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A Literacy of the Heart

Date: 15/01/2012/Speaker: Ps Su-Lin Ngiam

Good Morning Church, and Happy New Year!

I wonder how many of us have made New Year resolutions this year? I guess the resolutions would probably go along the lines of something to do with bettering ourselves, our relationships, situations in life and so on?

The Christian liturgical season of Epiphany is great for thinking about resolutions, about new beginnings, what kind of persons do we want to be, what are we being called to do this year, where is our life going etc.

The narratives in the Old and New Testament texts for today both speak about new beginnings, of callings to deepen the spiritual life and do God’s work. One concerns a boy towards the start of his life, and the other, already further on in his life.

Let’s look at 1 Samuel 3: 1 – 10.

Here, the boy Samuel was under the religious tutelage of Eli, a high priest. He was learning to serve the Lord, and perform temple duties. However, it seems his knowledge of Yahweh so far was cerebral, and as Scripture says, he “did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him”. He could not recognise who it was that was calling him, and needed to be instructed how to respond and communicate with this Being. This means that Samuel had not yet encountered God in a deep, spiritual way, in the depths of his soul. His spiritual knowing had not yet been awakened and experienced.

This would soon change however, and this initial calling was the start of a lifelong intimate relationship with God, of much in-depth communication and communion. Samuel become God’s mouth-piece to the Jews, and is known as one of the great prophets of the Old Testament who played a pivotal role in Israel’s history – being the first king-maker of both Saul, and then David.

Moving on to the New Testament, we are asked to look at John 1: 43 – 51.

This passage is about the calling of both Philip and Nathanael, although the narrative places more emphasis on the latter. Nathanael is also known as Bartholomew in the other gospels, and is only referred to as Nathanael in the gospel of John. Here, Nathanael knows he is going to physically see someone who supposedly is the Messiah. He is however skeptical and it is only when the Lord tells him he saw Nathanael first, that he already knows Nathanael before he has met him and is now calling him, is Nathanael convinced. There is a lot of play on the word, ‘seeing’ in this passage, from physical sight to something deeper, a more spiritual kind of seeing and knowing, like seeing in the mind’s eye and knowing in the depth of one’s soul, like how Jesus already knows Nathanael before meeting him. It was obviously a very deep kind of knowing that resonated with Nathanael, even though the narrative does not expand very much, enough for him to exclaim boldly, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”.

There’s also a sense of mysticism in this passage, with Jesus making reference to Nathanael in future being able to see “heaven being opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man”.

This could be literally, like in a vision, something mentioned at the beginning of the 1 Samuel 3 passage as well: “Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” It was not uncommon to receive visions from the Lord, which were then interpreted by prophets and communicated to the people; and/or to be understood metaphorically where Jesus was here to bridge heaven and earth, to bring about reconciliation and the kindom of God here on earth.

In this passage, we see Nathanael having a spiritual encounter with the Lord, one that brings about a conversion: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”.

How many of us have had spiritual experiences, or how many of us have developed deep spiritual knowing?

How many of us are able to discern the God who is calling us (because God calls and communes with us all the time), and know how to respond; and how many are able to see God with our hearts and souls and be continually converted?

How many of us desire to do so, and how many have made it our new year’s resolution?

My hope is that by the end of the sermon we would either continue doing so, or be convinced of the importance of honing and deepening our spiritual life and experience, and am also suggesting a practice that will enable us to do this – the practice of Christian meditation. I have been making reference to Christian meditation since the middle of last year, subtly at the Amplify Conference, then more directly when conducting some sessions with Younique and in my previous sermon on the Wisdom Jesus. Today, we will delve deeper into this, and have a practice session together towards the end of the sermon.

My first encounter with Christian meditation was through my mum. She has been meditating for many years now, and I do see the changes in her being over the years. It is a gradual process and one that has brought her more self-awareness, acceptance, being able to let go more of the ego, and is preparing her for her eventual death. Through her, I am exposed to the great Christian meditators and spiritual directors of our time – John Main, Laurence Freeman, Robert Kennedy, Cynthia Bourgeault, Thomas Keating and others. We need Asian names in there!

