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Monday, March 12, 2007

Semon by the Rev. Curtis Metzger,
February 25, 2007

Lent 1: Year C

Deuteronomy 26: 1-11
Psalm 91
Romans 10: 5-13
Luke 4: 1-13

Let’s talk about temptation! So, yesterday I was at the gym, and I have tell you, after two weeks of being sick and not going, it really hurt! And there I was being tempted, being the competitive male that I am, the little devil on my left shoulder saying to me, “Hey, you could look like him, just one more work out a week.” And the angel on my right shoulder, I call him my ‘reality check’ angel, says, “Hey, he’s 25 and probably competes in local weight lifting competitions—-get real. . . And no, you're not 40-something, you're 50-minus-one, and if you don’t wake up I’ll shake you around by your love handles!” And then there’s the food temptation and that little devil says, “Go ahead don’t worry it’ll never show." And ‘reality check’ says, “Yeah, don’t worry, your flab will cover it!” And then there is the power temptation, and the little devil says, “You are a fabulous preacher and pastor, before long your reputation will extend so far that local service clubs will call you to be their guest speaker." (OK, well even my little devil knows my limits!—nothing too grandiose!) and my reality check angel kinda looks over his shoulder and with an ever-so-slight touch of sarcasm, says, “Yeah, good luck with that.”

Ok, probably a bit too humorous a take on the temptations of the Lord we read about in the Gospel lesson, but I wanted to use myself as an example of how the temptations of the world can so easily wiggle their way into our consciousness. And perhaps none of these examples is something so terrible in and of itself, but that is always how it begins, isn’t it? Just a little pride, a little gluttony, a little lust for power and recognition and suddenly we start spinning off center like a top that is soon to be tumbling across the floor having lost its balance.

Now I want to take you on a little journey with you back to a moment in my life where I began to appreciate the power and beauty of contemplative prayer. Some call contemplative prayer ‘centering prayer.’ And in my case, as is so often the case, the draw to this way of prayer was largely due to my own sense of spinning off center. There were no dramatic events, only a deep and abiding sense that I was missing the heart of the Gospel—and this at the ripe old age of about 21. After I tell you this story I’m afraid that it will add to the pile of weird things I have shared with you about myself that might, at the end of this priest-in-charge year, leave you saying “What were we thinking?” Well, bear with me. If I am to be your pastor and teacher, some of the best I can offer you is sharing my own journey which I hope will bring light to the gospel, and something you might reflect on in your own lives.

The year was about 1978. I was nearing the end of my college career in Oklahoma, before transferring and finishing at UNH. I was struggling with what God was calling me to do and be, and a friend gave me a book. I’m sure many of you are aware of books in your lives that, not necessarily because of their fantastic literary worth or evocative prose, but more to do with how they hit you where you were, have had deep and abiding meaning in your life.

This was true of this book, The Genesee Diary. It is a book by Henri Nouwen, one of my favorite pastoral theologians; and was a diary written during his 7-month stay in a Trappist monastery in Upstate NY. What is important to understand is that the Trappists, of all the religious orders, are deeply committed to silence and contemplative prayer.

The book had this effect on me. It made me long for the silence and solitude that are part and parcel of contemplative prayer--it made me long for space to find my center as it were. And I have to tell you, silence is very uncomfortable! My life was school, but whenever I could, I retreated to a small Roman Catholic monastery on the edge of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, founded by a Polish Franciscan priest, Father Robert Dubrowski.

Hitler believed Providence intended Slavs to be serfs to the godlike Aryans; after all, medieval Latinists had used the word sclavus for both slaves and Slavs. Thus all educated Slavs, especially members of a clergy Hitler had vowed to "crush like a toad" after the war, were to be liquidated--by a year or two of humbling starvation and slavery. As Martin Bormann put it: "All Polish intelligentsia must be exterminated. This sounds cruel, but such is the law of life. . . .(Polish priests) will preach what we want them to preach. If any priest acts differently, we will make short work of him. The task of the priest is to keep the Poles quiet, stupid, and dull-witted."

Ten thousand Poles were liquidated in the first four months of the occupation. Seven hundred Polish priests were shot, and 3,000 were sent to camps, where 2,600 of them died. The majority perished slowly and methodically from medical experiments and starvation labor — compared to which a quick, horrible death in a gas chamber might have seemed a perverse kind of mercy.

(Priests of the Holocaust, by William J. O’Malley, S.J., Pius XII and The Holocaust, A Reader, A Catholic League Publication.)

