Prelude Roots and Wings by Elizabeth Harley
Opening Words Quiet Moments by Gabor Kereki, from Songs of Living (adapted)
May these moments of quiet worship
renew in us the sense of joy,
recreate in us the spirit of peace,
revive in us the zeal of service.
May we be sincere in thought,
wise in speaking,
courageous in deed,
and ready to serve.
Chalice Lighting (you may wish to light a candle in your own home at this point). (words by Cliff Reed)
Flame of the Spirit,
kindled in our hearts
and in our worship,
come among us
as God’s minister
to make us holy.
Spirit of Life and Love,
be with us as we gather for worship,
Each in our own place.
Help us to feel a sense of community,
even though we are physically apart.
Help us to care for each other,
in this world in which Covid has not yet gone away,
and the clouds of war hover.
May we keep in touch however we can,
and help each other,
however we may.
May we remember that
caution is still needed,
that close contact is still unwise.
Help us to be grateful for the freedoms we have
and to respect the wishes of others.
May we hold in our hearts all those
who are grieving, lost, alone,
victims of violence and war,
suffering in any way, Amen
Story from The Mystic Path of Meditation by David Cole
There was once a wise old monk who was meditating in the forest, enjoying the creatures and creation around him.
A hunter who knew the monk came across him in the forest. “Why are you wasting time out here,” the hunter asked, “when there are things that need to be done and people who need to be cared for? This is a frivolous waste of time when there is so much to do.”
The wise monk turned to the hunter and said, “Put an arrow in your bow and release it.” The hunter did so. “Put in another and release it,” said the monk, the hunter did so. “And another,” the monk said. Again and again, the monk instructed the hunter to string an arrow in his bow and release it.
After a short time, the hunter turned to the monk and said, “If I keep working my bow like this, it will soon break! It will be good for nothing.”
“Indeed you are right,” the wise old monk said to the hunter. “You know your equipment well: a bow that is too often strung tight without rest will soon break. And so it is with God’s children.”
Alternative Lord’s Prayer
Spirit of Life and Love, here and everywhere,
May we be aware of your presence in our lives.
May our world be blessed.
May our daily needs be met,
And may our shortcomings be forgiven,
As we forgive those of others.
Give us the strength to resist wrong-doing,
The inspiration and guidance to do right,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
We are your hands in the world; help us to grow.
May we have compassion for all living beings,
And receive whatever life brings,
With courage and trust. Amen
Reading from Session 6: Contemplative Spirituality by David Cole
[The] practice of creating opportunities for us to simply ‘be’ with God is vital for our inner well-being. We may say ‘but I do not have time to do this, I already have so much to fit in to my day.’ If this is a response you make or have made, ask yourself this question: did you, over the past 48 hours, find a few hours to sleep? Did you, over the past 48 hours, find time to stop and eat? If the answer is yes, then you have been listening to the cries of your body for its needs, and rightly so! But be aware that your soul makes similar cries, to stop and be filled. This is what contemplative spirituality is – creating opportunity for your soul to gain what your body gains through food and sleep – stillness/rest and filling…
There have always been those drawn to the quiet stillness in faith. Through the ages they have been known as different things, mystics, hermits, solitaries, contemplatives, but they all have one thing in common – the desire to be set apart for a time from the activity of the world to be still with God, to dwell within the Divine presence, to become drenched with it… We don’t have to be called to do this for the whole of our lives, in fact most of us won’t be called to do this, most of us will be called to live in the world and engage with some kind of work and employment; many of us will be called to have families; and many of us will be called to other things as well. But within all of this we need to ensure that we take the example of those who saw the benefit in contemplation, just at Jesus did, and engage in it.
Prayer Creative Silence by Vincent B. Silliman (adapted)
Spirit of Life and Love,
There is quiet that is all emptiness; and there is quiet that is life.
There is quiet that is rich with appreciation, with gratitude and with love.
There is quiet that is creative; there is quiet that is full of generous purpose and serene determination.
There is quiet that is the very atmosphere of onward things – of life and growth that shall be in the days and years to come.
There is quiet within the mind, the heart, the spirit – when outside there is no quiet at all.
There is quiet wherein is order, when without there are contention and disorder.
There is quiet that is wisdom, though the noises of misunderstanding and dissensions are loud.
Let us seek quiet now and then – an inward quiet that renews and reinvigorates, glorious quiet, the quiet of serenity, the quiet that confronts with confidence the clamours of our fear:
Quiet whereto we may retire, not to evade responsibility, or whatever of strife may be necessary – quiet that brings increase of strength –
not that the sounds and sights, the enthusiasms and the disappointments of our day are unimportant; but let us seek a quiet aspect of living that is full and intense and real.
