by Christine McHenry
Once a month I serve as liturgist at our early service on Sunday morning. As liturgist, I am responsible for, among other things, the Prayer of the People. As part of the centering time before the prayer I frequently use Psalm 46: 10. (“Be still and know that I am God.” Be still and know that I am. Be still and know. Be still. Be.) I personally have found that slowing down, taking a deep breath, and being still even if it is only for a moment is the best way to open myself to the mystery all around me, that mystery we know as God. This slowing down and pausing, what I call the sacred pause, has become a spiritual practice for me. I might pause when I see something that brings a smile to my face and be reminded of God’s presence and God’s delight in me and in all of God’s creation. Or, I might pause when I find myself getting frustrated or angry and be present in the moment where God is and where all is well. This helps me to recalibrate by getting out of my ego (at least somewhat!) and by returning to the Divine Flow.
The sacred pause is a contemplative practice and contemplative practices are a part of Christian spiritual formation. What is spiritual formation and what do we mean when we say something is a contemplative practice? The late Dr. M. Robert Mulholland, New Testament Professor at Asbury Seminary, defined spiritual formation as “the process of becoming conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others.” (1) This process is formational. We are becoming more and more like Christ. It is about experiencing the Divine and not simply having knowledge about the scriptures or Biblical history or church dogma etc. This experience may come to us in numerous ways, through Bible study, Christian book study, or social outreach projects, for example. It may come through music, art, or nature. It may come through other people in terms of how they live their lives. It may come through prayer, contemplation, or silence. God is constantly reaching out to us and wants us to experience and to know God intimately. I like to think of these ways as gateways to experiencing the Divine, and in experiencing the Divine, we become more like Christ.
Contemplation is one such gateway. Walter J. Burghardt, S.J., a prominent 20th century Catholic theologian, defined contemplation as “a long loving look at the real.” (2) “The real” is all of creation which is sacred and an expression of the Divine. Paul says in Romans 1: 20 that “Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” When we take a “look at the real” it is a long look, an unhurried look. And it is more than just seeing with our eyes. It is using all our senses when appropriate. We observe without analyzing, judging, describing, or defining. We allow “the real” to captivate us, calling forth oneness, compassion, and love, and in so doing we catch a glimpse of God (the Real) in all that is. Through contemplation we are able to see the sacred in all things and are able to know our oneness with God and our interconnectedness with all of creation.
This summer I had the opportunity to go on a retreat in North Carolina. The retreat center was on a small island with the sound on one side and the ocean on the other. As I came to this retreat I was feeling particularly broken and marginalized. During my stay I had time to walk the beach and to take in the beauty and power of God’s creation. I had time to fellowship with other spiritual directors and to reflect on my brokenness. As we gathered our last morning to worship together, we were asked to choose a shell or other object from the altar (we had all been contributing to the altar during the week with things we had found on the retreat center grounds or on the beach) and to spend the next 10 minutes taking “a long loving look at the real.” I was immediately attracted to a broken scollop shell and was overcome with emotion. I knew God had something to say to me about my brokenness. I spent my time looking at this shell and feeling its ridges. This shell was broken just like I was broken, not in a clean straight line but a jagged irregular line. It had vertical ridges, peaks and valleys, reminding me of the peaks and valleys I’ve experienced in my life. And it was a deep red color suggesting the blood of Christ and how Christ knew what it was like to be broken and marginalized. That color was part of the peaks andpart of the valleys and I was overwhelmed by the fact that I was not alone in my brokenness. God understood and was there with me and will always be with me on the peaks and in the valleys of life. I was filled with gratitude for this reminder that came through an ordinary (or not so ordinary!) broken sea shell.
Over the next several weeks, I would encourage you to take “a long loving look at the real.”
- Choose an object to contemplate. It may be a leaf or a flower. It may be a sunrise or a sunset. It may be a sea shell or a rock. Remember that all of creation is sacred and a gateway to experiencing and knowing God.
- Take a few moments to quiet your mind by taking several deep breaths. As you inhale, notice the air flowing through your nostrils to the back of you throat and into your chest. You may notice your chest rising and your belly expanding. As you exhale, notice the air leaving the lungs to the back of your throat and out your nostrils. Noticing our breath helps us to quiet our minds and to be present in the moment.
- Pray for an open mind and a receptive heart as you take “a long loving look” at your object.
- Observe the object in an unhurried fashion using all your senses when appropriate. Do not try to analyze it or judge it. Allow God to speak to you through “the real.”
- End your time with a prayer of thanksgiving for whatever has been revealed to you.
Blessings to you on your journey as you take “a long loving look at the real.”
(1) Mulholland, M. Robert, The Academy for Spiritual Formation #27, Bon Secours Spirituality Center, January, 2008.
(2) Burghardt, Walter J., Contemplation: A Long Loving Look at the Real, Church, Winter, 1989.
Christine McHenry is the vice-chair of the Board of Directors of Hearts on Fire: The Fellowship of United Methodist Spiritual Directors and Retreat Leaders. She is a retired pediatrician with a masters degree in theology from United Theological Seminary and attends Hyde Park Community United Methodist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. Christine is a trained spiritual director and supervisor, a trained labyrinth facilitator, and a retreat leader.