busy, so noisy so afraid of intimacy. We are so distracted and want so much to be distracted. We are always running away from God and from our own selves. We make ourselves so noisy and busy so we don’t have to see inside of us, along with that, we will also not see God who is inside of us.
We even do ministry as a way to avoid intimacy. We make ourselves so busy so we don’t have to see how lonely we really are.
A spiritual dilemma:
Why do many not seem to hear or experience God today? Is God really absent? Many say God is silent, many say they cannot hear God anymore, he does not speak anymore to me. Many also feel God is distant as though he is no longer present.
Many Christians just go through the motion of doing spirituality, pretending God is there when all the while they do not experience Him.
The Psalmist makes the same complaint. The Psalmist complains that God is far away or that God is silent.
1 Why, Lord, do you stand far off?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
1 How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me? (also Psalm 35)
23 Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.
24 Why do you hide your face
and forget our misery and oppression?
1 O God, do not remain silent;
do not turn a deaf ear,
do not stand aloof, O God. (also Psalm 109)
And yet there is a big difference. The Psalmist complains when God is silent. We Christians today go on our daily life as though God is present even though he is not. God really becomes silent and it is for a reason but the reason God is silent in us is not because He has stopped talking. In fact, it is precisely the opposite. God is talking and we cannot hear. He seem silent and distant because we are so busy and noisy, the still small voice of God is drowned in our noise.
People in the olden days knew when God was silent. The Psalmists knew when God was silent. There was a period also, a long period of 490 years, when God became silent. The silence was broken finally when Jesus came.
NT Wright discusses this clearly. When Jesus came, it signaled the end of the exile. We get the phrase, forgive 70 x 7 from this period of exile prophesied in the Old Testament. 70x 7 is 490 years, when the silence would last. When Jesus came, the silence was broken. People knew because the same frenetic activity of God, raising the dead to life, and all the miracles, were characteristic of the days when he was very active in the life of Israel. The people knew God was not talking. Jesus used it as the sign. When they asked if he was the Messiah, he pointed to these miracles – showing the end of the long period of silence and distance of God.
God today speaks volumes for he wants all to be saved. He promised that all will know Him as the waters cover the sea.
9 They will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain,
For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
As the waters cover the sea.
14 “For the earth will be filled
With the knowledge of the glory of the Lord,
As the waters cover the sea.
God is the 24/7 God He is always talking to us, drawing near to us and calling us. He promises that if we seek Him we will find him if we seek him with all our hearts. He said he is always with us and will never leave us. His name therefore is Emmanuel.
So what is the problem?
The problem apparently is not that God is absent. But that often, it is we who are absent. We need to learn to be present.
We may be bodily or physically present but our minds and our hearts are somewhere else. Either we are too busy or we are too noisy that we cannot hear the still small voice of the Holy Spirit. That is why CS Lewis wrote thus:
God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.
What is the difference between the Christian retreats churches conduct and silent retreats? The therapeutic effect of silent retreats as against regular Christian retreats, is that silent retreats lessen the intensity of human addiction. In silent retreats, the person directly confronts the “demons” within him, the things he has been running away from.
After the silent retreat, people enter back into reality more or deeper because solitude is a journey into the deepest reality not only of our relationship with God and with the world but also of our own world within. Silent retreat makes us face our demons, our drivenness, our restlessness, our fears and our aloneness, the things we have been running away from all our lives.
Most Christian retreats are retreats away from reality. They form part of our running away, and add to it. They usually bring people to a great high or a so-called mountain top experience. When participants return to their homes, they will seek for more relief in order to maintain the sense of euphoria or high, and this means they will like watching a movie or TV or other forms of distraction, to maintain their avoidance of reality.
Facing reality is farthest from their heart. The retreat cooperates with and heightens their addiction for an exciting spiritual experience or an emotional high, and this experience in the retreat is often not matched by an equally heightened spirituality in the church. The church worship and intimacy remains below par while the retreatants anticipate something greater. Suddenly, everyone is plunged back into the dreary, frustrating, daily ordinary and boring grind. This kicks in addiction. The formula for addiction is demandingness, demand for something new, something exciting plus a boring and ordinary and repetitive life at home and in church, which is not matched by the promised made by inspirational preachers in the summer camp.
Solitude brings the person deep into his own emptiness, brings him face to face with the source of his addiction, his hunger, and into the desert of his soul where there is nothing there but he and His God.
Solitude and sacred space:
When one is practiced in the art of solitude, one gains what David Benner and Margareth Gunther call, a sacred space. It is a space within our hearts where people are invited and can come in. it is a space that you offer to others, where they can be safe, can be who they really are. There, they are not pressured to change. This sacred space allows real community to happen.
Part II How we enter into solitude
Solitude is about four things:
- Silence, no talking, no listening to music, no reading even of the Bible
- Being present and
- Waiting (or wasting your time with God, a title of a book by Father Thomas Green).
The goal of solitude is to learn to be present:
When we come to a silent retreat, we need to learn to be present to God, to be present in His loving arms, to enter into the embrace of the God who loves me, to experience the truth of what it means to be a beloved child of God.
Silent retreat is a spiritual discipline of presence. Brother Lawrence wrote a very instructive book on this, The Practice of the Presence of God.
To be silent:
In order to be present, we must begin with silence. It is easy to make the outside world silent. What is hard is to make the inner world silent. Once we begin the journey to be silent inside, we start on a long and difficult journey but a fully rewarding one.
The minimum time needed must be recognized. It is difficult to attain quietness inside of us and normally, it will take a minimum of 3 days and two nights to attain such silence. So we need to maximize the use of our time. It means first of all being honest. Many have gone through this exercise and dismissed it completely. They will tell their friends that they have gone through the silent retreat and it was meaningless all because they were not honest in their silence.
When in their supposed silence, they engage actively their minds. They are so busy and their minds wander to so many distant places. Or worse, they do sit in silence and fall asleep (it is good to sleep in order to give rest to the body that for years have been sustained by caffeine and little sleep, but if sleep is sought as a way to make the soul sleep, to become oblivious, then it is bad) never even seeking or looking for Jesus. It was not their goal to enter into the presence of Jesus at all. They do sit still, in silence but not in order to be present to Jesus. Thus, they can never say they have been to a silent retreat.
Others have been to a silent retreat done by people who do not have the habit of solitude. Their so-called retreat masters do not have a regular discipline of silence or solitude and attempts to teach students how to enter solitude. Many have silent retreats that are not silent at all (6 hours of group discussion a day about silence or about meditation) because there is no one who know what solitude looks like or feels like.
You can also see their eyes interacting during so-called silent retreats that are not really silent because their bodies or hands are busy making signals or else, they are into much exercise – jogging, calisthenics, tai-chi, etc. Their mouths are silent but their bodies are not. They still talk to each other although not with words but with gestures. It is the blind leading the blind.
Difficulty of silence:
We will become restless and we will feel silence as uncomfortable and deafening. When we sit still, our restlessness and drivenness will seem to explode from underneath us. We will need to endure and be patient. But once we enter into the silence, it will be worth it.
In silence, we also begin to rest:
Through silence, we enter into rest, when the whole body, mind, soul and spirit truly rest. We rest in the truth that Jesus love us so we don’t have to run around too much like a headless chicken.
Yoga is silence of nothingness:
In yoga or Hinduism, the aim is to enter into nothingness, to make the mind and soul empty. In Christian solitude the aim is to be fully rested so that the mind and our entire being is not occupied, it is rested and fully attuned and completely present to God, able to sense very acutely any movement of the Spirit inside of us.
Imagine you are taking care of your one year old child. There is nothing going on but senseless babble, monosyllabic conversations – da da da or ba ba ba or pa pa pa. You are bored and your mind soon wanders, back to your office, your big pile of files and documents. Soon you are engaged in writing a sermon or fixing a problem at the office. Your body is present to your one year old child but your mind is NOT.
In order to be present, you need to rest your mind completely (not empty it but rest it). I owned years ago an old Volkswagen and whenever I stopped, and switched off the ignition, the engine would still continue running. It was baffling. I had switched it off but it would not stop running. It is the same with my mind. I sit in silence but my mind will not stop.
To be fully and completely present, the mind has to rest. When the mind rests, it can see everything around it. When the mind is busy or engaged, it is not present and cannot notice, cannot see. We need this practice of being present by resting the mind. This is to me the hardest thing to do in a silent retreat – to stop the mind from working or being occupied and just to be present, attentively looking.
Presence cannot be attained without silence and silence cannot be attained without resting. Our goal is silence of presence, and once rested, we can be fully present to God.
The main principle in prayer:
The more rested we are the more we can hear God. The voice of the Holy Spirit is a very small voice. When we are busy or noisy inside of us, we will not be able to hear that voice.
Romans 8 says –
26And the Holy Spirit helps us in our distress. For we don’t even know what we should pray for, nor how we should pray. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. 27And the Father who knows all hearts knows what the Spirit is saying, for the Spirit pleads for us believers in harmony with God’s own will.
I John 2 also says –
1My dear children, I am writing this to you so that you will not sin. But if you do sin, there is someone to plead for you before the Father.
Rest also means sleeping. We work with many people from the slums. I once helped Ed Misa in the early years of our Payatas Ministry. I would arrive by noon, after I already had my lunch. I wake Ed up, who is either asleep on the dirt floor or on a narrow wooden bench. The whole night he had been baking. He is assistant in a bakeshop, paid a miserable salary. He has no bed. By 4 in the morning, he is done, and he is exhausted from manually kneading the dough, lots of dough. They sell bread as early as 4 in the morning. At this time, he can rest. He drops dead practically and immediately falls asleep. When I wake him up, he has not had breakfast or lunch. He picks up his guitar and off we go. We do visitation up to night fall. I preach and he leads the singing. He is now a pastor of a large slum church and married.
Many of our workers are from the slums, who have not had a good night’s sleep maybe for the last few months or even a decent meal for that matter. All the ATS seminary students I bring to silent retreat almost invariably confess that they are exhausted and badly need rest, that ministry is a big relentless push to do more and better, and resting is never part of the ministry.
We should not be guilty when we fall asleep (for as long as we are sincere about looking for Jesus).
We do encourage and even reward our staff who fall asleep during our silent retreat. It is part of the silent retreat to fall asleep. Psalms 127.2 says – God grants sleep to those he loves. Also, God teaches us even in our sleep: Psalm 16.7.
It is the Benedictine practice to help a retreatant to first recover his equilibrium before launching him into any spiritual exercise. The equilibrium of the body is important. If one lacks sleep frequently, the body goes out of sync and is very disharmonious. The retreatant is asked to sleep and when he has had enough sleep, he finds that no matter how hard he tries he cannot sleep anymore. He has reached his equilibrium. He can only sleep his regular 6 or 8 hours of daily sleep and more than that is no longer possible unless he is an incurable loafer or lazy person (or the opposite, he has insomnia or has depression).
It is the same with food. Many people have been overdosing on caffeine. Their spirituality is basically powered by caffeine and not by the Holy Spirit. This is largely due to the absence of an honest theology of the body, physical body.
Many in fact have been abusing their bodies, eating too little, sleeping too little and overworking. To achieve equilibrium means not only attaining the normal sleep quota but also the normal food quota. The retreatant may need to get off caffeine, slowly. Some people (wrongly boasts) that coffee makes them sleepy. It is not true. When one is always lacking in sleep, even coffee can be a relaxant to make one feel sleepy but when one has reached his normal quota of sleep, coffee will keep him awake. The problem is he needs to get enough sleep to realize that coffee actually does not make him sleepy.
Before launching into fasting or extended prayer, the Benedictine practice is to help the person attain equilibrium in sleep and food – meaning, he sleeps until he reaches his quota and he eats until his body is in harmony (in the seminary we studied at, we had lots of vegetables, very few spices and no coffee).
Once in equilibrium, then it is now ok to fast and to go on extended prayer.
3 drivers of our solitude:
When we become silent, these three things come into play as the main drivers of our time in the silent retreat –
The heart, and
1. Our mind will drive our time with the Lord
It will race up and down with all kinds of urgent things to be done. Please do not be bothered or dismayed by this. Do not be guilty, do not punish yourself. This is normal. When we begin, we will notice our mind will not stop being active. It will go into projects to make, deadlines to beat, children to care for, medicines to take, and a thousand other things that are urgent.
It’s really amazing and irritating. My mind is like that, I want to rest and be in the presence of God but my mind won’t stop working. It will work and work and prevent me from being present to God.
We will notice that in our first few attempts at being silent, sitting down and resting, that without our knowing it, our mind has wandered away, back to Quezon City or back to wherever we came from, one hundred kilometers away, back at our office, and we have already prepared a sermon for the next Sunday. When we notice, thirty minutes has already passed. We will want to scold ourselves and will want to feel bad that we have wasted half an hour.
Please don’t. Don’t get mad at yourself. It’s really alright. Besides, if you spend time to berate yourself, or to punish yourself, it will only get worse and in addition, you will waste more time. The best according to those steeped in this discipline is just to calmly say to the Lord, “I am here, Lord, I am back.” Then just proceed as though nothing happened (just like what Brother Lawrence would do).
It will be difficult to find the switch that can turn off the mind to make it rest. We have been so used, or we have made our minds so used, to being like this. Our society is becoming more and more cognitive. Everything is done through and in the mind. So now, when we want it to stop and rest, we can’t.
It will seem impossible at the beginning to get the mind to just rest. But just be patient. It will come. Your mind and your whole body will return to normal. Don’t get mad at yourself, don’t feel guilty. Just let it pass and come back by saying, “Jesus, here I am.”
I am worried about the way we are raising our children today. Whenever they are bored, we stuff a lollipop in their mouth. When that no longer works, when they get bored, we buy ice cream. As they get older, we have other ways to fight boredom – television, DVD, malls, etc. We will do anything just so our child does not get bored. We are so afraid of boredom.
And when they are old, we teach them to go to a silent retreat which is the exact opposite of what we have been doing to our kid. This is madness.
2. Our heart:
Our heart too can drive us in our time of silent retreat. Our hearts can fill us with fear, anxiety and guilt. We can be engrossed in so much self-examination also. We can become so introspective. Contemplation is focused on God and introspection is focused on the self. Introspection can make us more self-centered.
We need to become self-aware and we need to grow also in self-awareness. Without self-awareness, we cannot develop a true spirituality. We will not know that we are malandi or lustful and we think we are just innocent. We cannot tell we are angry and think we are just being objective or frank.
In the olden days, the term used for self-awareness was humility. In the Cloud of Unknowing, one classic that we all need to read on contemplative spirituality, the author talks a lot about this humility which basically is to learn to see ourselves the way God sees us.
When we become self-aware, we will notice a lot of things inside our hearts. I call these demons – unresolved conflicts, trauma from past abuse, revenge, rage, etc. They will all come out because the movement towards stillness and rest will also loosen in a certain way our inhibitions and our self-protectiveness. Our defense mechanism may also relax a bit so that little by little we can see what’s raging within us, what drives us.
Many have shared in the silent retreats that they were visited by a demon. One even called the visitor, “Satan.” But, quickly, before even 5 minutes had passed in our spiritual direction, he had already realized on his own that the Satan there was really his own senior pastor who had been verbally abusing him. The trauma rippled into his marriage and family. He was filled with guilt for being violent to his son, a violence growing out of his anger for his senior pastor.
In the Roman Catholic protocol, there is very intensive screening to ensure that the so-called spiritual visitation is really a spiritual one, not a psychological one. Great pains is taken to look into possible psychological causes, psychosis and other causes, before concluding that it is demonic or spiritual.
It is very important to have self-awareness. A close friend came to our house one day and excitedly announced that they had bought a house. We have prayed for a long time for God to give us a house and my friend was getting his house first, before me. I was envious. He saw my downcast heart and asked why I was not happy. I told him I was envious.
Some of us are not aware we are envious and we may smile and conceal the smirk in our faces. When we are not self-aware, our response to that dear friend will not be an honest one and certainly not a blessed one. It of course did not come from Jesus but from our own fears, insecurity and low self-esteem.
When the heart is relaxed, these things will come out and sometimes, they will frighten us, even traumatize us. There are certain situations that it is necessary for us to go to a counselor or else the trauma may get too overwhelming and paralyze us or damage us. We need help when strong emotions like these come during the silent retreat.
An encounter with God is an encounter with the self:
David Benner: silent stillness, solitude and traumatic emotions
Most people are surprised when they offer whatever stillness they have to God in a prayer of openness and discover that the resulting encounter is not simply an encounter with God. It is also an encounter with their self. Of course, this is what makes the encounter potentially transformational. It would not even be an encounter if you were not present. Nonetheless, it can be quite disconcerting if you are attempting to lay aside your thoughts and create space for God and discover that this space keeps being filled with all the inner things you have been avoiding. Instead of quiet and calm your inner world may be full of sound and fury – old anxieties and conflicts that have been lingering at the edges of consciousness now coming to the front burner and uninvited memories and feelings bubbling to the surface. This is the price of admission to presence to God. That price is presence to self.
Deep prayer that contains a contemplative dimension will always require hospitality to your deep self – that is, to the deep parts of yourself. Pray for the grace to receive whatever might arise in you and then gently release it into God’s hands. That which arises might come with a flood of emotional intensity. Sometimes being still before self and God releases a torrent of emotions. Tears may be intermixed with joy and sadness as repressed memories and fragments of past experience burst into consciousness. This unloading of the unconscious can be frightening but it is a sign that God is at work in your depths. This isn’t the time to try to understand the things that float to the surface. Instead it is the time to simply release them to God. But, as you note their presence, you become aware of what exists within you and you have an opportunity to get a peek at the deep hidden work of healing that God is doing in your soul. This is a work of divine therapy.
It is very important to remember that the goal is not stillness. Any stillness that develops is the gift of God. Nor is this a process of self-therapy. Any healing that occurs is a by-product, not the goal. Remember, this is prayer. The goal is simply to be totally open to God and to consent to God’s presence and action within you. From: Opening to God: Lectio Divina and Life as Prayer
I think I eventually had mid-life as a result of constant silent retreats. I always thought I was not the type that would dive into depression. I always knew how to entertain myself, always doing something new. I was strong and very objective (actually, more bato or numb than objective). But my guess is that the silent retreat eventually loosened my defense mechanism and disarmed my anger so that now I was face to face with all my fears, guilt and shame, things I never had to face before because anger protected me. Anger made me numbed so I did not feel anything.
There is a big problem with becoming numb. Once we do that, we will realize that after many years, when we then want to stop being numbed, when we want to feel and be alive because say, we got married to this beautiful and tender woman, or just had a new born baby, now that we want to feel and be vulnerable, we realize, we cannot find the switch. We don’t know how to turn on our hearts again.
Dr. Larry Crabb reminded us in counseling class that there is a difference between Damage A and Damage B. Damage A is the initial abuse or damage. Damage B is the way we manage Damage A, how we try to resolve it. For example, a 14 year old girl is raped by her uncle, that would be Damage A. And then she decides she will never get married, that is Damage B. Damage B is always more destructive than Damage A. In other words, rape is better than destroying the image of God in the girl. The girl had vowed to destroy the original design of God for her, to be a woman and she was going to throw that away forever. The rape was for a moment but the vow never to get married marred her for life.
In my case, I had vowed never to hope, never to be disappointed. I had been hurt so much in the past. My wife used to say, I do not cry. But what she does not know is that I have cried a hundred times more than she had. I just simply stopped crying. I had run out of tears. The vow never to be hurt again, to become numb (bato) is Damage B. It is more damaging that Damage A, all the hurts and disappointments I suffered when I was small.
