25 September 2016

Followup #2: On God Alone, Contemplative Prayer and Distractions

[[Dear Sister, Thank you for the exercise on contemplative prayer and distractions. (cf. On God Alone Once Again and In God Alone; links added to question.) I got a copy of the chant and have used it by listening to it at least four or five times in a continuous loop and then paying attention as you suggested. I had trouble listening to just one thing or the other but in time it became easier. What I liked best was that at the end of doing this several different times . . . I began to hear the lines that didn't seem to fit at first instead as part of the whole. I wanted them to be there and could hear them in my mind even when I listened to a different version of the chant. I missed them! But I wonder if this is a good thing. Could it encourage distractions in prayer?]]

Interesting question! First though, I am SO pleased you began to experience one of the things I also experience in listening in this way, namely, the improvisational strands that seemed to lose touch with the chant as they wander off seeming to do their own thing to some extent begin to be an integral part of the whole -- even in their moments of lostness -- and are missed when they are not actually there. I am especially glad you listened to another version of the chant and were able to experience this added dimension of things! It is definitely an important insight and points to some changes (growth?!!) in your own way of hearing. When I experience this kind of thing I begin to hear the whole piece in a new way; I begin to experience a unity which comes not only from the grounding chant itself but also from the improvisational line's yearning to soar freely yet remain related to and struggle (sometimes it is very clearly a struggle) to come to rest securely in that ground once again. Isn't this a pretty good picture of what our prayer is really like or our lives, for that matter? I notice too that listening in this way contributes to greater patience with allowing things to work out as they will in their own time and way. By listening in this way I practice trusting that the larger story not only in my own life but in that of all creation is that one day God will be all in all and nothing will be lost.

I think it is fine that you cannot simply hear the chant without the improvisational lines so long as you can shift your attention gently and slightly to hear the foundational theme or the improvisational lines when you need to do so. In prayer this is really what happens; we shift our attention slightly and gently to wherever we feel called. Again, you bring your whole self and sometimes those "distracting" lines may be a doorway, a musical "modulation" to awareness of a part of yourself you have withheld for some time -- from God, yes, but also, perhaps, even from yourself. What seem to be mere distractions may be or turn out to be important pieces of our life and prayer. I don't think you want to make this an exercise which, in its own way, reprises your original struggle to banish stray thoughts and empty your mind. What I was hoping for from the exercise was that it 1) demonstrate and assist in embracing a way of thinking about the relationship between contemplative prayer and distractions, and 2) provide a way to practice listening while you relaxed with regard to the "distractions". I think the "exercise" is good at helping us learn to listen or "hearken" in the way prayer demands we do. It helps one to be attentive while remaining relaxed and open to hearing/seeing everything (including distractions!) in a new way.

And here then is the answer to your question. I don't think this exercise encourages distractions, but distractions are real and usually unavoidable; they will, for most of us anyway, always be a real part of our prayer. We have to learn to hold them lightly, attend to them as they warrant (for they CAN be important), accept them as potentially sacramental as we do for everything else in our world, and shift our attention where it really needs to be at any given moment --- even as we also trust in the connectedness of the whole. We need to learn to hearken to God, to allow God's dynamic "Music" or Presence to take hold of us in the same way we do for symphonies or other music and songs we know and love --- or wish one day to truly know and love. We must be able to give ourselves over to God in the same way and let God grasp us in the unexpected and even the unacceptable place. For me music is a living reality that demands the same kind of attentiveness as prayer. In fact, some of the time, I would not hesitate to call this prayer so if listening to the Taize chant "In God Alone" (or any others!) helped you or others with this I am very glad.