What I’m Reading: The Mountain of Silence

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.

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Soulscaping

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.

Gift of the Present

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.

Prayer In The Digital Age

I have readily admitted over the years that prayer is a practice that I can struggle with at times.  In a previous post, I mentioned that the single word Amen can be a prayer all by itself.  Several years ago, I memorized the Lord’s Prayer so that I always had a framework for a more in-depth conversation with God.  I also employ a prayer book that has guided prayers for each day.  All these have served to bolster a prayer life that is sometimes wanting.

This past weekend, as I was downloading an app on my phone that had to do with prayer, it occurred to me how many prayer resources are becoming available directly to one’s phone, tablet, or computer.  I thought I would share some that have helped me in the past and still serve me in this area.

  • Pray As You Go podcast – This was one of my favorites for several years.  The Jesuits put together an audio daily guided prayer with scripture and music, which is usually about 10 to 12 minutes in length.  Subscribe to the podcast and you will get the MP3 delivered to your phone or device each day.  Search iTunes for Pray As You Go.
  • The Divine Hours eBook – I have the good old fashioned paper version, but I have noticed that these are now available in digital format that can be downloaded to any e-reader.  These are guided prayers for every day of the year, with a prayer for each office of the day: morning, midday, evening, and night.  I have prayed through these prayers many times over.  Search most online bookstores for The Divine Hours by Phyllis Tickle.
  • The Daily Office app – I saw this app recommended recently.  I downloaded the app, but the prayer readings can be quite lengthy.  The app will make available two guided prayers each day.  Select the morning or evening prayer and a reading will appear to guide you through the prayer.  Search iTunes for Mission St. Clare.
  • Centering Prayer app –  Contemplative Outreach has just released a simple app to enhance meditative prayer times.  All it does is allow you to select how long you want your contemplative time to be and select the sound that will begin and end your time.  Very simply, but I am already a fan of it!  Search the app store for Centering Prayer.

What about you?  Are there digital resources or apps out in cyberworld that have helped you with the spiritual practice of prayer?Prayer Hands

In Praise of Emails and Errands

The whole earth is filled with awe at your wonders; where morning dawns, where evening fades, you call forth songs of joy. You care for the land and water it; you enrich it abundantly. The streams of God are filled with water to provide the people with grain, for so you have ordained it. You drench its furrows and level its ridges; you soften it with showers and bless its crops. You crown the year with your bounty, and your carts overflow with abundance. The grasslands of the wilderness overflow; the hills are clothed with gladness. The meadows are covered with flocks and the valleys are mantled with grain; they shout for joy and sing.

– Psalm 65

I was reading this psalm the other day, which praises God for watered lands, abundant crops and hillsides dotted with flocks.  It struck me how easy it is to view a psalm like this as a spectator, perhaps driving through farmland taking it all in from the comfort of my car.  I remember driving from the Dead Sea to Jerusalem and seeing sheep scattered across hillsides.  It was a perfect scene – and easy to give praise to God in that moment.

But what is really taking place in this psalm?  In an agricultural society sheep on the hillsides and grain in the valley represented the mundane and difficult work of a farmer – early mornings tending the sheep, caring for sick animals, plowing fields, praying for enough rain to bring about a harvest.  The observations of the psalm above represent a brief respite from constantly working the land to both give thanks to God and to ask God for blessings on your labor.

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

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

It struck me that while it may be easy to read this psalm as I would appreciate a photo of such a scene, the intent was to take a brief break from your labors from time to time and give thanks to God for these blessings.  Would such a psalm today speak of full email inboxes and project deadlines?  What about the ability to fill the cart at the grocery store and getting the oil changed in the car?  Can we lift our heads from our work throughout the day and thank God for jobs, errands, and the comforts of modern life?  In doing so, we may also remind ourselves of the spiritual value of the mundane, be it at work, at home, or at school.  The mundane can take on great spiritual significance when we pause to allow God to water our efforts.

It may not be as romantic as a hillside scene dotted with sheep and a valley full of wheat, but I wonder if it strikes closer to the intent of such a psalm?