Man almost always makes that mistake. Man can never manage his pain; he can never manage Damage A properly. And in the end, we find so many forms of Damage B in us and around us. These will all come out during the silent retreat as the outer layer; as the cover that protects us from the issues in our heart is removed. The protective layer is anger and silent retreat can sometimes disarm anger so it cannot protect us anymore.
3. Our body:
Our body can also drive us. This is the third thing we need to keep silent and rested. Our minds, hearts and bodies are all noisy. We need to get them all to become quiet. Many of us, when we have reached 50 have abused our bodies to the max. We have poor eating habits, poor sleeping habits, etc. We survive mostly on caffeine from coffee or coke or plain sugar. We lack sleep. We are so stressed out that our bodies are on the verge of collapse.
After years of silent retreat, I can now easily tell if my body is stressed or relaxed. I can see immediately how a trauma or attack or pressure can make my body tense. When nearing a deadline or after a deadline, I can notice at once my neck is painful and there is too much acid in my stomach. For years, I never noticed them at all. I guess, I got so used to having a stiff or painful neck, I just did not notice anymore. I began to accept that it was my normal life.
The first item in the agenda is to get sleep. For many, it may mean most of the first part of the silent retreat is to sleep. Don’t be guilty. As we mentioned already, sleep is a gift from God. God grants sleep to those he loves: Psalms 127.2.
God made our bodies in such a way that it will need sleep and rest. We need rest from so much stimulus going on around us and in us. God put the night which is half of the day, in order to protect us from too much stimulus. It means when the darkness comes, we need to shut off and shut down and rest. This is part of the natural cycle.
We have broken this cycle and disobeyed God. This is the natural 12 hour Sabbath inside our bodies. Dreams are also part of this arrangement. Carl Jung says the dreams are God’s way of ironing our wrinkled souls during sleep. The things we have buried under, suppressed emotions, unresolved conflicts, God will take them out as dreams so that we wake up in the morning refreshed. We cannot be refreshed with all that buried baggage inside us while we sleep because even though we are asleep, we are not at all rested. The conflicts and traumas continue to plague us.
So, sleep is not just closing our eyes and lying in bed. It means, as God intended, also resting, deep inside the soul. Sleep, true sleep is indeed, God’s gift to those he loves.
Just remember how many people find it hard to sleep at night. My wife and our eldest son has trouble sleeping. It’s a hereditary thing. Having a good night sleep is really precious and a real gift from God. When it happens too much, meaning, they cannot sleep frequently, they can also get guilty and thus, increase their insomnia.
My wife asked me if God does not love her because she always has a hard time sleeping. This is not true. Her condition is an inherited illness and she has insomnia not because God does not love her.
Also, God teaches us even in our sleep: Psalm 16.7. So, when you sleep, assure yourselves that you did not miss anything.
The goal is to find your normal equilibrium. The Desert Fathers, the people who led this contemplative movement of solitude a thousand years ago, tell us that we cannot start prayer until one has attained the normal body equilibrium of rest and food. Sleep until you cannot sleep anymore then pray. Eat as much (good and correct food) until you are fully restored and then you can fast. Sometimes, it is necessary to detoxify the body, remove all the caffeine before fasting. This means eating regular food, with little or no spices, no salt and no caffeine. The person will suffer some discomfort as his body goes through a withdrawal symptom. Usually he will have a migraine. To prevent severe migraine from occurring, the caffeine dependence must be removed gradually, meaning, each day, take less and less coffee or tea until the withdrawal symptom becomes manageable and you are completely free of caffeine.
Fasting is no longer a good recommendation nowadays when most people are eating less or have poor eating habits, are pumped full of caffeine and sugar. To fast is to further abuse the body (unless fasting is done as a way to detoxify the body, remove all those toxic matters). But the goal of prayer in fasting is not detoxification. Before one can fast, one needs to detoxify or else one needs to attain the normal body balance by eating correct food not by not eating which is sending a message to the body that you are going to punish it again, this time, harder.
Theology of the body:
80% of all illness reported to a doctor are stress related. Someone said, people are willing to pay millions of dollars to get well. But no one is willing to change the lifestyle that is causing it.
We need a theology of the body. Many Christians have a theology that divides body from spirit. This is the Cartesian dualism (Rene Descartes) which is the foundation philosophy of science. People believe they can carry on their spirituality by the spirit alone without the body . Cartesian promotes a dualism that separates the body from the soul or the body from the mind. So now, we have brain specialists and heart specialists. We have psychologists versus pastors. We have psychiatrists to treat trauma and psychosis and we have surgeons to mend broken bones from terrible, traumatic car accidents. We have divided the body into different parts, we have divided the mind from the soul and the body.
As seen in the practice of overnight Friday prayer meetings in many Evangelical churches, Christians go into a marathon session of intercessory prayer, praying over 100 prayer requests, after a long week of hard work at the office (Monday to Friday). They are already so exhausted when they come to the prayer meeting. But they believe they can still pray even though their body has already conked out hours ago or days ago.
The body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. We need the body to pray. We need the body to be spiritual. It is in the body that the Holy Spirit manifests Himself. The body is the vehicle we ride on in the spiritual journey.
There is also such a thing as bodily prayer in some Christian tradition. I think I have seen this sometimes. I have seen a woman who was so distraught at the death of her husband. She was confused and lost. She left the hospital and walked aimlessly in the middle of the night. She did not know where to go. Later, she found herself inside an empty chapel, near the altar, looking up desperately at the Cross where Christ was hanging. It was all so unconscious, involuntary.
Our bodies pray and sometimes as in this case, our bodies lead us. Our legs walk for us and bring us to God. This is what we mean by bodily prayer.
Let me summarize again. We have said already that the more rested we are the more we can hear God. We need to make the mind, the heart and the body to be silent and to rest.
Who will drive me? Will it be my mind, my heart, my body or Jesus?
Many times, we what we give to people is really our restlessness and drivenness; it’s not Jesus that we give to them. Only after a long practice in solitude will we know the difference between giving people our drivenness or Jesus.
We do not have to solve our drivenness. We just need to acknowledge them. Imagine sitting in a round table, with your mind there, your heart and your body. Let them stay, they are invited. But they need not dictate the theme of your time with God. It is not your drivenness or restlessness that will dictate the theme. You must allow the peace of Jesus to take hold of you.
When we pray, what comes to us first is not God’s answer to our prayers but His peace. Paul said in Philippians 2.8
Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your request be made known to God and the peace of God which passes all understanding will bind your hearts and your minds to Christ Jesus.
When we pray for a visa to America, it is not the visa that will come first. It is the peace of God. Jesus resides in our center. It is there that we sense His peace.
The center of our spirituality:
We need to learn move from our center. We often relate with others from our compulsions instead of from the Holy Spirit. We move from our unresolved conflicts, our hurts, our fears. When we rest in Christ, we begin to move to our center, from Jesus, from the Holy Spirit. We need to learn to move from the Peace of Jesus. Our center is the Peace of Jesus. We will not react to anger from our own hurts and insecurities. We will react as Christ would react.
Of course, it could be an angry outburst also. Each person is different. For some who have made it their highest goal – never to upset others, to always look mabait (nice); it maybe an angry outburst indeed. For many long used to getting angry at others, it may be humility, forgiveness and patience. It will vary.
Remember, Jesus was very upset (and cruel) when dealing with hypocrites. But Jesus will practically forgive elephant size sins when dealing with people who are meek and humble. When dealing with a known prostitute, Jesus almost forgave even before the person asked forgiveness. But hard hearted-people, hypocrites and mockers, get the complete spanking from Jesus. He is hard on the hard-hearted and soft on the soft-hearted
The practice of solitude will give us an awareness of that center, a familiarity or recognition of that presence, so that we can now tell if we are moving from our center or from elsewhere.
Phil 2.8, 9 tells us that even before our prayers are answered, we are enveloped by Peace which comes from praying. Peace is often part of the benediction. Why?
Invitation to rest in Christ:
“Come to me all who are weary and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11. 28 is about resting in His love. The goal of our silence is to be totally rested, to sleep if necessary. Solitude is silence and rest and waiting, in order to listen and to be present to God. We must heed this invitation of Jesus to come and rest.
In short, solitude is to be silent, it means to rest the mind, the heart and the body.
It also means to rest in the truth that God loves us, to rest in His love, to rest in the fact that God loves us and is with us now. To rest in the knowledge that He is present.
How do you deal with a fool:
There are some people who will never stop striving, wont rest. They will not come to a silent retreat. They will not give up their restlessness and drivenness. Even during the Silent Retreat, they run around, sneak out of the compound to go to the mall or market.
CS Lewis said, “How do we deal with a fool? You exhaust him!” Not all of us are fools.
We know that we often drive ourselves into a frenzy of work, busyness and running away from our hearts. Being distracted is a way we can survive. Busyness and noise keeps us from noticing things and the less we notice, the more manageable our life gets. We won’t give up our restlessness until we burn out, until we drop dead.
But why wait till we get exhausted? Seek solitude now and find rest in His presence.
15The Sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel, says,
“Only in returning to me and waiting for me will you be saved.
In quietness and trusting is your strength.
But you would have none of it.
16You said, ‘No, we will get our help from Egypt.
They will give us swift horses for riding into battle.’
But the only swiftness you are going to see is the swiftness of your enemies chasing you!
17One of them will chase a thousand of you.
Five of them will make all of you flee.
You will be left like a lonely flagpole on a distant mountaintop.”
This is a warning to you. God said, because you refused rest and waiting, your enemies will become faster than you. Whatever is it you are running away from or running after, they will become faster than you.
The ego and unselfconsciousness:
In solitude, our ego is set aside. To be silent means to be aware simply of God alone, and not much of ourselves. We stand aside and create a space for God.
It is not the drivers – the body, the mind and the heart, that are the biggest obstacles to solitude. It is our ego which is the greatest hindrance to knowing Him.
We are very rational people, very Cartesian. We move from our mind, we begin from our mind always. The ego comes to into play, plays a central role. In contemplative spirituality, we place the ego aside. We become unselfconscious so to say. To be unselfconscious means just simply relating, enjoying, without a consciousness of relating or enjoying.
For example, when we are humble and we are aware we are humble, we cease to be humble. The goal is to reach that point of knowing and yet being unaware. In that state, only God exists and the ego is set aside. This is what is meant to be present to Him.
God’s presence does not come because we concentrate or we meditate. We experience God because we are lost in Him. It is the same with human relationship. How do we relate? For those who think they do not know how to relate, the easiest way is to just learn to enjoy people. To enjoy people, we become unselfconscious. We are not conscious of ourselves. We are conscious of the other person and how we enjoy him.
The more we concentrate, the more God disappears. The more we rest, the more his presence becomes real to us. To rest means to be present, here and now (Sa Tagalog, kung nasaan ka naroon, naroon ka). To be present, to be entirely present to God, that is the meaning of contemplative spirituality.
How do we become present?
It is difficult to become present. Remember that how we relate with people is also how we relate with God. If we have a hard time being present to people, we will also have difficulty being present to God. Without this ability to be present, we cannot learn to love. The basic requirement of love is we know how to relate and to relate is first and foremost to be present.
Being absent is a malady of many Christians and learning to be present can be a hard task. It is the most basic thing is relationship. We must need to learn to relate with people but to relate, we must learn first to be present. We cannot be with people in our body only and absent in our heart or in our minds – which we often do in many of our relationships.
Father Connaughly, a Jesuit priest and author of many books on contemplative spirituality, wrote that, our relationship with people around us is also the same as our relationship with God. The way we relate with people is also the way we relate with God. If our relationships are shallow or lousy, then we should not be surprised that our relationship with God is also shallow and lousy. Or, in the reverse, people who claim to have such deep intimacy with God but have shallow and lousy intimacies with people around them is a liar and a fake.
The Bible is very clear on this: how can we say we love God whom we cannot see and not love people whom we can see. Our human relationships are the basic determinants of our God-ward relationship. It cannot be the other way around.
How we relate with people is also how we relate with God. If you have few friends, you will likely also have a difficult relationship with God. God would be distant and cold to you also.
Our parents are our first view of God so, this most basic relationship can be the most significant index of how we relate with God. My wife’s father was a very honest man and declined many offers of jobs with better salaries. His government salary could not provide enough for his big family, which was often on the verge of poverty. Without the US Veterans scholarship, my wife could not have gone to college, much less, medical school. It was this first picture of God that she drew from her earthly father. Her father was very relational and was intimate with all his children. My wife was the youngest and only girl which gave her a very special place in her papa’s heart. Now, as she looks to her Heavenly Father, she finds a very warm, tender and compassionate God but at the same time, struggles with believing this God can provide for her needs, even little ones. She feels her prayer for even the tiniest material comfort cannot flap their wings to take off an inch from the ground.
I had the opposite upbringing. My father was a terrific provider, at least when I was old enough to know. My papa’s business like all others, suffered its ups and downs and when I was growing up, apparently, it was on its way up. I could literally buy anything in our town. I just signed for things – the best leather school bag or shoes, gasoline at the gas station, etc. But up to now, my father, who is still alive, has not hugged me or embraced me or even put his arms around my shoulders. I have stopped hoping and wishing for it to happen. He is almost 90 years old now and it seems it never will. When I became a Christian, trusting God for anything was easy. Up to now, I think many in our community think I have such extremely great faith I could in their imagination conjure lots of money magically with my prayers. But it would take me an enduringly long time to be able to sense the comfort of God’s embrace, almost an eternity for me to feel His love. When I sit down for quiet time, it was be a long struggle to get into it while my wife just seem to glide into it in a second.
The easiest and best way to learn to relate with people is to learn to enjoy them.
Imagine you are spending time with your son. You don’t analyze him or meditate on what a great son he is. You just simply enjoy him. And so it is with God also. We cannot analyze God else he becomes just an idea (uutakin). We need to learn to enjoy him.
Play can be a big waste of time. So it is with God, we must give up our time and learn to “waste our time” with God. This is the title of one of the books of Father Thomas Green, a Jesuit priest. My wife used to go to him for spiritual direction until he passed away a couple of years ago.
The God of Relationships:
God is a God of relationship. The greatest commandment is all about relationship. Because of that, all Christians must know how to relate to become spiritual. The greatest commandment is to love and to love means to be present. It means to be there with our whole, heart, soul, mind strength, and nothing less. The mind alone is not enough.
But our evangelical Christian heritage is cognitive or cerebral. We need to balance it with a lot of contemplative spirituality, of being present, of an experiential form of spirituality. John Calvin and people who followed him, influenced our spirituality during the reformation more in the area of reason. This was good because this was what the times needed. The Roman Catholic Church at that time had become too experiential without any objective anchor in the Word of God. Human experience had overtaken the Bible as authority. But like any White western movement, it is always dualistic – either or, always negating the opposite. Western spirituality up to now is unable to embrace the tension of contradiction – the neither nor. It works from the principle of mutually exclusive propositions – that the opposite of true is false. Thus, it will always move to the other extreme. It cannot embrace the two sides. When it fights against the Roman Catholic extreme of experiential spirituality, it discards everything there and goes to the opposite extreme of radical rationality, with no experiential dimensions. It could have accepted both, kept both and embraced both, but it can’t. Thomas Merton pointed that out. He had to leave America to be able to embrace the two contradicting sides. He defined spirituality as the complementarity of opposites.
Tools for prayer:
A Russian Orthodox monk walked a year around Siberia and recited nothing but the Jesus prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of David, have mercy on me, a sinner. He recited it thousands of times.
Some also used prayer beads. All the Christian orthodox, the Muslims, the Jews and even the Buddhists and Hindus use prayer beads. This is an ancient tool to focus the person. It can also be abused but in a normal situation, the beads can really help us to pray if we are so busy, restless and noisy.
I have used prayer beads. Each bead has one prayer like in the Rosary. I have arranged the beads as follows: 1. The Lord’s prayer, 2. The Magnficat, 3. Psalm 23, 4. The Beatitude, 5. The Benediction of Moses, and 6. Luke 4.8. The rest are intercessory prayers for 1. My family, 2. My community, 3. My leaders, 4. The sick and needy, and 5. My needs, my work and my ministry. The first group alternate with the second group.
I wash the dishes as part of my discipline to be present. Sometimes, there are so many dishes to wash and that is enough time for my mind and my heart to clear so I can now direct myself to God, sense His eyes upon me.
The best way to become present is gratefulness. The Ignatian spirituality is based mainly on this. When I was doing one time a 7 day silent retreat with a spiritual director, on my first day, he told me to make a list of ten things I want to thank God for. Before I could reach the middle of the list, I was already so taken up by the presence of God.
Gustavo Gutierrez, the founder of liberation theology said, the grateful man is the man who can change the world.
Learning to listen to the Holy Spirit:
The goal of discernment is to be silent to the point that we can hear the still small voice of the Holy Spirit inside of us, praying and interceding and we can give voice, our own voice to it and make it our own prayer, make the prayer of the Holy Spirit our own prayer. The Holy Spirit is always praying inside of us, interceding on our behalf to God. The problem is there are too many voices inside of us speaking. The outer silence can be managed by many people. It is the inner silence that is difficult. Once we are able to overcome the noise inside, we can begin to set out on a journey to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit inside. The journey of solitude is always through who we are, through our real selves. Solitude passes through our true selves before we meet the True God.
Romans 8 –
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because[g] the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
Prayer is a gift:
All the prayers that come out of our mouths are from God, from the Holy Spirit who prays within us. We should therefore always pay careful attention to what we say in prayer or what comes out of our mouths.
How to be silent:
We need to rest the mind, the heart, the soul and everything in us. During the silent retreat, you cannot spend time reading, even reading the Bible, or listening to music, even worship songs.
You cannot spend time writing nor do other things, although you can write notes about your experience in the silent retreat in order to be able to go deeper in your solitude. If you need to take down notes, here is a good guide:
Bring with you a pen and paper wherever you go. If there is something you need to write, just write a key word or symbol, which later on you can decipher or interpret. You don’t need to write the entire thing. There is a big temptation to convert the whole silent retreat into a writer’s workshop. Sometimes, in our sharing, someone pulls out several pages of notes she had written while in the silent retreat which shows she was not doing silent retreat but busy writing. This should not be the case. Just write simple and short cues or reminders, enough so when you want to sit down and write, you will remember what you needed. Without guidelines, the note taking can take over the retreat completely so that the whole exercise becomes an exclusively cerebral undertaking.
You must be completely silent, which includes not writing. All cell phones must be surrendered to the retreat master at the start of the retreat. This includes surrendering also laptops, magazines, Daily Bread, the Bible, newspapers, etc.
The bible in the retreat:
You have all the time to read the bible at home or in the library. This silent retreat is an expensive exercise and you must use this for the purpose of entering solitude so you can read your bible better. You are not allowed to read the Bible during the silent retreat. This is because our Christianity has been brainwashed to make the Bible into words again, after it has been turned into flesh. We read the bible to analyze, dissect, dichotomize, atomize and speculate. We have forgotten how to read the Bible in order to enter into His presence, to encounter the Bible as the Living Word, as a Person.
There is enough Bible in the retreat:
During the divine office or prayer time, which is done 3 times a day during the retreat, you will listen to the Word read aloud so many times. That is more than enough Bible for you to last you a lifetime. Also, too much Bible without application can become a curse – knowledge puffs up but love builds up. Too much knowledge of the Bible can make us blind – hearers only and not doers.
We do a lot of study of the Word at home or in the library. We are trained as evangelicals to meditate (not contemplate) on the Word. Meditate comes from the idea of a cow digesting grass. The cow bites the grass and swallows it. It enters into 4 stomachs inside the cow. The cow, when it is too hot to graze, will find a shady area or a place that is safe (from lions or predators) and begins to regurgitate the grass. He actually vomits it out from one stomach and the next, unto his mouth where the cow chews them again. This act of chewing is the meaning of meditation, i.e. to chew on the Word of God in order to digest it and make it part of our body; apply the Word so that it becomes a part of us, incorporated into our character.
