If you don’t believe American Christians have a hard time concentrating on the spiritual, look around a church during the offertory music. Imagine what goes on within the brain of each worshiper, and—if those worshipers are like me—you will see some strange thoughts. Take the one who is responsible for the housework in a family: he or she might be concerned about lunch preparation. Another person will be thinking of work stacked up on the office desk. Another will be concerned about a quarrel between two teenagers. Still another will be squirming and looking at a watch, in a hurry to get out to the golf course. These are not awful sinners; they are simply goal-setting, American Christians who have been programmed to face the task they feel is most important.

We are not accustomed to times of quiet and thinking. At times of enforced inactivity, we end up worrying instead of thinking, making selfish plans instead of giving praise to God. We need some help, some guidance.

After several years of struggling with the goal of spiritual formation in my own life, I have come up with some partial answers. I am convinced that contemplation is necessary for spiritual growth. Of course, I’m still in the kindergarten of contemplation, but that is a start. Here are three important things I’ve learned.

1. Recognize Hunger

What emotion do you feel when you read the magnificent poetry of the psalmist: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Ps. 42:1–2)?

You immediately see that something is different in the psalmist’s experience and ours. Perhaps we have never yearned that deeply. Certainly, we have never expressed it in that way. Reading the psalm is like listening to a foreign language, and we tend to give up because we are not like the experienced, Old Testament mystic who lived close to God.

This Scripture and others should, instead, make us recognize the similar hunger that is deep in our souls but unrecognized. When I pause to listen to a roaring waterfall or stop to consider my own guilt, I feel a kinship with the psalmist. My Creator has put deep within my personality a desire for the Divine Presence. I want to communicate with the Divine and spend time in contemplation. This feeling should be harbored, not discarded, in our typical American haste.

Since making this spiritual discovery, I have come to look forward to my regular times of contemplation. As I come nearer my devotional period each morning, I grow in anticipation. The feeling is like smelling gingerbread cooking in the oven, living in anticipation of that first bite of the warm, moist bread. I wonder what kinds of insights I will learn. I ask myself if I will become a better person because of this time spent in God’s wonderful presence.

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2. Forget The Clock

A Vietnamese refugee friend asked me, “Why do you have a clock in every room?” I had never thought about our many clocks—digital clocks, analog clocks, cuckoo clocks, and a radio/digital clock by my shaving mirror. Like most Americans, I have lots to do, and I like to be on time. My culture has taught me that time is money.

The Vietnamese was too polite to criticize, but I can imagine what he was thinking. Back in Vietnam, where he had repaired fishing boat motors, he had worked at a job when he wanted to and gone fishing when he wanted to. He had adjusted to the rhythms of the weather and curtailed his activities during the rainy season. He had seldom ever gotten in a hurry, and he had no ulcers to show for that placid approach to life.

Being organized and efficient is commendable, but that can bring its own problems. We have all begun to feel more and more pushed—less and less willing to take time to be holy. We allot a certain number of minutes to each task until we can get our jobs done; then we rush out for a certain number of minutes on the tennis court or spend a certain number of minutes taping TV programs to watch later when we think we will have more time. We accomplish some goals, but we do not grow spiritually, do we?

In order to experience spiritual formation, I have had to put aside those values that I had learned in time-management seminars. I have had to discard the get-on-with-it feeling of rush and hurry. I have had to relax. I have had to relearn the suggestion of the psalmist, “Wait on the Lord” (Ps. 27:14).

If I measure my period of contemplation with a microwave timer, my loaf comes out half-baked. It must be baked in the special oven of contemplation—not for a certain number of minutes but until it is done—however long or short a time that is. I must forget the clock.

3. Practice Centering

My main problem is concentration. My mind is not accustomed to sitting without a book or magazine in front of me. I look at TV with a magazine in my lap to glance at during a commercial or if the program gets boring. I am not used to sitting and thinking. Yet I have learned that concentration is the essence of contemplation.

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The word concentrate means to move toward the center. When I am able to overcome my success-oriented environment and spend time in meditation, I feel that I am moving toward the center of my soul. There I touch the Divine Presence. There I come to understand something of the majesty and glory of the Almighty. The psalmist testifies, “I seek you with all my heart” (Ps. 119:10).

I used to notice the motto Think on the desks of executives, and I wondered what they would think about. Just at that point, I discovered my big deficit. I did not have something specific to think about. I needed a definite thought to concentrate on.

I have enjoyed using the practice that Tilden Edwards learned from some Cistercian monks. The technique is simply centering on one thought, usually a word: “Let a simple, sacred word spontaneously emerge from deep within you that expresses your relation to God, your being in God. Slowly let this word repeat itself whenever the mind strays.”

I love the word “glorious.” It suggests many more ideas than it actually expresses. I say it to myself and think how glorious is God, how glorious is the day that is given me, and how glorious is the opportunity to spend time in the Divine Presence.

I need to say the word whenever my mind starts to wander. Often I shorten the word to glory, and this means the attitude I direct toward my Creator. Then I sometimes shorten it to glo and this suggests the glow of the sun or God’s blessed Son or the glow of excitement a lover feels. An extra benefit is the way this word floats just below the surface during the remainder of the day, sometimes bubbling up with surprising results in a tense moment.

When I leave a period of meditation, I have no feeling of having lost time, but rather enabled to use better the time that is left. I never leave with a feeling of superiority or holiness, just a feeling of being cleansed and a hope to stay that way for awhile. I find the experience is humbling but delightful.

I do not really leave the experience. I just move on to other activities, with the firm assurance that God is with me. I like the words of Brother Lawrence in his Practice of the Presence of God: “The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the blessed sacrament.”

If you visit my church some Sunday morning and ask what I am thinking about during the offertory, don’t be surprised to find me trying to concentrate on glory. It might not be as practical as if I were trying to improve my penmanship or planning my week’s work, but it meets the need for the spiritual hunger I find in my heart.

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