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Aug 10 / Chuck Smith, Jr.

August 9, 2015 – Luke 10:38-42

Contemplative Prayer, Part Six
The Distraction of Many Things

Now as they were traveling along, He entered a village; and a woman named Martha welcomed Him into her home. She had a sister called Mary, who was seated at the Lord’s feet, listening to His word. But Martha was distracted with all her preparations; and she came up to Him and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Then tell her to help me.”
But the Lord answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.
 Luke 10:38-42

Intro: Toward the end of the fourth century two young men went into the deserts of Egypt

John Cassian and his companion, Germanus, visited monasteries and interviewed monks
– the first of those interviews Cassian’s recorded was with Abbot Moses
• they asked him what was the goal that inspired him to suffer the deprivations of the desert?
◦ he said his ultimate aim was the kingdom of God, but his immediate goal was purity of heart
• since it is the “pure in heart” that see God (Mt. 5:8), he wanted to hold himself to this goal

“. . . let us direct our course as straight towards it as possible, and if our thoughts wander somewhat from this, let us revert to our gaze upon it, and check them accurately as by a sure standard, which will always bring back all our efforts to this one mark, and will sho at once if our mind has wandered ever so little from the direction marked out for it.”
He later explains:
“We have an excellent illustration of this state of mind and condition in the gospel in the case of Martha and Mary: for when Martha was performing a service that was certainly a sacred one, since she was ministering to the Lord and His disciples, and Mary being intent only on spiritual instruction was clinging close to the feet of Jesus . . . [Mary] is shown by the Lord to have chosen the better part . . . .”

– the motive for Christian service is not always devotion to God
• it is possible to do right things for wrong reasons (cf. 1 Cor. 13:1-3)

Abbot Moses, “You see then that the Lord makes the chief good consist in meditation, i.e., in divine contemplation . . .”

• although every other activity is useful and good, this is the heartbeat of our spiritual life

I have a reason for beginning with John Cassian’s writings
– a number of Christians are self-appointed watchdogs
• because they do not understand contemplative prayer, they condemn it
◦ it has been described as New Age, Eastern Religion and Roman Catholic
• but it’s hardly “New Age” if monks were practicing it as early as 380 AD
– early in Christian history, devout believers realized they had a hunger that was not being met
• Christianity had been legalized, but Roman society in general was still corrupt
◦ from the time of Constantine, the church entered politics and internally became more political
• monks felt they had to leave their pagan cities and the institutional church to be alone with God
◦ they devoted long hours to scripture reading and private and communal prayer
◦ eventually they became recognized as guides to a deeper spiritual life

Cassian’s writings demonstrate the importance of the contemplation of God in Christian prayer
– it is a practice that was largely lost to the hyper-rational, modern era Protestant churches

Our topic is expressed well in a question Germanus raised

“How is it then, that even against our will; [yes] and without our knowledge idle thoughts steal upon us so [subtly] and secretly that it is fearfully hard not merely to drive them away, but even to grasp and seize them? Can then a mind sometimes be found free from them, and never attacked by illusions of this kind?”

The struggles of those saintly followers of Christ were the same as ours
– distraction is one of most common and most difficult challenges to prayer
• anyone who has attempted to quietly listen to God or fix their attention on him alone, knows
– as for me, it seems I am constantly narrating my ongoing experience
• like a sportscaster, I maintain a stream of descriptions and commentary

“Okay, here I am. It’s time to quiet my thoughts. ‘O God, You are here with me now.’ Hmm. Do I need to say that? Probably not. God knows that he’s here. Okay, I’m going to be quiet. And just listen. That’s what I am doing now, I am just listening. My body feels a little tense, so I’m going to relax it so that it’s easier to sit quietly and listen. Most of the tension seems to be in my neck. Alright, I’ve gone a little bit off the rails, so I am going to gently bring my attention back to God. . . .”

◦ I find it incredibly difficult to switch from narrator to alert observer
◦ from speaker to listener, from doing to being, and from Martha to Mary
• I have a theory: the more neurotic a person is, the more control he feels he has to exercise
◦ that includes control over what our brains are doing
◦ surrenderin to God and letting go of words is more difficult – we feel compelled to perpetual vigilance

There’s no harm in being distracted – it’s inevitable
– it simply means the brain is performing its normal functions
• the brain constantly generates thoughts, images, messages, desires, etc.
◦ “I’m hungry,” “I’m tired,” “I need to run errands”
• it is also the usual condition of life in the world
– the harm comes when, in prayer, we give energy to these thoughts and impulses
• that is how when we get stuck in a distraction and our attention is diverted from Jesus
• symptoms of being distracted in this way: we find ourselves “worried and bothered”

Ways to respond to a few of the more common distractions

Underlying this discussion are four critical factors that I will highlight as we come to them

Intrusive thoughts: Let’s go back to Germanus’ question

Abbot Moses responded, “It is impossible for the mind not to be approached by thoughts, but it is in the power of every earnest [person] either to admit them or to reject them.”