This is very important. We do this every day but it can also fall into abuse. Too much meditation can turn the Bible into mere ideas. The Catholics criticize Evangelicals because after the Word is turned into flesh, the Evangelicals have turned it into words again. This is no shallow criticism. The great spiritual guide Richard Foster actually calls the Evangelicals, theological to imply that in the great spiritual traditions, they are the most cerebral.
We do meditation and we do it where it is not expensive, like at home or in the library but in the silent retreat which is expensive, at least for our group, we want to focus on contemplation.
The angelus bells:
The Roman Catholics ring the bells twice a day during the Angelus. These bells call us to be present to God, at least twice a day. When we were in the province and we heard the bells, we would pause, if we were walking on the street, we would stop and make the sign of the cross and our hearts would look up to God – in a way, our eyes would look expecting to see Jesus. The bells make us present.
Nowadays, Evangelicals can let the whole year, 365 days, without being aware of the presence of God.
The bells were a tradition going back to the times of the Medici, when Rome ruled the world. Their days were divided into three and marked by these bells. The church adapted these into their spirituality to also mark off the times of the day, thus, we have the angelus.
The Muslims do it five times a day! The Muezzin would cry aloud from a tower to all the faithful, saying Allah is God, there is only One God. The faithful would spread their praying rags and kneel towards Meccah, in a way, entering five times into God’s presence.
No intercessory prayers:
Silent retreat is not a time to do intercession. You cannot spend the time in intercessory prayer, even though you think this is doing something holy and righteous for God and for the community. If this were a Russian Orthodox tradition, yes, intercession would form an integral part of the poustinia, their version of silent retreat, but alas, we do not have such luxury in our modern days.
Russian Orthodox have incorporated so much of silence and listening into their spirituality to justify this inclusion of intercession but not among evangelicals who lack listening and the theology of the body in their prayers. Evangelicals have gone too far overboard into the other direction, of abuse, that to include intercessory prayers in silent retreats would turn the whole exercise into work, not rest, busyness instead of being present.
Russian tradition involves as with other orthodoxies, pilgrimage and solitude which we don’t have. A Russian poustinik can walk for thousands of miles uttering the Jesus Prayer (Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of David, have mercy on me, a sinner) over and over again. Their poustinia is actually part of the community spiritualty. No one goes to a poustinia without the blessing and approval of the local Bishop. This is important. It is the official sanction for silent retreat. No one just decides to go into the poustinia. It is a community decision.
The community is excited with the poustinik who in a rare moment like an angel appearing walks into town and finds the most secluded and run down hut, to make it his dwelling – simple, austere and quiet.
So, the whole community takes turn to bring food to the poustinik whom they know is there on their behalf, to pray and intercede for them. He is also their prophet and spiritual director. All who come are welcome, even those who come looking for extra hand to help gather the hay before the rain falls. The poustinik is the servant of the community.
If, at certain rare occasions, the poustinik is actually undergoing a psychological problem, depression, perhaps, the community will complain about it to the Bishop and the supposed poustinik is soon made to leave. It is assumed that no one goes to poustinia and gets depressed. The effect of being with Jesus is always joy and peace and this is what the community expects to see in the poustinik when they visit.
We have no such community, sadly. We may have community within which is our group that goes to the silent retreat but we are not connected with the local bishop and less with the local town people. The world has changed so much.
Solitude then was for the world, not for individual growth or enhancement. The world’s desire for self-actualization is fast eroding the significance of solitude. It has become more and more self-centered, even when done by community (but not for community).
There is a time for intercession. We do this in church.
The prayer of listening:
It is important to understand that there are three kinds of prayers – listening, asking and obeying. Evangelicals only know the last two – asking and obeying. They hardly practice the first – listening.
The story of Martha and Mary is the yin and yang of prayer. Father Thomas Green in his book, the Market Place Spirituality, says, we cannot say, Martha was bad and Mary was good. Both are good, both are needed. The two complement each other.
Mary knew how to just sit and listen. This is very difficult but necessary if we were to ask wisely and obey correctly. The more we listen, the better our asking and obeying gets. It is an ever deepening cycle of surrender. Without listening, our prayers become simply our insistence and demands imposed on God.
We know how to ask food and ask for everything from God. We also know how to offer prayers of service, as when we labor for the salvation of someone or when we ask for strength to do battle with the enemy. But the third kind of prayer, the prayer of listening, we hardly do at all.
The Roman Catholics (and the other orthodox Christians) know about the 3rd prayer, the prayer of listening. When they say, “let us pray,” it is often in that sense, of sitting down at the feet of Jesus, to just be quiet and listen.
The editor of Christianity Today and author of many books about prayer, Philip Yancey, wrote in his book, What’s so Amazing about Grace, of a time he visited the Gulag, a dreaded and notorious Russian prison where many well-known political prisoners were banished during the time of Stalin (such as the famous Solzhenitsyn).
After ascending the stairs from the dungeons, halfway, he felt struck by the desperate condition of the prisoners and asked the Russian Orthodox priest who had accompanied him, if he could pray for the prisoners. The priest run back to his room and was gone for almost an hour. When he appeared, he signaled to Yancey that he was ready. Yancey realized to his embarrassment that what he referred to as the casual evangelical spontaneous prayer, meant for the Russian Orthodox Priest, a whole Mass. When he entered, he saw the room made ready – candles lighted, the altar covered with long linen, a short and long cloth on hand for the communion, the chalice standing in the middle ready – it was what took the priest almost an hour to prepare.
For these orthodox people, when they say let us pray, it is not just talking or babbling whatever comes to the mind. It is a very solemn act of entering into the presence of God. C. S. Lewis insists that there should be times for evangelicals to use ready made prayers, set prayers, the Prayer Book. There is still a place for these old prayers in our modern spirituality, versus the spontaneous and casual prayers we make all the time, we need to pray out these prayers written for us by spiritual giants of ancient days.
For these Orthodox people, we cannot really listen except in sacred places. The room has to be made ready. The room should not be cluttered and messy but clean and orderly. More than that, it is decorated with symbols and icons that encourage the heart to be solemn.
The 3rd prayer of listening has a multiplier effect. It will enhance our two other prayers.
As we listen, we can ask more and for better things and can serve more and do better things. It’s a cycle of asking, then serving, then listening and repeating the cycle, so we ask deeper, serve deeper and listen deeper.
Look at our worship. While the Roman Catholic worship is centered on an experience, entering into the presence of God, symbolized by the dramatic lifting of the chalice during the Eucharist, ours is focused on the sermon, a very cerebral tool, as the center of our worship.
We go to Sunday service to learn, using our heads and if we don’t learn anything new, we are disappointed. The orthodox churches go to mass to experience God, using their hearts, through all the rich liturgy and symbols or icons. There, even if you repeat your sermon you will not get fired.
We have to learn to get out of this trap. Read Gordon Smith’s, The Voice of Jesus, for this topic. Smith tells us how to blend reason with emotion so we are not so extremely rational. We have thrown away emotion in the process of becoming scientific or rationale. We suspected emotions as unreliable and deceitful. But when we threw away emotions, we also were left with a spirituality that was wooden and dutiful, lifeless and cerebral.
Smith tells us that St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuit Society, gave us a way through this dilemma in a book he wrote more than 500 years ago, the Spiritual Exercises. Ignatius assumed that God speaks through our emotions. It is through our emotions that we experience God. But, he said, in agreement with all Evangelicals, that the emotion was unreliable and deceitful. But his solution was not to throw away emotions. God made us with emotions. He wants us to love Him with all our emotions. We cannot by the way love without our emotions. Ignatius formulated a way to safely navigate through the difficult hazards of the heart. He taught us how to use our minds like the skillful hands of the surgeon, to wield the Word of God, like the surgeon’s knife or scalpel, and taught us how with reason and the Word of God, we can slice through the dark labyrinth of the emotions and discern through its confusing passageways, God’s will and guidance.
Now we come to the most important part, the waiting:
To wait is what silent retreat is mostly about. There are other things, like bonding with fellow retreatants in silence as well as spiritual direction and many others but waiting is 90%.
Most of silence is waiting. The bible does not talk much about solitude but it does talk much about waiting, waiting on the Lord.
14 Wait patiently for the Lord. Be brave and courageous. Yes, wait patiently for the Lord.
On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night.
LORD, at sunrise you will hear my voice.
I will watch and pray early in the morning.
If nothing happens during the silent retreat, don’t force it. Let God be God. If he wanted something to happen, he will. It is not for us to dictate what he will do. Now, I say this for the sake of theological accuracy but really, honestly, I have not been to a silent retreat where this happened, that nothing happened, that we were disappointed because God did not touch us, inspire us, speak to us or moved us.
God always does. But we are ready if he does not otherwise, it becomes another addiction, going to silent retreat for a spiritual high.
Again, to wait is to waste our time. We must be willing to waste our time and let God be God. If nothing happens, so be it. Let it be. Just wait and be satisfied. Trust him when he said, Seek Me and you shall find me, when you seek me with all of your heart.
Don’t concentrate God into appearing. The more you do that, the more you will not see Him. Do not grit your teeth and wished so hard he would appear. It does not work that way. We need to rest, to relax and to let go. He is God, you are not. Let Him be.
This is also why solitude is different from yoga. Yoga promises a lot, a lot of health and a lot of wholeness and harmony. But in contemplation, you could just end up wasting your time really.
Yoga promises that we will get well but in silent retreat, we have no such promise. We could get well or maybe not. If you do get well it is incidental for God is good.
But your primary purpose is to seek His presence, to enjoy Him, whether He heals you or not. The fruit of contemplation is that as we wait in the presence of God, God will come to us in His gentle and loving presence and fill us with Himself.
Spirituality is about intimacy:
Most Christians have a spirituality that enhances control more than surrender.
As Dr. Larry Crabb would put it, we cannot make it our goal to be holy for that goal would quickly turn into idolatry. The only legitimate goal allowed for us is the goal to know Jesus, to know him intimately. This is a goal that cannot be manipulated or controlled.
Holiness is an offshoot of our being in His presence as we come to Him. He is the one who will make us Holy because we desire Him. Look at Luke 11, it is very instructive for us –
9“And so I tell you, keep on asking, and you will be given what you ask for. Keep on looking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened. 10For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And the door is opened to everyone who knocks.
11“You fathers—if your children ask for a fish, do you give them a snake instead? 12Or if they ask for an egg, do you give them a scorpion? Of course not!
13If you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children,
how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.”
Examine the passage and find out what is the greatest thing that God wants to give to us. It is Himself! The greatest gift God wants to give to us is Himself.
Our control centered theology looks at these verses differently. We interpret the Holy Spirit as an objective power and not God himself. It is power we can take from God and as soon as we have that power, we can leave God alone. We don’t want intimacy with God. We want the healing but not the Healer, we want the gift but not the Giver,
we want to take from God and walk away.
True Spirituality is the opposite:
We want to leave our gifts behind and sit at the feet of Jesus and gaze into his face.
We want intimacy with Jesus. We want him more than what he can give us. This modern world tells us religion will bring us success and Jesus becomes only incidental.
It is from this intimacy that holiness and ministry follows. A ministry flowing from intimacy means that our work among the poor will be an acted out prayer,
a prayer in action, borne by the Holy Spirit, not by the flesh. For what we do to the least of the brethren, we do to Jesus. Our work among the poor is our direct ministry to Jesus according to Mother Teresa.
We will learn to move from our center which is Jesus. We will move less and less from our hurts, our traumas, and more from Jesus who reigns in us. We will also learn to see Jesus among the poor and the needy. As we draw into His presence more and more, we will learn to see Him in the least of the brothers.
Contemplative spirituality is about discerning the presence of God, so that we can connect directly with Jesus in the day to day events of life. Christianity today has lost most of this. Our faith today is largely a cognitive faith. Some say it is mainly abstract. I may be the influence still of Greek thought into Christianity but now with a wider and more significant impact – uutakin. Spirituality is always about seeing, hearing and feeling Jesus as a person. The reason it is called a journey is because our faith is a constant recurrence of this meeting, this encounter. The reason perhaps by evangelicalism is not a journey, giving an impression that we have already arrived is because of this idea of being born again – which we say is a once for all experience, meaning it can never be repeated, because once saved, always save.
Historically, the monks from St. Anthony to the Greek monastic, sought this experience constantly – to be renewed and to be indwelt. There is a doctrinal aspect, which is true and correct but it often displaces this desiring of Jesus as though our first experience (born again) was enough and should not be repeated. But spirituality is always about experiencing Jesus. The journey thus is about Jesus appearing and suddenly disappearing. Solitude is about attending to the presence of Jesus.
Mother Teresa showed us this. She said her organization, the Sisters of Charity, was not a social welfare organization but a direct spiritual ministry to Jesus. The theology of Mother Teresa was that among the sick, the dying, the lepers, she would see Jesus.
Our giving is also to Jesus himself. When the bible says to give is more blessed than to receive, it means it is not enough to just give to the poor and needy. Our giving must be a direct ministry to Jesus, where we are able to see the hand that receives our gift is the hand of Jesus and not the poor or hungry or sick. We must connect with Jesus in our giving for it to be a blessing.
Part III Sources and Origin of the practice
Tradition of contemplative spirituality:
Contemplative spirituality dates back to the Desert Fathers and it was a reaction to the growing carnality of the church in Constantinople.
From the cross to the desert:
When Christianity became a state religion, it no longer became a persecuted faith but a privileged faith which drove many sycophants to join the church. These people did not want Jesus but they joined the church to gain power and wealth.
Before this period or before Christianity became a state religion, Christians would all compete on who would be the first to die on the cross. For them, becoming a Christian meant dying the same way Jesus died, being crucified. It was the highest privilege. They took the words of Jesus literally – take up your cross and follow me.
Now that dying on the cross was no longer possible, death or dying in the desert became the norm as hundreds became hermits on secluded mountain caves. Many of course died, from the extreme temperatures and from starvation. At the beginning, the movement was hermetic, people living alone in caves. Soon, the movement transformed into a monastic one, of people living in communes or monasteries. They were reclusive communities, devoted to nothing else but prayer.
Greatest monastic influence:
St. Benedict, the father of western monasticism lived and worked around 500 AD. or 500 years after Christ died. He is the most influential monastic leader of that period. St. Basil, the father of eastern monasticism existed around 370 AD. In 563 AD Christianity entered the Celtic people (those living in Ireland – to this date, Celtic spirituality is unique. Their roots cannot be traced to the traditional western or eastern churches).
Eremitism or solitude:
These basically begun with St. Anthony and St. Athanasius in 350 AD. Communal monasticism started with St. Benedict in 500 AD. Benedict introduced the rule of permanence. It was the greatest contribution of St. Benedict to the monastic movement.
The monastic movement suffered a big crisis when many during the first wave of monasticism transferred from one monastery to the other when dissatisfied over such petty things as the beddings or the food or a fellow monk or the Abbot. It became so rampant that monasteries were simply recycling monks from other monasteries and discipline was difficult to implement, just like today.
St. Benedict instituted the rule of permanence so that if one joined a monastery it would be his first and last and only one community, he would get old there and die there and be buried there.
Contemplative tradition is universal:
All forms of religions have a form of contemplative spirituality very similar to Christianity or very similar to each other. There is the Muslim monk, called the Sufi, the Hindu monk, Buddhist, and Jewish monks. The universality of it tells us that there is a sphere beyond merely the rational sphere and these religions or ancient faiths recognize this sphere.
Christians today have this arrogance that we know God or we can know God using our minds. We believe wrongly that what we all know about God put together constitutes a big part of who God is. But we really don’t know God and even all that we know of God put together do not constitute even 0.001% of who God really is. Most of God is unknowable. He is so big and complex for the human mind to understand. For this reason, liturgy and symbols are needed to help us express our worship of this indescribable God. Symbols are rich in meaning, more than human words can convey. In this sense, the mystical plays a big role in our spirituality.
Many prayers are beyond words, and goes beyond human expression. We have to come to God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and yet that too is not enough.
He is far bigger still than our minds, our hands can grasp.
The books, Cloud of Unknowing and Practice of the Presence (you can download on the internet for free) also tell us much about the practice of solitude. These are well-known and respected books on the subject.
As mentioned earlier, we also have the Spiritual Exercises by St. Ignatius and the books by John of the Cross, both written more than 500 years ago. They are foundational writings on the subject. Ignatius and John are complementary writers. Actually they have opposite styles. Ignatius writes with a German precision and is very methodical in dealing with such an ephemeral subject as the soul, something so difficult to be precise about. John on the other hand has a romanticized approach to the soul. But both talk about the same thing – how to journey inwardly.
Just like John Stott helped us to recover the other side of our evangelical faith – viz. social action, perhaps, now we can also recover the other side of our spirituality, the contemplative life. When Evangelicalism abandoned emotions altogether to prefer reason as the exclusive guide to the soul, we suffered a deadly blow that we have not fully recovered from up to now. Evangelicals basically have a cerebral spirituality which needs the balance of contemplative discipline. We must learn to enjoy with our hearts God and people. We cannot always analyze and dissect. There are moments we need to just simply experience the truth, in an integral manner, holistically.
When you are with your girlfriend in a romantic place, you will not meditate on her hair or perfume, nor analyze her dress or what she says, you will simply jump into the experience of being with the most wonderful and exciting person in your life.
Catch the fish in the Bible:
CS Lewis wrote – The only net with a mesh fine enough to catch the fish in the Bible is love. Our hermeneutics today are more about logic and syllogism than love. And it cannot catch that elusive Fish of the Bible.
Not reason alone:
Calvin propounded correctly the use of reason in understanding Scripture, but not reason alone, but a reason in search of God. But how do we use reason without abandoning our emotions? The Ignatian approach provides the best remedy. Ignatius believed that our heart, our emotions, form the work table of God. It is where God would connect with us, and naturally so for intimacy is felt not argued or talked about.
God’s love comes to us through our emotions.
When the senses are useless:
While Ignatius is a good guide for those who are methodical, John of the Cross guides us when the senses, the affect and all our perceptions have become useless. These are discussed in his masterful work, The Dark Night of the Soul. This is a good book to read, though not an easy one, on when our spirituality is at a point when we can feel nothing and when all our striving for holiness avails nothing.
Father Thomas Green, Jesuit priest, who died a few years ago, is the expert on these two. His books, when read in sequence, from simplest to hardest, is able to guide us through these two giants. It is a good preparation for spiritual directors. When the Wells Run Dry and Wheat among Weeds, are two of his books dedicated to the discipline of discernment.
Theology of John of the Cross
John’s thesis grew out of the themes from the Songs of Solomon, the love of the bride and the bridegroom. For that reason, he had a totally unique approach to spirituality, which is robust and passionate.
The Meaning of Spiritual Love When you regarded me Monday, November 24, 2014
Your eyes imprinted your grace in me,
In this, you loved me again,
And thus my eyes merited
To also love what you see in me….
Let us go forth together to see ourselves in Your beauty.
— St. John of the Cross, Spiritual Canticle, pp. 32, 33
When we read poetry as beautiful and profound as this verse, we can see why John of the Cross was far ahead of his time in the spiritual and psychological understanding of how love works and how true love changes us at a deep level. He consistently speaks of divine love as the template and model for all human love, and human love as the necessary school and preparation for any transcendent encounter. If you have never experienced human love, it will be very hard for you to access God as Love. If you have never let God love you, you will not know how to love humanly in the deepest way. Of course, grace can overcome both of these limitations.
