It was like a church to me.
I entered it on soft foot,
Breath held like a cap in the hand.
It was quiet.
What God there was made himself felt,
Not listened to, in clean colours
That brought a moistening of the eye,
In a movement of the wind over grass.
There were no prayers said. But stillness
Of the heart’s passions — that was praise
Enough; and the mind’s cession
Of its kingdom. I walked on,
Simple and poor, while the air crumbled
And broke on me generously as bread.
8 There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. 3 For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, 4 that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. 6 For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. 7 Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. 8 So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
9 But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His. 10 And if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.
Over seven hundred years ago an unknown monk wrote an essay to his student who had asked for help with prayer. That document, now known as The Cloud of Unknowing is among the oldest English language works, and it has been in continuous print ever since. Listen to its rich prose:
You only need a naked intent for God.
When you long for him, that’s enough.
We can’t think our way to God.
That’s why I’m willing to abandon everything I know,
to love the one thing I cannot think.
God can be loved, but not thought.
The book speaks of seeking God through contemplation, by emptying your mind rather than filling it with thoughts. In this sense, prayer picks up where our earthly abilities fail.
As Ken Kovacs writes in his book Out of the Depths:
Between now and the day when death has finally lost its sting and sin is swallowed up in love, we find ourselves in the midst of a cosmic struggle between two “minds”: the mind or mentality of the flesh (the attitude, the mind at odds with God) and the mind or mentality of the Spirit, the Spirit who embodied and extends the creative work of Jesus Christ. Paul believed that every person who is in Christ is not ultimately under the domain of the flesh, but under the domain of the Spirit. Indeed, to be in Christ, to be incorporated into him means that the Spirit is influencing us, actually dwelling within us, deep within the depths of our spirits. He wants them to know that there is another law at work in us, the indwelling-life of God’s Spirit is within us. It is active and dynamic and powerful and a force to be reckoned with.
In the meantime, how do we know if our lives are being shaped by flesh or Spirit? How can we tell? “For those who live according to the flesh,” Paul writes, “set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the things of the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”
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In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Kenneth E. Kovacs is pastor of the Catonsville Presbyterian Church, Catonsville, Maryland, and has served congregations in St. Andrews, Scotland, and Mendham, New Jersey. Ken studied at Rutgers College, Yale Divinity School, Princeton Theological Seminary, and received his Ph.D. in practical theology from the University of St. Andrews, St. Andrews, Scotland. He is also an analyst-in-training at the C. G. Jung Institute-Zürich. Author of The Relational Theology of James E. Loder: Encounter & Conviction (New York: Peter Lang, 2011) and Out of the Depths: Sermons and Essays (Parson’s Porch, 2016), his current research areas include C. G. Jung and contemporary Christian experience. Ken has served on the board of the Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta, is a current board member of the Presbyterian Writers Guild, and a book reviewer for The Presbyterian Outlook.
Ken’s weekly sermons at CPC can be found at http://kekovacs.blogspot.com/
D I G D E E P E R
THE INTERIOR VIDEO
The woman could blow like silk across the stage or drive like a storm through the corps de ballet. To watch this world-class ballerina was to behold light and grace in human form. But if you would ask her about her own experience as source of beauty and inspiration you would see only a vacant stare of shocked disbelief. She would speak instead of an obsessive and torturously perfectionist mind that left her grinding her teeth. She described her inner state as a series of internal videos that constantly played and that she constantly watched. Her attention was routinely stolen by them.
What were these videos that played in her head? Usually something about how she wasn’t quite up to standard—not just regarding ballet but any aspect of her life. This accompanied another series of videos concerning her intense anger. The anger registered in her body as a clenched jaw and a physique completely free of any suggestion of fat. Deeper than the anger, though, was the fear: fear of what the critics might say of her dancing, fear that her husband might wake up one day and decide to leave her, fear of being alone.
There were a lot of videos about pain. The most debilitating concerned some very old pain from childhood. One day her mother walked into her bedroom as she sat looking at herself in the mirror. The mother said to her, “I hope you don’t think you’re beautiful.” She was indeed beautiful. In every season of life—as a young girl, an adolescent, a young adult, a mature woman—she was beautiful. But this beauty became a gag knotted behind her: for she believed she was ugly. When as a teenager she won a highly prized scholarship to study ballet, her mother said, “Why would they give you that? Everybody knows you’ve got two left feet.” And so, although she has danced to great acclaim all over the world, she believes she’s a klutz with two left feet. All of this plays in her head. Even if she isn’t watching the video and pressing rewind to watch it again, and then again, and yet again, the video still plays in the background, like that dirge music in malls and lifts. This video was the cage that kept her running in tight circles.
She did find solace. She took long walks out on the Yorkshire moors. If she walked long enough, her roiling mind would begin to settle. The expanse of heather was scented balm that soothed the throbbing anger, fear, and pain. She described how on one occasion her anxiety began to drop like layers of scarves. Suddenly she was aware of being immersed in a sacred presence that upheld her and everything.
While this experience out on the moors happened only once, it proved a real turning point in her life and drew her into the way of prayer. She knew from her own experience that there was something in her that was deeper than her pain and anxiety and that when the chaos of the mind was quieted, the sense of anguish gave way to a sense of divine presence. R. S. Thomas recounts this sentiment movingly in his poem, “The Moor.”
What both the ballet dancer and R. S. Thomas seem to realize is that our own awareness, our own interiority, runs deeper than we realize. If we turn within and see only noise, chaos, thinking, anxiety—what R. S. Thomas calls “the mind’s kingdom,” then we have not seen deeply enough into the vast and expansive moors of human awareness. When the wandering, roving mind grows still, when fragmented craving grows still, when the “heart’s passions” are rapt in stillness, then is “the mind’s cession of its kingdom,” a great letting go as a deeper dimension of the human person is revealed. From this depth God is seen to be the ground of both peace and chaos, one with ourselves and one with all the world, the ground “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). This depth of silence is more than the mere absence of sound and is the key. As R. S. Thomas puts it, “the silence holds with its gloved hand the wild hawk of the mind.”
Followers of the Christian path have been singing this song of silence for centuries. In his Confessions St. Augustine goes so far as to say that the discovery of the various levels of silence is what it means to “Enter into the joy of your Lord” (Mt25: 21). St. John Climacus says, “The friend of silence comes close to God.” Meister Eckhart says, “The noblest attainment in this life is to be silent and let God work and speak within.” John of the Cross says, “The Father spoke one Word, which was His Son, and this Word He always speaks in eternal silence, and in silence must It be heard by the soul.” In the Cherubinic Wanderer Angelus Silesius says, “God far exceeds all words that we can here express. In silence he is heard, in silence worshipped best.”
What is this silence? It is certainly more than the mere absence of physical sound. More important to realize, however, is that this ineffable reality that the word “silence” points to is not something that we need to acquire, like a piece of software we can install in the computer of our spiritual lives. It is pointing to something that is already within us, grounding all mental processes, whether precise, disciplined thinking or chaotic mental obsession.
Laird, Martin. Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation (pp. 20-24). Oxford University Press.