5 Mar 2022

Lenten Devotional, Day 4: Tracking, part 1, Contemplation (episode #64)

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Today I got out of the box of my routine for nature meditation. For the past four days, I have been giving thanks,  observing for ten to fifteen minutes in my back yard, and then recording observations. For a variety of reasons this wasn’t happening today, so I decided to go find a track and meditate on it.

This experience was a deep dive into intense focused observation. It’s a whole different calibre of meditation and observation than my usual sit and observe practice.  There are two things I can compare it to in my faith journey: contemplative prayer and inductive bible study. I’m only going to cover the first one today. I’ll cover the inductive bible study aspect in a follow up post.

Why contemplative prayer?

A nun once asked her mother superior how to do contemplative prayer. The mother superior said, “Just pray the Lord’s Prayer.” The nun said, “O, that’s easy.” And then, her mother superior added, “But take an hour to do it.”

When you sit at that level intense of undisrupted focus, things just snap and pop that you can’t experience any other way. I’ve actually took the time to pray the Lord’s Prayer for an hour once after hearing that story. Many times since I have done so for twenty or thirty minute stretches, as well. The benefits of that experience versus running through the Lord’s Prayer on Sunday mornings are almost incomparable. Both are vital, but contemplation creates a depth that passing by can’t.

Let’s take my tracking experience today as an example with what happens when you slow down and contemplate. I found a canine track on the west bank of a lake in a public park. On an idle walk by, I might pause briefly and notice it’s a relatively old track of a canine, likely a domestic dog, moving along the bank. And that’s about it. I would enjoy the fact that I spotted a track. I might also note that it seemed like a fairly small dog. Spotting this would add a dab of something special to my walk. To me this is the functional equivalent in prayer to idly walking through the Lord’s Prayer on a Sunday morning.

But what happens when you actually contemplate a track (or a prayer) for a half hour or more? Here’s what I can tell you from today’s experience. I am pretty sure that what I found was the right front and rear of a small domestic dog that was moving along in what’s known as a side straddle trot. This is a relatively quick trot. Given the speed and terrain I suspect it wasn’t on a lead. The tracks occurred likely a couple of weeks ago almost immediately after a period of intense rains and prior to a stretch of icy and snow. I won’t unpack how I know that here. I’ll save that for the next post.

I’m a bit puzzled as to why and what it would be doing in that spot going at that pace, but have theories. An animal runs because it’s pushed or pulled by something. They don’t jog for their health. I can see a couple likely scenarios. The one highest on my list being a pet that has just gotten out of a car from the nearby parking lot, and is off lead and excitedly running along the bank. Possibly, it is attracted to the waters edge because of geese and water fowl that populate the banks.

Note: There are lots of squirrels that the dog might chase in that exact spot as evidenced by gnawed pine cones literally right next to the tracks. However, a dog chasing a squirrel leads directly to a tree and this set of tracks is within a few feet of two trees but heading away into open space. No self-respecting squirrel would run away from a dog like that.

I’m only sharing with you a portion of theories and conclusions that came out of my time. But I also ingrained so much more. I studied the morphology (shape of the track) and have deeper insight into telling a left from a right paw, and front from rear. I picked up on many subtleties about the substrate of the track, the erosion of it, and ways it was distorted. All of these bits and pieces of information will shape how I see future tracks and compress rapidly what I take away from the next set. I’m not the same tracker I was before this deep dive.

Deeper insights and ingraining of information and patterns also happens when you contemplatively pray or sit with scripture. For example, when I have meditated on the Lord’s Prayer  on word phrase or a time the result have been a rich experience.

For example, I my hit the words, “hallowed by thy name” and consider thoughts, such as:

  • What does that really mean?
  • How am I hallowing God’s name in my daily life?
  • Do I disrespect God’s name?
  • When’s the last time I earnestly honored God’s name?

This pondering can become an even more intimate experience if you conversationally direct those question to God. For example, “God have I been honoring your name?”  Or, “God, I realize I have not been honoring your name. Forgive me and help me understand how to do this better.”

By the time I get through those questions, I can no longer experience the phrase “hallowed be thy name” in the same way. Also, I am shaped, even transformed, by what comes up as my views and behavior get informed by what arises. Not only might I have a different relationship with the prayer, but with God. Consequently, I’m not the same disciple I was before the deep dive.

Question: How can you apply this today? Here are some suggestions. You could sit and prayerfully ponder one of the following items for fifteen, twenty, or may be even thirty minutes to an hour. Another option is to ignore the clock and slow yourself down by pondering one word or phrase per one or two cycles of breath.

  • Psalm 23
  • The Lord’s Prayer
  • The Apostles’ creed
  • A favorite hymn
  • A poignant memory of God’s presence

A Collect of Contemplation

O Holy God, who is not in a hurry, help us to slow down and ponder deeply your presence, word, and way, that we may have deeper understanding and a more intimate relationship with you, in the precious name of Jesus pray. Amen.

PS: For our next post, we will revisit my tracking experience through the lens of inductive bible study. If you are reading this when it was posted, have a wonderful sabbath day of rest and worship tomorrow.


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