Personally, even though I believe strongly in the purpose and value of meditation, I am still a novice meditator. Even though the practice is simple, my greatest challenge is putting aside the regular time to meditate. I am a work-in-progress and hope to become better at disciplining myself. I have learnt though, and I think it is already in my disposition, to do things meditatively and to contemplate, to sit still and be silent. This has helped me in life but yes, it still not quite the same as true meditation which is very intentional and a conscious decision to stop everything, bring one’s entire being to a state of meditation, with no distractions, no thinking, and just rest there, for at least 20 – 30 minutes, twice a day (yes, that’s the recommendation from experienced Christian meditators).

Last weekend, I attended an inter-faith seminar on the contemplative dimension in the various faith traditions, titled, Common Ground. This was organised by the Inter-Religious and Ecumenical Division of the Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore, the World Centre for Christian Mediation, and had support from the Inter-Religious Organisation here in Singapore. The seminar was led by Fr Laurence Freeman, a Benedictine monk and who now leads the World Centre for Christian Meditation, which his teacher, Fr John Main, founded. Other religious leaders of other faiths were also invited to speak on meditation within their own traditions.

It was a very enriching seminar where I learnt and took away a lot. I am convinced that Christian meditation is our Lord’s gift to us, a way to commune with the divine and be continually transformed to be more and more Christ-like. I am convinced that through the practice of meditation in each of our faith traditions, including atheists (one doesn’t need a religion in order to meditate), is where our differences are bridged in all our uniqueness, where our common humanity can be found. For those of you who are interested in getting a copy of the seminar booklet, Kyn brought back very few spare copies and has brought them to church today. The booklet contains short articles on meditation from the various faith traditions and an article on inter-religious dialogue by Laurence Freeman.

So what is Christian meditation?

It is a form of prayer, a prayer from the deep, that touches the depth of us. It is a form of praying that is believed to be taught by Jesus to his followers, and continued by the early Christians. Meditation was widely used by the desert mothers and fathers, ascetics who went into the desert to pray, and some of them wrote about their practices. Fr John Main, who founded the World Centre for Christian Meditation, first learnt about Christian meditation from the readings of one of the desert fathers, a monk named John Cassian from the 4th century CE.

Christian meditation has always been practiced in various forms till this day, although it has also been gravely misunderstood in various points of Church history and banned. Hopefully, we will see a revival of Christian meditation in the Church in our age.

There are different methods of Christian meditation, and meditation in general is “a universal spiritual wisdom that leads in silence, stillness and simplicity from the mind to the heart”. The practical way of meditation taught by John Main is the faithful repetition of a prayer phrase or ‘mantra’ as it is often called today. The prayer-phrase he recommends is ‘Maranatha’, which in Aramaic means, “Come, Lord Jesus”. This is the oldest Christian prayer in Aramaic and is a useful word, being in a different language so it has no associations for us and will not give fuel to our minds which are eager to go on thinking. The faithful and loving repetition of this prayer leads us to stillness of body and mind and helps us to enter the silence that dwells in the centre of our being.

We will try this together later.

For many, nothing actually happens during meditation. One just sits in silence, stillness and simplicity, repeating one’s mantra and staying in the process of emptying oneself, and letting God pour into us. The process involves mystery and therefore requires faith. Somehow in the doing and over time, something in us shifts, our consciousness is changed, and we are transformed.

So why do Christian meditation?

In a nutshell, it leads us to a deeper self-awareness and knowing; it enables us to see, know and commune with God, who is love, deep in our heart and soul. We will recognise the God who is calling us, and know how to respond, because we know what it is like to be one and in union with this God. It provides us with spiritual knowledge and experience that transforms us at a fundamental level, that then transforms our relationships, our communities, and our world.

How does this work? Because in meditation, we are called to transcend our ego consciousness, to go beyond our ego and all its wants, fears and desires. We are asked to leave our thoughts, our judgment, our self-consciousness and analysis at the door, and just be present, in the present; no baggage, and no expectations. It is in this silence, stillness and simplicity (the 3 ‘s’ of meditation) that we empty ourselves, and allow God to take over, to speak to us in the depth of our soul, to allow ourselves to dwell in divine love, to be forgiven, to be healed, to know how to love, to be transformed.