In this inspired passage, John describes the very process of love at its best:
You give a piece of yourself to the other.
You see a piece of yourself in the other (usually unconsciously).
This allows the other to do the same in return.
You do not need or demand anything back from them, because you know you are both participating in a single Bigger Gazing and Loving—one that fully satisfies and creates an immense Inner Aliveness.
(Simply to love is its own reward.)
You accept being accepted—for no reason and by no criteria whatsoever!
This is the key that unlocks everything in me, for others, and toward God. So much so that we call it “salvation”!
Adapted from The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See,
Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, pp. 140-141
Solitude precisely brings us back to that mystical sphere, what the bible calls the desert.
The desert is a major theological construct in the bible and we need to study that. There are many types and symbolisms for desert. There is the desert of Moses and of Jesus and in between, of Elijah. David had a big desert of his own too.
Jesus himself entered into the furnace of solitude (into the desert after he was baptized) There he was tempted with three compulsions of the world:
1) To be relevant (“turn stones into loaves”)
2) To be spectacular (“throw yourself down”)
3) To be powerful (“I will give you all these kingdoms”)
Leo Armas, notes
There is an interesting text in Hoseah 2 –
14“But then I will win her back once again. I will lead her out into the desert and speak tenderly to her there.
15I will return her vineyards to her and transform the Valley of Trouble£ into a gateway of hope. She will give herself to me there, as she did long ago when she was young, when I freed her from her captivity in Egypt.
After God punishes His people for their sins, he rescues them and brings them back. The question is, Why bring them to the desert? You must read the preceding to get a better appreciation of the passage. The question for us is this, “Why would God bring His people to the desert after having punished and redeemed them?”
Theology of the desert:
We need to have a theology of the desert. The desert is a harsh place, there is no one there. There is nothing to do there. There is no cell phone signal, nowhere to plant flowers or rice.
In solitude I get rid of my scaffolding: no friends to talk to, no telephones calls to make, no meetings to attend, no music to entertain, no books to distract, just ME, – naked, vulnerable, weak, sinful, deprived, broken – nothing. It is in nothingness that I have to face my solitude. Henri Nouwen
What can we learn from them? From the Desert of Moses, we see this – all the laws were given in the desert. Why? And what can we learn from David’s desert. Look at the Psalms, most were written by David while taking refuge in the desert, and these psalms are full of anguish and doubts. The desert of Jesus, was where the temptation took place, why the desert? No one is there but God. When we are in the desert, we have nothing, we can cling on to nothing. There is nothing there. We are alone there. Alone, but not really alone.
John 16 says –
31Jesus asked, “Do you finally believe? 32But the time is coming—in fact, it is already here—when you will be scattered, each one going his own way, leaving me alone.
Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me.
We want the desert. John 16 is very interesting, because it highlights the fact that our aloneness is never absolute. God is with us. But solitude emphasizes our need to be alone, deliberately alone with God, by being in the desert, with no one else, no laptop, no cell phone, nothing to do, but be with God.
Writings about desert in the heart:
It is not physical solitude that actually separates us from each other, or one from another; it is not physical isolation, but spiritual isolation. It is not the desert island nor the stony wilderness that cuts you from the people you love. It is the wilderness in the mind, the desert wastes in the heart through which one wanders lost and a stranger. When one is a stranger to oneself then one is estranged from others too. If one is out of touch with oneself, then one cannot touch others. How often in a large city, shaking hands with my friends, I have felt the wilderness stretching between us. By Anne Morrow Lindbergh
Both of us were wandering in arid wastes, having lost the springs that nourished us – or having found them dry. Only when one is connected to one’s own core is one connected to others, I am beginning to discover. And, for me, the core, the inner spring, can best be refound through solitude. By Father Carlo Carretto
Slums as the desert:
I have written extensively in another article about the conceptual transitions from garden to desert to slums. It is in my blog: www.raineerchu.com.
What is important is that solitude guides us through the slums in seeing Jesus. The ministry in the slums must be focused on that, being able according to Mother Teresa, to see Jesus in the poor, the dying and the sick.
This transition from garden to desert to slums is very complicated. We all in the modern world experience our solitude first and primarily in a nice, comfortable or luxurious garden.
Many do not have the luxury of going to a real desert. Many more actually do not know what a desert looks like or have never been to a desert. The writings of Father Carlo Carretto are important in this transition. It was in Carretto’s book that I first encountered the idea, he suggested, that we try to see the slums as a desert.
And Carretto also journeyed through these stages. First, he was after a heavy ministry among the youth in Italy, allowed to go to the Algerian desert for solitude. From there he wrote his book, Letters from the Desert which gives us insight about solitude in the desert. It is of course very much different from experiencing solitude in a nice cool luxurious garden. The desert is harsh and hostile. You can die of thirst there. In the morning it is very hot and in the evening, freezing cold. There are also no comfortable places to sit and relax. There are only rocks and sand and heat. There are also many poisonous creatures, scorpions, snakes. But it was in the desert that the church first encountered solitude. Besides the desert in the bible, after Jesus’ death, hermits and monks began to proliferate in the deserts.
What is important is that we are able to make a connection and transfer the concept from each of those stages, garden, desert and slums, in order for us to be able to journey with the poor.
In MMP, this is very important because we work in the slums. The slums is our desert, harsh and hostile, forbidding and repelling. The MMP workers need to learn to enter solitude while in the slums.
Actually, it is more precise to say, we need to learn to take hold and maintain our solitude (developed from the garden) when we enter the slums. It is like a bright burning candle that we acquired from the silent retreats in Tagaytay. We carry it with us so when we enter the slums, it continues to shine for us. It is difficult to carry a burning candle because the wind can snuff out the flame. When we travel on the bus, the candle can easily be put out.
Solitude is the same way. While en route to our house from the retreat, the solitude we got there could suddenly disappear.
When I am so rowdy and loud at home, my eldest son would call their mom and say, “Mom, papa needs solitude!”
Sister Catherine Doherty wrote a classic on solitude called, Poustinia. Poustinia is the title of the book. Poustinia is Russian for desert. There she brings back to the world the beautiful spiritual discipline of solitude of Russia and it is so very much like the Philippines.
One of the things she notes is that in solitude, we are actually interiorizing the presence of God which Brother Lawrence talked so much about in his book, the Practice of the Presence of God.
When we are in the slum, we need to be able to remain in God’s presence. In other words, even in the slums, we need to practice the presence of God. This is difficult because like in the desert, the slums are so uncomfortable, to say the least. It is so hard to remain quiet because everything is so crowded and congested. It is so noisy that one easily loses ones equilibrium, easily loses touch with God.
So how can we see Christ among the poor, the sick and the dying if we are so easily and frequently distracted? There are so many sick people, so many little children running around, shouting and playing. There are so many needs, so many hurts and pains. How do we remain calm and composed? How do we remain in the peace of God?
This is the reason we need to cultivate solitude so that it can remain with us even after we have left the garden. We practice it constantly and after many years it begins to take root in us and become like a second nature to us so that the noise and distraction of the slums cannot dislodge it.
Moreover, we develop a solitude that is attuned to the desert which can make a parallel connection between desert and slums so that the harshness and forbidding nature of the desert will be transposed into the slums. The result is we are able to see the desert inside the slum.
Actually, it is not just the slums that is a challenge to us. The whole world, what Father Green calls the marketplace, challenges our solitude. It is not just to the slums that we make a parallel, but also to the world as we enter into the world. The business world is often harsher than the slums, more cutthroat, more hostile, and more merciless.
Dualism in Christianity.
The worse development in modern Christianity is this separation of the religious and the secular. It is almost impossible for Christians to integrate their faith and their secular work, Christianity and the marketplace. Father Thomas Green discusses this as an important goal in solitude.
The wrongful evolution of Christianity towards a compartmentalization of the spiritual and material is caused by many factors, one significant factor is the intrusion of scientism into Christianity. This is a white western bias that could be traced to Greek influence into the church at the second century and carried over to Europe and later to America.
This was a troubling matter in the early church, concerned with Gnosticism. It has reared its ugly head now in the form of the separation of the faith and the market place. This has been instituted in the America constitution, advertently or inadvertently, implying that the church is to be confined merely to spiritual matters and is not welcomed in the marketplace – business, law, politics, science and increasingly expanding to even such matters are schools, marriage, parenting and sex.
We need to reverse this harmful trend. We see this every day and in all our affairs. Medicine has been truncated in a hideous way also – surgery is separated from trauma specialists, neuro from cardio, ophtha from ENT. The whole world is divided and fragmented. The goal of solitude is to try to reconnect all these divided parts. The goal of spirituality is to integrate the mind with the heart, the heart with the body (main cause of PSTD). Ultimately, we must face the challenge of bringing together the marketplace with spirituality – which is perhaps the most difficult challenge of the church today.
Seminaries daily contribute to this divide and produce graduates who promote the dis-integration of the faith from the material world. A survey was made of many Christian seminaries in Manila, to find out how integrated seminary students and faculties were. The survey showed majority were plainly dualistic in favour of a spirituality that is “heavenly” and not earthly, citizens of heaven more than citizens of earth, even though it is totally wrong to say we will go to heaven when we die (the bible says heaven will come down, to reign on earth, in our midst).
How do we integrate the marketplace with our faith? Simple. We must conquer our daily moments, our day to day consciousness, to make it attend to the presence of God. Brother Lawrence’s book, the Practice of the Presence of God is such an attempt, in fact a critique. According to Lawrence, he disagrees with the secular divide. There is supposed to be no distinction between chapel time and menial work, between prayer and business. There is no distinction. Each moment, while washing the dishes or doing business at the marketplace, is a sacred moment of attending to the presence of God and it is as sacred at time in the chapel. Lawrence repeated many times in his book, that he did not have to wait for chapel hour or worship to be in the presence of God. God was present in every moment of his day. This is the answer to the secular-spiritual divide.
In my article, how to journey with the poor, I noted there that while Carretto talked about the transition, he only made a mechanical transition from desert to slums. After his stint in the Algerian desert, he was assigned in Hong Kong, a sort of concrete jungle, a harsh slum within a very affluent city. His way of transposing was to bring the desert into the slums – by taking a walk at 2 pm, in the evening, in the streets of Hong Kong, after the busy traffic and mad jostling have died down (though some parts never really sleep).
I say it is just a mechanical transition because he did not really make a dynamic change of desert into slums. He just opted to go out in the quiet hours of midnight when people were asleep.
The person who really made the dynamic transition (or wrote about it, he never really did it as far as I know) is Father Thomas Green. He wrote about this time, bringing the city into the desert, which is opposite to that of Carretto. Green explained about the process of the city or the slums penetrating into our desert to show the real posture of the believers. While we enjoy Christ’s presence in us inevitably, the cares of the world soon enters our lives and disrupts our peace and distracts us so we lose our solitude or we lose touch with the presence of God. This is what Jesus meant – we are in the world but we are not of the world. Green instructs how to maintain our balance in this flux or influx.
As we enter into the slums, we must take hold of our peace and try to sense always when we have it and when we have lost it (when we have lost it, my son will shout to my wife that we need solitude…ha ha ha).
The more we practice, the better we will get in maintaining our solitude. The picture is that of Christ on the boat at sea sleeping during a storm. We are the boat and the slum is the sea with a storm. The peace of Jesus is what holds us. And it is from the peace of Jesus that we respond to the poor and react to the situation in the slum or the marketplace (the business world).
We must maintain this attitude through the noise, stench, chaos and destitution existing around us when we are in the slums (or in the business world). Jesus was tempted in the desert. When we are in the slums, we will be tempted also to turn stones into bread because there are so many people who have not eaten. We will also be tempted to take power because we have seen how vile and oppressive poverty is and how long before help comes, how long before justice is done. We become impatient and it is tempting to take a short cut and kill the oppressors and blow up the railroad tracks that is pushing away the squatters from their land. We will also be tempted to fame like Jesus was. Jesus was offered a short cut, finish his work early, and get success quickly. All he needed to do was worship Satan. The short-cut will become more and more enticing as the days pass, without solitude. We will also be tempted to offer the poor things God never promised. We will in a way jump from the 20th floor just to force God’s hand, make Him act (for sometimes, we think God is so slow).
We may promise to the poor that their suffering will be over soon, will over in a few months but we know it will not and yet we defy this and go against what God says and insist on going ahead of God. We may even promise to the poor prosperity and maybe take on a form of prosperity which God never gave.
When we get good things or expensive things, we need to ask if it is from Satan or from God. I had a friend, a godly missionary, come to my office one day and jumping with excitement said, God had given her a house and lot and in my mind, I wondered if it was really from God or from Satan. Years later, we found out. It was not from God. So also with the poor, we may claim and take hold of a prosperity which may not be from God. We have seen this many times, and how in the end, the people lose their faith in Jesus and embrace materialism. This is how we put God to the test by going ahead of him and presuming on his response or answer.
The most profound statement about this came to me from the writings of George Macdonald, through whose writings, CS Lewis eventually became a Christian. Macdonald wrote in one of his finest books, The Highlander’s Last Song, about the plight of the poor Scottish people and the inroad of the new business, scot whiskey, into their land. The head of the village in that story lamented this way: it all began when we started to despise our poverty.
This has led me to look deeper into poverty after that.
Just to put us in perspective. We may need to look into the various spiritual traditions to see where contemplative spirituality fits into Christianity. Richard Foster wrote about the many traditions – charismatic, Methodist, evangelical, etc. and contemplative is one of them. Dr. David Benner has a simpler model. He outlines 4 directions of growth of spirituality:
- the intellectual, or what Richard Foster calls the Evangelical, noting that most evangelicals are very cerebral;
- the charismatic, focused on the supernatural and miraculous
- the activist, and
- the mystical or contemplative.
Benner claims that Jesus showed all four aspects in his life here on earth. So, a balanced spirituality should be in all four directions. The Jesuits boasts of a spirituality which is contemplation in action, which is actually quite attractive. This is what MMP tries to follow. It is actually about acted out prayers, when our prayers impact the exterior and physical world. It combines the contemplative with the activist.
In the past, monks or monastics, had this bad reputation: they had no practical use in society. They were irrelevant. But for us, in MMP, to be monastic or contemplative is simply a way to balance our social activism, our deep involvement with the poorest of the poor. We want our relevance to become sustainable.
What is important is the question: What will last forever? Evangelicals know only two things that will last, the souls of men and the Word of God. It is true that only the souls of men and the Word of God last, and yet, we may see in heaven in the end, that all that is done in prayer, in the Spirit is eternal, they also last forever. When we build a cooperative or a pre-school, done prayerfully, we will see them in heaven, maybe not in that form but we will certainly recognize them for they were formed in prayer.
I have had the honor of helping one of our NGOs win an election and become a party list, with one congressman in the Legislature. I know that we did it in much prayer and discernment. And for that reason, I know that our labors in that party list will last. It is for this reason that contemplative in action can be a very significant form of spirituality, one that has impact even in heaven.
We need to grow in all aspects. A theologian needs to be an activist to become relevant. An activist needs to be a theologian to have a biblical foundation. A monk cannot stay in his monastery forever; he has to have impact in this world by being an activist. This was the biggest criticism against contemplatives – they were useless in the world.
A charismatic needs to enter the world of the unknown by being a mystic because God is a Mystery. When the miracles stop, the charismatic can get lost. John of the Cross wrote about it, when the senses no longer help us, when we cannot see God in what is called the Dark Nights of the Soul, then we will want to learn to become mystics.
Actually the word mystic or mystical is the old word for what we call as spiritual now. 500 years ago, no commoner or ordinary person could casually say, God spoke to him or he felt God in his life, especially during the great Inquisition where cruel persecutions took place and many were wantonly killed for being so-called heretics. It can easily happen that spoken carelessly the person can get burned on the stake. It was not a common thing to have a spiritual experience and in an era which was steeped still in a lot of superstition, spiritual things were viewed as mystical, or outside the ordinary physical realm and even considered demonic.
Also, such religious experiences were the domain of higher ranking authorities, the shaman or the witch doctors. Even during the time of the Inquisition, as late as the 1600, ordinary people could not just claim a spiritual experience (for example, telling people that God had spoken to him) without being in danger of being hanged or burned as a heretic. Ordinary people believed only very special people can have a spiritual experience. Teresa of Avila wrote her many books with much caution. She even pretended in many part of her writings, uncertainty in her own self or her own competence, to make the writing less doctrinaire, and thus lead the Inquisitors off her track. It made them think she was just another inexperienced and awkward or curious writer. This deliberate awkwardness was made in order to keep her from being burned at the stake for heresy.
In the bible, mystery does not mean it cannot be known at all or that it is necessary to be initiated into it, exclusive for an elite group of individuals only. Mystery meant a revelation from God and because it was revealed then man could know and understand it. God revealed Christ the wisdom of God but foolishness to the world. In other words, it was a mystery only to those who had no faith. Nowadays, we don’t say mystic anymore but spiritual.
The life of the mystic revolves much around the inscrutable nature of God. Let us look at Elijah in the desert. It is a story about how God brings us to that solitude spoken of here. The solitude is called the sound of silence. I try to imagine that Elijah was really a charismatic to start with. He just had a dramatic encounter with the evil false prophets but when he met face to face their big boss, Jezebel, it was the end of him. Exhausted of being a charismatic or Pentecostal, he was brought to the desert by an angel. He rested and ate twice, then onward to meet God in the cave. When he was in the cave, God called him to meet God. What met him first was a great fire. But God was not in the fire. After the fire, came the earthquake, and then the storm but each time God was not there. Only when the sound of silence came was God there. This is very interesting, that God is in the silence. It seems silence is the natural habitat of God. It is here that Elijah becomes a mystic.
In the mystical realm, Elijah’s ordeal actually poses a very important insight for us. When we read the Bible, we should always note when God asks a question. God of course knows all the answers so why he asks questions is really a big mystery. But beyond being just a mystery, we can see that whenever God asks a question, it opens the whole universe, like a big split or break, cutting across the sky from east to west. The opening tend to suck us in poor mortals, into the realm of the heavenly beings as though we are suddenly transported into God’s throne itself where reality is unavoidable and inevitable, where no one be untrue or inauthentic (he is after all before the God we sing about in church, of whom we say, there is no shadow of turning with thee).
God asks Questions:
So, in this story, let us look at what the question was. God brought Elijah to the cave and then He asks him, why are you here? What are you doing here? God asked Elijah. This seems so impertinent. It’s just like me inviting you to come to our house for dinner and when you arrive, I ask in the most serious and forthright tone, what are you doing here? What would you feel? I am being sarcastic? I am absent-minded?
This is hard to understand, why God would ask what Elijah was doing there when in fact it was God himself who brought him there. Questions in the Bible need to be carefully pondered upon for they tend to open a big vacuum inside of us. God knows all answers but why would he ask still? What does he achieved by asking? I wonder when God asked Elijah whether Elijah did not suddenly have a quick rapid and multicolored review of his life pass by him. Suddenly, he was evaluating and re-appraising the purpose of his life. Why indeed was he here? And maybe from deep in his insight and hindsight, he begins to remember his calling.
Jesus asked questions a lot too. When he was approached by blind Bartimaeus, he asked him a ridiculous question: What do you want me to do for you? In my mind, Jesus’ question is impertinent. Does He not know I am blind? But the question sent Bart spinning and stunned. It forced him to make a quick assessment of his whole life and especially an assessment of his faith, and in the end, he passed with flying colors. There we can see in what way the poor are rich in faith – they always ask for miracles.
