Father Mark, Reflections

Praying the Beach Ball

This is in continuation of a June 7th sermon I did on How to Pray.

I remember when my parents would take Steve (my brother) and I to the beach when we were little.  We’d swim and splash around and stand in the sand as the water lapped upwards and rescinded, slowing removing sand from around our feet and our feet would sink a little more into the sand with each wave.  The simple joys of childhood.  I find I enjoy them far more than looking at my cell phone.  There’s something all-encompassing about having water, wind, sand and sunshine awakening your bodily senses and filling you with the Mystery of Life.  That’s something I’ve never gotten from a cell phone.

Then my dad would bring out the beach ball.  We’d bat it around and throw it at each other, splashing, laughing and all that.  One day, curiosity got the best of me and I held the beach ball and attempted to submerge it under the water.  It didn’t work. First of all, it took a lot of energy to push it under the water.   There was some kind of pressure moving the ball to the extent that the ball slipped from my hands and surfaced with great force, like a missile, out of the water, actually rising above it for the moment. 

So as a curious scientist (I love science) always does, I tried again with much more determination and with an adjusted grip to make sure that the ball didn’t slip.  Well it did slip a few more times and I repeated the exercise until I was finally able to hold it steady under the water. 

It was exhausting.  I can’t believe the amount of energy it took me to be able to hold that ball under the surface of the water.  Finally, my energy depleted, I let the ball go and it rushed toward and cleared the surface of the water.

Many years had passed when I began to learn how to practice various kinds of prayer.  Contemplative prayer stood out above the others. It was rooted in the ancients and was all encompassing in its carrying me into the vast Mystery of the Holy One that transcended any words I could find to describe it except maybe for the word, solitude.  But even this word is empty in the attempt to describe the experience. 

While practicing contemplative prayer early on, I recall how difficult it was to still the mind.  As I attempted to relax, allow my breathing to enter its natural rhythm, the contents of my mind became louder, sometimes to the extent that it would be very uncomfortable to the point that I would stop the prayer and go do something else.

Then my mentors would reassure me that all this is normal and not to worry about not being able to get my mind to quiet down.  This was just a part of the journey.  Then the memory of being at the beach with the beach ball “rose to the top.”  My cluttered and pressured mind wasn’t the problem in the prayer.  My cluttered mind was the reason for the prayer.  Whether you have an attic, a basement or a junk room, there’s a lot of stuff thrown hither and thither there.  Our spirits and minds also have a lot of stuff in recessed places that we have forgotten about that takes up space and weighs us down.  Prayer is learning to be still enough for long enough to allow all these beach balls that have consumed our energy and attention, affecting our spirit and behavior.   Prayer is learning to listen deeply to what has been hidden so that it may rise to the surface and be given to God.   Prayer is about becoming free.  As the stuff rises to God, so do we and the Spirit makes a home in all the places within us that were once cluttered with the stuff which encumbers our lives. 

Prayer will first bring discomfort before you experience the Peace of God.  In therapeutic genre, the phrase goes, you have to feel it to heal it.   God isn’t trying to make us miserable.  God is trying to get through to remove the misery from us but we must first acknowledge this before God can act.  This is actually what confession really is.  To confess isn’t a bunch of groveling, and being miserable, beating ourselves up and saying what a horrible person we are.  Far from it.  Confession is simply acknowledging what is, allowing God to be in the midst of us to release us from it and to simply without drama or histrionics, move on.

My mother became an Episcopalian when she married my dad.  But that didn’t change the 23 years of her Southern Baptist history so my brother and I grew up with what my spirituality professor in seminary called, the “lash of the oughts.”  This translated into a lot of beach balls under the awareness of my memory that needed to be released.  Contemplative prayer healed me.  Contemplative prayer is still healing me.  Or perhaps I should say that I am being healed by God through the practice of contemplative prayer. 

So when your mind is racing and you find yourself, stressed, going in circles, feeling conflicted, it is past time for contemplative prayer.  Resisting what’s in your mind just makes it stronger.   Learning to invite God into it all so that it may be removed, well, that’s what works for me.   Records of contemplative prayer reveal that I’m not the only one and that it’s been a practice by millions of Christians before the fourth century if not before.  That’s pretty good research sample on which to verify the practice.

Not to be trite, but prayer is really learning how to play with a beach ball—playing beach ball with God.    We throw the ball to God and God gives us another one to throw back to Him.   Playing beach ball is a lot of fun—joyful in fact.  Contemplative prayer, after we begin to get the hang of it, takes us into the Joy of our Master.  It doesn’t get any better than this.

There are two authors I have used for Contemplative or Centering Prayer.  One is Thomas Keating and the other, Cynthia Bourgeault.  Let me know if you would like more information. 

Peace,

Fr. Mark