Eileen O’Hea, a Christian nun, meditator, spiritual director, psychotherapist and teacher says, “when we move into a deeper reality of ourselves we participate in a deeper level of consciousness and find ourselves in love. It is an experience, not a thought or even a feeling. That is why our words fail in trying to express it objectively. We were created to know and to live from this experience of being in love” or as Laurence Freeman says, “God is not what we think, but what we experience”.

There are those of us here who have had these God-experiences before. They have probably left a deep impression on us, and have changed us. The thing about meditation is that it becomes a practice that is conscious and intentional; we are making space for God in our lives, not just in terms of space and time, but also psychologically and spiritually. It is about locating that authentic self within all of us, the self that is untouched by the ego, and presenting that to God; or rather, we do all we can to not let our ego interfere in the process, and our authentic self will be revealed to us, which is already with God. This is the goodness and love present in all of us, made in the image of God, our human potential; “the kin(g)dom of God is within you” (Luke 17: 21).

This is not to say that other forms of prayer are therefore invalid, or that worshipping God through song and music has no transformative purpose. It is just that meditation brings another dimension to the Christian life that is often missing today. Laurence Freeman uses the analogy of a wheel, where prayer is the wheel that moves our life spiritually towards God. The different ways of praying we find in the Church now, ex. liturgical prayer, intercessory prayer, prayer through singing, form the different spokes of the wheel but what holds the spokes together and turns the wheel is the hub. The spokes converge at the hub, where there is stillness; without the still point at the centre, the wheel cannot turn. Meditation is coming to stillness at the centre of our being.

It has to be said that we can talk about meditation, but really, it needs to be experienced. Meditation and God are experiences. We need to allow ourselves to take that step to be changed, and transformed.

Other reasons to meditate is that it builds community. One can meditate alone, twice a day, and also come together as a community. It is not uncommon for persons to want to meditate together, and be in a shared space; meditating individually, yet together. Weekly meditation groups are offered in some churches and retreat centres, and part of the discussion which took place at the Common Ground seminar was exploring the possibility of starting meditation groups in the workplace or a particular area downtown for the working person, as well as offering meditation periods in schools.

What is great about a community that utilises meditation is that it can bring diverse people together in a common space, engaging in a common activity yet not asking them to sacrifice their individuality or uniqueness. Everyone meditates from their own tradition, coming in a spirit of silence, stillness and simplicity. In this sense, meditation holds great potential for healing in a community and bridging differences. We only need to bring ourselves and an attitude to be present and meditate, and allow God to do the rest.

It is my hope that if enough of us are interested, we can form a meditation group and from there invite others outside FCC to join us, bringing in a diversity of people, LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ; and it would be wonderful too to host an inter-religious meditation group too and build more friendships.

Finally, perhaps the place to start to search for answers to the current problems in the world lies in meditation. I remember readings the various theories, arguments and positions put forward by Brian McLaren in his book, Everything Must Change: When the World’s Biggest Problems and Jesus’ Good News Collide. He reclaimed the Jesus from the gospels, who was a lover of people and built inclusive community, who was a rebel of oppressive institutions of his day, a fighter for justice and so on. We need to reclaim that Jesus, and role model for ourselves, be that beloved community we are called to be, reject systems that perpetuate greed, oppress the weak in society, destroy the environment etc.

I agree with everything McLaren says but also know that the hardest part is becoming self-aware to know and accept the part we each play in being responsible for the state of the world today; to allow ourselves to be shaken up in order to change and be transformed, and transform our relationships with each other and our spaces. We may know what we need to do but actually doing it, or knowing how to do it may be lacking. There is ignorance, apathy, ambivalence, self-doubt, negativity and the list goes on. How are we ever able to transcend the self and its ego?

