Thursday, December 29, 2011

MINDFULNESS IN THE CHRISTIAN TRADITION


Mindfulness in Christianity? Yes, most definitively. The practice of mindfulness can be found in all spiritual traditions and also outside all such traditions.

I could go back much further, but let’s start with the anonymous author of the 14th century English classic of Christian devotion and mysticism The Cloud of Unknowing, in which it is written, ‘God may well be loved, but not thought. By love he can be taught and held, but by thinking never.’ In other words, God is known in the direct experience of God as opposed to thinking about God. It is truly an experience of waiting in silence upon God. Another Biblical metaphor I love is the image of ‘dwelling in the secret place of the Most High’ (Ps 91:1).

Then there’s the wonderful 17th century French monk Brother Lawrence (pictured left). He was a lay brother in a Carmelite monastery. His unique approach to living in a Christian way ‘in the moment’ is encapsulated in that wonderful book The Practice of the Presence of God which was compiled after Brother Lawrence died by one of those whom he inspired, Father Joseph de Beaufort, later vicar general to the Archbishop of Paris.

For Brother Lawrence, ‘common business,’ no matter how mundane or routine, was the medium of God's omnipresence (‘All-ness’) and love. He would say, ‘Nor is it needful that we should have great things to do … We can do little things for God; I turn the cake that is frying on the pan for love of him, and that done, if there is nothing else to call me, I prostrate myself in worship before him, who has given me grace to work; afterwards I rise happier than a king. It is enough for me to pick up but a straw from the ground for the love of God.’ In other words, Brother Lawrence found God present in whatever happened, or needed to be done, in the moment. He was choicelessly aware of the presence of his Lord in the sacredness of each moment. It didn’t matter whether he was washing dishes in the kitchen or kneeling at the altar to pray. The Divine was ever-present, and fully present, in each moment.

There is much of a Zen-like quality to the ideas contained in The Practice of the Presence of God. For those who are interested, there’s a fascinating book entitled Brother Lawrence: A Christian Zen Master. It’s a great read.

Many Christians find it helpful to ‘imagine’ that Jesus is tangibly with them throughout the day, walking with them as they walk down the street, or sitting next to them whilst they are at work or asleep.

The writings and theology of Dr Leslie Weatherhead (pictured below left) have meant a lot to me in my life. Weatherhead struggled, as I always have, with many supposedly key doctrines of the Christian faith, yet there was a depth about his writings on the Christian faith which is sadly lacking in most Christian books today. He wrote many great books on the subject of Christian healing and, along with Dr Norman Vincent Peale, he was a pioneer in pastoral psychology, that is, the merger of theology and psychology.

Weatherhead liked to tell the story of an old Scot who was quite ill. The man’s family called for their dominie, or pastor. When the pastor entered the sick room he noticed another chair on the opposite side of the bed. The chair had been drawn close to the bed. The pastor said, ‘Well, Donald, I see I'm not your first visitor for the day.’

The old man was puzzled for a moment but soon worked out that the pastor had noticed the empty chair. ‘Well, Pastor, I'll tell you about that chair. Many years ago I found it quite difficult to pray, so one day I shared this problem with my pastor. He told me not to worry about kneeling or about placing myself in some pious posture. Instead, he said, “Just sit down, put a chair opposite you, and imagine Jesus sitting in it, then talk with Him as you would a friend.”’ The old man then added, ‘I've been doing that ever since.’

A short time later the daughter of the Scot called the pastor. When he answered, she informed him that her father had quite recently died very suddenly. She said, ‘I had just gone to lie down for an hour or two, for he seemed to be sleeping so comfortably. When I went back he was dead.’ Then she added, ‘Except now his hand was on the empty chair at the side of the bed. Isn't that strange?’ The pastor said, ‘No, it's not so strange. I understand.’

I mentioned above Norman Vincent Peale. In one of his books, written especially for young readers, entitled The Coming of the King, Dr Peale wrote that ‘the real purpose of time is for the discernment of God.’ That’s quite profound, for the One who is said to be beyond time can only be experienced from moment to moment in time. (In Zen there is the view that as we live in each moment, and as we act, we are the temporal activity of the Buddha. Indeed, it is ‘being Buddha.’) In another of his books Jesus of Nazareth Peale wrote of the need to ‘bring [Jesus] out of the mists of unreality and cause him to live in our time,’ noting that ‘whenever Jesus is made really to live he exercises the same strangely moving fascination with which he stirred his contemporaries.’ (NOTE. For those who are interested in the writings and ideas of Dr Peale, I have compiled and edited a book entitled The Norman Vincent Peale Book of Quotations.)

