By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
Director, Yeshua Institute
Some time ago I came across 10 wonderful suggestions for “little behaviors” that would be great to focus on during Lent. But they can also bring us great benefits all year long.
I found them in a marvelous book called Armchair Mystic: How Contemplative Prayer Can Lead You Closer to God, written by Mark E. Thibodeaux, SJ.
Don’t let the title scare you off. Thibodeaux would be the first to tell you that contemplative prayer isn’t for everyone. And, in fact, the harder you try to do it, the more elusive it may turn out to be. That said, this book is for every Catholic who has any interest in spiritual growth.
A little background
By way of a little background, contemplative prayer is a deeper level of prayer than meditative prayer. The author considers the former the fourth stage of prayer, while the latter is the third level.
So what are levels one and two?
The first level is reciting ready-made prayers (“talking at God”) and the second is praying extemporaneously (“talking to God”).
Meditative prayer, level three, is “listening to God” and contemplative prayer, level four, is “being with God”.
Be assured: the priest-author is no elitist. Indeed, he highlights the value of each type of prayer. In fact, says he regularly practices all four types. And his review of the value of each type of prayer is a great reminder of the value of prayer in general.
I experienced two great joys in reading this book. The first is that Thibodeaux is a master of analogies. He finds good, simple and clear analogies for every concept and prayer experience he describes – which makes him so easy to understand.
Second, many of his analogies have to do with couples in various stages of romance. Assuming I’ve had lot more experience in that field than he has, I still marvel at how this priest-author is so wise about the feelings and ways of lovers.
And that’s more appropriate than it might seem at first glance.
Building a relationship with God
His focus is on helping us build a deeply loving relationship with our Creator. The similarities of loving a person sitting on a couch next to us and loving a God who is all around and in us become ever more apparent the more we fall in love – no matter with whom we are falling in love.
As he says, contemplative prayer is not for everyone. But this is a great read everyone. And it will, I think, enhance your prayer life no matter what sort of prayer you prefer.
Finally, I have to make a confession. My interest in reading this book had nothing to do with contemplative prayer.
My interest was in the “mystic” aspect of book. For many years I’ve been mindful of Karl Rahner’s observation that “the Christian of the future will be a mystic or he will not exist at all.”
After I first read that, I conceded that I might be a mystic – if I could be “a modern, analytical, empirical, skeptical, impious mystic.”
The promise of being able to live out that calling in a comfortable armchair was more than I could resist.
Not a penance
If you’re looking for a Lenten penance, this book is not it. No, instead it was a pure joy to read.
I even think I may give contemplative prayer a bit of a try before Lent is over – although, of course, that may turn out to be a huge penance before I’m done with it. C’est la vie.
Now for the 10 “little behaviors” hidden back in an appendix to the text:
- Live naturally – get outdoors and get in touch with God’s creative genius.
- Live simply – “resist the temptation to acquire lots of stuff.”
- Live healthily – St. Paul said our body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, so “make sure you maintain your temple with the reverence it deserves.”
- Live orderly – try to bring some order to the chaos of your surroundings by picking up after yourself.
- Live richly – “stimulate the artistic side of yourself” because it’s “the part of you most willing to surrender control to a higher power.”
- Live ascetically – survey all the things that bring you instant gratification and ask God to help you move past them.
- Live slowly – calm down; don’t always choose the fastest option, and “learn to amble.”
- Live reflectively – drop in at church or sign up for a day of reflection; if possible, make a silent retreat.
- Live lovingly – start with yourself; forgive yourself and learn to laugh at yourself.
- Live sacrificially – “find some wonderful cause or causes to give yourself to;” remember it’s in giving that we receive.
The Covid-19 quarantine a couple of Lents ago tempted me to especially neglect #3 and #4. I started there … and I’m still working on them.
As I continue to work on the first nine, I am definitely working on 10 -- living sacrificially. So it goes for an “armchair mystic.”