Mindfulness: Learning all our Lives

Yesterday in the Guardian Suzanne Moore published an article critical of contemporary attitudes to mindfulness (see here). I agree with much of what she said, although as a Benedictine, I might argue that mindfulness is as much a Christian as Buddhist concept (cf RB7. 10–18). As always, the problem is managing the imbalance between expectation and the effort to be expended. In the West we want instant everything. The idea of growth — often slow, sometimes painful and uncertain — is more and more alien to us. Indeed, we often talk about growth when what we really mean is success, measured in predominantly economic terms. This spills over into the moral and spiritual sphere and often leads to discouragement. We want to be people of peace, for example, but as our desire for peace grows, so does our awareness of just how angry and unpeaceful we are. We consider ourselves failures because we are not what we set out to be, not realising that to become people of peace we must first plumb the depths of our own lack of peace.

The practice of mindfulness, which for a Christian must always be the practice of mindfulness of the presence of God, is not something we learn in a few hours or even a few years. It is a lifetime’s work, and it is not to be rushed or short-circuited in any way. People are sometimes amazed when I say that I had lived as a nun for eighteen years before I was allowed to give my first talk. There had been literally years of preparation: living the daily life of the cloister, with its regular round of prayer, work and study, before I said a word about it. That preparation was (and remains) essential. Beware the expert on monasticism who pontificates after only a brief submersion in its waters!

You may think it all very well for monastics to be proponents of slow growth and so on and so forth, but for those of us who live busy and time-poor lives it is a different matter. We need results! We need to calm mind and heart quickly and get to the centre of things. My answer would be that you are already at the centre of things, you don’t need to ‘get’ anywhere. What you may need to do is take your eyes off yourself, stop trying to measure your spiritual ‘success’ and simply enjoy, yes enjoy! the time you spend with the Lord, be it little or long. Preparing for prayer, being ready to give time to it, is important, but don’t worry about techniques or methods. No technique can substitute for a heart willing to learn and open to the love God is eager to pour into it.

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The Red Kite

The Red Kite
The Red Kite © Matt Hoskins (Furlined)

 

The re-introduction of the red kite to England and Wales is one of the most successful conservation stories of recent times. On this day, twenty-five years ago, five  birds were released into the Chilterns. Over the years a total of 93 birds from Spain, Germany and Sweden have been released into the wild (I don’t have the figures for Wales) and it is from them that the current-day population stems. The wheeeling flight of the red kite, with its magnificent chestnut plumage and elegantly forked tail, is now a common sight in the skies of Oxfordshire and adjacent counties. In Wales, the Elan Valley remains my site of choice for viewing these wonderful creatures.

It is tempting to see the world as full of nothing but death and disaster, and while I would not wish to pretend that everything is as it should be or that we can safely ignore what is going on around us, I would still want to say, ‘Look up; look out; see the beauty that surrounds us, and give thanks.’

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The Feast of the Visitation 2014

This tender image from the eleventh century is eloquent of the love between Mary and Elizabeth and the care of each for the other. That long trek through the Judaean hills must have cost Mary something in both time and effort. How Elizabeth responded to that generosity! It is worth asking how we spend our time, our efforts. Do we waste them on anger or criticism of others, for example, or do we lavish them on those we love? ‘Those we love’ can be a difficult category. Sometimes, perhaps, we define our terms too narrowly, wanting to feel love where we cannot. It is surely enough that any human being has a call on our love simply by virtue of being human; and if we cannot find it in ourselves to love them, we can allow God to love them through us.