Now, there is, in Catholic Christianity, a long tradition of what is known as ‘imaginative reflection.’ In his book Any News of God? Catholic liturgist Christopher Kiesling, who was professor of systematic theology at Aquinas Institute of Theology in St Louis, Missouri, writes, ‘One can imagine what it would be like to live with Jesus, to eat with him, listen to him preach, converse with him. One can re-create in imagination various Gospel scenes. Kiesling is at pains to point out that imaginative experience of Jesus is ‘not pure fantasy, devoid of human experience.’

Erik Walker Wikstrom, the pastor of Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist, in Charlottesville, Virginia, has written something very similar in his book Teacher, Guide, Companion: Rediscovering Jesus in a Secular World. Wikstrom writes:

Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit. … Sit still. Close your eyes. Now call to mind an image of Jesus. It might be a picture you’ve seen in a children’s Bible, or on TV, or in a movie. It might be something that pops into your mind without any obvious reference. Whatever the image is, wherever it comes from, allow yourself to linger with it, taking in all the details. Can you observe anything about the place where you see Jesus? Can you tell the time of the day? The season? Bring the image to life, using all of your senses. Can you imagine sounds or smells? Place yourself in the scene. Can you feel the sun on your back or the wind in your hair? Be aware especially of how you feel inside – what are your emotional reactions, and how does Jesus ‘feel’ to you?

In an appealing booklet How to Make Jesus Your Best Friend Dr Norman Vincent Peale had earlier recommended likewise. He wrote, 'Visualize yourself sitting on a grassy hillside, overlooking a lake, and listening to Jesus. Let the sights, sounds, and smells of a beautiful spring day relax you, as the truths of the lesson fill your mind.' Also, 'Believe that Jesus is with you, and act "as if" he is beside you each day.'

Skeptics will say, ‘Well, we can imagine or creatively visualize all kinds of things, but that doesn’t make them real.’ Really? Whatever presents before us as our thoughts, feelings, images and memories are just as real as so-called material things. They are all part of the one order or level of reality – the one ‘way of being.’ They are still ‘things’ of which we can be mindfully aware. I am not advocating a retreat from the real world, but an imaginative and fulsome participation in it, using the intellect, the emotions and the will.

Much has been written on ‘centering prayer,’ which is a method of silent prayer in the contemplative tradition in which God's omnipresence is experienced within us closer than breathing, closer than thinking, indeed closer than consciousness itself. In the words of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘Closer is he than breathing, and nearer than hands and feet.’ During the course of a session of centering prayer in which one sits quietly, one silently introduces a previously chosen ‘sacred word’ (eg ‘God,’ ‘Jesus,’ ‘Mary,’ ‘Love,’ ‘Peace’) as the symbol of one’s consent to the Divine omnipresence. Whenever a thought (an umbrella term for every perception, sensation, feeling, image, memory, etc) arises, one returns ever-so-gently to one’s sacred word.

Centering prayer has many of the attributes of mindfulness meditation. In the latter, one ordinarily brings one’s attention back to the sensation of one’s breath whenever a thought, etc, arises. In centering prayer one returns to one’s sacred word. It’s very similar. Here’s a short YouTube video on centering prayer, presented by its leading exponent, if not founder, Fr Thomas Keating:




The bottom line, as I see it, is this … there is only life, consisting of living things living out their livingness. That is the only ‘way of being,’ and it is sacred or divine. Call it the ‘All-ness of God,’ if you wish. Yes, life is forever ‘evidencing’ itself as the all and only presence. So, the presence, indeed omnipresence of God, in which the image, person and consciousness of Jesus is also an ever-present reality, is just another way of describing life’s self-expression – that is, the action of the present moment, from one moment to the next. Mindfulness, in a Christian context, is nothing other than the practice of the presence of God. Thus, living mindfully, for a Christian, is living from and in the God-Presence within. It is an awakened state of thought and mind, which recognises that in – yes, in – God, and Jesus, ‘we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28).

It is said, ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth’ (Mt 5:5). Few understand what is meant by the words ‘meek’ and ‘earth.’ First, the word ‘meek,’ which does not mean timid or weak. No, a meek person is a teachable person – that is, one who is, yes, gentle but also open-minded, that is, perfectly willing to allow the Will of God to unfold in whatever way the Divine considers to be best. Such a mental attitude is referred to in the practice of mindfulness as choiceless awareness – that is, acknowledging whatever is. Secondly, the ‘earth’ refers to the whole of one’s outer experience.

Thus, in the words of the old metaphysical maxim, ‘As within, so without.’ If you are meek, you will have power or dominion over whatever happens in your life.

That is living victoriously … and mindfully.



THE NATIVITY STORY: A STUDY IN MINDFULNESS

THE NATURE AND POWER OF MINDFUL PRAYER

DESTRESS YOURSELF WITH MINDFULNESS ... IN THE SILENCE

MINDFULNESS---A VERY PRESENT HELP IN TROUBLE

THE LIGHT THAT MINDFULLY ENLIGHTENS ALL THINGS

MINDFULNESS AND ISLAM



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