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Posts Tagged ‘contemplation’

I’ve been involved in a couple of retreats recently, and one of the themes has been the importance of having a contemplative heart even in the midst of activity, of trying to keep an inner stillness even when you are racing around. Not always easy!

Usain Bolt relaxing before a race

It was fascinating to read this Olympic piece by Andy Bull about the inner peace that needs to be present in great sprinters. At the 1972 Olympics the Ukrainian Valeriy Borzov, like Bolt in 2008, won the 100m and 200m double. In an interview recorded after his victories, Borzov revealed the favourite training exercise of his first coach, Boris Voitas.

We made paper tubes and Voitas would order us to run 100m holding them in our teeth. The one who did not bite or squeeze the tube was considered a sprinter. The rest were considered to be simply runners. This helped me develop the main quality of a sprinter – the ability to relax.

Bull goes on to explain:

Tension inhibits speed. The moment a sprinter starts to worry about what the man next to him is doing, his muscles tighten and he starts to slow down. Lewis was guided by the principle, taught to him by his coach Tom Tellez, that “human beings can run full speed for 10 metres”, which made it pointless to try and run flat out for the full 100. His rivals, he felt, were so obsessed with getting ahead of him at the start that they began to decelerate by the time they reached 90m, and would tighten up more as they felt Lewis come up on them.

“Don’t worry about anybody else in the race,” Tellez taught Lewis. “Just worry about what you’re doing. If they are ahead of you, don’t worry, just keep accelerating through 60m to 70m in the race, they will come back to you at the end.” Bolt has a similar approach. “Last 10 metres, you’re not going to catch me,” he says. “No matter who you are, no matter what you’re doing, no matter how focused you are, no matter how ready you think you are, you’re not going to catch me.”

“In the 100m,” says Lewis, “a single mistake can cost you victory.” He was not talking about technique – Bolt’s, for instance, is infamously poor, with too much lateral movement, which pushes him sideways off the blocks rather than propelling him down the track – but the negative thoughts that slip into a sprinter’s head during a race. Take this example from the Briton Harry Aikines-Aryeetey at the recent European championships in Helsinki, when he found himself level with the eventual champion, Christophe Lemaitre, in the semi-finals: “I panicked a bit because I was actually with him until about 60m, and I was thinking ‘Oh my God, I haven’t been here for a little while – what do I do?’ I think I tensed up before the end.” He scraped into the final, where he finished fourth.

Bolt has never seemed to worry about anything much, least of all what anyone else is doing. Plenty has been said about the advantage his height gives him – his legs are so long that at full speed he covers 10 metres in three and a half strides. But it is Bolt’s temperament that really sets him apart. Pressure runs off him like water off wax. His shenanigans on the start line at the Beijing Olympics, when he struck poses and played up to the crowd and camera, showed a man at ease with himself and the situation he was in. His finish, when he was beating his chest as he crossed the finish line, was so insouciant that some athletes actually found it offensive.

I’m sure it applies to a lot of other things as well.

It reminds me of one of my favourite poems, by WB Yeats, Long-Legged Fly

That civilisation may not sink,

Its great battle lost,

Quiet the dog, tether the pony

To a distant post;

Our master Caesar is in the tent

Where the maps are spread,

His eyes fixed upon nothing,

A hand under his head.

Like a long-legged fly upon the stream

His mind moves upon silence.

 

That the topless towers be burnt

And men recall that face,

Move gently if move you must

In this lonely place.

She thinks, part woman, three parts a child,

That nobody looks; her feet

Practise a tinker shuffle

Picked up on the street.

Like a long-legged fly upon the stream

Her mind moves upon silence.

 

That girls at puberty may find

The first Adam in their thought,

Shut the door of the Pope’s chapel,

Keep those children out.

There on that scaffolding reclines

Michael Angelo.

With no more sound than the mice make

His hand moves to and fro.

Like a long-legged fly upon the stream

His mind moves upon silence.

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We had a week of silent retreat at the end of last month. Silence, of course, doesn’t mean silence; it means no talking. During meals it meant the clatter of cutlery and the slurping of coffee at breakfast, a selection of classical music at supper, and someone reading to us over lunch – in the monastic tradition.

A pulpit in the refectory of a Carmelite friary in Malta, where a friar would read to the community during meals

It’s very rare, as an adult, that you just sit back (or hunch forward over your lunch) and have someone read to you. One part of the mind is concentrating on the words, and enjoying the language and thoughts and stories. Another part is able to be more attentive than usual to the surroundings, to the senses – the taste of the food, the sheer physical presence of the person opposite you, the sounds of the room and the world outside. And another part of the mind, or perhaps the heart, falls into a semi-conscious slumber, like when you are sitting on the back seat of the car as a child, gazing out the window, as your parents talk about important things you only vaguely understand.

And the soul, somehow, at least in the context of a retreat like this, can be liberated into a kind of domestic contemplation, a stillness that you carry from the chapel into the dining room, that isn’t disturbed by the need to chat over lunch.

