Posted on: May 15th, 2009 Ps 139, Contemplation, & Nothingness

Imagine that I am a herione addict who is also a baptized Christian. Imagine that I am hanging out with my fiancee, also a baptized Christian, at a very loud bar or club in downtown New York City.

My fiancee is bodily present with me, but I am not very aware of her, for the music is too loud, there are too many partying people shouting and moving all around us, and I have herione coursing through my veins. She is there, but I am almost totally unaware of her.

Is God there in the club with me? Yes, he is, at least as fully so as my wife is there with me. Psalm 139 assures us of this: “You hem me in, behind and before” (v5); “If I ascend into heaven, you are there, and if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there” (v8). (St. Paul makes a similar point with respect to Christ in I Cor 6: the Christian who unites himself to a prostitute drags Christ into that relationship with him. There is no escaping the presence of Christ, it seems.) Truly, God is there in the club with me, but I am (almost?) totally unaware of his presence.

What happens when I leave the club, and walk away from the loud, coursing music? I become a bit more aware of God and his presence in my life. When the drugs begin to wear off the next day and I sober up, I become more aware yet still.

However, let’s say that, a day or two later, my thoughts are racing with fears, anxieties, and decisions I am facing. Well, those things are just like the loud music in the club and the herione that I was using to escape from reality: they are serving as a distraction. They are distracting me from the awareness that God is with me, that God is in me, that God is the one in whom I “live and move and have [my] being” (Acts 17).

What is contemplative prayer? In his Christian Meditation James Finley articulates over and over again, in many different ways, that meditation or contemplative prayer is the discipline of peeling away these distractions, like the layers of an onion. You get rid of the herione, you get rid of the loud music, you get rid of the thoughts about the decisions which are confronting you.

You try to do this for perhaps 10 minutes a day (at first, at least), in the context of a psalm or a Scripture passage or something which draws you closer to Christ.

When a thought (or a bodily sensation, such as an itch or hunger) comes into your consciousness, you (discipline yourself through lots of failure and practice to try to) neither grasp onto the thought nor to violently reject it. Rather, simply allow it to enter your consciousness, and then to float away. Watch the thought come, and then watch it leave. Gently bring yourself back to … back to … what? Back to nothingness.

Or at least as close to nothingness as I as a creature can get. A state of openness and emptiness, where you are not thinking (or trying not to think) about anything.

Why? What is so special about this disciplined sustaining of a posture and attitude of emptiness? It is simply this: when all the layers of the onion are peeled away (the noise, the thoughts, etc.), when everything is gone, there is still one thing that remains: God in his loving presence. If, that is, Psalm 139 is true.

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One Response to “Ps 139, Contemplation, & Nothingness”

  1. Libby Says:
    May 16th, 2009 at 5:14 am

    Hey Matt,
    Two thoughts:
    1) I do hope that God does more than just silently, subtly be there with a suffering, distracted, beleaguered Christian who is completely unaware of him. I mean, I think if He’s merciful and all-powerful, he should intervene sometimes and *help* us pathetic sinners to latch onto his presence.
    2) It’s still not clear to me if the goal of meditation is embracing nothingness or the suspension of the meditater’s agenda. To say nothing of the the alarm bells and connotations of Eastern religion that “nothingness” raises in a lot of Xian’s minds, I’m still not convinced that it’s possible to think nothing. But what Finley says about remaining present, open, and awake to each thought as it rises, endures and passes away (26-27) seems doable, and different from trying not to think at all.
    Also, the bits I’ve heard about people having visions or realizations through their meditation seems to fit better with suspension of agenda than with nothingness. Finally, why meditate “in the context of a psalm” if the goal is a mental void?

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