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The Pursuit of Perfection

I wonder when the idea of perfection underwent a sea-change, so that we think of it first as a state of flawlessness and only secondarily as completion/fullness. Flawlessness can be a little chilly and remote, as a jewel gleams with cold grandeur or a stone stands smooth and straight but impresses us with its weight rather than its beauty. Completion or fullness is often a little fuzzy, a little messy even: one thinks of the newborn baby — warm, wet, wrinkled and probably wriggley, too, but undeniably ‘perfect’ — or the sleeping dog, a miracle of contentment and ease. Judging by my inbox, the idea of perfection as flawlessness causes a great deal of heartache. Most of us will never have perfect bodies, houses, relationships or whatever, if we mean by that those that are flawless. Most of us will never write a perfect poem or perfect sonata, though we may spend our lives struggling to achieve a ‘better’ poem or ‘better’ sonata than any we have yet managed. The marrying of perfection of form (which is attainable) to the more elusive perfection or fullness of the inner voice is the work of a lifetime, and most will go to their graves with a sense of never having quite attained it. The pursuit of artistic perfection is both ecstasy and anguish, a perpetual trembling on the brink of the unattainable. The pursuit of religious perfection, by contrast, has fewer highs and lows; and it is attainable.

If we really understood that we are not called to be flawless, I think there would be much less worry and grief about what we are or are not. We waste so much time thinking that we ought to be sinless. Of course, we need to try to avoid sin; but a preoccupation with sin can lead to scrupulosity, which turns us in on ourselves and is destructive of both our own and others’ happiness. (Scrupulosity is an affliction, so if you have any tendency that way, do not beat yourself up about it.) We are called to be loving instead, but not with the vapid, won’t say boo to a goose kind of love which isn’t really love at all because it has neither truth nor sacrifice in it. In Luke’s Gospel we are exhorted to ‘be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect’. If you think about it, we cannot be as God is in anything but love; and his love is always redemptive. Everything we are and do is smudged with sin and limitation, but God’s love has been poured into our hearts, and that love transforms us. That does not mean we must try to love in a way we can’t, kidding ourselves that we are being truly loving when in fact we are being faintly ridiculous or cruelly self-deceived. We must love as we are able, as God gives us strength, starting with the people and situations we find ourselves in. What matters is that we love as fully as we are able. That is what it means to pursue perfection — allowing God’s love to come to perfection in us, and forgetting about ourselves.

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The Harrowing of Hell | Holy Saturday 2014

The Harrowing of Hell: York illumination c. 1190
The Harrowing of Hell: York illumination c. 1190

There is a quietness and stillness about Holy Saturday — a day out of time — that belies the intense activity of Christ. We do not know what happened in the tomb, but the ancient belief in the harrowing of hell, when Christ descended into the underworld to set free all the righteous who had died before his coming, reminds us that God is at work even when he seems most distant, most unapproachable.

Today we have no sacraments to affirm the bonds between this world and the next, no colour or warmth to assuage our grief, no activity to distract us or give a false sense of security. We are simply waiting, all emotion spent. Most of us live our lives in perpetual Holy Saturday mode, our faith a bit wobbly, our hope a bit frail, but clinging to the cross and Resurrection with an obstinacy wiser than we know. Holy Saturday proclaims to anyone who will listen that when we cannot, God can and does. That is our faith, already tinged with Easter joy and gladness.

Note on the illustration
Harrowing of Hell, illumination about 1190, York; written about 1490, Tempera colours and gold leaf on parchment
Leaf: 11.9 x 17 cm (4 11/16 x 6 11/16 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 101, fol. 82v

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Why me, Lord?

When bad things happen to us, there is a tendency to say, ‘Why me, Lord?’ Intellectually, we know we could with equal truth say, ‘Why not me?’ but the temptation to believe we have been singled out for some especially bad luck/fate is strong. It is so unfair, we murmur, what have we done to deserve this? Most of the time we haven’t done anything to ‘deserve’ what happens to us, good or ill, but trying to make sense of what happens to us, to assert our mastery over our fate, is as old as the hills. Understanding what happens is as important as what actually occurs, but very often we haven’t the necessary knowledge or we lack the assurance to interpret the facts correctly. That’s when we turn to the experts, but the experts themselves are often at a loss to explain why this person went blind or that person got cancer or the one over there was swept away by a tsunami. We invoke science, not realising that what science doesn’t yet know is as huge as what it does know.