Please Turn Off Electronic Devices

One of the things you quickly realize living in Orlando is that while you might be flying into Orlando headed home, at least half the flight is filled with people headed to Disney World.  Excited kids, large international groups, and even the occasional entertainer are not uncommon.  All were present on a flight last week as I headed home from business travel.

Preparing to leave Dallas, the announcement was made over the intercom that the plane could not pull away from the gate until all electronic devices had been turned off.  A minute later, an attendant walked up to the man seated one row behind me and kindly, but firmly, informed the man that the plane was waiting for him to finish his text messages.  The man replied that he took off work early to take his family to Disney World and that he was getting slammed with urgent emails.  With the same demeanor, the attendant again told the man that the entire plane was waiting on him.  He apologized, hit send and powered off his phone.

I am always a bit amazed at how oblivious people can be to their surroundings.  Airports seem to bring out the worst of this tendency.  I (along with the rest of the plane) was pondering this very thing, waiting for Exhibit A to wrap up his business.

Then as the plane began to pull away, the man’s young son pleaded to his father in a tone that captured the moment, “Daddy, when we get to Disney World will you please keep your phone turned off?”

My heart immediately went out to this kid.  I could guess that it was not the first time this kid watched his dad frantically pecking away at his keyboard during family time.  But enough about Exhibit A.

It was a reminder of how often I see people engrossed in their portal to virtual connection at the expense of actual people around them.  I have chuckled silently as every single person in line at Chipotle is sending out texts as fast as they can type.  It is common to observe  people out to dinner – presumable with each other – engrossed in virtual conversations as they sit quietly across the table.  No doubt, I’ve been guilty of this as well.

To be clear, I love my iPhone and I am not grumpily clamoring for the good ol’ days when a phone was only a phone and affixed to the wall.  But there are times throughout each and every week when the announcement to please turn off electronic devices would serve us well.  One of my co-workers this past week was expressing her level of stress, stating that she begins answering texts and emails beginning at 5 am each morning for the East Coast and usually doesn’t stop until about 10 pm wrapping up West Coast correspondence.  It is not an uncommon complaint.

Perhaps, with the ability to be accessible 24 hours a day, we have lost our discipline to be accessible only to to those physically present – or at times, not at all.  Are we taking ourselves too seriously?  Maybe my job isn’t that important, but there are times when I definitely choose to be inaccessible.

When are the times during your week where you could benefit from the announcement to please turn off electronic devices?  Wait, is there an app for that?

Connected To The Vine

Back in the spring, I shared, through a blog series, my experience of using the Fruit of the Spirit as a reflective exercise and a way to periodically gauge one’s spiritual growth.  The response was great and I received some requests to publish my notes, blog posts, and my experiences to encourage others.  I am excited to announce that my new eBook, Connected to the Vine: A Reflective Guide to the Fruit of the Spirit, is now available!  Here is a brief description:

Fruit is a common metaphor found in the Bible.  It most cases, the imagery refers to the virtuous actions of those who follow Jesus.  This is why Jesus says, “By their fruit you will recognize them.”  Picking up on this metaphor, the Apostle Paul lists nine of these qualities in his letter to the Galatians that have come to be known as the Fruit of the Spirit.  Few would argue that these nine qualities on this list are good and noble qualities to embody.  But how are they manifested in the way we live?  Are these pieces of fruit qualities that we can nurture within ourselves or are they simply qualities that God forms within us?  After all, they are the fruit of God’s Spirit.

Connected to the Vine is a brief reflective study of the Fruit of the Spirit.  Each piece of fruit is examined for its biblical meaning, before applying it to modern life.  These qualities were meant to be put into action, and not only something felt within.  Each one also includes a couple of reflective questions to contemplate the presence of these qualities in the life of the reader.  There is also a section on how to utilize this guide for personal reflection or group study.  When periodically revisited, this guide can be a challenging tool to help cultivate these virtues and assist the reader to stay vitally connected to God.

As always, thanks for the words of encouragement and feedback.  If you enjoy the book, please like, rate, review – whatever the case may be.  It all helps spread the word!

Connected to the Vine is available at most online retailers, such as Amazon and iTunes.  For all formats, visit my Smashwords page or click the cover image on the sidebar of the home page.

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