The blind wants to see, the lepers want to have normal skin – all these require a miracle. And it was this that made God say, the poor are rich in faith. I am not poor and neither am I blind but I could never in my wildest imagination ever come to that point of asking God for a miracle. In that way I am poor in faith. Bart saw in Jesus GOD which is why he could ask for a super super big favor only God could give. He could see and yet he was blind. I could see but often I cannot see God in Jesus and so I do not ask for supernatural things. I can only ask for things that border between what I can give to myself by extreme resourcefulness and what chance can add to it, what is probable but not highly improbable.
Mystics are needed today. I read in a book on Buddhism of a monk in Tibet who probably had never journeyed far, down to the city, who may never have watched TV or read a newspaper, write something so profoundly terrifying. He wrote, “This world has mastered the art of selling illusions and fantasies.” How a monk from the remote mountains of Tibet can have such tremendous insight is so amazing.
Silent retreats put the world on slow mo or slow motion. It’s like watching a movie at low speed. Because of that, contemplative can have such deep insight because they are no longer affected by the razzle dazzle of Satan. Satan blinds us by making us so busy and engage us in so many things so that we will not realize that the things we are occupied with are not real.
This kind of insight from a Tibetan monk shows that even non-Christians can see through the deception of materialism, that truth is not the monopoly of Christians. Because solitude tend to stop or put on slow motion our lives, the fast pace of the rat race become apparent so that one is now able to see what is real and what is not.
The mystics have a strong grounding in reality, specially the reality of God because he stands close to God in most times. The strategy of Satan is to make things around us move so fast we are disoriented and we lost touch with reality, so reality and unreality are no longer distinguishable from each other. We think fame and celebrity are real but beneath it, we find so many people’s lives ruined in drugs, sex and the fast life. It is also true with wealth. At the top, there are as many ruined lives, and even with so much wealth, there can be so much suicide and drugs.
The world is always in a hurry. CS Lewis described the present world accurately. We have invented all kinds of time saving devices but have not managed to gain the time we need to do the important things in life, for example, intimacy in our family or time to pray.
Our greatest luxury is actually the Sabbath. In the ten commandment, the adjective holy is used only in connection with the Sabbath. In the jewish book, the longest chapter is on the Sabbath. The empty space, the stillness, is the most precious thing we have today. What technology has not given us so far is wisdom to use technology. We have too many time saving devices but in the end it has not bought us additional time but the opposite. We now have less time for the most important things in life – loving and caring and attentiveness. We are more driven and restless than before technology of whatever sort came. Being still, without wifi or internet or any form of technology for a time could actually help us to find deeper insight and wisdom on how to really make good use of technology instead of being swamped or overcome by it or worse, get addicted to it, into living a false life.
Part IV Practice session
How to sit:
Try to have a 20 minute silence. Find a comfortable spot. Sit down. Locate the center of gravity in our body, straight from the head to the middle of your buttocks with the chin slightly raised upward. You will notice the pull of gravity on your body when you try to balance and align your weight so you can sit upright without much effort.
Rest the hands on your lap. Relaxing means resting your body. Start from the head, then move downwards, to the eyebrows, face, jaw, neck, shoulder, arms, hands, fingers, chest, stomach, onward. Try to feel the muscles, tense it and then relax it. Do it with your shoulder, raise it up, flex it and then let it go. Do it with all the parts of your body that you can control.
After years of silent retreat, I can already notice when my body is tensed. Many do not know that their body or their neck or their ankles are tensed. I was so tensed for so many years but I got used to it so it felt normal until I went into this exercise and I felt was it was to be relaxed. So now, whenever I get stressed or traumatized, I can immediately notice my body tensing up and beginning to hurt. I guess all those years I was tense, I got used to the stiff neck and painful muscles. Only when they got so severe that I complained. But now, just a little tenseness, I already feel so uncomfortable. The result is that I am always aware when I am anxious, angry or ashamed or guilty.
Take a deep breath, through the nose. Listen to your body, pay attention to your breathing, your heartbeat. This paying attention to your breathing is the best way to become present. Continue breathing through your nose and exhale through your mouth.
Keep silent for 20 minutes, maintain silence, and close your eyes and rest. You can go to sleep. After much practice you can actually learn to sleep sitting down. My wife being a doctor know how to sleep standing up. Security guards in the Philippines know how to sleep with their eyes open (ha ha ha…).
Then debrief, slowly come back, awaken, open your eyes. Ask yourself: did it feel too long, did it feel too short? Did anyone fall asleep (that is a good sign). What was the experience like? Share your experience.
Did it feel like an eternity?
If you felt it was only a tiny fraction of time or that it was too short, it meant you were successful in that short exercise. You likely enjoyed it. If it felt too long, you really agonized and it was probably hard for you. When we enter solitude, it is really just a fraction of a moment. We don’t really become present throughout. We are present to God only in a fleeting way. Mostly, it is the last few seconds only that we are really present to him. That is enough. It is not so much that we use the entire 20 minutes but simply, that in that moment, we connect with God, by being present to him.
Many, especially for the first time, will experience their minds wandering in all directions. They will feel guilty that they never became present to God and wasted their time. We should not punish ourselves for it. It is very natural. It happens to everyone. And if we take time to become guilty, that will mean more time wasted. We should not give it more time and just move on quickly. Brother Lawrence is helpful in this aspect. When he fails, he does not occupy himself with feeling guilty but moves on after he realized that he has lost touch. We simply call ourselves back to God’s presence with a gentle tap on the shoulder, or say softly, Lord Jesus, I am here, I am back.
The divine office:
During the silent retreat, you will have 3 times of prayer each day or lexio divina. It is done before breakfast, before lunch and after dinner. You may be allowed to discuss and talk at the evening sessions after the lexio to discuss or share. I recommend reading the book of Brother Lawrence, Practice of the Presence of God, and have the retreatants discuss it or share from it.
The mechanics of the lexio works like this. The prayer is composed of 6 elements – reading of psalms, with an introductory prayer called invocation, reading of a portion of the gospel (Matthew, Mark, Luke or John – just one short paragraph), singing, silence,
intercession, ending with the Lord’s prayer and finally, the benediction. The silence is preceded by psalms and the gospel read aloud. The benediction formally closes the sacred time.
Songs we sing are three kinds, 1. the teaching songs, 2. The worship songs, and 3. Being present songs. Most of the old hymns, coming very closely from the Reformation, are teaching songs. It was a reaction to the overly liturgical and overly mystical spirituality of the Roman Catholic church. This over reaction left behind all the rich liturgy of the church and made the evangelical faith barren and cerebral.
The hymns of our time, in the seventies, were mostly teaching songs because they carry the doctrinal teachings of the protestant movement. Inside the songs are the truths that distinguish the evangelical faith from others. People who sing them sing them in order to indoctrinate themselves or their members into evangelicalism.
The second songs are popular songs, loud and vibrant. They are so alive and burning with passion. The Hillsongs from Australia are good examples. They are rallying songs, calling the faithful to worship God. They make worship lively and meaningful. It presupposes though that the people have the presence of God inside of them, meaning, solitude has been interiorized. This is common with those who just recently been born again in a dramatic fashion. The presence of Jesus is so palpable in their lives. But as the years go by, it becomes less and less so that these loud and vibrant songs become very external and sometimes, too optimistic.
The rally songs can be so external and when people are done singing (even sometime straight for several days), they come out exhausted and empty. The whole exercise is external and tends to just brainwash people into God but they are not connect deeply and personally with God, which is the nature of brainwashing.
The third songs are songs of presence. It helps the singer interiorize God’s presence. It rests the mind and helps the person to be present. Relationship and intimacy are not developed in hyper activities like dancing and shouting. They are developed more in boring and repetitive and ordinary things. The Taize songs are very good examples of these, you can located many of them in the YouTube. These are developments from old Gregorian styles of music.
Chants, how did they begin?
Very few people have the ability and stamina to continue day after day to attend to the presence of God. It takes so much effort. If you look at ten years or thirty years which is the expected period a monk living in a monastery is expected to spend attending to the presence of God, it is a gargantuan effort really. I believe it was due to that that chants came to being and all other helps man could devise to help a person stay in the presence of God.
The common life too became popular in the monastery where all the monks come together to attend to the presence of God together. Chants are not like any song we sing nowadays. The purpose of chants is precisely to help a person stay in the presence of God. Chants need to be sing-able for a long period, repeated many times. It is designed to slow down the mind or the thoughts and slowly bring the heart to be open to God.
Some will say of the Taize chant that the repetition is eerie because after repeating and repeating, the words begin to penetrate deeply into the heart and in such a powerful way. Rev. Leo says, it differs from other religious songs in that these chants have the power to lift the singer up while other songs have to be lifted up by the singer.
We were in Taize, France for a week in 2014. The singing or rather repetition of the chants I felt made the song more interior so that it began to have a life of its own in that the chant was now coming from within me. The singing became internal and when I paused, there was the chant again coming back.
It is advised that Taize be sung acapella with four voices. Its power to lift may be due to the way it is structured, the four voices (tenor, base, alto and soprano) twisting and intertwining in the air like writhing snakes, moving gently and at times powerfully, alternating between soft and loud but repetitious, repeated a dozen times.
Within that period of repeating and repeating, one may initially feel a weirdness, wondering if this repeating can lead to anything useful but it is the same as repeating the prayer of Jesus (our father who art in heaven…. Or the Jesus prayer from Bartimaeus – Lord Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me….), the more we recite it, the deeper its meaning gets and throughout many years, the repetition opens a whole wide vista of meanings, and it seems to be infinite and bottomless. One cannot exhaust its meaning and significance.
I think in time too, beads or rosaries were invented. All the major religions have prayers beads. We can devise our own rosaries also, with beads representing different prayers or bible verses that we recite and recite either aloud or quietly in our hearts. The verses repeated over and over again are designed to keep us attentive to the presence of God. The Roman Catholic rosary has degenerated fully when it became focused on the worship of Mary and no longer on Jesus. But I would include in my rosary the recitation of the entire Magnificat of Mary which would be very powerful. The Hail Mary is quoted from Scripture, when Elizabeth the sister of Mary greeted her. But it was never meant to supplant the worship of Jesus. Our attentiveness to the presence of God is to Jesus or the Trinity and Mary has no place there.
I think the earliest chants were the Gregorian chants from where Taize borrowed many melodies and verses. Kyrie eleison is one of them, translated, Lord Have Mercy, Christ Have Mercy, most popular among Greek orthodox. Ryan Cayabyab also composed a Kyrie for Filipinos – Panginoon, Maawa Ka Sa Akin which has a beautiful melody comparable to the European chants.
There is one part in the lexio divina where we do intercessory prayers. After the silence the leader may ask the congregation to pray for certain items. Although we do not do intercession during the silence, there is time for intercession during the lexio.
Many people think praying alone is enough. I have been in many Board of Trustees meetings and hardly anyone prays in the meeting. We hardly pray as a group. People just assume that since we are all mature Christians in that Board, that each one already prays at home and that is enough.
But that is wrong. Praying individually is not the prayer that is most important in our spirituality. We need to learn to pray more as a Body. We need to learn to fight for the right to pray as a community. Yes, we do pray individually. And that is very important.
But to pray as a community is more important. Jesus said, where two or three are gathered in my name there am I in their midst. We are born into the Body, we are the Body. To pray as a Body is our privilege. Individualism has made praying together just an option which is very sad.
In the time of intercession, one may pray out loud so others can hear and say amen. Or he may just pray inside his heart silently. When we pray, we ask the participants not to make long introductions (for example: “Lord, my brother who is now on the plane going to Davao to visit our mother who is in the hospital who is ninety years old and very sick and he will need to travel by bus for five hours….Lord we ask that you hold my brother and strengthen him.”). As you will notice, the prayer is mostly addressed to the people sitting around him and not directed to God. Do not make any introduction to your prayers. Just pray directly to God: “Lord, please hold him, hold him lovingly and firmly and keep him safe.” It is important to get the amen of the people around us but too much can also distract our prayers to being directed to people instead of being directed to God.
The lexio divina when done three times a day tends to wash out the “garbage prayers” inside our hearts. I only say garbage because when compared to the core prayer beneath, the surface or superficial prayers will appear like they were garbage. For those not practiced in lexio, they can fill up with garbage prayers, even those who have weekly prayer meetings (marathon prayers – with no solitude involved, no listening). Garbage prayers are surface prayers – give us money for our Meralco bills, help our son pass his test, heal my mother who has pneumonia, that the US embassy will give me a visa, etc. Because the lexio is done three times a day, every day, what happens is we run out of these surface prayers. Soon we are driven to the core prayers, prayers of intimacy and engagement. We begin to hear words like, Lord, I miss you; Lord, touch my heart; I humble myself before you, Lord, do what you need to do with my life; I love you Jesus, Lord, I feel so alone, Lord, I am afraid, etc. The bottommost prayers are almost without words – groans, crying, moans, etc.
To benefit from the reading, do not concentrate on the words being read, do not meditate or analyze them, just let them pass over you like a fresh wind, and if a word or two come alive to you, that is yours, keep it. Do not try to catch all the words of the text or even try to race ahead of the reader. Just relax.
The Gospels and of course the Psalms, were all meant to be read aloud. All the gospels were meant to be read aloud. Matthew was the favorite of the first church for several reasons. It was the most melodic or rhythmical of all the gospels. The Greek version is very poetic compared with the three others. Also, Matthew is arranged topically, if you were to imagine formulating a syllabus for discipling new believers, Matthew would be your choice. Thirdly, it was the most Jewish of the gospels and most of the first century Christians were Jews.
Most of the people then were illiterate and few could read and those who could, read them aloud for the rest to hear. Reading aloud has a benefit that many have forfeited because they have never had the gospels read to them aloud. Reading the Bible makes the Word go the mind while hearing it read aloud makes it go to the heart.
Read only a small portion of the gospels, two sentences, mostly where there is a dialogue with Jesus.
Reading the Psalms:
The reading of the psalms in worship follows a long tradition. NT Wright goes even to the extent of saying it is the psalms read aloud regularly for many years that actually disciple and transform people, in his 2013 book, A Case for the Psalms:
The Psalms actually disciple us when we use them in worship. Imagine how a thousand years of singing the Psalms transformed the people of God, molded their worldview. When we use the Psalms regularly, we get sorted out and guided, and our worldview will reconfigure according to the values, theology and modes of expression of the Psalms.
The Benedictines read the entire Psalms each month that is 5 psalms every day. Struggle though when they get to Psalm 119. We attempt this constantly in MMP. We have taught our staff that no one can learn to pray without the psalms. Psalms is our book of prayer, it is the best guide to learning to pray. In MMP, we try to incorporate psalms in our daily prayers.
Psalms are the most quoted part of Old Testament, into the New Testament. Psalms is the only place in the Bible where we teach God, and not God teach us. I imagine it like this. It is God coming through the Holy Spirit, to us, into us, into our mouths, our throats, our stomach, intestines, into our entire being and entire world. And then He comes out from us, from all our failures, struggles and pains, out our anus, out of our sins, and back to God and into the Bible.
The incarnation of psalms:
We can say that before Jesus became incarnate, the Psalm was incarnate, or God was incarnate through the psalms. The psalms entered fully our humanity. It is God entering into our reality, our world, our agonies, our failings, our joys. Psalms enters into our real self and comes out as a song, a poem, a prayer. Coming out from the anus, psalms is gross, violent and heretical.
Many Christians have many taboos in their belief system. They cannot say certain things to God but Psalms teaches us to break some of those taboos. Psalm 22 which Jesus quoted while on the cross, says: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? This is practically accusing God of betrayal and abandonment. Many Christians will not say things that can hurt God, much less accuse God of a wrongdoing.
Many times, Psalms complains to God: “how long O Lord will you keep silent?” Some psalms even claim God is asleep and the psalmist wants to awaken Him, awaken Him to action. When we have incorporated psalms into our spirituality, we will begin to really pray hard and true. Otherwise, we will content ourselves with a shallow connection with a god who is not truly God. God is so big He can handle our worse complaints. It is not saying we can curse God or call God wicked names. Psalms shows us good boundaries for this. Our prayers will remain bland and ineffectual if we do not know these parameters but stick to parameters that we made up ourselves, we make up on our own, based on cultural taboos or superstitions.
We cannot curse our enemies, that would be a sin. God commands us to love our enemies. And to call someone, a fool, raca, is to be in danger of going to hell. But the imprecatory psalms do more than curse the enemies, it prays down fire and brimstones on them. The imprecatory prayers prays for the most evil and cruel torture on the enemy. While we cannot directly curse our enemies, we can express these hurts, anguish and pains directly to God. When we complain to God, our complaint becomes a prayer. The direction is important. When directed to people, it becomes a sin, when directed to God, it becomes a psalm. What is directed to God is not hatred for God but hatred for people.
Regarding the imprecatory prayers, or psalms that ask for the cruel annihilation of one’s enemies, NT Wright says:
With respect to the imprecatory prayers, murderous prayers in for example Psalm 139 that God would slay the wicked, our biggest obstacle to embracing this actually is our wrong notion of that we in our modern times have already solved the problem of evil. The imprecatory psalms all remind us this is not so. We constantly experience being overcome by evil and our own extreme rage and hatred. The imprecatory psalms let us acknowledge this condition and the safest and best place to do this is in the presence of God. It is psalms way of providing us an avenue for worshiping God amidst turmoil and wickedness.
The psalms in that way promote a hyper-ideal hope for the world, a deep and desperate longing for a better world where there is no evil. The psalms looks at injustice and poverty and oppression and says, evil is real and some people are just so wicked we simply must wish judgment on them.
Psalms was something the Israelites sang regularly in their festivals. But psalms is more than poetry, it is also a song. It is more than song, it is also a prayer. It is more than prayer, it is deep communion with our humanity.
The emotions of psalms are very interesting. If you are angry, psalms is murderous. If you are happy, psalms is excited. If you are afraid, psalms is anxious. If you are doubting, psalms is heretical. If you are sad, psalm is depressed and downcast. If you think God is not listening, psalms feel abandoned and forsaken. If you are committed to God, psalms is die-hard loyal. Psalms is extreme.
Why is that so? What does psalms give us? Psalms give us words when we run out of words to pray. When we have words but it does not seem to flow, psalms gives us poetic words and sometimes, when we can give back melody to it, a song that helps even the most difficult words to come out from our hearts. When words fail, there is a song to sing our deepest agony or greatest joy. Sometimes, we have words that are indecent and totally sacrilegious, psalms can take it and not blush.
In other words, psalms gives spirit and voice to our prayers. Psalms can fathom the deepest part of our struggles, and guides us back to the throne of God. Psalms is able to navigate through the complex labyrinth of our soul, the darkness and confusion of our hearts. Psalms almost always ends in praise to God.
One reason the psalms is no longer popular today is because it seems so out of touch with the reality we face in the world today. We have modernized too much away from the world the psalmists faced in their time. I struggle most with is the concept of the enemy frequently mentioned in the psalms. Who are they in our world today? NT Wright resolves this problem:
The Psalms actually struggles also with the same tension we face today, a clash of worldviews: the people of God who used the Psalms saw God as totally other than the world and also radically present (not distant), dangerously present, within the world. In the end, Psalms helped the people to navigate the world of their day, the same way it would for us today.
The Psalms had to be reconceived in the time of the first church when they now realized that Jesus was indeed the Messiah so as they as usual prayed and sang through the Psalms every day, they had this new perspective to the Psalms. It must have been disorienting at the start, for instead of the temple, a place, Jesus; a person was now in its place, where God was to dwell on earth. And with the Holy Spirit poured out upon the church, somehow, God’s presence is now everywhere, rather than concentrated in just one place. The Psalms then needed to be re-read and radically refocused around Jesus and the Holy Spirit. It was also this way that Jesus and the Holy Spirit now permeated their worship and prayer.