Father Robert was one of those priests and a survivor of Dachau prison camp. He had founded this little monastery of St. Anne in Oklahoma after the war. It was there, to his monastery, that I retreated to hunt for silence and solitude--and there be confronted by it! Father Robert let me come almost any time and sit in their chapel in silence. Many weekends I’d go for the whole weekend and just sit in silence. I still remember his warm welcome in his thick Polish accent and his encouragement of me in my life in prayer.

At first it was exciting to enter into retreat. The book had so whetted my appetite for silence that it was so comforting to enter that holy place for prayer. I’d take my prayer book and bible and a note pad, and at first there was such great contentment. Then, as time wore on and I began to realize just how fractured my thoughts were, I would retreat to reading scripture and saying the daily offices from the Book of Common Prayer. Ah, how much holier could you get!

Then I began to realize that when my mind wasn’t wandering during the prayers and readings, that it was trying to run away in them! Have you ever been so terrified by how crazy your own thoughts are, or how fractured they seem to be that you would retreat into some busy activity just to give you and your mind something constructive to do--something to divert your attention.

Allow me to read to you a portion of this book that begins to get at this:

The most persistent advice of John Eudes [his spiritual director in the monastery] in his spiritual direction is to explore the wounds, to pay attention to the feelings, which are often embarrassing and shameful, and follow them to their roots. He keeps telling me not to push away disturbing daydreams or hostile meanderings of the mind but to allow them to exist and explore them with care. Do not panic, do not start running but take a careful look.
It is interesting to mention here Diadochus of Photice’s views on the discernment of spirits. He says that we have to keep the surface calm so that we can see deep into the soul. “When the sea is calm, the eyes of the fisherman can penetrate to the point where he can distinguish different movements in the depth of the water, so that hardly any of the creatures who move through the pathways of the sea escape him, but when the sea is agitated by the wind, she hides in her dark restlessness what she shows in the smile of a clear day.”

(Tuesday, July 23rd, p. 64, The Genesee Diary, Henri Nouwen.)

In this passage Nouwen was perfectly describing what I was going through. And as the Holy Spirit began to woo me, I began to let go of the things that tempted me to stay busy. One of the tools I used was the ancient ‘Jesus Prayer.’ Do you know it? “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, Have mercy on me a sinner.” This prayer goes back into the early centuries of the Christian church and is still used extensively in monastic life as a centering prayer. I began to learn to pray the prayer in time with my breath and my heart beat-—it began to become part of organic experience of my whole being.

And you know what I had to do, I had to leave the Prayer Book and the Bible behind in my monastic cell—-the little room they would give me when I visited the monastery. I had to leave them behind because they became a temptation to distraction. Out of the Jesus Prayer came a deeper and deeper calling just to sit and listen. I would focus on the crucifix over the altar and repeat the Jesus Prayer. I would wait upon God. I did allow myself to take two things in with me—a pencil and piece of paper. I took those in so that when something came across my mind on which I began to worry or plan or ponder, I would write it down as a way of saying to myself, ‘I’ll get to that later." And I would come back to the Jesus Prayer and waiting upon God.

And you know one of the most interesting side effects of this practice—-it raised in me such an incredible sense of exhaustion. I fought it at first, but after awhile I realized that when I had allowed myself to relax to that extent, then I just had to go take a nap, and so I did. I remember in the early days of this practice that I had to nap a lot. (I am my father’s son!) But gradually, the exhaustion passed. I began to breathe more deeply. I began to experience the world in a whole new way. I became so deeply aware of the beauty of everything around me and a longing to tease out love and joy in everyone and every circumstance—-as if Jesus was there, just hidden in shadows with a big smile and stifling a laugh until . . .

      Wait, that passing light, did it catch something?

            I thought I saw someone moving. . .


                        yes, like someone laughing...

Like someone waiting to spring a joyful surprise and can hardly contain himself.
Yes that’s it. It was that kind of laugh.

I wish I could say that I have lived consistently in that space since that time. The sad news is that I have had some very dark days in my life, and times where I have been consumed with the cares of this world. And I still struggle. But, and this is the truth about contemplative prayer, it is not something you achieve, it is something you practice.

And if this sermon challenges you to explore contemplative prayer, I urge you not to go there without a spiritual director or spiritual friend. Contemplative prayer can be very, very intimidating and scary. But at the very least, take this message to heart this Lent, that though we are tempted throughout this life by so many things that would cause us to spin off center, there is a way to come home, to come to center, and that way is discovered and deepened in prayer……Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, Have mercy on me a sinner.