When I first started attending Taize services at a local Episcopal church, I used to spend the ten minute period of silence silently reciting a mantra. I would spend the first minute or two letting my mind flow freely, trying to find the words of the mantra. I came up with this idea of a mantra as a means of focusing my mind, as a kind of spiritual discipline, to allow myself to feel the Divine presence. I somehow felt that I needed to be completely focused, or otherwise I was afraid I might not be getting the most out of the experience.

Sometimes, the mantras would be in the form of a question to God. Sometimes, they were simple statements. Once, the mantra I formulated was not something that I would repeat in polite company. I therefore will not reveal here what it was.

Lately, though, I haven't been coming up with mantras so much. It just seemed like too much work. When push came to shove, I wasn't sure that ten minutes of repeating a mantra was doing anything for me. Tonight, for example, I sat quietly in the candlelit setting, and let my mind dance around God a bit. My mind took various circuitous routes, darting here and there, but never straying too far and always returning to the religious questions that concerned me. I looked at the dimly lit interior of the church, as I often do, allowing the three dimensional depth of what I saw to come into sharp focus, which somehow always turns my thoughts to our human smallness in the face of the vastness of the cosmos and the infinity of God.

When I attended silent Quaker worship, I rarely closed my eyes or assumed a stereotypically "prayerful" posture for all that long. I'd slouch, I'd cross my legs, I'd take a sip of water from my water bottle. I sometimes closed my eyes for a while, but I also sometimes opened them and looked around. In the years that I attended silent Quaker meetings, I would see other worshipers, some with eyes closed, some with hands flat on their laps, everyone deeply in meditative or prayerful thought. That never completely worked for me. I liked the silence, I liked the contemplation, but physically I probably didn't always look all that contemplative.

I think that the really great mystics--not that I am a great mystic, or even a mediocre one--are in constant contact with God, no matter what they do. They are in contact with God when they are driving. They are in contact with God when they are paying their bills. They are in contact with God when they are peeing. They are in contact with God when they are making love. (That being said, it goes without saying that calling out "Oh God!" during the throes of orgasm is usually not an outward sign of religious mysticism taking place at that moment.)

So if good mystics can be in contact with God no matter what they are doing, then obviously the position your body is in or the fact of having your eyes closed is not a prerequisite for mystical contact with the Divine. But then, people who are good at anything don't need the crutches that the rest of us do. Really good musicians or painters don't necessarily need to follow the same routines that people who are just learning the craft do. Once you internalize the rules, you are free to violate them. So maybe I should be focusing more on the seemingly superficial "rules" of good contemplative practice. By doing so, maybe I will develop my contemplative skills better.

Yet, for me, that just takes the fun out of it. It formalizes the religious experience. Worse still, for me, it formalizes the relationship with the Divine. I have the same problem with beginning a silent prayer with "Dear God"--I just can't do it. To me, if you want to talk to God, why not just start talking? God's already there with us anyway. Formality, for me, introduces a barrier between myself and the Divine. I am only speaking for myself, of course; other people certainly have different ideas of what works for them in their spirituality. And maybe I would be ultimately better served by applying more formal spiritual practices to my relationship with God. But if I tried to do that, I think I would soon grow tired of the whole religious experience.