Eugene Peterson, another giant in spirituality –
Eugene Peterson earned degrees at New York Theological Seminary and Johns Hopkins University. In 1962, he founded Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland. He left there recently to teach at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He is the author of over a dozen books, including Run With the Horses, Psalms: Prayers of the Heart and Answering God. [Biographical information is correct as of the broadcast date noted above.]
“The Psalms in American”
When I first became a pastor, the thing that surprised me was how nice people treated me. Then I realized that there was more to it than that. They were used to treating God as nicely as they could.
I came to a conclusion early that the most important thing I could do for the people to whom I was pastor was lead them in worship and teach them how to pray. I came on the Psalms early as the way to do that. The Psalms are a school for prayer. Ambrose called them the “gymnasium of prayer.” I taught people the Psalms, taught them how to use the Psalms as a means and school of prayer.
At a certain point, I was frustrated because the basic thing that prayer does is bring us honestly before God— everything we are, just the way we are—so God has access to us through our own offering of ourselves. People didn’t want to do that. They prayed “nice.”
Even the Psalms that aren’t nice sounded nice when they were prayed and read in English. We have all those Elizabethan sonorities in the Psalms and it is hard to get away from them even when you are cursing.
I began to think that I would love to translate the Psalms into what I am thinking of as “American,” something that is earthy, something that sounds like the Hebrew original, a rough language, a language that is close to the earth and deep into human experience. A few years ago, I started.
An earlier interest in Semitic language suddenly was back there for me as a gift and I began translating. The first one I did was Psalm 1. I brought it upstairs from my study and read it to my wife. She said, “I think you have got it!” This is the way it goes:
you don’t hang out at Evil-Saloon,
you don’t slink along Sinner-Road
you don’t go to Smart-Mouth College.
You thrill to Yahweh’s Torah,
you chew on Torah day and night,
Become a tree replanted in Eden,
bear fresh fruit every month,
Never drop a leaf,
always in blossom.
Not at all like the wicked,
Can’t stand straight,
Can’t shoot straight.
Yahweh plots the road you take.
The road they take is skid row.
Repeating the Lord’s prayer:
Many Evangelicals think it is a sin to recite or repeat the Lord’s prayer. For many Evangelicals, repeating the prayer is Roman Catholic superstition. Jesus enjoins us from making repeated prayers which are meaningless. But when we recite and repeat the prayer taught us by Jesus, we deepen its meanings. Each time we recite the Lord’s prayer, we discover that it has a new meaning. Saying the Lord’ Prayer each day ushers us into a prayer that grows deeper and deeper each time we utter it. Its meaning is not exhausted by constant repetition. It is always fresh each time. The invitation is for us to join Jesus in praying the Lord’s Prayer (I call it, the Kingdom Prayer).
You must observe complete silence even during meals. There is no talking or making hand signals to each other. The eating is part of your prayer time and contemplation. Eat your food without making so much sound (so the spoon and fork do not bang the plate).
It is also a time of great bonding with your fellow retreatants to eat together in silence. Normally, when you are praying, you are on your own and you may wander in the garden or stay in your room and you try to remain alone. But mealtimes are different. It is as if the silence has made everyone hungry for company. So, mealtimes actually become very precious, almost like talking and you are happy when you see everyone gathered at the dining table and you feel you are not alone anymore.
I had my 7 day retreat one time in Sacred Heart Novitiate, in Fairview. I was alone but there were also others, doing silent retreats alone. During meal times, we were about a dozen in all. A few were nuns. There were two or three civilians (meaning, just regular people, not religious or in ministry). We were on a different time table. Some were almost done with the retreat, others were just starting.
Each day or two days, one would leave and he/she would just not appear at the dining room. Each day, we were together three to five times at the dining table, 3 regular meals and 2 meriendas, each time, each person is careful to always sit in his/her usual chair. Whenever a person stops appearing, suddenly you feel a cold vacuum in your heart, a deep loneliness. And yet, you don’t even really know the person who left. You just notice an empty chair. I have told people that the bonding of silence and waiting on God together (God must be so excited at seeing a group of people, all looking up to Him, waiting on Him, together) creates a far deeper and more important bond than fellowships where people are talking. Scientific studies have shown that words generally are used to hide their real meanings – make them more palatable and acceptable.
Usually, at the Daughters of Charity retreat house, each retreatant has one room each according to the monastic tradition. This is scary for some urban poor people. People in the slums have almost no privacy and growing up, they have never experienced sleeping in a room alone. We need to help them adjust to this.
It is during this time that new retreatants can do a lot of mischiefs. They can pull out their gadgets that they did not give to the retreat leader. At the start they are supposed to surrender all their gadgets, cell phones, laptops, newspapers, bibles, daily bread, etc.
A few actually hide in the room of one retreatant where they spend the time talking. Some may also bring in alcoholic drinks at night and have a drinking time before retiring. The retreat leader must be aware of all these and prevent them from happening.
Icons and art:
Icons are drawings or paintings of religious personages like Jesus or Mary. This is part of the Orthodox tradition where icons are not idolatrous because Jesus for them is both God and man, and as man, we can certainly draw a picture of him and not commit a sin like if you photograph your papa. Most of the eastern orthodox church’s icons are also artistic objects, with a lot of artistic value. I think the biggest collection of icons of great value are found in the Sinai desert, in the St. Catherine Monastery.
Art is also a way to enter into truths beyond words. For example Rembrandt’s Prodigal son which allows us to imagine fully the feelings and expressions of the characters which are not apparent in the text. What we do not see in just reading the text are two important things, what was the tone of the voice speaking and what was the expression on the face of the speaker or the listener. For example, when Jesus said, O you men of little faith, was he angry (nandidilat ang mga mata)? When God said, Be Holy For I am Holy, in some Christian circle, it is not viewed as a command as much as an invitation to enjoy and share in God’s holiness.
When we look at the Sistine Chapel, particularly the creation of Adam, we will see the big difference between the way Michelangelo portrayed it and how we imagined it, assuming we believe we are authorized to use our imagination on Scripture (Although it won’t be so great today viewing the Sistine Chapel, especially during the peak tourist season. When we were there, there was hardly any room to move around, much less sit but you were craning your neck directly up, something you cannot do for more than a few minutes. And it takes hours to go through the entire thing. Also, because of the crowd, it was hard to breath and in a few minutes I had become quite drowsy, I think I took a nap there. The ceiling paintings of Michelangelo are badly deteriorated. It’s dark and in many places already blurred. The best is to just go to the internet and look at better and older versions.)
Some Bible scholars actually insist that Michelangelo’s theology is superbly biblical. It is the same with Rembrandt. Somehow, we have missed out on this and we don’t even realize that these classical masters could possess biblical perspectives.
We need to expand Scripture from merely the words that we read, to the words that we hear and the words that we imagine. Revelations is a part of the Bible we cannot understand without great imagination. In fact, Eugene Peterson, in his book, Reverse Thunder argues that it is only with great inspired imagination that we can we truly grasp the meaning of Revelations.
Making the sign of the cross:
We are afraid of making the sign of the cross. For me, it is the most holy thing I can do in response to the liturgy. And yet, many falsely think this is Roman Catholic superstition, totally heretical or blasphemous. That thinking is wrong.
No less than Evangelical Anglican, John Stott writes:
“There is no need for us to dismiss this habit [of making the sign of the Cross] as superstitious. In origin at least, the sign of the cross was intended to identify and indeed sanctify each act as belonging to Christ.” (John Stott, The Cross of Christ, p. 22)
Tertullian, as early as circa 211 AD, says of the sign of the cross:
“In all our travels and movements, in all our coming in and going out, in putting on our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupies us, we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross.” (Tertullian, De Corona Milites, Chapter 3)
St Cyril of Jerusalem (315 – 386 AD) “told those he was instructing in preparation for baptism to make the sign frequently throughout the day. He also indicated that the sign of the cross was a powerful witness to our spiritual enemies that they no longer have any power over us by virtue of Christ’s triumph of the forces of darkness.”
“Let us not then be ashamed to confess the Crucified. Be the Cross our seal made with boldness by our fingers on our brow and in everything; over the bread we eat, and the cups we drink; in our comings in, and goings out; before our sleep, when we lie down and when we awake; when we are in the way and when we are still. Great is that preservative; it is without price, for the poor’s sake; without toil, for the sick, since also its grace is from God. It is the Sign of the faithful, and the dread of evils; for He has triumphed over them in it, having made a shew of them openly; for when they see the Cross, they are reminded of the Crucified; they are afraid of Him, Who hath bruised the heads of the dragon. Despise not the Seal, because of the freeness of the Gift; but for this rather honour thy Benefactor.” (St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures)
Roman Catholicism grew only around the 5th century. These are writings long before that. If we mark it with the Reformation, in the 15th century, then Roman Catholicism came about only 500 years ago. Before that, all of us were in a sense Roman Catholics. But prior to the apostasy of the Roman Catholic Popes, there were these giant Christian saints who practiced the sign of the cross. These saints, like St. Cyril or St. John Chrysostom, belonged to us as much as to the Roman Catholics. They were the early Christians, our forefathers.
It is amazing that the church has made its greatest symbol the cross which is the worse picture of suffering ever. It was on the cross that Jesus was cruelly tormented till he died, it is natural that we would want to forget that ugly image but we don’t, we even raise it up proudly as the emblem of who we are. I imagined that in order to torment their tormentors, the early Christians announced publicly their faith by making the sign of the cross. It was to court persecution, to invite death. And imagine that for the same reason, the symbol of Ichthus or the fish became widespread. Making the sign of the cross resulted in the death of many believers. The next generation began to hide their faith out of fear of death and made secret codes and signs like Ichthus, to identify true believers in complete contrast with the earlier generation who actually by the sign of the cross, called out the police or soldiers to come and kill them. The sign of the cross was a bold challenge to a worldly Kingdom they knew had no future and no real power. When we make the sign of the cross, we declare to the world that we are Christians.
Symbols and liturgy
God is more than we can think Him to be. So we need symbols, the richness of symbols to express what words cannot express, what our minds cannot fully describe. John Driver said that there is no definition of church in the Bible but there are hundreds of images of church in the bible and each image conveys many ideas, more than a straightforward definition can give us.
We need symbols like the crucifix or a candle. The biggest symbolism is in the drama of the Eucharist, when the priest raises the broken bread. There we see the climax. These together create what is called liturgy which transports us beyond our physical dimension into the presence of God.
Most of the idea of church is actually beyond the realm of reason and falls within the realm of mystery. Look at the words used – unless you eat of my flesh and drink of my blood! This is mind blowing symbolism. And there are countless such expressions in the bible.
The Communion or the Eucharist is perhaps the height of symbolism in liturgy. When we say this is the Body referring to the Bread and this is his blood, referring to the wine, we enter into a new dimension. We can either approach communion as a purely cognitive activity or in a contemplative way. What would the difference be?
Jesus appointed twelve apostles, to symbolize Israel.
What are your symbols or sacred objects? After 911, a monument was erected as a memorial. Man craves for symbols. Everywhere, men by nature makes sacred things to help them see the meaning beyond what is on the surface. Examine a Russian orthodox icon or a Roman Catholic statue or cross. Do you find any biblical significance in them?
Most of what is meaningful to us are in symbols. What symbols are important to you, what symbols have great meaning for you (wedding ring, ancestral home, flag, etc.)?
What should be symbols in our churches?
Church is meaningless and cannot be explained without those symbols. When the bible says the church is the Body of Jesus, this moves us out of the realm of reason towards symbols, and moves us deeper towards the mystical.
When you enter your church on Sunday, ask yourself, can you see the Body of Jesus? How hard or how easy is it to do this?
We also need to have a big sense of solemnity, an ability to apprehend sacredness like Moses taking off his sandals before the burning bush. During worship, we cannot just casually stand up and walk around or go to the bathroom (unless it is an emergency). The more sacred the approach is, the bigger God is to us. We may wonder then why our God is very small. And it may be because we lack a sense of what is sacred.
In the MMP office worship, we make it a habit to clear our tables. We clean the place because it is sacred. We remove our things, books, and cellphones, off the desk. In more elaborate settings, there is an altar, the chalice which is dedicated only for one thing – the communion, and cannot be used for ordinary drinking. The Koreans and Thais take off their footwear when they enter signifying that the place is holy. We need this solemnity to promote our worship. The sacred and the solemn gives full value to the mystery of worship and church.
Self-awareness harmonizes our interior with our exterior spirituality. On the other hand, solitude interiorizes God’s presence. Solitude interiorizes the silent retreat so that wherever we go, we have a silent retreat inside our hearts.
In this matter, we need to learn also to see the sacred in the ordinary as a way of interiorizing our spirituality from the garden into the common activities and in the marketplace or business world or work place. Brother Lawrence’s greatest contribution to spirituality was precisely in bringing worship down from the opulent and lavish worship of the aristocracy, to the dirty and foul smelling kitchen where the menial labor was being performed. It was when doing the dishes or cooking or mopping the floor that he had his devotions which he equated with the most sacred worship in the chapel.
The most frequent problem in spirituality is transporting it to the common activities. Brother Lawrence’s goal was precisely to craft a spirituality which did not need to be transported, which did not make a distinction between work and prayer. He called on us all to do all our work to the glory of God in all moments, in this way, we abolish the distinction between spiritual things and secular things, sacred things and ordinary things. For him, all things became sacred.
The healing at the pool of Bethesda:
Let us look at the story about the healing at the pool of Bethesda. The cripple was waiting beside the pool with probably hundreds of other sick people. Some had been there for years. The man had been a cripple for 38 years and who knows how long he had been waiting beside the pool. When the pool stirred, the first one inside the pool got well, miraculously. Since this was pre-scientific time, they of course had no hospital and in a way, this was their hospital.
We have three questions or tensions to examine here. One is the tension we have between the pool and the temple. The temple was where these sick should have been crowding, but no, they were at the pool because of the reputation of the pool to heal. The temple is the place God promised to dwell or to make His presence felt. But now it had grown ordinary and routine. The pool presented a more exciting and thus hopeful scenario. This is the tension in spirituality – between the ordinary and the exciting. Thomas Merton accuses our generation of being addicted to new things. We want new songs, new forms of worship, new sermons, and I might add, new wives (within our most adulterous generation). We need to learn to see the sacred in the ordinary. Ecclesiastes debunks this addiction to new things when it said, there is nothing new under the sun. Brother Lawrence thus could enjoy deep devotion with Jesus while washing the dishes. I would advise this for all our MMP staff, that as a matter of spiritual discipline we begin to develop a habit like this, either washing the dishes or doing the laundry, something ordinary and repetitive and boring, wherein we begin to grow a spirituality like Brother Lawrence’s.
The second tension is between the arrival and the journey. Evangelicals are very guilty of giving people the impression we have arrived, thus we no longer look for Jesus. We don’t pause and anticipate that Jesus could suddenly appear. We don’t see Jesus in people. The journey and the arrival are both important. We want to see our kids graduate and have a family. Some parents have focused completely on the ending that they have failed to enjoy the moments of growing up. When church planters are so eager to see the church planted, they miss out completely on the day to day struggles and appearing of Jesus in their midst, the various epiphanies occurring in their midst.
I am a Pentecostal by nature. I am addicted to miracles and supernatural things. I always ask for a sign from God. When I look at the cripple, my theology turns belly up. I imagine if a member of our church stands up during the Sunday service and makes a prayer request for her sickness, say brain tumor, everyone will eagerly buckle down to work, pray and even fast. If she does it again the next week, we would still have the same fervor. If she does it for say the next 8 months, we would tire a little but we would not feel bad, it’s part of persevering, and in accordance with our theology.
However, if it continues for five years, I will think I will have given up my Pentecostal theology, especially if I am or a family member is the one sick and does not get well. Also, I might pressure the patient, telling her that maybe she does not have faith. We say it positively, trust in God, you must have faith but really, we are accusing the person for the failure to get healed.
If the sickness last ten years, it is possible I will have given up also my Christianity. But 38 years of waiting and praying can be very challenging to say the least. If I were the cripple would I continue to wait by the pool after ten years? What about after twenty years? In this case, what about 30? By that time, I will already be an atheist.
But he lasted 38 years. What we want to ask, the important question is, where was God all those 38 years? If we say God was there, then we can see the journey, if we say, no, he was not there, then we may just be looking at the arrival, the ending. In which case, we lost much of the interaction and connection with God in that period of unhealing.
The last tension we face after the 1. Temple versus the Pool and 2. The Journey versus the Arrival, is the 3. The Looking versus the Waiting. Sometimes, the reason we cannot find or see God is because we look too much. You may wonder, is there such a thing? Looking or searching too much, like over doing the act of searching for God, can we overdo it at all? Yes, we can.
Here, the cripple had been waiting, I imagine, maybe ten years, beside the pool and 18 years in his home. The pool must have stirred once a year, I suppose and so for ten years, he saw God moved ten times! And yet, when Jesus the Lord of all, King of Kings, stood before him, face to face, eye to eyeball, he did not recognize him. In John 7, the guards were berated by the High Priest for not arresting Jesus who was at that time already causing so much trouble. The guards said, they could not arrest him because no one had ever spoken the way Jesus did. Jesus was different. The woman bleeding for many years knew that just be touching Jesus’ cloak she would be healed but this cripple did not know. When Jesus asked him what he could do for him, all he could say was, he could not get into the water when it stirred because no one would help him get into the water, so that someone else always gets in first. This was terribly frustrating but now, his solution was standing in front of him. Jesus had to impose on him maybe because he really pitied the man.
It is the same in life. We expect Jesus to come in a green shirt and when he comes in a blue shirt we completely miss him. Jesus can come in the form of our young child, speaking to us to stop worrying and yet we won’t see it was Jesus.
When I set a date with my wife, say, we will met at 2 pm at SM North, by French Baker, what I do is sit and take my coffee or read a book and wait. I don’t stand up and down and turn here and there, looking for her, straining my neck to see if she is there. I just sit and wait. When we go to a silent retreat, God knows we have traveled so many hundred kilometers just to see Him. When we get there, we don’t strain our neck, looking for Jesus, we just wait, rest and be silent.
The journey and the arrival are both important. The temple and the pool are both important too. We also need to learn to seek Him but also to wait for him.
Fasting is a symbol of your repentance. In some cases, it is for the purpose of helping the person focus on prayer, so that he becomes more determined and serious about what he is praying for.
When we fast, we deprive the body of food or water. When we are silent, we deprive the body of activity, mental and physical activity. We become passive. Many people can fast easily but very few people can enter solitude. Imagine you were imprisoned like Nelson Mandela and you were put inside the solitary confinement for days or months, would you enjoy it or would it be sheer punishment?
Isaiah 58 corrects the wrong notion people have about fasting.
“Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.
2 For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them.
3 ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’
“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
4 Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness[a] will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.
13 “If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath
and from doing as you please on my holy day,
if you call the Sabbath a delight
and the Lord’s holy day honorable,
and if you honor it by not going your own way
and not doing as you please or speaking idle words,
14 then you will find your joy in the Lord,
and I will cause you to ride in triumph on the heights of the land
and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.”
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
True fasting is to work out justice. Spirituality is never about us. Doherty reminds us in her book, Poustinia, that solitude is always done for others, for the community.
Any focus on Christian discipleship which consistently neglects the needs of the poor is a defective form of discipleship. Any spirituality that misses the poor is inadequate, deficient, and needs correction. – Roberta Hestenes
Filipinos are very fond of pasalubong. When we come back from the silent retreat (in Tagaytay) we pass by the market to buy buko pie or coffee or other pasalubong. But our best pasalubong is the sense of peace within us. It’s like taking pictures of a scenic place and showing it to our friends, for example if we went to Paris or Seattle. In silent retreat, we bring home a picture of solitude and it is in our hearts.
