Lay Preachers

October 2, 2016

Leah Rugen

Reflections on the St Paul’s Retreat Theme:

Building an altar in the world and taking it with you


Holy God, you are always with us.

Open our eyes to your presence.

Amen …


Surprise! When Megan and Jeff asked if I would offer a reflection on our retreat theme this morning I was reluctant. I’m really not an expert. But then I thought that maybe it was a good idea for one of us lay people… a peer and fellow beginner to share some wonderings. How do we make an altar and take it with us in the world ---in our daily lives of stress and struggle and tedium … and o.k. fun and pleasure and important work.? Also I have come to believe that we really should be talking about these things more openly and with less embarrassment. Hasn’t it been good this weekend to talk about it and share our experiences?

First a word to the young people… in case you think this isn’t for you. Let me just say that the one thing I wish I had known while I was a kid and a teenager (and into my 20’s to be honest) was the value of sitting in quiet for even 10 minutes a day and focusing on my breath. Whether I knew it was prayer or not, I think it would have helped me a lot with handling the stresses and pressures of growing up. You know it’s much easier now because meditation has become very popular and isn’t even seen as weird. There are aps for your phone – there are clubs in schools (o.k. maybe only in California). You can put your earphones in and close your eyes and no one knows what you’re doing.

Thinking about this question of how to create an altar and bring it with us into the world, it occurs to me that the only way to really do that is first in our hearts – in our inner lives. In the spirit of openness and sharing a work in progress without embarrassment, I will briefly describe what I do and some ways that I think about it.

Most mornings I sit in a straight-backed chair in my living room for about 15-20minutes. I say a brief prayer out loud at the beginning. Lately it’s been the one I started with. Then I breathe in and out for 20 minutes (I set a chime timer). Lately I focus on a phrase “breathe in me Holy Spirit.” Sometimes I feel physically uncomfortable and restless. My mind wanders a lot and I try to notice that and return to the phrase and the breath. The chime rings and I say a closing prayer. That’s it.

I’ve come up with a few guidelines borrowed from friends and writers –

  1. Low Expectations… I just try to show up and keep practicing without expecting perfection or some otherworldly calm and peace to descend. From what I can tell, commitment and intention is more important than “getting it right.” Maybe this is faith.


  1. Regularity and frequency seems to be more important than length. I know the Dalai Lama meditates for 8 hours a day—but I can only manage 20 minutes – sometimes 10. It’s way better than nothing.

  2. Curiosity…Instead of striving for some particular outcome, I try to take a “who knows?” perspective.  Observing and paying attention become the operative actions. If I try this practice for a period of time, what will I notice? What will happen?  

So is this practice prayer or meditation and does it matter? I think its prayer – contemplative prayer—and I think the distinction matters because it just might be how we Christians can hope to cultivate a relationship with God and an awareness of God’s presence. There is a story going around about Pope Francis that I love. A reporter asked him how he prays and he said “I listen.” The reporter followed up with … and what does God say? Francis said “He listens.”

I think we do have a lot to learn from other religions’ approaches to prayer and Buddhist practice in particular. They have a lovely thing called “Loving Kindness Meditation.” The meditator focuses on wishing or visualizing happiness or freedom from suffering for another person. A really wonderful aspect of the Buddhist tradition is that as you learn this practice, you start with yourself… with holding oneself in loving compassion. I think we Christians often skip this step. Sylvia Boorstein is an American Buddhist teacher and self-described Jewish grandmother. She shared that when she wakes up in a fit of anxiety in the middle of the night (and I just want to point out that after 40 years of practicing mindfulness and meditation this still happens to her on occasion) she calms herself by breathing and saying “Dear one. You are having a hard time.”

It is obvious that these are times of a great deal of anxiety and uncertainty. As we leave this beautiful place, maybe we can encourage each other in a practice of prayer centered in loving kindness. I will close with some words from Brother David Vryhof of the Society of St. John the Evangelist. The brothers offer a word of the day that you can subscribe to and this was the word “Abide.”


“We can learn to abide in God, to draw our strength from God’s life at work within us, to rely on God every moment of every day. We can have this larger life, this eternal life, the very life of God as our daily fare.”

Thank you so much for listening. Next year one of you take a turn.

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