Found Guadalupe prayer card
Model of Contemplation unearthed on the Migrant Trail, AZ/MX Borderlands

We work more hours than ever, our time and attention brain jacked by multiple screens. Our focus and attention skip like flat stones on water. You feel unwell. Inside, you sense you’ve lost something but you jump to the next ping anyway, avoiding for the moment, the looming awareness of wrong, a serious disconnect you ultimately cannot afford to deny.

You are losing it: your sense of wonder and awe, your hope, your happiness. Already gone: Your deeper sense of peace and well-being. Losing my religion plays on a loop in the background, breaking through the soundtrack of your busy day. The good news is this: you know intuitively when enough is enough.

Increasingly, people are turning to contemplative practices to restore necessary balance and sanity, some to find God. At our local grocery store, I spot three different magazines touting Mindfulness, an Eastern wisdom tradition. I wonder how many customers are aware that mindfulness practices also exist in the Western traditions and that these contemplative practices have the capacity to rescue us all from digital diaspora.

“There are jewels in each one of our [spiritual] traditions,” writes Omir Safi, author, and professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke. “That intimate tasted knowledge of God has been with us before there was a time, or a there…”

In the 21st century, it’s a wonder anyone can know the peace of God but know it, we must. To live a life in balance, to feel nourished and hopeful, to have the life we deserve, our birthright… to save ourselves and in doing so, save the planet, we must drink at the well of our deepest humanity. We must place ourselves and our relationship with the divine, first.

For those whom the word God is a stumbling block, yet who long for a sense of spiritual peace in daily life, historic contemplative disciplines are the key to peace and happiness. The trick is to find those practices that resonate with you and then, in the spirit of devotion, give yourself up to them like you would a lover. For the spiritual realm to be real, to be actuated in the digital age, the spiritual must be embodied. That is, you’ve got to feel it in your body, the temple of your soul, through and through.

We are all made from and united by an awesome ineffable mystery, the source of life… and death. This essence that some call God is not a formless mystery outside of one’s self, a chimera, a fantasy. God is the pulse in the blood, the salt in one’s tears, the sweet scent emanating from an infant’s scalp. It is familial love and laughter that cannot be contained and it is the shattering pain of brokenness and loss. God is the wonder of the body made of stardust. God is within.

And religion, at least for me, is as much about religiously attending to a devotional practice as it might be of a particular denomination. The root meaning of the Latin word Religio is bond and reverence. In Middle English, Religio meant “Life under monastic vows.” The prefix “Re” is about re-bonding and reconnecting.

For the past 25 years, on and off, I’ve maintained a yoga practice. Simultaneously, along with the yoga that sustains me, body and soul, I listen to a Benedictine Liturgy on podcast – sung by women religious – that infuses my entire being and invites me to reconnect again and again. Like most of us, I have a limited amount of time in my day to enter into source, to engage with the divine, so I need to make time count. Combining practices – yoga and liturgy, movement and meditation, allows me to care for my body and my spirit simultaneously.

If a daily commitment like this feels like just another obligation in an already over-scheduled day, imagine this bit of time bathed in the presence of the Divine as a gift, as soul time, as sacred leisure. No matter how busy we are, we somehow manage to find downtime most of us simply not do without. Let your leisure time be nourishing and formative. With each calming breath, consistent practice cultivates loving kindness, gratitude, and peace…

I’ve been a Benedictine Oblate for the past 7 years, part of a monastic tradition that goes back to the Middle Ages. Oblates are secular monastics who offer themselves (the meaning of the word Oblate) for the service of God and their neighbors to the best of their abilities. Among fellow (inter-faith) Oblates exist Protestants, former Buddhists and Sufis to name a few. We all share the same timeless goal, a longing to know God in our lives, a desire to live a balanced life of prayer, work and study, and a calling to extend hospitality and peace in the world.

The community of Oblates I belong to are formally affiliated with the Benedictine Monastery: the historic “Rose of the Desert” in Tucson. Like many other monasteries nationwide, the current drop in new postulants means that the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration are now closing the monastery to return to their central Mother House in Clyde, Missouri. While our lay community and Tucson at large mourns the loss of our beloved sisters and the monastery, local Oblates have been welcomed at a supporting (Episcopal) church in Tucson.

“Even as the number of religious ordained monks and nuns continues to decline, the number of Oblates everywhere keeps growing…” writes Brother Benet Tevdten, author of How to be a Monastic and not leave your day job. While being part of a monastic community is ideal, the way of the Oblate is an on-going journey in personal spiritual formation.

Contemplative practices in the Benedictine tradition that guide one closer to God are Contemplative Prayer and Lectio Divina (sacred reading). The transformative nature of Lectio Divina can be applied to Music, Journaling, even Film. Visio Divina (Contemplative Art) and Motio Divina (Lectio Divina with Movement) are two of my favorite practices. And the emerging practice of Contemplative Ecology: a deep honoring of Genius Loci: Spirit of Place, within and without, is proving to be more important than imagined to our ecosystem as a whole.

Seven years into an on-going lifetime journey, I feel changed at my core. Though I am still in the world, I often feel apart, more spacious inside, less ego-attached. I listen better to others and myself. Sacred Attention, mindfulness, deepens my work and enriches my days. I feel more childlike. Wonder and awe and gratitude flow regularly through me like a fresh spring in the desert, even as I see multiple screens depicting the dark sides of human behavior. Prayer helps sustain my hope for humanity. Unplugging does too. The more contemplative practice I enjoy, the more I feel a palpable sense of eternity: whole chunks of time, World without End. There are moments in the day that feel endowed with soul, rich with meaning, and blessed, like beads in a rosary.

Though I falter at times in my practice, I know now, that in saving myself, I contribute to saving the planet. My commitment to social justice and the environment, rooted in the good earth of steadfast contemplation, blooms in regular expressions of beauty and art. Steeped in the “Re” of religion, I am restored and replenished.

Renowned Benedictine Sister and Author Joan Chittister put it this way: “All life takes on a new dimension once we begin to see it as spiritual people. The bad does not destroy us and the good gives us new breath because we are aware that everything is more than it is… We begin to find God where we could not see God before, not as a panacea or an anesthetic, not as a cheap release from the problems of life, but as another measure of life’s meaning for us…” Meaning indeed. Humankind’s contemplative practices can go far to heal the collective wounds of Anima Mundi, the Soul of the World…

Valarie lee James: Artist, writer, naturalist and spiritual activist on the AZ/MX border. My goal as an artist and writer is relational. I’m interested in the connective tissue in our common stories, the beauty and the broken bits, the “Genuis Loci,” Spirit of Place here, the divinity expressed amongst human beings and animals, and the grace we share. View all posts by artandfaithinthedesert

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