Thursday, August 27, 2009

Large Bead: Centering

The journey begins with the large bead on the circle, and the practice begins with getting centered. We come to our time of prayer from whatever it is we were doing before. Now that might seem overly obvious, yet pause to think about it for a moment. If you were having friends come over you would probably spend at least a few moments getting your home ready--straightening up a bit, perhaps; maybe putting some chips in a bowl and some music on the CD player. Or if you were about to do some intense exercise you'd spend a little time warming up. Similarly, if you want to get the most out of your prayer practice there should be some transitional time of preparation between whatever it was you were doing before you were praying and your time of prayer. Consider it a time of getting your inner house of prayer in order, or a kind of spiritual warm up. This is the purpose of the first bead.

There are all sorts of things one can say or do -- my suggestion has been to recite a short poem or, perhaps, a meditative passage. The Vietnamese Buddhist monk, poet, and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh has made famous the gatha "Breathing in, I relax body and mind; / breathing out I smile. / Dwelling in the present moment, / I realize this is the only moment." You could also light a candle and gaze at it for a few moments; invite a bell or gong to sound and listen until you can no longer hear its sound; or anything else that gives you the time you need to both transition and prepare.

For some time I have made use of a hymn text that I learned many years ago back in my Methodist summer camp days. The words were written by Daniel Iverson and the stanza I use is © 1935, 1963 Birdwing Music (ASCAP):
Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me
Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me
Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me
Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me.
I tie the phrases of this hymn to my breathing, in-breath and out-breath, and I repeat it as often as I need to in order to feel that I have really gotten myself out of whatever mindset I was in before and into an attitude of prayer. I like these words because:

Spirit of the Living God reminds me that I'm not concerned with any of the false idols we've set up in place of the One True God, the "I Am" the defies all categorization and attempts to name it and know it and put it in a box. This is the unknowable Mystery, the is-ness, the very essence of existence, which is, as the Qu'ran puts it, "closer than the throbbing vein in my neck" yet which is also beyond the farthest reaches of the universe. Nothing less than that is my focus.

And I ask it to fall afresh on me. St. Theresa of Avila said that the greatest barrier to our experience of God is our last experience of God. This prayer reminds me to be open to this encounter, this experience, this moment and not any memory of past moments or expectations and hopes for what it might be.

And then there's that wonderful four-fold request:
  • melt me--melt my defenses, break through my barriers, tear down my walls
  • mold me--help me to be the person I know I can be
  • fill me--there is so much emptiness, so much longing in me
  • use me-- and so much need in the world

Sometimes, when I have the time, I just keep repeating these four phrases over and over again until one seems to catch my attention and then I sink into that one, making it the focus of an extended meditation. Usually, though, I simply move on to repeating the first phrase again:

Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me. After getting in touch with a true and deep desire (and need) to be melted, molded, filled, and used, these words often have an even more profound resonance.

And now, having warmed up, I'm ready to begin in earnest.

In Gassho,


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