Critical factor number one: We must exercise the control that is ours

• a huge number of sensations bombard nervous system at any moment
◦ but we have special ability of up-close attention
◦ we can direct and redirect our up-close attention wherever we choose
• we cannot exercise absolute control over what enters our minds
◦ but our brains do belong to us — so we get to decide what stays and what goes
◦ we want to disown intrusive thoughts and feelings – “This thought is not me, I can let it go”
– Abbot Moses, the heart is like a mill wheel that, driven by the river, is in constant motion

“. . . but it is in the power of the man who directs it, to decide whether he will have wheat or barley or darnel [weeds] ground by it.”

• he suggested frequent reading and meditation in scripture, singing the Psalms and saying prayers
• as Paul said,

For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. (Gal. 6:8)

Critical factor number two: What we feed our hearts, minds and spirits becomes grist for the mill

Interruptions: Germanus, with another question:

“Who then, while he is burdened with our frail flesh, can be always so intent on this contemplation, as never to think about the arrival of a brother, or visiting the sick, or manual labor, or at least about showing kindness to strangers and visitors? And lastly, who is not interrupted by providing for the body, and looking after it? Or how and in what way can the mind cling to the invisible and incomprehensible God–this we should like to learn.”

– the solution Abbot Moses recommended is that we make sure we have a fixed target
• our target might be: to draw near to God for God alone
◦ or to sit in God’s presence, listening, receptive and responsive
• my personal favorite:

But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:18)

– if we are with God, surrendered to his will, then there are no “interruptions”
• there’s just life, suddenly changing the channel — God will help us adjust to the change
◦ I do not want to think of a grandchild running into the room as an interruption
◦ bring up-close attention to whoever or whatever interrupts, knowing this moment belongs to God

Critical factor number three: We must remind ourselves of our goal and purpose to stay the course

Noise and chaos: such as a dog parking, construction sounds, etc.
– first, notice the sound and see if you can be with it as a direct and wordless experience
• then turn your up-close attention back to God
• I will say, “Now” to remind myself that all I desire from God is in this present moment
– if the noise or situation is too much, give up and wait until you have a quieter moment

Worries or any strong emotion: urges, upset, frustration, even excitement can take over the mind
– some anxieties and emotions create the impression that they cannot be ignored
• that we will suffer the consequences unless we do something right now

John Chapman observed that contemplative prayer is “–and ought to be–somewhat of a cure” for anxiety, “it means rising above the worries of the reason, the imagination, the emotions, the nerves. It cannot always stop them from bothering; but it can look down upon them as an interesting phenomenon, as if it was all going on in some beetle, which we were examining with a magnifying glass. This makes them less important, and gives them a chance of boiling without scalding us, and even of quieting down much quicker.”

– Jesus counseled, “consider the birds” and “consider the lilies” (Lk. 12:22-28)
• take the energy out of stressful thoughts – don’t fight them! that gives them strength
• shift your up-close attention to this present moment, to nature or beauty or your breath
◦ by focusing on this moment with God, the urgency of worry fades
◦ anxieties and heightened emotions are exposed and seen to be empty illusions

Critical factor number four: We can always bring our up-close attention back to God in the moment

Discomfort: eat right, drink lots of water, get plenty of rest and if necessary change positions

Self-condemnation: we can spend whole prayer time judging ourselves for getting distracted
– there is no value in self-condemnation — nothing good comes from it

John Chapman suggested, “Look upon it as a temptation to think about your state. It is always mixed up with self-love.”

To help hold our up-close attention in prayer

Focusing on the feeling of each breath keeps us in the moment (and helps us return to it)
– counting breaths:
• inhale, exhale and count “One”; inhale, exhale and count “Two”
◦ do this to ten and then start from one again
• or as you inhale, slowly count “One, two, three, four . . .,” and then repeat as you exhale
– connecting each breath to a word (see Thomas Keating’s work on “centering prayer”)
• to keep our minds busy, Abbot Isaac (interviewed by Cassian) suggested the rhythmic prayer:

O God, Come to My assistance.
O Lord, make haste to help me.

• other suggestions: slowly and thoughtfully repeating the Lord’s Prayer or the Jesus Prayer:

Jesus Christ, Lord of heaven and earth,
Have mercy on me, the sinner.

John Chapman counseled that we use “words of desire for God, of giving oneself to God”

Identify triggers that remind you at various times to return your up-close attention to God
– nervous fidgeting, traffic jams, unpleasant phone conversations
• let negative emotions trigger your memory to slow your breath and release your heart to God

When I am afraid,
I will put my trust in You (Ps. 56:3)

Conc: You are neither a Martha or a Mary – but you are both

That is what we have learned, the integration of a life that is both being and doing

What we receive from Jesus, sitting at his feet, prepares us for what must be done in the world
– what we take with us into our daily routine is a renewed eagerness to see God in every situation
• in time, we have more instances of discovering his nearness and a greater willingness to respond

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