The practice of solitude takes some time to develop. The more we do it, the more familiar God’s presence becomes to us. The more you do this the more familiar you will get with the calming center where peace reigns and where God meets with you. You can bring that with you home.
This is an exercise you can do. Whenever you are afraid, ask yourself where is this fear coming from? Look at the imagery of the Jesus on the boat in the midst of a terrible storm. Can there be peace within our crisis filled life? Can it be that Jesus is within us in perfect peace, asleep, while we journey through the storm?
We also need to develop moving out to others from our center, from Jesus instead of from our fears or from our hurts. Is it possible to reach out to others from this Jesus asleep in our heart, from Jesus at the center of our hearts, instead of lashing out from our fears, or from our trauma?
As the years pass, solitude will become more and more a part of our lives. Instead of dreading it, we will look for it. We will miss it. As we develop solitude, we also begin constructing a sacred space for others where they can come in, feel welcome and where they can be themselves, where they are not pressured to change. This is the main building block of community.
SD is a very old tradition and Evangelicals are very suspicious of this practice. Their impression of SD is very bad. They think the SD will dictate to the person seeking guidance, which is literally what spiritual direction is to them, directing or commanding people.
SD is of course not directing people. It is coming side by side people as they journey with God. It is a very profound ministry. The SD is willing to walk apace with the person wherever he may be in his spiritual journey, in whatever stage he is in his spiritual life.
The SD works more or harder also. He is willing to be attuned to God, to be present to Him so that as he listens to the person seeking guidance, he is also able to hear the same voice and the same message. It is like two people listening to the same voice. The message is really just for the person but the SD will try to hear also and will confirm if what the person heard is accurate.
Father Thomas Green, in his book, Friend of the Bridegroom, divides it into three questions: Is it God talking to the person? What is the message of God? What is the response being asked?
In general, SD is about helping people to discern God’s voice – is it God talking to me. We see this in the life of the young boy Samuel. Eli there is the involuntary spiritual director. Eli is old and supposedly, already disqualified. It must have been difficult and uncomfortable for Eli to know that God no longer talked to him but now was talking to the young novice, Samuel. Eli must have been jealous. Yet, despite his disqualification, Eli did his job well. Here, we can clearly see that it was the old hand that could see. Eli was the veteran and he could recognize God’s voice. SD are meant to be that way, older and more experienced, so they will recognize more God’s voice than we do. Eli did his job well by directing Samuel to God. He told the boy to go back, to be still and listen again for the voice. He gave him instruction what to do when he heard the voice again: Speak Lord, your servant listens. This was tremendously good advice coming from an old hand like Eli. Although he was old, disqualified and outside the intimate circle of God, he still delivered his last hurrah, his last magnum opus, magnificently.
In MMP, because of our unique calling, SD has a bias. SD will work on two basic questions: How can I see Jesus? And how can I see Jesus in others? This is required for building community and also required for journeying with the poor. Retreatants are encouraged to enter solitude in order to be able to see Jesus.
We don’t really see Jesus. What we see is just the aura of Jesus – His peace. Almost all of the blessings or benedictions involve granting peace. When Jesus is present, there is peace (also joy as Doherty points out in Poustinia). We feel this peace and we grope and touch it. It’s like a blind man holding a cell phone for the first time. After frequent holding of the cell phone, when he gets hold of a cell phone, he will immediately know it is a cell phone. So, it is with Jesus. When we come near that peace, we know it is Him. It takes a lot of familiarity and practice but after several years, the feeling and touch becomes familiar. Later, we will know as soon as we experience that peace, that he is present. No one can really see God. God had to turn his back on Moses to let Moses see Him. Today, what we can “see” is this aura surrounding Jesus, His peace.
The story of the monk:
The practice in order to develop solitude involves a lot of “being awake” or being present. The story of the Buddhist monk is instructive.
There was a man who wanted to study under a master, a Buddhist monk. He wanted to become a Buddhist monk also. He began training under that master. He lived in the monastery and practiced all the spiritual disciplines of the group. One day while sitting squat on a rock, meditating, his master passed by. He called out to his master, “master, how can I attain enlightenment?”
Buddhists aim for enlightenment. It is equivalent to our Christian salvation. The master replied: there is nothing you can do to get enlightenment. When the disciple heard this, he was shocked. So, what is the use of all of these disciplines and practices, all the years of meditating, fasting, almsgiving, and solitude if there is nothing I can do to attain enlightenment?
The master replied: so that when the sun rises and when the sun sets, you are awake!
The answer of the master points to this one great truth: that the spiritual disciplines like solitude and prayer and fasting are only tools. They do not add to our righteousness. It does not make us more worthy or closer to God. The quiet time, meditating on the Word, fasting, tithes, praying, worshipping, etc. do not bring us closer to God. They only ensure that when God speaks, we are listening; when God is drawing near, we are awake.
Watch and pray so you will not fall into temptation:
When Jesus said this, watch may have denoted what we now see as the practice of evangelicals, to keep vigil in prayer, overnight prayer or the prayer and fasting of Korean Christians – which is mainly the aggressive doing and asking kind of prayer or it could mean the contemplative idea of the third kind which is passive and involves mainly listening and attending.
I wonder why there is a sharp denunciation of fasting but not of waiting in the bible. Is it because God knows the penchant of people to control and to go ahead of God, which is not something addressed in fasting but is in fact reinforced? Fasting can lead to pride and to more control and is attractive to people who want control. Waiting and listening is counterproductive and goes against the world’s value of productivity and efficiency.
My favorite phrase in Narnia is “Aslan is on the move again!” I try to imagine God moving again or moving actively and aggressively around us, in the world. Watch and pray for me basically denotes this – to watch God’s movement. it also means to watch things around me and inside of me. It means to be present, to see and to perceive. It does not mean so much engaging in a marathon prayer, praying over 100 prayer requests.
Jesus was a watchful and prayerful man. He was always watching God, watching what God was doing. He knew in John 7 about the difference between kairos and kronos, our time and His time.
I was corrected by one preacher on day when he said, actually, the Christians know when God is returning or in effect, Christians will not be taken by surprise when Jesus returns. He will not surprise us like the thief who comes in the night for we will be prepared, anticipating and watchful. The bible says, we will not be taken by surprise because we live in the light, not in denial, not in our false selves, not in obliviousness, not in spiritual slut or sleepiness. We will be awake and watchful every moment of our lives.
Again, the goal is not just paying attention, the real goal is to do battle but engaging in prayer warfare must come with two essential elements. 1. is that our intercession is informed or educated by God’s will. It means we know it is God’s will, not just ours – Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God. For I bear him witness that he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis (Colossians 4.12). and
2. is that our intercession grow up out of a real loving intimacy with Jesus (and of course, with one another, for there can be no intimacy with Jesus unless there is one among ourselves). Ministry then is not just work and work. It is powered by God’s love.
Below is a sample schedule of a three days and two night silent retreat.
Quieting the Heart
A Small Group Retreat
7:00 – 7:45 Breakfast
7:45 – 8:30 Orientation, “what is this retreat about?”
8:30 – 11.00 Solitude 1
11:00 – 12:00 Noon PRAYER
12:00 – 1:00 Lunch
1:00 – 3:00 Solitude 2
3:00 – 3:30 Merienda
3:30 – 6:30 Solitude 3
6:30 – 7:30 Dinner
7:30 – 8:30 Evening PRAYER
7:00 – 8:00 Breakfast
8:00 – 9:00 Morning Prayer
9:00 – 10:00 Solitude 4
10:00 – 10.30 Merienda
10:30 – 11.00 Solitude 5
11:00 – 12:00 Noon PRAYER
12:00 – 1:00 Lunch
1:00 – 3:00 Solitude 6
3:00 – 3:30 Merienda
3:30 – 6:30 Solitude 7
6:30 – 7:30 Dinner
7:30 – 8:30 Evening PRAYER
7:00 – 8:00 Breakfast
8:00 – 9:00 Morning Prayer
9:00 – 10:00 Solitude 8
10:00 – 10.30 Merienda
10:30 – 11.00 Solitude 9
11:00 – 12:00 Noon PRAYER, communion, sharing.
12:00 – 1:00 Lunch
Readings from other authors
Obsculta! Wise Elders and the Desert Tradition
The Desert Way
Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann3 speaks of the capacity of the psalms to move us from orientation, through disorientation, and returning to yet a new space, a stance of reorientation. We experience times of equilibrium, yet when God moves us into a space of dislocation and relocation, beautiful psalms are birthed. In many ways this same experience is embodied in the lives of the desert seeker. The ascetic was thrust into disorientation by accepting and embracing the gospel call to be lived out in the desert or monastery.
Following each new experience of reorientation the desert ascetic would then be thrust again into disorientation through continued ascetical practices, yet moving ever closer to deep unity with God. The experience of orientation, disorientation and reorientation moved the seeker deeper into the heart of God. This movement stripped the seeker of all that separated truest self from God. This process of purification cultivated humility, compassion, purity of heart and apatheia.
Apatheia was the goal of the desert journey. Apatheia refers to the quality of an interior spiritual journey where the inner struggle against inordinate attachments has ceased. Grounded in profound interior freedom, the ascetic was free of the strong pulls of worldly desires. Apatheia is a mature mindfulness, a grounded sensitivity, and a keen attention to one’s inner world as well as to the world in which one journeyed. Strong emotions such as anger, fear or anxiety did not dominate or control the ascetic’s inner world. Strong emotions were disciplined to serve the inner journey rather than disrupt it.
Apatheia is purity of heart. The desert ascetics taught us to let go intentionally of all that keeps us from the single-minded pursuit of God: feelings and thoughts that bind us, cravings and addictions that diminish our sense of worth, and attachments to self-imposed perfectionism. Apatheia is nourished by simplicity grounded in abundance of the soul. This simplicity is in balance and harmony with the human community and the created world. To cultivate apatheia, we must be uncluttered in mind and heart, continue to be watchful and vigilant about those “seeping boundaries” where we can be deceived out of simplicity and into complexity under the guise of a “good.”
Although solitude was deeply valued and actively cultivated, the desert ascetic received all guests with a deep spirit of hospitality. With the guest, Christ was received. Hence, one’s fast might be set aside to join the guest in a light meal. Silence would be broken for heart-to-heart conversation. The guest might later be taught to sit silently in the presence of God while enjoying one another’s company.
Desert ascetics understood that the journey to a deep and mature relationship with God was made within oneself. The arduous work of stripping away illusions and all that keeps us from knowing God, gifted the ascetic with a deep sense of understanding one’s own true humanity. A keen understanding of one’s true humanity–created fully in the image and likeness of God and yet still on the journey towards full maturity–made desert ascetics deeply humble people.
Desert ascetics faced suffering with determination and courage. They understood that suffering was grounded in their attachments to attitudes, thoughts, motives, relationships and reputation. Suffering was the avenue towards freedom and detachment, towards maturity and humility. Suffering remained until “letting go.” A deep capacity for compassion often resulted.
Their experience of compassion brought the ascetics to a place of deep understanding of the struggles of others, seeing themselves in the lives of others and removing any sense of distance or distinction. Desert ascetics vigorously rejected any judgmental or critical attitude. Desert ascetics teach us that awareness of our own weaknesses gives us an opportunity to deepen our compassion for the weaknesses of others. As we cultivate a tender, vulnerable, expansive heart that embraces the humanity of all, we see with new eyes, the eyes and heart of Christ.
Prayer was a continuous way of life in the desert. It was intentionally cultivated until it became second nature. Prayer involved the hard work of learning a new language–the language of heaven. For the ascetic, prayer was not merely the speaking of words. Prayer was the heart yearning for God, reaching out in hopeful openness to being touched by God. Prayer was the Holy Spirit breathing through the inner spirit of the ascetic and returning to God with yearnings for intimacy.
The ascetic sought to cultivate a silent, passionate and burning love for God experienced in deep and nurturing solitude. The atmosphere for rich prayer was a simple quiet voice, not an inner noisy crowd. Physical as well as inner stillness and quiet were necessary attitudes. The words of prayer were brief and straight from the heart. Praying the psalms, intercession, contemplation and silent awareness of God’s presence were all expressions of prayer in the desert and monastery.
The psalms were recited throughout the day. Ascetics strove to pray into the night as well. Reading the Sacred Word was a bodily experience. Ascetics did not simply “recite” the psalms. In their pondering of the Word, they allowed it to permeate their inner being in order to pray from their gut. Desert ascetics were grounded in Sacred Scripture. They rejected a rigid approach to understanding Scripture, knowing there were multiple senses of any text.
Seeking to interiorize the Word and make it a part of their very being, ascetics often began their desert journey in deep inner struggle to reflect upon, understand and become one with the Word. Reverenced as a source of life, the Word was seen as having a capacity to awaken deep sensitivity and to transmit life energy. Meaning was found when Word and life corresponded.
Wrestling with God’s Word cultivated in the ascetic a way of understanding and reflecting on the world. The Word shaped how they saw and interpreted their culture. The Word was their source for discerning God’s call of the church.
Desert ascetics warned their followers that as they began their discipline of prayer, they would be attacked by acedia. This is a sense of boredom or dejection that comes without cause as a temptation in prayer. Acedia deters from the inner journey and discourages the inner struggle towards freedom. Followers were invited to be tenacious in prayer and to trust the original desire for God. The boredom then would pass.
Silence helps us begin the pilgrimage within and better discern the sacred. Silence helps us to cultivate and deepen our passionate love for God because it provides the atmosphere of true and authentic communication with God. Silence teaches us to speak simply, directly, compassionately and honestly. Sitting in silence with the silence of God is the deepest, most intense form of prayer.
Entering into silence is not easy. To risk encountering our fullest and truest self, and to meet God as God requires courage and the freedom to risk. Silence invites us to meet and discover our truest selves–with masks, illusions and public personae removed. Self-image is stripped and realigned: we begin to put on the mind of Christ. Silence, therefore, invites us to change, to grow towards the fullness of life. Silence cultivates a healthy detachment from reputation, thwarted desires and plans, and anything that keep us distracted from God.
The ascetic strove to sit quietly and attune her attention fully to the silence, allowing silence to speak its wisdom. As the psalmist tells us: “. . . but I have stilled and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me” (Ps 131:2). And how we struggle to sit still today!
For the desert dweller, “silence itself was layered, having depth and texture, and that to learn to be attentive to the varied qualities of the layers was to begin to discern the presence of the Spirit of God.”4 Silence is essentially listening. Desert ascetics were “practiced in peeling back the layers of silence, pierced to the core the hearts of fellow seekers and laid bare for them the voice of the living God.”5 Obsculta!
Desert ascetics cultivated a listening heart. The desert way was a life engaged in intense listening. Listening for the Beloved’s voice cultivated a wise and compassionate heart, able to yield to the movements of the Holy Spirit. Listening for the ebbs and flows of the Spirit was fundamental to a life of discernment. A still, focused attention was needed for fruitful discernment. True discernment does not presuppose how the Spirit is to move, nor what God is to say. In this life of cultivated listening, ascetics were open to the unexpected. They were willing to risk being surprised.
Desert ascetics were deeply aware that their cultural background, education and life experiences framed and influenced listening. Some were concerned that prior education and privilege would hamper their inner journey. We live with this same challenge today due to the bombardment of all our senses from the media; we are a society driven by the information age. Desert ascetics steeped their minds in Scripture and other sacred writings in order to cultivate a mind and heart able to listen for God’s voice. Growth in self-awareness clarified the lens that filtered and colored their listening. The clearness of a prism was the goal.
About Idols and images
We have often no choice when it comes to the venue of our silent retreats. There are no places within the Evangelical community where we can have silent retreats.
Evangelicals have no sense of sacred architecture and their retreat facilities are not conducive at all for silence. The fact that most evangelicals cannot distinguish between contemplation and meditation tells a lot.
We still believe as evangelicals that most of our impact and message to the world is by words and ideas, gained through meditation and analysis of the Bible. What we don’t know is that 90% of our message is in the reality and living presence of Jesus as a person within us, in our lives. It is the living Christ in us that people engage with.
Many pastors because of the Cartesian influence focus mainly on giving out knowledge and ideas about Jesus (uutakin) even though they themselves no longer have that sense or experience of the presence of Jesus in their lives. They are moving out from automatic drive, not from a day to day attending to the presence of God. This is what we seek in silent retreats, interiorizing this solitude into our lives so that each day, each moment, we are aware of His presence.
Most of the ideal places for silent retreats are in Roman Catholic retreat houses. MMP has frequented the Villa Sta. Luisa in Tagaytay, run by the Daughters of Charity, for more than a decade now. We go there three times a year. The Catholic facilities of course have many statues: statues of Mary, Jesus and saints. This is expected in Catholic premises. Evangelicals are repulsed by these images or idols. They think they are infested with demons and that these demons can also enter our bodies and afflict us.
This is really bothersome. One of our staff used to go up the altar and cover the Cross with a figure of the Christ hanging, with a bed sheet so when we are worshiping, we don’t see it. We don’t do that anymore. We have asked that the statue of Mary also be removed but the nuns refused. I think this is insulting to the nuns, although they seem very amiable about it. The most respectful thing to do is just not go there at all. It’s visiting the Philippines and asking that the Filipinos remove the statue of Jose Rizal in the parks or visiting a friend and asking him to remove a picture of his mother in his own house.
The Roman Catholic defense of this accusation of idolatry is a bit wobbly. The Ten Commandments include a strict and clear prohibition against worshiping carved or graven images. It is really hard to get around it safely.
But we will have a little digression. An idol strictly speaking is a piece of wood or stone or metal, whether carved to resemble a created being or not, or a celestial body, and made to represent a non-existent god. In other words, there is only one God. Anything purported to be god is not true, for there is no other God. This is why Paul in Corinthians says, idols are really nothing.
There are many lessons in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.
We should note is that in the olden days, the cities were filled with idols just like in Bangkok today. There was practically no place without an idol. When Paul reached Athens, what he noted was the vast number of gods or idols in the city.
16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. 18 A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. 19 Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” 21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)
22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you. Acts 17:16-34 New International Version (NIV)
Most of the Christians of the first century church were commoners and poor people who did not have their own homes or were merely servants living in the places arranged for by their masters. So, every place they went, there were idols.
It must have been very difficult for them to worship without idols being around but not impossible. Could they have survived, eating, sleeping and working in places filled with idols? Yes, of course. They were not the dominant members of society, not even a significant minority so that they could order the idols to be removed or destroyed. They had to put up with so many idols. Even when they were worshiping, there were idols around them. But they ignored them.
Eventually of course they destroyed them when they could. But proof that they stood their ground against these idols were the many who died in the persecution, killed for not worshiping the idols and were sent to the arenas to be killed, eaten by lions or burned on the stake. But they did not waiver. They steadfastly refused to worship idols.
Some argue however on the basis of Exodus 32 regarding the golden calf sculpted by Aaron. It is argued there that idolatry exist even though the representation is that of the true God. In other words, it is false to argue that an idol when it seeks to represent the True God is not a sin because in Exodus 32, it was precisely an idol of the True God that they were worshiping.
On cursory reading of the text, this claim is however shown to be groundless. Exodus 32 as copied below, the idol fashioned into a golden calf does not refer to the True God nor intended to represent the True God.
New International Version (NIV)
The Golden Calf
32 When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods[a] who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”
2 Aaron answered them, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron.4 He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods,[b] Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”
5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.” 6 So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.
7 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. 8 They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’
9 “I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. 10 Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”
11 But Moses sought the favor of the Lord his God. “Lord,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.’” 14 Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.