I remember McLaren had a quote in his book (I cannot remember who he was quoting) that said, “no problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it”. [I was later informed after delivering the sermon that the quote is from Albert Einstein and it should read: “no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it”.]That is true, and I believe the process of meditation enables us to tap into a different consciousness; it is a transformation of our consciousness into the consciousness of God. If through meditation, we can transcend our narrowness, go past our ego, tap into something deeper and authentic and good, become more self-aware, and know we are loved and capable of being loving, then the world is a hopeful place.

So, coming back to New Year resolutions and the liturgical season of Epiphany, I hope this year will be one of paying attention to our inner life, to hone our spiritual knowing and experience of God. Another spiritual father, Bernard of Clairvaux who lived during the beginning of the 20th century said that, “the soul is like an unopened parcel”. We are a mystery to ourselves where there is something unknown at the core of our being. May this be the year where we truly start, or continue to get to know ourselves better, to develop a deep self-awareness, dwelling in love. When we become more self-aware, and learn how to love ourselves from the One who first loved us, we learn how to love others. When we are no longer ignorant, and are loving, we do no harm to others, suffering and evil diminishes. This is our ethical responsibility as humans, and we have been shown the way.

Let’s not lose sight of ourselves this year, and learn to pay attention. Sometimes we spend significant amounts of time trying to forget ourselves, to lose ourselves, to lose our self-consciousness, judgment, negative feelings and look for distractions that can be destructive – getting drunk, taking drugs, pursuing relationships blindly, empty sexual encounters, over-exercising etc. These activities often don’t lead to the healing we desire, to the deep self-awareness and knowing that enables us to understand deeply that we are loved, to experience a deep inner peace. This is because these activities don’t bring us to a place where we can transcend our ego; “times of meditation are not times of escape but times of acceptance of things the way they are” (Laurence Freeman). In times of silence, stillness, simplicity, we become aware of all that we are, without judgment; we become aware of our great potential and authentic self that is loved and capable of love; we are changed and change, and become transformed as a result of the process and experience of meditation, over time.

May we, like the boy Samuel, be able to say in the depth of our soul to the Lord, “Speak, for your servant is listening”.

Let us now enter into a time of meditation, and practice this together. The steps are very simple, but the practice can be difficult if we are not used to remaining in silence, stillness and simplicity. The thing is to try, and we get better over time.

I will briefly read to you the various steps, and then ask for the sanctuary lights to be dimmed low, after which I will chime this instrument 3 times to signal the start of the meditation session. We will only meditate for 10 minutes today (ideally it should be 20 – 30 mins, once in the morning, and once in the evening), and then I will chime the instrument again 3 times to signal the end of the meditation session.

Let me now read the steps (taken from Christian Meditation: your daily practice by Laurence Freeman).

Sit Sit down. Sit still and upright.
[Feet touch floor, hands on knees;
Can also sit on floor cross-legged, and use a prayer cushion if necessary]Close your eyes lightly.
Sit relaxed but alert.

Say Silently, interiorly begin to say a single word.
We recommend the prayer-phrase maranatha.
Recite it as four syllables of equal length: ma-ra-na-tha.

Listen Listen to it as you say it, gently but continuously.
Do not think or imagine anything, spiritual or otherwise.

Return If thoughts or images come, these are distractions
at the time of meditation, so keep returning to simply
saying the word.
[Don’t need to struggle, acknowledge the thought/image and let it go;
Don’t judgment the thought, image or yourself;
If you become self-conscious, return to the word.]Persevere Meditate each morning and evening for between 20 – 30 minutes.

For those of you who are interested, I recommend this handy pocket-sized booklet, Christian Meditation: your daily practice by Laurence Freeman. It explains what Christian meditation is in more detail, the whys and the hows. It is only $4.00 and available from the publishing arm of the World Centre for Christian Meditation, which is based in Singapore. If you’re keen, do approach me after the service, and perhaps I can collate orders and purchase copies for us.

In closing, I’d like to read the following passages to you from Psalm 139, as part of today’s lectionary readings:

Psalm 139: 1 – 6, 13 – 18 (NRSV)

1O Lord, you have searched me and known me.

2You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.

3You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.

4Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.

5You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.

6Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.

13For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

14I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.

15My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

16Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.

17How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!

18I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you.