Let us seek quiet – blessed quiet that is life and that opens out to more life.
Reading Contemplative Prayer by Peter J. Roberts, from With Heart and Mind
Very often our experience of prayer may be that of sitting quietly with others whilst a worship leader speaks or reads out his or her form of prayer. That form may include some element of petitionary prayer, if not on behalf of our needs, then for the needs of others; asking some outside power to act as we think to be right. Or it may agnostically avoid the presumption of any real deity and instead consist of a series of aspirations concerning ourselves and our world.
Sitting, listening, perhaps agreeing with the words spoken, or just as likely having reservations about their form or content, our ‘prayer’ becomes limited to that of an exercise in critical comprehension between ourselves and the worship leader. It becomes a closed circuit of human thought and intention.
In contemplative prayer, although forms of words may be used as an aid to quietening the mind, it is essentially an opportunity to close down our mechanical faculties, even our awareness of others being present. Instead we relax ourselves both physically and mentally; we let things go that would otherwise preoccupy us. In such a way we can empty ourselves to make some room for the spirit to move within us and inform us of what we really need to know.
Other than very consciously waiting, listening and sensing, we do not make any call, invoke any presence, or otherwise seek to get in the way. In Soto Zen Buddhism there is the requirement of ‘just sitting’. In contemplative prayer, we need to ‘just listen’.
Time of Stillness and Reflection by Peter J. Roberts, from With Heart and Mind
We have come together in a time of reflection.
So we relax our bodies and our breathing.
Breathe easily, slowly, deeply, and ride the sensation of simply breathing.
We are here and now, letting go of the thoughts that we let preoccupy us so much.
Thinking not of what happened earlier, or of what might happen later, be here, now, in body, mind and spirit – nowhere else.
With relaxed breathing, consciously let all else fall away, and open ourselves to this time of peace and quiet in the silence.
Let the silence enter in, and the spirit of holy peace and wisdom will move throughout to heal, to enlighten, to strengthen us.
With every fresh intake of breath, let the spirit enter in to enrich us, physically and mentally.
With every exhalation of breath, let some more of our present tiredness and negativity be dispersed.
Blessed be that divine presence which gives us life in a beautiful world and a wondrous universe.
May our brief lives be such as to add to that beauty and wonder, thereby glorifying the Divine Unity that creates, sustains and transforms all being eternally.
So may it be, Amen.
Musical Interlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley
Address Contemplative Spirituality
Since the beginning of February, I have been doing an online course in Celtic Christian spirituality, led by David Cole of Waymark Ministries. And I have found it fascinating. One of the modules was about contemplative spirituality and in the notes I was sent for this module, David Cole defines ‘contemplative spirituality’ as “finding the balance of ‘doing’ and ‘being’.” Which is as good a definition as I have ever seen. Even Jesus often withdrew into silence and prayer, to bring himself back into balance.
“Being” does not come very naturally for most of us. As I have said before, it is very easy to spend our lives chasing after the next thing that needs doing, the next goal that presents itself to us, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. We move forwards through time, and it is natural to look to the future. But I am afraid that this is often at the expense of appreciating what we have in the present. This is certainly true in my case. I always have a to-do list on the go – especially this year, when I am President of our Unitarian General Assembly – and have to consciously put a weekly Sabbath into my diary, so that I can let go of doing, and spend some time just being.
This is why I find the words of the poem by Unitarian Universalist minister, Lynn Ungar, which I shared with you a while ago, so moving: “What of your rushed and useful life? Imagine setting it all down – papers, plans, appointments, everything – leaving only a note: ‘Gone to the fields to be lovely.’ Be back when I’m through with blooming.” Such a fabulous reminder that actually there are other things than the current task, which are just as important, if our lives are to be rich and meaningful, rather than rushed and pressured.
I love the story of the hunter and the monk, which we had as our first reading. It is such a clear parable for our times. The monk asks the hunter to shoot an arrow, then another, then another. When he protests that “If I keep working my bow like this, it will soon break! It will be good for nothing,” the wise monk draws the parallel with our own lives, saying, “You know your equipment well: a bow that is too often strung tight without rest will soon break. And so it is with God’s children.”
Reading this story helped me to realise (once again) that many of the pressures in our lives (certainly many of the pressures in my life) are self-inflicted. It is my distracted self who chases after material possessions, who needs to be in control, who perpetually worries about the next thing, who strives after perfection, and who finds it hard to let go of old regrets and grievances. I’m doing it all to myself.