15 Moses turned and went down the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands. They were inscribed on both sides, front and back. 16 The tablets were the work of God; the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets.
17 When Joshua heard the noise of the people shouting, he said to Moses, “There is the sound of war in the camp.”
18 Moses replied:
“It is not the sound of victory,
it is not the sound of defeat;
it is the sound of singing that I hear.”
19 When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain. 20 And he took the calf the people had made and burned it in the fire; then he ground it to powder, scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it.
21 He said to Aaron, “What did these people do to you, that you led them into such great sin?”
22 “Do not be angry, my lord,” Aaron answered. “You know how prone these people are to evil. 23 They said to me, ‘Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.’ 24 So I told them, ‘Whoever has any gold jewelry, take it off.’ Then they gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!”
25 Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies. 26 So he stood at the entrance to the camp and said, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me.” And all the Levites rallied to him.
27 Then he said to them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.’” 28 The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died. 29 Then Moses said, “You have been set apart to the Lord today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day.”
30 The next day Moses said to the people, “You have committed a great sin. But now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.”
31 So Moses went back to the Lord and said, “Oh, what a great sin these people have committed! They have made themselves gods of gold. 32 But now, please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.”
33 The Lord replied to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. 34 Now go, lead the people to the place I spoke of, and my angel will go before you. However, when the time comes for me to punish, I will punish them for their sin.”
35 And the Lord struck the people with a plague because of what they did with the calf Aaron had made.
Exodus 32:1 Or a god; also in verses 23 and 31
Exodus 32:4 Or This is your god; also in verse 8
It is very clear from verse 21 and verses 29 to 35, that the making of the idol and worshiping it was a sin, a great sin. The question is whether or not the golden calf idol was in fact a representation of the True God which means any representation, icon, statue, photo, etc. even of the True God, is an idol and a sin. Any worship of it is also a sin.
There are many indications that the golden calf was not a representation of the True God:
- Verse 1 implies that the people had given up on Moses because Moses had been gone too long. It says that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain. The people had given up on Moses and were now bent on following another god or other gods, other than the True God. These gods would now be the ones to lead them or go before them. It was also in the plural, meaning, they were actually making several gods or idols versus the True God who was only one.
- In Verse 5, Aaron clearly said the festival was going to be a festival to the Lord. It could mean that they were still worshiping the True God but now with an idol of a golden calf. Or, it could also mean that now, the golden calf had taken over Yahweh, Adoni and this title is now given to this new god or gods. There is a lot of argument in this matter.
- But verse 4 is also clear, it is a small letter god, not capital letter God. So it means it is not the True God.
- Psalm 106. 19 to 21 is very instructive. It says – “They made a calf at Horeb and worshiped a cast image. They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass. They forgot God, their savior, who had done great things in Egypt.” This is clear evidence that the golden calf was in contrast with the True God, the two are not the same, nor was the golden calf intended to represent the True God whom they now had forgotten.
- One way to look at it is one presented by no less than William F. Albright, dean of biblical archaeologists, in his book From Stone Age to Christianity, Garden City, NY, Doubleday, 2nd ed, 1957, pp. 264-6:
The testimony of our written sources, plus the completely negative results of excavation, should be evidence enough to prove that Yahwism was essentially aniconic and that material representations were foreign to its spirit from the beginning. We shall show below that there is no basis whatever for the idea that Yahweh was worshipped in bull form by the northern tribes at Bethel and Dan. The golden calf simply formed the pedestal on which the invisible Yahweh stood, just as in the Temple of Solomon the invisible Glory of God was enthroned above the cherubim; conceptually the two ideas are virtually identical.
This means that the golden calf was fashioned not into an idol but simply as a decorative pedestal on which supposedly the True but Invisible God would stand. This is the same way that God is imagined as standing between the carved images of the cherubim in the temple of Solomon.
- There is a similar argument from Merrill F. Unger, _Archaeology and the Old Testament, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1954, pp.236-7: that conceptually there is little difference between representing the invisible Deity as enthroned on the cherubim (1 Sam 4:4; 2 Ki 19:15) or as standing on a bull………
It is interesting that Martin Luther did not remove these idols in his lifetime.
One story in the Old Testament could be the precursor for what we are doing today. This is the story of Naaman. God may have inserted that story to prepare us when we are surrounded by idols in Tagaytay. After Naaman was healed, he begged forgiveness from God for the future. When his master, the king takes him to the temple and puts his arms around him and makes him bow together to the idols, he assured God it was not to the idol that he was devoted to and that nonetheless, God should forgive him in advance.
This story tells us that God will not take it against us when that happens.
In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, two times, he tells us that an idol is really nothing. There is no God but our God. In many ways, these false gods or lords that vie for our attention and want to compete with God are not real gods at all.
Satan was an angel of God who tried to become god. But at most, he was just an angel. Demons are of the same low status. People or humans are of a higher status than angels or demons.
Imagine the first century Christians. They were so submerged in a culture of idols. You could not buy food that was not already blessed by this or that god or demon. And yet, Paul tells us, this is of no significance. Food does not bring us near to God. We are no worse if we do not eat and no better if we do. Being so steeped in idols, they found idols left and right, it was I imagine difficult to maneuver around them. So, Paul explained their situation carefully. His explanations were mostly in terms of an understanding of the significance of these so-called gods or demons and how they affect us.
First, Paul reiterates the strictness and seriousness of God in relation to the prohibition on idolatry. He mentions again the consequences of idolatry in which so many thousands were killed by God for that sin. So, also we need to be careful and pay serious attention to this commandment. We are not to be idolaters. Or else!
It is very serious also because as Paul explained, when we do it, we actually become a part of the idol or the demonic thing that we worship. He likened it to the communion. When we have communion, we actually take part and become part of Christ. So when we eat food sacrificed to idols or worship idols, we actually become part of that demonic thing represented by the idol.
18 Consider the people of Israel: Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar? 19 Do I mean then that food sacrificed to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20 No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons. 22 Are we trying to arouse the Lord’s jealousy? Are we stronger than he?
In this connection, we need to make some distinction. A graven image or an image or icon of Jesus is not the image spoken of here in the ten commandments. Obviously it is not since our own evangelical churches have so many of them, inside our nursery and children’s bible study materials, in the stained glass windows, etc.. We have so many children bibles illustrated with many pictures of God and Jesus. We have DVBS materials for little children with pictures of Jesus and the other characters in the bible.
The worse part about this is that now, we have many Jesus Films abounding, as evangelistic tools, using actors to portray Jesus and his disciples, to dramatize the life and ministry of Jesus. Are these evangelistic films sinful?
So, obviously, it is not just the mere act of making pictures or icons or statues that are involved here. It is bowing or worshiping to these images or idols. So, what is it about these bowing and worshiping that is wrong. It is wrong when we represent something, a stone, a piece of wood or metal as a god other than the True God of the bible. In other words, if it represents Jesus or the biblical Father, something that points to the true God, then it is not the one prohibited in this commandment.
The Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox churches use this argument. We are commanded not to make images of God or anything else, that is true but when God became human and appeared to us, that changed things a little bit. There are two concerns here. The idols of the bible were really competing gods. They competed with our True God. That is not the case today. We know that the statue or icon or image points to the biblical God and not something else.
Second, when the God who refused even to be seen directly or frontally by Moses, now appear in human form to be hugged, kissed, seen, touched, and crucified, then this God has become something different, something we can make representations of just like we would take a photograph of our own friends or relatives. If cameras existed back then, someone would have taken a picture of Jesus, his childhood days, his growing up days, his adult stage and his ministry till his crucifixion. I doubt if Jesus or God would have prohibited people from taking pictures of Jesus.
We have many pictures of people of olden days when cameras were first used. When cameras were not existent, people used paintings, canvases to depict the subject. Even more versatile artists used sculptures or frescos.
There are many icons within the Eastern Orthodox churches. Many in the Roman Catholic churches were burned during the great iconoclastic movement of the 15th century. But those in the eastern churches were mostly spared. The biggest collection of icons can be found in the Sinai monastery of St. Catherine.
When Jesus became man, he was susceptible now of being depicted in photos or paintings or icons. Most of the eastern orthodox icons follow a strict protocol to ensure against idolatry. They are to be in one dimensional form only, i.e. they look flat, unreal. Only those that really move the heart to go beyond the picture to the True God are blessed as sacred icons and used in worship.
The Sistine Chapel depicts God himself, creating Adam. It is not just Jesus drawn there by Michelangelo but also God. I don’t think this is part of the sin of idolatry spoken of in the bible.
We are also very biased, and so we are very selective in saying which an idol is and which is not. When I was in Bangkok with some people from ATS, during the break time, I bought a t-shirt as souvenir for my kids. They had the words Bangkok printed on them but also pictures of the temple and the idols there.
When I got back to our hotel, they chided me for buying it. They pointed out that the prints were idols and thus, demonic. I was downcast because I already spent my only money for pasalubong. I was looking around the room and then noticed on the table some money and I picked up a US one dollar bill. I told the group that there was an eye and a pyramid in the dollar bill. They did not say anything.
I also picked up Thai money, a baht and there were pictures of temples and idols in them also. I told the ATS group that maybe they should throw away their money, because they have demonic signs in them. It was then they decided I could keep my t-shirts. They could forgive my souvenirs now.
I sometimes wonder why we can pick on the Roman Catholic idols but not the US dollar bill or the Thai baht. Or why we can love the Jews so much even though they hated and crucified Jesus? We actually have more affinity with Muslims than with Jews, theologically, but it does not reflect in our attitude towards either one of them.
We have so many pictures of Jesus in our own children’s bibles but they seem exempt from the prohibition in the Ten Commandments, why? Because we don’t worship these pictures, they are just representations of the true God. Our hearts are sincere and our worship is accurate in our knowledge that the real God is the God of the Bible and there is no other. That is why we can be forgiven.
Some actually have the Leonardo daVinci painting of the Last Supper in their homes but it does not cause any concern. During Christmas, almost all of us have the Belen which is again a depiction of the birth of Jesus in the manger. This does not trouble us at all. I would hate to see the paintings of Rembrandt or Caravaggio of Christ burned by Evangelicals for being idolatrous.
Although the admonition not to eat the food sacrificed to idols is there already given at the beginning, at the end of the text, Paul tells us that idols are really nothing. We can ignore them. If we are in a Roman Catholic retreat house, we can ignore the idols too. They will not overpower us or control us or afflict us. They cannot overcome Christ in us.
25 Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, 26 for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”[i]
27 If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. 28 But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the one who told you and for the sake of conscience. 29 I am referring to the other person’s conscience, not yours. For why is my freedom being judged by another’s conscience? 30 If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?
The main point of Paul is this, when we do something for the glory of God, that is what matters the most. When we eat food we know is sacrificed to idols but we raise it up in thanksgiving to God, the true God, before we eat it, then it is ok. It overcomes all things. If we look at the idol as representing the true God of the Bible and not some other “god” then it is nothing to be concerned about.
The second concern of Paul is that others who see us will not stumble. Now this is tricky. Paul has always explained who are the weak ones and who are not. The weak ones will stumble and in that way we have sinned also even though we had the freedom to do what we did.
Our freedom is limited by how it wrongly affects others. It is the weak Paul is protecting. The weak will follow our example and therefore fall and commit a sin. It is clear we can eat food sacrificed to idols even if we know it was sacrificed to idols but we don’t, even though we are free, and we do not do it not for the sake of our conscience but for the sake of the conscience of the weak brother, the other person.
Now, who are the weak brothers?
7 But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. 8 But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.
Here it is very clear, the brother with a weak conscience will do what he knows is wrong, will copy you even though he knows it is a sin. In other words, they will also eat and be defiled. Most of the brothers we know who will object to what we are doing are not the brothers with a weak conscience. They have very strong conscience. They are actually the legalistic brothers who will try to control us to make us stop what we doing but they will never do what we are doing, they will never do what they are telling us is wrong. They will therefore never stumble.
When the weak are enlightened, and do what we do out of their freedom in Christ, then they know it is no longer to an idol but to God. We know they have reached their freedom because they believe that food does not bring us near to God; that we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do. We stop being weak in this sense when we are set free – the freedom of the knowledge that eating food does not make us defiled. Jesus said, it is not what enters our body that makes us sin but what comes out of our hearts. Freedom makes a weak brother become strong.
The worship of Mary is an entirely different thing. The Roman Catholics teach wrongly that Mary should be worshiped. In the theology department of the Roman Catholics, they teach that Mary is not to be worshiped, only venerated. They do some theological gymnastics and fine hair-splitting here but in the end, they really worship Mary. Among the poor, making such fine line distinctions is impossible. Whatever you teach them, they will also confuse worship from mere veneration. In the end, the masses will worship Mary. They think Mary is the conduit to Jesus, as though Mary were also another Jesus, to stand between and be an intermediary, just as Jesus is, to God. So, Mary stands between us and Jesus. Jesus stands between Mary and God. This is wrong. That is why they call Mary the intermediatrix.
Even though the theology department of the Roman Catholic church says not to worship Mary, many still do. This is pure idolatry.
However, a Christian can distinguish between worship, veneration and adoration of Mary. We know she is not God, nor intermediatrix. Because of our hatred for Roman Catholics, we have totally set aside all the teachings about Mary.
For example, the Magnificat is one of the greatest prayers in the Bible from which we can learn so much. And yet, because of our fear of the Mary worship cult, we won’t even read it.
We can come to the statue of Mary to admire the woman. She is after all the symbol of the poorest of the poor. When she could not refuse the angel, regarding her being pregnant, she resigned herself and said, let it happen according to God’s will. There is such great submission there which we need to imbibe, to imitate, and to love.
As an aside, there are many verses in the Scripture that show us God commanding his people to make images of angels, cherubim and others, inside the temple. When there was a crisis in the history of Israel, a bronze serpent was used to heal those who would look up to the serpent. This was never considered idolatry.
The statues of Jesus in the Roman Catholic retreat houses or churches are not the idols prohibited by the Ten Commandments or other commandments of God. They are depictions of the Biblical God and not of another god or lord. Statues, images and icons helps to focus our faith. The statue of Mary can be admired or adored, not worshiped. The crucifix with the figure of Jesus hanging on it can also be a good meditation piece to deepen our attending to the presence of God. We have this freedom but we need to be careful the weak brothers will not stumble because of our freedom.
1 Corinthians 8-10
New International Version (NIV)
Concerning Food Sacrificed to Idols
8 Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. 2 Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. 3 But whoever loves God is known by God.[a]
4 So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” 5 For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), 6 yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.
7 But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. 8 But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.
Warnings From Israel’s History
10 For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. 2 They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. 3 They all ate the same spiritual food 4 and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.
6 Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did.7 Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.”[d] 8 We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousands of them died. 9 We should not test Christ,[e] as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. 10 And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel.
11 These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. 12 So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! 13 No temptation[f] has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted[g] beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted,[h] he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.
Idol Feasts and the Lord’s Supper
14 Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. 15 I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. 16 Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? 17 Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf.
18 Consider the people of Israel: Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar? 19 Do I mean then that food sacrificed to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20 No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons. 22 Are we trying to arouse the Lord’s jealousy? Are we stronger than he?
The Believer’s Freedom
23 “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. 24 No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.
25 Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, 26 for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”[i]
27 If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. 28 But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the one who told you and for the sake of conscience. 29 I am referring to the other person’s conscience, not yours. For why is my freedom being judged by another’s conscience? 30 If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?
31 So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. 32 Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— 33 even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.
Graven Images in the Bible
Exodus 20:4 ESV
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
Exodus 20:1-26 ESV
And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. “You shall have no other gods before me. “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me,
Leviticus 26:1 ESV
“You shall not make idols for yourselves or erect an image or pillar, and you shall not set up a figured stone in your land to bow down to it, for I am the Lord your God.
Acts 17:29 ESV
Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.
Beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth. And beware lest you raise your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them, things that the Lord your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven.
Exodus 20:5 ESV
You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me,
Exodus 20:4-5 ESV
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me,
Isaiah 42:8 ESV
I am the Lord; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols.
Isaiah 44:15 ESV
Then it (the idol made of wood) becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it.
Exodus 20:3 ESV
“You shall have no other gods before me.
The nave he lined with cypress and covered it with fine gold and made palms and chains on it. He adorned the house with settings of precious stones. The gold was gold of Parvaim. So he lined the house with gold—its beams, its thresholds, its walls, and its doors—and he carved cherubim on the walls.
Isaiah 2:12-17 ESV
For the Lord of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up—and it shall be brought low; against all the cedars of Lebanon, lofty and lifted up; and against all the oaks of Bashan; against all the lofty mountains, and against all the uplifted hills; against every high tower, and against every fortified wall; against all the ships of Tarshish, and against all the beautiful craft.
1 Samuel 24:8 ESV
Afterward David also arose and went out of the cave, and called after Saul, “My lord the king!” And when Saul looked behind him, David bowed with his face to the earth and paid homage.
Numbers 21:9-10 ESV
So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. And the people of Israel set out and camped in Oboth.
Exodus 25:22 ESV
There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel.
Idols in the Bible
Top of Form
Luke 16:13 ESV
No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”
Matthew 4:10 ESV
Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’”
Colossians 3:5 ESV
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.
Romans 12:1 ESV
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
1 Samuel 7:2-3 ESV
From the day that the ark was lodged at Kiriath-jearim, a long time passed, some twenty years, and all the house of Israel lamented after the Lord. And Samuel said to all the house of Israel, “If you are returning to the Lord with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you and direct your heart to the Lord and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.”
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality,
Exodus 20:1-6 ESV
And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. “You shall have no other gods before me. “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me,
Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?
Matthew 15:18-19 ESV
But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.
1 Peter 2:16 ESV
Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices
Ephesians 5:5 ESV
For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.
Ephesians 5:1-7 ESV
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.
Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions,
Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
Romans 2:21-24 ESV
You then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”
Acts 14:11-15 ESV
And when the crowds saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in Lycaonian, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. And the priest of Zeus, whose temple was at the entrance to the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates and wanted to offer sacrifice with the crowds. But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their garments and rushed out into the crowd, crying out, “Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them.
John 5:18 ESV
This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.
Bottom of Form
 In ancient Greco-Roman times, ICHTHUS was the Greek word for “fish.” In the early church sometime near the end of the first century, the word was made into an acronym or a word formed from the first letter of several words. As such, ichthus compiles to “Jesus Christ, God’s son, Savior,” based on this configuration:
- Iota (i) is the first letter of Iesous (Greek for Jesus)
- Chi (kh) is the first letter of Khristos (Greek for Christ)
- Theta (th) is the first letter of Theou (Greek for God, or “God’s)
- Upsilon (u) is the first letter of Huios (Greek for Son)
- Sigma (s) is the first letter of Soter (Greek for Savior)
Known colloquially as “the sign of the fish,” it is reported that in early times it was used by Christians as a secret symbol that all would recognize, whether scratched on walls, rocks, or sand. The simple symbol of the fish is made of two intersecting arcs, the ends extending beyond the meeting point so as to resemble the profile of a fish. It has been suggested that when a Christian met a stranger on the road, he/she sometimes drew one arc of the fish outline in the dirt. If the stranger drew the other arc, both believers knew they were in good company! The symbol may have also been used by early Christians to mark tombs or even meeting places in a house church. http://www.thehousechurchbook.com/2009/01/06/the-meaning-of-ichthus/
 Psalms talk about singing a new song but it is not to a literal new song since all the Psalms have remained the same for centuries and in Revelations, we see basically a repeat of the Old Testament words in worship. What it means rather are new songs more because the heart is renewed. The song is now coming out from people who are holy.