Personally, I find the prospect of there being an infinity of knowledge to discover and explore utterly fascinating. We can rejoice in the complexity of the world around us and be very glad to be living now, when much that was formerly hidden has been made plain. It should enhance our sense of God’s beauty and majesty. More importantly, it should help convince us of God’s love for his creation and give credibility to his assertion that the very hairs of our head have been numbered. There may be days when we stumble around asking ‘Why me, Lord?’ but, hopefully, there are many more when we just say, ‘Thank you, Lord’ and glory in what his hands have wrought. May today be one such for you.

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Epiphany 2014

Adoration of the Magi

Epiphany dawns cold and grey here in England. There is a ‘Constable sky’ overhead, entirely lacking stars or sunlight. It is a useful paradigm of our search for truth and meaning. We would like everything to be either as plain as day, illumined by dazzling sunshine, or enveloped in shimmering mystery into which we could plunge deeper and deeper without ever finding an end. Instead, we spend most of our lives plodding through the drabness of the cold grey dawn, often stumbling over Truth without realising it or battling against God rather than surrendering to him. I suspect that the Magi’s own journey was rather like that: dull, tiring, full of wrong turns, seemingly hopeless at times.

But we know that the Magi are eventually led to the Child they are seeking and lay their treasures before him. We too must bring our gifts — the gold of generosity, the frankincense of prayer, the myrrh of service — and lay them before our Lord and Saviour. However dull the day, however out of sorts we may be feeling, we know we are confronting a great mystery. Today the gentiles are admitted into the family of God, and the Church heightens our sense of this by commemorating three great miracles or signs: the Magi are led by a star, Christ is baptized in the Jordan and water is turned into wine at the wedding-feast of Cana. In other words, today salvation has come to us all. How can we be gloomy knowing that?

Note on the illustration:
Andrea Mantegna (Italian (Paduan), about 1431 – 1506)
Adoration of the Magi, about 1495 – 1505, Distemper on linen. 
Unframed: 48.6 x 65.6 cm (19 1/8 x 25 13/16 in.)
 Framed: 71.8 x 86.8 x 3.5 cm (28 1/4 x 34 3/16 x 1 3/8 in.) Stretcher: 54.6 x 69.2 cm (21 1/2 x 27 3/8 in.)
 The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Used by permission under the Open Content programme — with thanks.

Personal note:
I’m scheduled to have some surgery this week and will be taking time for convalescence afterwards, so blogging is likely to be irregular for a while. I’m sorry, but I can’t enter into any personal correspondence at this time so please don’t take it amiss if I don’t respond to emails or messages.

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The Last Day of the Year

It may be perverse of me, but I think the last day of the year is just as important as the first. It is a time for giving thanks for blessings received, asking forgiveness for wrongs committed, forgiving those who have wronged us, and asking grace for the future. Already, even before January, the month that looks both ways, begins, we are aware of needing to make decisions about both past and future. We cannot reject the past, but we can allow it to be redeemed. We cannot determine the future, but we can allow it to be permeated with the love and mercy of God.

In the monastery on the last day of the calendar year, we read chapter 73 of the Rule of St Benedict and are reminded that the Rule itself is only a beginning of holiness, a first step towards the loftier heights of wisdom and virtue described by St Benedict. For me, it will be the 96th time I have heard that chapter read in community. I can look back and see how often I have failed to live up to its demands. I can look forward in hope to trying to live it better in 2014; but most of all, I can decide, here and now, to try to live today as it should be lived because ‘today’ is all we ever really know. So, for me, no New Year resolutions as such, only a renewed sense of purpose about what I am called to be and do. I think (hope?) that is probably enough. It is certainly the best I can do.

