I have previously reflected on the top books I have read that impacted me the most. While I may not be ready to re-rank my top 5, The Mountain of Silence by Kyriacos Markides may prove to make my lists of influential books in the future.  It is not often that I read a book where every chapter inspired me and captivated my thoughts for the rest of the day.

MountainFirst, a brief synopsis.  The author, Kyriacos Markides, is a professor of sociology at the University of Maine and originally hails from Cyprus.  Through his studies, he began to explore ancient mysticism, despite being himself an agnostic.  His research lead him to a monastic community on Mount Athos in Greece and a meeting with a young monk named Father Maximos.  This Athonite community saw themselves as preservers of Greek Orthodox traditions and his friendship with Father Maximos eventually led him to spend several summers interviewing the monk at another monastic community back on the island of Cyprus.  The book not only explores the beliefs and practices of these Greek Orthodox monastic communities, but also chronicles Markides’s own spiritual journey back to his orthodox roots.

What is particularly fascinating is how many of these Greek Orthodox practices became lost to the church in the West.  The Greek Orthodox church was associated with the Byzantine Empire of the East and with the Great Schism of 1054, Western Europe became tied to the church of Rome.  East and West followed very different paths, and while the Western church further divided between Catholicism and Protestantism, the Eastern church was fighting for its survival with the fall of the Byzantine Empire.  While its traditions were safeguarded in monastic communities, such as those on Mount Athos, many of them became ignored, foreign to Western Christianity.  The author notes that while Eastern Orthodoxy has preserved knowing God through the “eye of contemplation” – systematic and disciplined practices to open up the intuitive and spiritual faculties – the Western church has come to be dominated by empirical knowledge, philosophy, and reason.

While the history of Greek Orthodoxy is an important thread throughout the book, the story itself revolves around the author’s personal conversations with Father Maximos.  The reader is allowed to sit along side of Markides and absorb the spiritual wisdom of this Athonite monk.

Among some of the ideas that have resonated with me while reading this book:

  • Greek Orthodoxy stresses that our primary aim in life is to attain the unity with God that was lost in the Garden of Eden.  Our purpose in life, then, is to move closer back to the soul’s unity with God.  Yet, we often value ourselves in terms of how much we contribute rather than in terms of who we are.  Thus, even our spiritual disciplines tend to be measured in terms of how much we are accomplishing.
  • Part of this reunification with God is attained through prayer.  Continual prayer is the way we find God.  The Athonite monks believe there are practices that can help us be in a state of continual prayer, even while sleeping.  My own prayer life has been enriched through many insights discussed in the book.
  • Entering the Kingdom of Heaven means liberation from the objects of this world.  While in many ways this is done more easily within the confines of a monastery, we are all called to detach from those objects that preoccupy us.

I am still processing much of what was presented in The Mountain of Silence, even while reading another book by the same author.  Yet I have already felt the impact of the practices from this monastic community charged with preserving the traditions of the Greek Orthodox church.

About a month ago, I posted in Soulscaping about how re-sodding my lawn became a parable for my inner spiritual life.  In order to restore health to my lawn, it needed to be stripped bare in preparation for new growth.  But because the grass was not delivered on time, I was left with a yard of dirt.

As an update (because I know everyone is waiting for news about my lawn!), the sod was not delivered for about three weeks.  And even when it was delivered and installed, the company shorted us about a hundred square feet of sod.  A week later, more sod was delivered and in order to save some money, my wife and I decided to just lay the additional sod ourselves.  So the weekend was spent digging up weeds, prepping the ground, and laying new sod.New lawn

But again, this is not about my lawn.

A funny thing happened as we spent the day out in our front yard, covered with dirt: we had a lot of conversations with our neighbors.  From the just-curious to the just-out-walking-the-dog, the day was filled with getting to know some neighbors a little better and meeting others for the first time.  As tired as I was at the end of the day, it was great to escape the anonymity of the house and engage in meaningful conversation with others in the neighborhood.

It reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend of mine a couple weeks back.  Instead of driving past our neighbors to attend another church event, what if we considered it part of our spiritual calling to engage those around us?  What if the meaningful activity was to take place in my front yard?  I experienced a bit of that very thing a couple weeks ago while sodding my lawn.

There are times when we can be be more open to serving God on distant shores than making the short journey next door or down the street.  And sometimes we overlook the obvious answer to the question, “And who is my neighbor?”