It reminds me of the film The Reader (I haven’t read the original novel), where the central part of their complicated relationship is her request to be read to (I won’t give any plot away!). And one of the parents who helped me with the parents booklet gave this simple advice:

Encourage your children to read. Go to the library with them. And continue to read aloud to them, even if they can read well themselves. It gives you an opportunity to talk and learn and grow together. You can usually find a book to read to children of different ages, so your children can be together in this way now and then.

So it’s good to be read to now and then!

Do you have any moments, as an adult, when someone reads to you, or when you are in a group that is being read to? I think it’s quite rare, but I might be wrong.

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One of my Lenten books this year is The Path of Prayer by St Theophan the Recluse. The language and ideas are very accessible, because it started life as four sermons to ordinary people.

One of the key themes is that the great heights of prayer, the great depths of mystical intimacy with God, can be found simply by saying our ordinary prayers with devotion and attention. The everyday prayers that we say (the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be, the Psalms, etc) should be the ordinary means of discovering that union with God that we are searching for. I like this because it undermines the idea that there is some kind of split between ordinary vocal prayer, popular devotion, and contemplative prayer. They should all be, at heart, our standing in the presence of God, with hearts and minds recollected and open to him.

Here is just one passage from the first sermon. He is explaining how we should pray our ordinary daily prayers.

Simply enter into every word, then bring the meaning of each word down into your heart. That is, understand what you say, and then become aware of what you have understood. No further rules are necessary. These two, understanding and feeling – if they are properly carried out – ornament every offering of prayer with the highest quality, and this makes it fruitful and effective. For example, when you recite ‘and cleanse us from all impurities’, experience with feeling your impurity, desire to become pure, and pray to God in hope for it.

A ‘feeling’, in this Orthodox spiritual tradition, is not a fleeting emotion or mood (which we can’t control and which wouldn’t have much significance for our prayer) – it is one’s willingness to enter into the personal meaning of the truth that is being expressed in the words, to embrace this meaning with the whole heart and mind, instead of just keeping it at a distance as an abstract truth or a string of sounds at the very edge of consciousness.

St Theophan was one of the great Russian ‘starets’ of the nineteenth century, a theologian and bishop who became a monk and spent the last twenty years of his life in solitude as a hermit within his community. He is one of the masters of the spiritual life.

It seems that the book is out of print, but there is a big selection of passages from St Theophan about prayer here at the Orthodox Christian Information Society.

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Not many people would know that there is an enclosed monastery of contemplative nuns in a fashionable district of west London. Michael Whyte has just finished a documentary film about life in Notting Hill Carmel and, remarkably, it is getting a national cinematic release in April. You can visit the monastery site here; and the site of the film here (with some beautiful images, and an online trailer).

After ten years of correspondence, Michael Whyte was given unprecedented access to the monastery of the Most Holy Trinity, in London’s Notting Hill. The monastery, which was founded in 1878, is home to the Discalced Order of Carmelite Nuns. The nuns lead a cloistered life dedicated to prayer and contemplation, rarely leaving the monastery except to visit a doctor or dentist. Silence is maintained throughout the day with the exception of two periods of recreation.

No Greater Love gives a unique insight into this closed world where the modern world’s materialism is rejected; they have no television, radio or newspapers. The film interweaves a year in the life of the monastery with the daily rhythms of Divine Office and work. Centred in Holy Week, it follows a year in which a novice is professed and one of the senior nuns dies. Though mainly an observational film there are several interviews, which offer insights into their life, faith, moments of doubt and their belief in the power of prayer in the heart of the community.

I was lucky enough to go to a screening this week. I’ve known the community for a few years because they have links with the seminary where I work. A key part of the Carmelite vocation is to pray for priests, and the sisters at Notting Hill pray each day for the priests and seminarians of Westminster Diocese. We visit them once a year in small groups, and chat in the ‘parlour’. So it was a real eye-opener to see what goes on ‘behind-the-scenes’ after all this time.

St Therese in  Notting Hill Carmel by Catholic Church (England and Wales).

Some of the sisters (at the visit of the relics in October)

I was struck, perhaps inevitably, by the silence; but also by the noises that emerge from this silence. One of the sisters explained that they don’t feel disconnected from the city, because they are there to pray for the city, and to live at its heart. And you could see and hear these very connections in the background: the sound of a siren, of a train pulling out of Paddington Station; the sight of a police helicopter flying over, seen above the arms of a wooden crucifix in the garden.

Some of the sisters talked about their vocations, and about the struggles of prayer. It was very real. Moments of joy; moments of darkness and boredom — sometimes lasting for years. You had a sense, throughout the film, that they knew who they were and what they were doing. Simple things: cooking, cleaning, gardening, caring for the sick, swapping news and stories (in the time of recreation each evening), kneeling in the chapel. Simple things that add up to a huge commitment of life.

One sister took evident delight in taking a chainsaw to an overgrown tree; and the director seemed to take an equal delight in cutting abruptly to this scene from the silence of the Chapel.

The final shot was breathtaking. Only at the very end, after following the sisters within the confines of the monastery walls for what amounted to a year, did the director use an aerial shot and pan back from the monastery to the surrounding streets and housing estates — and to the whole of west London. You realised that this monastery, so hidden away and unacknowledged, is truly part of the beating heart of London.

I’ll post again when I hear details about when and where the film is showing.

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