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Holy Innocents 2013

Those who don’t have children of their own are inclined to be sentimental about the children of others — provided they remain at a safe distance, of course. At Christmas such sentimentality is not only indulged, it is almost obligatory. We are invited to become misty-eyed at the thought of children hanging up their stockings for Father Christmas or coo and goo over Nativity Plays where the actors are barely three feet tall and Baby Jesus is all blue-eyed plastic perfection. Then comes the feast of the Holy Innocents and our sentimentality is ripped to shreds by the brutal fact of child murder.

Why does this feast come before Epiphany, when, chronologically speaking, it should follow after? The answer is that the Holy Innocents gave their lives for the Infant Saviour and their feast is therefore included among those of the Christmas Octave so that the link between the two may be more clearly seen. It is a disturbing feast, turning upside down our ideas about the special status of childhood and the protection every adult should afford every child.

In the Catholic Church this feast is often appropriated to two causes: the pro-life, anti-abortion movement which seeks to put an end to abortion and the situations that make it ‘necessary’ or ‘desirable’; and the attempt to end the evil of child abuse (especially sexual abuse) and exploitation. Both are, in my view, very worthy causes, though I sometimes hesitate over the methods adopted by some groups. What I find difficult, however, is the way in which appealing to the Holy Innocents as patrons of these causes dulls our sense of outrage at the original event. What was God thinking of to allow such a horror?

There is no easy answer to such a question, but unless we take on board the scandal of this feast, I think we are failing to take on board the enormity of the Incarnation. When God became man in the person of Jesus Christ, he overthrew every previous notion about God. The feast of the Holy Innocents urges us to rethink our own ideas about him, which may well have become tinged with some of the sentimentality I wrote about earlier. We are confronted with a God who is above and beyond anything we can think or imagine. Our only certainty is that he loves us, loves us enough to become one of us and suffer and die for us. The little children slain by Herod may be to us a type, an abstract of innocence, but to him they are individuals, chosen and precious in his sight. Thinking and praying about that may teach us something we never knew before.

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Christmas Eve in the Monastery

Christmas Eve in the monastery is, like Holy Saturday, a time out of time. We are still in Advent, but we have half a foot in Christmas as we put up the Christmas decorations and begin to think about sending Christmas greetings. Key to the whole is the singing of the Christmas Martyrology (Proclamation). I shall be thrifty and recycle what I wrote about it last year:

Very early this morning, while it was still dark and everything was silent and still, the nuns sang the Vigils of Christmas Eve. Just before the second lesson, two large gilt candlesticks were placed beside the choir lectern. A short pause, and then a single voice began singing the Christmas Martyrology (also known as the Christmas Proclamation), locating the birth of Christ in time and place.

It is an ancient custom. The chant used has a haunting, plangent quality which becomes urgent and insistent as we reach the words proclaiming the birth of Christ, falling away again with the final phrase, ‘the birthday of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.’ The nuns then kneel in silence.  With the coming of the Word, no further words are necessary. But we love words, and we love to fill every moment of every day with the rattle and tattle of human speech, don’t we?

Christmas Eve can be very tiring: all those last-minute preparations, people to see, things to do. The idea of finding a little silence, a moment or two of inner solitude, may be greeted with derisive laughter, but we need to try because, without a moment to register what we are about to celebrate, we may end up missing the whole point of Christmas. Today we look both ways: back on our Advent journey, which showed us how much we need a Saviour; forward to the birth which has changed everything, for ever.

The Christmas Martyrology reminds us that we are celebrating the birth of a baby, not a theological abstraction; and we do so without the syrupy sentimentality which can sometimes mark Christmas Day itself. It is worth thinking about that birth and what it entailed, not just for Mary and Joseph but also for Jesus himself — the mighty Word of God confined to a baby’s body, a baby’s helplessness. The first sound uttered by the Word of God on coming into the world was probably a long wail. I don’t want to press the analogy too far, but we all of us understand a baby’s cry. It is a universal language, one which calls forth kindness and compassion from even the most selfish and self-absorbed. Could that be the response Jesus is looking for from us today? Could that be the gift we are to bring to the crib tonight?

May you have a happy and holy Christmas!

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