“I can’t believe no one ever told me!” It’s a shouted line in a song by a band from the late nineties called Piebald. The singer shouts it like he’s lost his mind like he’s full of anger because of this information that’s lacking in his life. The song it’s from is called If Marcus Garvey Dies, Then Marcus Garvey Lives. I was never 100% sure what the words meant but ended up concluding that the song is about teachers and school and finally learning a forgotten history, specifically, in this case, black history and the story of Marcus Garvey, a very controversial early-20th-century fighter for black rights worldwide. The shouted line, “I can’t believe no one ever told me,” refers to the singer’s disappointment that it took him figuring it out for himself, learning about Marcus Garvey himself, instead of being taught about it in school.
I had a similar moment when I got to my junior year in college and Christina and I tried to figure out a way to take a class together before she graduated and decided on a class called Women in Christianity. I grew up in the Church and I had dozens of classes on the Bible and Church History. So I knew Jesus and Paul and Origen and Augustine and Anselm and Martin Luther and John Wesley and even very minor figures like Charles Finney and Phineas Bresee, and on and on with all these thinkers and organizers of Christian history. In fact, I was taught so much about the thinkers that I never came across the feelers of Christian history, the spiritual pray-ers.
Everyone told me about the best theologians who formulated exactly how God did the work that God does, they told me about the church planters who were so successful that their churches became movements – like John Wesley – but, until this class, no one had ever told me about the people whose prayers changed the course of Christianity, no one told me about the ones we call mystics, and specifically the women mystics who shaped Christian history and the Church’s theology forever, (and then for much of what followed, at least in Protestantism, they were completely forgotten).
This morning, at the end of our time together in this sermon series, perhaps you will too join my chorus, shouting, “I can’t believe no one ever told me,” about the mystics… because you never felt, like I never felt, empowered to experience God in your prayers. Maybe you, like me for so many years, felt like your prayers were one directional like you talked to God and your prayers got caught in the ceiling, stopping well short of reaching God’s ears. Or maybe when you felt God, you didn’t want to talk about it because someone might call you crazy. So maybe you join my chorus saying I can’t believe no one ever told me… about Hildegard, about Catherine, about Teresa of Avila… “I can’t believe no one ever told me.”
We hear the word mystic and we might not even know what it means. It’s a person who uses contemplative prayer not just to pray, but to completely surrender themselves to God and, in so doing, they often receive spiritual truth that is beyond their own understanding.
I’ve barely said anything, but I bet some of us are already uncomfortable. Is contemplative prayer something that you have experienced before (I’m not looking for hands)? And some of us would be completely unable to say exactly what contemplative prayer is because it is so unlike what we do here on Sunday mornings. When we’re here and lift up prayers for other people, or for ourselves, we call that intercessory prayer. That is not contemplative, per se. Maybe you’ve heard me begin the pastoral prayer with explaining how we have seen God work in scripture and in our lives, some call that narrative prayer. Still not contemplative.
But, at the beginning of the service, sometimes I feel the anxieties of our week still hanging in the air. It’s like you aren’t ready for worship and neither am I. When that happens, I might ask us all to close our eyes and breathe, “Breathe in the Spirit. Breathe in the life God gives. Breathe out your anxiety. Breathe in the hope. Breathe out the hurt. Breathe in the rest that God offers. Breathe out your desperation. Breathe in the love of God. Breathe out your hatefulness. Breathe the breath of God.” This may be as close as we get to contemplative prayer in our worship.
So we hear these different kinds of prayers and we get to Psalm 34, finally touching the scripture, finally hearing the message, and we wonder what kind of prayer this might be. Could it be intercessory? Could it be narrative? Could it be contemplative? Maybe it’s all three wrapped in one or something altogether different.
But, what if we read it as a starting place for contemplative prayer? Christians have used the Psalms in this way for millennia. What if we treat it like that breathe the breath of God that I used before.
Let’s close our eyes, breathe, and hear God in the words:
“I will bless the Lord all the time! God’s praise will live in my mouth.”
As you hear, listen for God’s message.
“I will bask in God’s greatness – let the poor hear and celebrate what God has done.”
Keep your eyes closed. What are you hearing? Continue to breathe in the Spirit of God.
“Praise God with me. Together, let us praise God’s name forever!”Even as we praise God in reading the scripture, we can experience God and receive new insights for living our lives in God.
Hildegard experienced God in her praise in the 12th century. She was already deeply devoted to contemplative prayer, but received an intense vision (actually, at least 26 of them) in which God commands: “Write down what you see and hear.”
From these visions, she wrote Scivias which means “know the way of the Lord.” In these (at least) 26 visions, God revealed to her the order and structure of creation, allowing her to see the cosmic nature of everything; she was able see the story of Christ’s redemption that is made known in baptism and continually works in communion; and, finally, she saw a vision that showed the redemption of all heaven and earth, with all things made new. This was a highly unusual way to do theology for her time and continues to be looked upon suspiciously in our time.
But Hildegard, by listening to God and sharing what God revealed in prayer, shaped the way we listen to God in scripture and in theology. None of what she said in Scivias sounds new to us because it was her visions that shape the way that we have heard the story, we just didn’t know where it came from. We’re back to that whole “I can’t believe no one ever told me” idea.
Here’s the thing about her visions. We don’t need to be suspicious of her because her visions don’t contradict scripture. They don’t contradict Jesus. They don’t ask us to do anything counter to the Gospel message that we know – they only help us to go deeper with God.
More than that, her visions are not meant for her to control or even to change minds, it’s something that God is doing in and through her, even when appearances might tell us otherwise.
Where she lived, she was in a monastery, under the leadership of an Abbott and thought that she and the other women of the community should live in their own community, by themselves. She wants to move, but the Abbott says no. She is so distraught that she isn’t doing what she thinks God wants her to do that she ends up petrified, stuck in her bed, unable to move.
At first glance, it sounds like a tantrum, like she’s trying to coerce the Abbott with her tantrum. Here he is staying in bed, just to prove a point, but, then, after some time, the Abbott himself ends up in the same condition, stuck in his bed, petrified, and has to acquiesce and allow the women to move to their own location for service and community. After he makes this decision, they are both healed.
Her spirituality helps her out, but it’s not like she’s using it for her own purposes to coerce. On the other side of this, a bad example, is Mother Teresa because, as good as she was, she was known for using prayer to coerce in her business decisions. She would make offers on properties for her hospices and when the developer or owner wouldn’t give her the price that she wanted, she would camp in their offices praying loudly for God to change their minds… and it often worked. But was it God who worked or Mother Teresa being annoying that worked?.
We are called to have a deeper prayer life. I think we all are. But we can’t use it to change other people. We can’t use it for our own purposes. We have to let God work and change us after God’s purposes. If we are praying that others become more like us or do what we want, we might not be doing it right. We have to pray God’s will into every situation.
Contemplative prayer, when it is at its best, opens us up to what God wants to do in us.
Some of us may have never even heard the term contemplative prayer before today and maybe we’ve never experienced it. We may be shouting out: “I can’t believe no one ever told me.” But maybe God can use the newness of what Hildegard and others teach us to draw us deeper.
So may we seek God’s will in all things and open ourselves to the presence of God in ways that we never have before.