As part of my practice to review the previous year, I look back over the books I completed, I read through my journal entries, and I do a spiritual review using the Fruit of the Spirit.  I also take a look back at some of the topics and events that prompted me to write over the previous twelve months.  You may have already read some of these, but if not, the links will take you to each story.

 © Copyright Adrian Phillips and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

© Copyright Adrian Phillips and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License

I began last year in the Psalms, considering whether the imagery in some of the psalms are more pedestrian than we take them to be.  In Praise of Emails and Errands examines one of these psalms and asks whether or not we can find spiritual significance in the mundane, seemingly trivial chores of life.  This turned out to be somewhat of a theme for me this past year: Finding God in the everyday rhythms of life.

The Psalms, as a whole, turned out to be another theme as well.  In The Courts of God, I look at the imagery of being in the presence of God.  It should be no surprise that the same idea was being conveyed.  A person need not go to the Temple or other buildings to find God.  Wherever we find ourselves throughout the day, that space can become sacred space.

RoccoLast March we got a new dog, a one-year-old German Shepherd.  In Dog Training, I am reminded how much dogs can reflect our own emotions and energy levels.  Having a dog is like have a living, breathing barometer in the room giving me constant feedback on my own state of mind.  I will often find myself uttering something to the dog in frustration, only to hear the echo of God’s voice saying a similar message to me.

In May, I did a bit of housecleaning on my blog.  I combined the contents of another blog onto this site.  As a result, there is much new content related to my book, Ten Essential Words, on this site.  For a full index of that content, check out the Top Posts page.

I have already discussed the books I read, along with some of the posts that relate to my reading.  In December, I took time to reflect on all the transition that last year brought and reaffirmed my desire to be more present in each moment.  In Gift of the Present, I explore yet another reoccurring topic from last year: that of the past, present, and future.

As the holidays turn into a busy beginning to a new year, I hope you take some time to reflect on the past, live in the present, and trust God for your future.  Thanks for allowing me to share my own musings with you.  Please click the ‘Sign Me Up’ button on the home page to follow along this next year.  Not all content is posted to Facebook.

Peace and Blessings!

We recently used some Christmas money to re-sod our lawn and fix some drainage issues in our yard.  While my wife and I have almost finished all the work inside our house since moving in last July, the yard was a mess.  The grass was patchy and drainage was poor.  I spent several weekends last fall weeding the yard, only to find that the weeds comprised most of the green ground cover.  I tried grass seed, but with our irrigation system non-functional and a lack of rain, the seeds sprouted, but never took.  When it did rain, two or three areas in our yard would turn into small ponds.

So last week a crew showed up, tore out all the existing grass, fixed the irrigation system, and brought in a dump truck load of dirt to level out areas of erosion.  It was a flurry of activity for one morning and the crew did a great job.  There was just one problem.  The new grass won’t be delivered until sometime this next week.

As I had my coffee the next morning, I was looking out over our revamped lawn and all I saw was dirt.  In that moment, I actually started thinking the old yard wasn’t that bad.  Better than just dirt.  I had to remind myself that what I was looking at was not the finished product.  It was a necessary step to restoring the health of our lawn.

Landscaping

But this post is not about our lawn.

Being the beginning of a new year, I am working my way through my annual look back at my spiritual life, using the Fruit of the Spirit as a guide.  I couldn’t help but think that this was all a parable for the state of my soul.  I want spiritual growth in my life.  I can identify the areas that need some work.  I want to open myself up to the transforming work of God’s Spirit.

But – truth be told – I prefer God pluck a few weeds, scatter some seed, and hope for the best.  It is much less painful, but it will never create an environment where my soul flourishes.  Meanwhile, I wonder if God is ready to plow up all that is unhealthy, alter the landscape of my soul, and lay bare everything in preparation for something new.  But the laying bare part is the part that is painful, and it isn’t pretty.  It is, however, a necessary step in the formation of an environment that will promote flourishing.

So which will I choose?  The tinkering around on the weekends with some plucking and primping of the current state of my spiritual life?  Or the laying bare of all that isn’t compatable with the kingdom of God, so that new growth can take place?  Which will you choose?

Dirt isn’t pretty, but it is the foundation of healthy, new growth.

The New Year presents an opportunity to look back and reflect on all that has happened and what has been accomplished.  Goodreads offers an easy way to display the books you completed during the previous year.  My list is below.  Last year, while I didn’t read many books I did read a lot of pages!  Two books in particular consumed much of my reading time.  The City of God is a classic book by Augustine of Hippo and takes a while to read through.  I also spend most of the year working through N.T. Wright’s two volume work, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, but because I just completed it in the last week, it won’t show up until next year.

