“They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength.” Isaiah 40:31
I have the sense these days that I’m waiting. In the silence of each day, I’m waiting to understand things, waiting for answers to inner questions, waiting for healing.
Lately, the winter dormancy of my hibiscus plant has given way to a bounty of spring buds. It sits by the window of my meditation room, and I’ve watched the buds slowly grow and swell. One bud in particular has been ahead of the rest. Reaching toward the window, it has been quietly holding a promise of beauty. It has become my symbol of waiting.
Teilhard de Chardin, the French philosopher and Jesuit priest, writes that we can trust the “slow work of God”, and his words came to me this week as I kept gazing at my slowly evolving hibiscus buds. I who am so impatient always want to skip the waiting part, and get on to the new. Yet, nature keeps reminding me that I cannot force what will be. As Henri Nouwen, the Dutch Catholic priest and author once observed, just as an orange can not make itself ripen any faster by trying hard, so too we are encouraged to wait in hope for God’s good timing.
I finished a book this week which has been instructive in the art of waiting, called Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, by Cynthia Bourgeault. It describes a meditation practice called centering prayer, a way of way of letting go of thoughts as they arise by gently saying a chosen “sacred word”, such as love or peace. This “gesture of surrender” helps us let go of expectations of how we think life should be, how people act, even how fast God works. Like an inner GPS, it keeps the outer part of us aligned with our yearning for God and God for us.
The hope is that our “false selves” give way to our true nature in God. Our false self is what sees only the surface of things, that “jumbled, reactive landscape of ordinary awareness”.
As I’ve been practicing this way of prayer, I have found that my inner world is not a nature scene of pastoral meadows, but a crowded traffic jam of thoughts! It’s pretty much bumper to bumper in there! Buddhism calls this monkey mind. No worries, encourage teachers of centering prayer. All we need to do is gently say our chosen “sacred word” (such as peace or love) when thoughts come up, giving up our thought processes, and continue to sit.
Prayer periods with monkey mind are not “bad” meditations (even though they might subjectively feel this way). One is just encouraged to see them as an aerobic workout for the “muscle of surrender”.
One phrase in particular has stayed with me. Bourgeault says that we are often tempted to “make a religion out of our better moments”. We want to brush under the carpet all the so-called negative emotions, the difficulties that we all encounter so regularly, and be “good” for God. Just like the ice still plugging the pipes of Winnipeg homes, this just blocks the free flow of our being. God doesn’t want me just when I’m at my best. God wants the people we are, in the mess of our humanity. Teachers of centering prayer say that we can release the “emotional wounds of a lifetime” to God. It’s all good, and it’s such a relief to continually learn that God is like the old A&W commercial, inviting us to “Come as you are.”
Two days ago, the first hibiscus bud finally bloomed. I marveled at its beauty and couldn’t resist snapping picture after
picture, but of course, none fully caught the miracle.
Here is the whole poem by Teilhard de Chardin. It is well worth the read. Perhaps today I’ll print it out, place it in my pocket, take a breath and read it when I want to force flowers open before they’re ready.
Trust in the Slow Work of God
Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way
to something unknown,
Yet it is the law of all progress that is made
by passing through some stages of instability
and that may take a very long time.
And so I think it is with you.
Your ideas mature gradually. Let them grow.
Let them shape themselves without undue haste.
Do not try to force them on
as though you could be today what time
– that is to say, grace –
acting on your own good will
will make you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new Spirit
gradually forming in you will be.
Give our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.
Above all, trust in the slow work of God,
our loving vine-dresser.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French Jesuit, paleontologist, biologist, and philosopher. 1881-1955