March Keystone 2019

Posted on Mar 3, 2019

Recently in our book study, where we are reading, marking, and inwardly digesting, A Letter or Private Direction, that 14th century English work on prayer, we read this extraordinary section in chapter V:

“…keep yourself recollected and undistracted as far as you can by grace and the strategy of spiritual endurance.  For in this dark contemplation of the substance of your being, in which as I have told you, you are one with GOD, you must do all that you have to do: eat and drink, sleep and awaken, walk and sit, speak and be silent, lie down and get up, stand and kneel, run and ride, labor and rest. Every day you must offer it up to GOD as the most precious offering you can make.”

Continuing the prayer, this dark contemplation is offering GOD the naked awareness of the simple substance of your being including this kind of litany of things you might do, walking, sleeping, talking being silent, etc., etc.  This section is trying to direct the reader and anyone who is following the injunction of St. Paul to pray without ceasing in 1 Thessalonians. 5:17.  The author then tries to say this again to drive it home:

“It must take the first place in all your activity, whether what you are doing be styled active or contemplative.”

This chapter and especially this section was so very interesting, I went down to the Williams College library and took a look at the original Middle English to see if I could comb this little section once again for some more nuances. Here is the critical Middle English text on this last line.

“& it schal be þe cheef of alle þi doynges, in alle þi doynes.”

“and it shall be the chief of all thy doings, in all thy doings.”

This is a wonderfully profound instruction but can seem a bit hard to relate if first we are not quite sure about the naked awareness of the simple substance of your being.

Let me see what I can do here, maybe to spark a little recognition.  Please forgive my clumsiness here.   Let’s start at the basis here, beingBeing is just that, your existence in itself.  Not as anything in particular, but just that Isness that seems to be, that is seemingly present in all waking and sleeping states, walking and speaking etc.

Here let me point out that the author mentions that the substance or nature of being is “simple”, in his parlance, that is a technical term for not having any parts, no pieces, it is not composite or made of anything else.  It’s helpful to know it is utterly dependent on GOD’s being, that like all things it is nothing in itself.  But our Isness is god’s own Isness, we are nothing in ourselves. This is often a very startling realization at first but it is mentioned in scripture again and again that “the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the lord” Proverbs 1:7.

Now there is another subtle nuance placed on our phrase, “the naked awareness of the simple the substance of our being.”  That naked awareness of the simple substance is not like looking out through a telescope to some far out thing, nor is it a looking inside to some deep down microscopic thing. Naked awareness is not looking at anything in particular, which takes some getting used to.

If you have ever been out hunting or hiking or looking up at the sky from these Green Mountains for any period of time, you might notice how awareness can become an awareness of all things in the field of vision.

The same goes for anyone who has been to a concert or listened to the their favorite album.   Your hearing just starts to hear all the parts as a whole, unified and diverse all at once.  This is a helpful natural experience that prepares us much like the practice of centering prayer, to not follow any one thing that moves across our mind, but allows them all to be there.

Naked awareness of simple being is without any object, and after a while we realize it is without any subject.  There is nothing in particular we are looking at, and no one in particular who is looking, yet awareness is present, awareness of itself, as itself.

It is naked of all things, not clothed in any of the senses, just being awareness itself, and thus aware of the simple substance of being.  This is not being zoned out or blank or in some other world, it is actually fully inclusive, including: eating and drinking, sleeping and waking, walking and sitting, speaking and being silent, lying down and getting up, standing and kneeling, running and riding, working and resting as the author points out.

This kind of practice for some reason doesn’t get much play from many preachers outside of folks like our A Letter or Private Direction (and the Cloud of Unknowing) author,  Meister Eckhart, Mectilde of Magdaburg, Julian of Norwich, and the Carmelite Doctors, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross.

Paul enjoins us to “pray without ceasing” and yet it often goes without much commentary so it doesn’t get integrated into our daily lives and nightly slumbers.  Our simple substance of being does not come and go, it’s always here, just as god is ever present, loving us into existence.  So the helpful teaching from the Letter of Private Direction gives his reader helpful instructions in language natural to the religious life of his time.

And his line “and it shall be the chief of all thy doings, in all thy doings” is again instructive.  To recollect, to again return to being awareness itself and to offer this to GOD as the first fruits of this simple substance of our being is his teaching.

Now this kind of theology and prayer may be unfamiliar, and I am a clumsy exegete and presenter of it, so don’t worry a lick if this doesn’t make much sense.  As I struggle to present it myself I can understand why it has not been related to congregations for some time.

But, I believe that we as Christians need to bring these teachings again out of treasury and use them in as much as they are helpful in fulfilling the injunction to Pray Without Ceasing. I have heard so very many times that folks have gone elsewhere for their spiritual life, because they felt like they had kind of exhausted what was offered in their parish Church, or even in their Diocese, even the whole of Christianity.

Our world is in deep thirst to touch again the depths of our religion.  This prayer is available for everyone us, this and much more.  So even as unfamiliar as these texts may seem to us, they are neither new, nor are they for some elite bunch, they are for anyone who through prayer without ceasing seeks to follow Christ:  “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.” John 17:21

 Fr. Justin Lanier