Books 2014

Some books spark additional thoughts or just simply a book review, which I share from time to time on this site.  Last year, I shared some further thoughts on these books:

What books highlighted 2014 for you?

One reoccurring theme for me over the past year has been the categories of past, present, and future. (No, I haven’t been visited by any Christmas ghosts!) Maybe it is because this year has been a year of transition for me: among other things, we bought a house, moved to St. Petersburg, and I transitioned to working from home. I have thought a lot about what has gotten me to this point, where the heck am I, and what does the future hold?

Image courtesy of Danilo Rizzuti at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In another sense, these three categories have also come to represent three primary areas where I am trying to learn the contemplative practice of detachment. For many, the past can represent either moments of regret or a propensity to live in the past – an unhealthy attachment to a phase of life that has come and gone.  The present can be full of many distractions and demands: bills, errands, projects, and chores – all of which can rob us of the deeper reality and relationships before us.  We should not let our life be defined as the sum total of all these day-to-day minutiae, though many do.  While the future may hold the potential fulfillment of our hopes and dreams, it can also create unrealistic expectations, which cause stress.  It is one thing to have goals and dreams for the future; it is another to live in the future with the pressure that these goals must be fulfilled or else life will be a disappointment.  I love to travel to exotic places.  But I have also realized that I can get so caught up in planning, hoping, and dreaming about the next trip that my daily reality becomes somewhat of a bore – this isn’t healthy!

While the present can certainly be filled with any number of distractions, part of the contemplative life is to live fully in the present.  Living in the present moment is being able to give yourself fully to those around you or to the task at hand, all the while being attuned to how God is at work in the present moment, because that is where we meet God.

Father Arico of Contemplative Outreach puts it like this:

If you are thinking about an event in the past you give yourself the wonderful gift of guilt, anger or joy.  Guilt at what you may have done to somebody, anger at what somebody may have done to you or joy, thinking about the good times.  If you are thinking about an event in the future, you give yourself a gift of fear, anxiety or expectation.

It is an odd way of stating this: giving yourself the gift of guilt or fear.  But I think what is being conveyed is that when we spend time living in the past or the future, we are choosing to give ourself something, be it guilt, joy, or anxiety.  There are moments where those gifts may be appropriate.  But when we dwell on the past or future – or focus on the wrong things in the present – we miss the gifts before us in each moment of the present.

Personally, this hasn’t always been easy for me.  But as the calendar turns to a new year, I am trying to be more fully present in each moment the next year holds for me.

I really enjoy the writings of Thomas Merton and those he has influenced, sNew Seedsuch as Thomas Keating.  He has a way of writing that does not seem to revolve around any single profound idea, yet you find yourself profoundly influenced by a hundred little ideas that pepper you as you read his books.  Earlier, I wrote that his book, No Man Is An Island, was one of the books that has influence me the most.  So it was only natural to follow that up with New Seeds of Contemplation.

I’ll be honest, there is much in this book that is very personal and I am not ready to process in public space.  In Merton’s own words, contemplation “cannot be taught.  It cannot even be clearly explained.  It can only be hinted at, suggested, pointed to, symbolized.”  All this is very personal and unique to each individual.

Yet there is one very simple idea that I keep coming back to. It is not even a central idea, but its’ echoes are insightful.  It is an idea that speaks especially to our virtually connected world of social media.  It is this:

One of the first things to learn if you want to be a contemplative is how to mind your own business.  Nothing is more suspicious, in a man who seems holy, than an impatient desire to reform others.

I had to read it several times to get past the initial bluntness of this spiritual directive:  Mind your own business.  Yet what he is addressing is the gut response to a new, challenging idea to rush off and enlighten everyone else before fully internalizing it, letting it really sink in and begin to shape the way you live.

One of the areas this wisdom seems especially appropriate is in the area of social media.  It seem anymore like I cannot peruse my Facebook news feed without being told what I should think, eat, wear, support, or be in a panic over.  Social media is a great way to keep in touch, network, and even share ideas.  But it is not the best way to really influence and shape another person.  That is best left to discussion, personal interaction, and conversation.  Mind your own business.

It is also much more effective to let others observe the way a cause or idea has actually shaped your life, which is Merton’s point.  As others observe the change in your life, there will be opportunities to share soon enough.

And yes, I realize the irony of pointing all this out in a blog post!  But I do so with the same intent as Merton’s words of wisdom.  Thus, everything else in New Seeds of Contemplation I will continue to process through and keep to myself for now.

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