I’m beginning to learn that the starting point for breaking out of all this pressure, for getting away from all this self-inflicted stress, is Just Letting Go. Yet relinquishing control, stepping out of the centre, sitting still and letting nothing happen, are all incredibly difficult for me. And I guess this is true for many of us. It involves trust – trust that things will work out without our help, trust that God has got our backs. And it’s a slow process. But I have found that sitting in silence for a short time each morning is a sure route towards inner peace.
So I was convicted by David Cole’s words: “This practise of creating opportunities for us to simply ‘be’ with God is vital for our inner well-being. We may say ‘but I do not have time to do this, I already have so much to fit in to my day.’ If this is a response you make or have made, ask yourself this question: did you, over the past 48 hours, find a few hours to sleep? Did you, over the past 48 hours, find time to stop and eat? If the answer is yes, then you have been listening to the cries of your body for its needs, and rightly so! But be aware that your soul makes similar cries, to stop and be filled. This is what contemplative spirituality is – creating opportunity for your soul to gain what your body gains through food and sleep – stillness/rest and filling.”
I loved Unitarian minister Peter Roberts description of contemplative prayer, which we heard as our final reading: “In contemplative prayer, although forms of words may be used as an aid to quietening the mind, it is essentially an opportunity to close down our mechanical faculties, even our awareness of others being present. Instead we relax ourselves both physically and mentally; we let things go that would otherwise preoccupy us. In such a way we can empty ourselves to make some room for the spirit to move within us and inform us of what we really need to know.”
My Quaker F/friend, Ray Lovegrove, reminded me recently of one of the Quaker advices: “Do you try to set aside times of quiet for openness to the Holy Spirit? All of us need to find a way into silence which allows us to deepen our awareness of the divine and to find the inward source of our strength. Seek to know an inward stillness, even amid the activities of daily life. Do you encourage in yourself and others a habit of dependence on God’s guidance for each day? Hold yourself and others in the Light, knowing that all are cherished by God.”
I love this a/Advice on so many levels. Especially, perhaps, the last sentence, “Hold yourself and others in the Light, knowing that all are cherished by God.” So many spiritual teachers I admire talk of the importance of stillness and contemplation as the surest way to connect with the divine. They talk of just noticing thoughts as they arise, gently letting them go, and returning to the silence.
And I try, I really do. Which I guess is half the problem. Every morning, I sit for twenty minutes and try to “find a way into silence.” But as I said to my friend, most of the time, my washing machine mind goes round and round and stillness, tranquillity, elude me. So I asked him whether, as a seasoned Quaker, he had any tips about finding a way into the silence. This was his response: “The only tip I can give to using a silence is to imagine a big empty table with a white cloth in front of you, and just wait for things to be laid upon it. (PS do not put the tablecloth in the mental washing machine!” Which made me laugh.
In spite of much practice, I yet find it hard to still my mind. At the beginning of Lent in 2020, I resolved once more to really get to grips with centering prayer (another term for contemplative prayer), a spiritual practice which I had started innumerable times, but not managed to stick to for more than a couple of weeks, before the excuses started. In a way, it is the simplest spiritual practice of all, as it consists of sitting in silence, waiting on God. Just that. Just sitting. Just. Sitting.
And I do not find it easy. My spiritual director had been after me to do a daily silent sit for ages, but I still struggle with it, because I find it so hard to still my mind. When I started the Encounter course a few years ago, I was somewhat taken aback to find that the first spiritual practice they introduced us to was centering prayer. Here’s how you do it:
“1. Choose a sacred word or short phrase as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.
- Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly and silently, introducing the sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within.
- When engaged with your thoughts (including bodily sensations, feelings, images and reflections) return, ever-so-gently, to the sacred word.
- At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.”
The leaflet I have explains that it is a “way of cultivating a deeper relationship with God … a way to quiet the mind while maintaining its alertness … resting in God beyond thoughts, words, and emotions.” And I have more or less stuck with it ever since. The chattering monkeys in my mind still whoop and clamour, but there are times when I find myself sinking into a deeper silence and begin to get an inkling of the benefits of this practice.
May we all be able to find a way into the quiet centre of our lives, the “blessed quiet that is life and that opens out to more life” as Vincent B. Silliman wrote, where it is possible to dwell in peace and regain some balance in our lives. Amen
Spirit of Life and Love,
May we find the way into the quiet centre
Of our lives and dwell there in peace.
May we return to our everyday world refreshed,
May we share the love we feel,
May we look out for each other,
And may we keep up our hearts,
Now and in the days to come,
Postlude Lady of Lewesdon Hill by Elizabeth Harley