Lent: Continuous Prayer

April 9, 2016 | Reflections From Sr Mary

Moses looked; there was the bush blazing but it was not being burnt up……..
God called to him from the middle of the bush…..
Take off your shoes for the place on which you stand is holy ground.

Abbey's fallen leaves

There are some stories, some images, some phrases in the Scriptures which we can hear over and over again but which always strike a chord in us. We hear them again but we also hear them anew. "Take off your shoes for the place on which you stand is holy ground" is one of those Scripture quotes for me and I'm sure for a number of us and when I heard it again a couple of Sundays ago now, I was called to ponder its depths once more.

As we head into the final weeks leading up to Holy Week, it's a good time to stand back and reflect on the burning bushes in our lives, the meeting places with God, which invite us to notice and look more closely. Do we recognize these places of meeting and stop long enough to approach them with bare feet, as it were, treading lightly with every fibre of our being, open to the experience, yearning for the intimacy of connection with God?

Sr Macrina Wiederkehr devoted a whole chapter of one of her earlier books to the reflection of "taking off our shoes". In her own wonderful way with words, she says:

Holiness comes wrapped in the ordinary. 
There are burning bushes all around you. 
Every tree is full of angels. 
Hidden beauty is waiting in every crumb.

Taking off your shoes is a sacred ritual. 
It is a hallowed moment of remembering the goodness of space and time. 
It is a way of celebrating the holy ground on which you stand. 
If you want to be a child of wonder, cherish the truth that time and space are holy. Whether you take your shoes off symbolically or literally matters little. 
What is important is that you are alive to the holy ground on which you stand 
and to the holy ground that you are. 

Macrina Wiederkehr, "Seasons of Your Heart"

What shoes do we need to take off before the burning bush of this Holy Week? What happens when we remove our shoes? I'm sure all of us can remember times when we have taken off our shoes and walked barefoot! Probably, these memories might take us back to our childhood when we were far more carefree and loved nothing more than shedding our school shoes or throwing off our thongs! Do we remember the feel of lush green grass beneath our feet…the lovely crunch of wet sand as we walked along a beach, the feel of the cool water of the sea or the river as we paddled? 

And what of adulthood and our memories of bare feet now? Perhaps we experience a freedom when we de-shoe or de-sandal at the end of a day, we become sensitive and vulnerable to the slate or the lino beneath us or the feel of cool sheets as we plant our feet gratefully into bed! All of these memories and experiences of bare feet give us clues about what it means to take off our shoes in the spiritual sense. 

Taking off our shoes before our God allows us to become vulnerable, more sensitive, more open and free. We realize that the world around us is holy and that God is near. We renew our sense of wonder and awe.

Holiness comes wrapped in the ordinary. 
There are burning bushes all around you. 
Every tree is full of angels. 
Hidden beauty is waiting in every crumb.

Where are your burning bushes
your tree full of angels
your crumbs of hidden beauty
these invitations to encounters with God in the ordinary of your life and mine? 

Perhaps in the beauty of creation?
Or as we gather around the table of the Eucharist? 
Perhaps an encounter with someone? 
Or in your personal prayer? 
Perhaps in acts of kindness to or from another?

Where are these "burning bush" moments for you? 

And, when these moments come in whatever form, are we there to see them, really notice them and make the connection that they are indeed holy moments of encounter with God?
All of us, I am sure, would answer that question by saying "sometimes". So, we could ask what stops us the rest of the time? What causes our blindness – we don't see the "burning bush" before us, what are the "shoes" that we need to remove in order for us to be more sensitive, open, free and vulnerable to the holy ground of invitation? 

We might name some of these shoes as

We will all recognize some or all of these things hindering us at times but what others are there for you and for me…on the spiritual level, what shoes are we being asked to become more aware of and to take off?

St Benedict calls us, during these days of Lent to keep our manner of life most pure and to wash away in this holy season the negligence of other times.   We are being called 
to Come Back to God, 
to purify our hearts, 
to make ourselves clean, 
to prepare ourselves for "holy Easter".

And St Benedict goes on to tell us HOW to prepare ourselves:
By refusing to indulge evil habits
By devoting ourselves to prayer
By devoting ourselves to reading
To compunction of heart and self-denial
To abstain from food or drink.
To avoid needless talking…. so more silence.

In the Chapter on Lent – St Benedict mentions PRAYER twice: He calls us to devote ourselves to prayer. Then in verse 5 again he tells us to add to the usual measure of our service something by way of PRIVATE PRAYER

To pray is to stand like Moses before the burning bush, 
to strip ourselves of all that binds us, 
to awaken and experience all things as fresh and new, 
to recognize that we are standing on holy ground 
and God is present before us and within us.

As we move into Holy Week, I want to ask all of us to slow down, to stop, as far as we can, our hurry and worry and give more time to PRAYER….. to try to live in a state of continuous prayer. If we do this, we will automatically live the healthier life that we have been talking about and the mercy that we show to others will be coming from a pure place of prayer and union with God.

Some would say that it is not possible to live in a state of continuous prayer but that is no reason for us not to try. Our busy minds are our biggest problem. They buzz around anything of interest like a busy bee looking for pollen. It is fine to be a busy bee when that is what we are meant to be doing but not if it distracts us from the one thing necessary – union with God. We must be persistent and not give up. 

The elders of the Desert spoke often about "guarding the mind" and "guarding the heart" or "watchfulness" or "mindfulness". What all this means is that we guard the mind and bring its thoughts down into our hearts where they can be changed into loving and life-giving thoughts.  This is possible if we are living a life of continuous prayer.

We are helped in our desire for continuous prayer when we take a word from our lectio and repeat it often throughout the day, or use a mantra that speaks to our hearts and repeat it often throughout the day – as we rise, as we are walking along the cloister, as we enter the church, as we go into our workspace, as we take a walk or rest on our bed, as we prepare for sleep. Try to keep the word or the mantra going so that our monastery truly becomes a place of PRAYER, a place where God meets us in burning bushes everywhere.

Continuous Prayer is the Burning Bush that 
turns our work into prayer, 
makes the secular sacred, 
brings Christ into everything that we do 
and transforms and purifies our lives and our loves.

If we live in this spirit of continuous prayer we will find that the little things that annoyed us no longer matter and that we are able to respond positively in difficult situations.

May this time of Lent draw us closer to the Burning Bush of God's presence. May we have the courage to remove the shoes that bind us and make of our lives a living prayer for the whole world, for the Church during this time of Truth and Healing and especially for all people having to leave their homeland because of war and violence.  May our minds and hearts be attentive and ready to bow down, take off our shoes and worship the Lord as he comes to us in the daily events of our lives.

Holiness comes wrapped in the ordinary.
There are burning bushes all around you.
Every tree is full of angels.
Hidden beauty is waiting in every crumb.

Abbey's driveway full of leaves

I would like us now to settle back and listen to Bishop Kallistos Ware talking about Continuous Prayer. As most of you know he is an Orthodox monk so he will be speaking from the Eastern perspective of the Jesus Prayer but as he explains it can be ANY short phrase that helps to bring us into the presence of God. He says the desert fathers used to talk about offering "arrow prayers". By that they meant short phrases of prayer recited very frequently which were shot up like arrows into the sky. The Jesus Prayer and other "arrow prayers" can become a "Burning Bush" within us leading us onto "holy ground".