Monday, June 23, 2014

Respect and Humility and the Paschal Mystery

Again, it has been quite a while since I posted an update on my blog "Imaginary Visions of True Peace," so there is much to update.

During Holy Week, I posted Escape from the Denial of Death where my mediation on the Cross interacted with Richard Beck's book on Ernest Becker's thesis on how the denial of death tends to make people more violent.

For Easter, I posted The Earthquake that Saves which I have to admit presupposes some understanding of Girard's thought to work as a standalone post.

After Easter, I embarked on a series of posts on Respect and Humility as two fundamental abiding attitudes that build "good" mimesis and relieve competitive mimesis. There are three posts on Respect, a humble virtue but an important one. The first post should lead to the the other two. Speaking of humility, there is a post on Vainglory which is a vice noted by early Eastern writers such as John Cassian followed by two posts on Humility.

There is the post Stumbling over Stumbling Stones that points to issues of ecclesiology, what it means to be church.

Freud's Illusion and the Paschal Mystery is a reflection on yet another book by Richard Beck, namely one on Freud and William James.

The Power of the Ascended Lord is, as one might guess, another meditation on the Ascension of Christ.

Accepting the Cross is the latest posting which discusses the Gospel for the second Sunday after Pentecost, particularly Jesus' words about taking up his cross.

The picture is what our cemetery looked like after some small tornadoes ripped through the abbey property two years ago. Fallen trees missed the cross by inches. Fortunately, none of the abbey buildings took a direct hit.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Oneness and Contemplation

There is a story about Mahatma Gandhi that fits my experience the past several weeks. A mother brought her young son to Gandhi because she knew he was a loving, helpful man, and because her son looked up to him. "I've tried to tell my son," she told Gandhi, "that he eats too much sugar. It's not good for him. Can you please tell him not to eat so much sugar?" He thought for a moment and told her, "Bring him back in two weeks, and I will have an answer for him." The mother was a bit surprised. Why would waiting a couple weeks make a difference for something so simple. But she did what he asked, and brought him back. Gandhi's response was the same: "Bring him back in two weeks, and I will have an answer for him." Again, she brought him back, and again he asked for two more weeks. Finally, on the fourth try, Gandhi stooped down to address the boy. "You should stop eating so much sugar. It's not good for you." What?! Now the mother was a bit angry. "Why couldn't you have told him that the first time we came to you?!" "Because," said Gandhi, "I needed time myself to stop eating so much sugar. It was harder than I thought. I couldn't ask your son to do something I'm not willing to do myself."

The last couple weeks I've spoken to you about the importance to the Christian life of a certain form of prayer. In popular parlances, it's most often called "meditation." Today, it's increasingly referred to as "Mindfulness." In Christian circles, I've most often heard it talked about as "Contemplation." Whatever we call it, it's a form of prayer that uses silence and attempts to calm the mind by stemming the normal flow of thinking. And I think it's become a lost art in the Christian tradition that we very much need to retrieve.

But I feel a bit like Gandhi with that boy. Because even though I've been becoming more convinced of its necessity for a healthy Christian life, I've struggled a to fall into a regular practice myself. I was not raised with contemplative practice at all. It was never taught to me in Sunday School or Confirmation. We didn't even have anything on it in seminary. It's been absent to my life of faith, until about three years ago, when I first started reading Franciscan priest and teacher Richard Rohr. Here's his most recent book, in fact, titled Silent Compassion: Finding God in Contemplation. Finding God in contemplation. Through Rohr -- and also Sr. Nancy Brousseau, who leads our synod's education center, and who led our Church Council on an experience of this type of prayer -- I've been learning about the great mystics who listened to God in prayer and became great leaders and saints. But an important part of the message has been that it's not just for mystics and saints. It's for everyone. (We'll follow up on this point next week, in fact, as we read in the Pentecost story about God's Spirit being poured out on all people.)

Contemplation is a form of prayer that has been passed on in the Christian tradition for everyone to practice, even though often times it was only in the monasteries. Since the Reformation, it even went somewhat dormant in the monasteries. It's just been in the last fifty years or so that it's made a revival there, too. The best place to learn contemplative prayer, in fact, is generally at your local monastery. I took my first class on contemplative prayer at the Transformation Center at old Nazareth College on Gull Road.

But my practice has remained spotty. So, like Gandhi, I've been reluctant to ask you all to do something that I'm not willing to do myself. It's been in recent weeks that my own motivation to practice received a big boost to rededicate myself to faithful practice of contemplation. It came through an unexpected source -- the book I've plugged the last two weeks, titled 10% Happier, by ABC news anchor Dan Harris. It's basically his personal account of being ushered into the benefits of meditation pretty much kicking and screaming. He's unreligious himself and so resisted all the way, because meditation is usually connected with religious practice. But increasingly he relented because it did help him a great deal. It began when he had a horrifying moment of experiencing a panic attack while on the air for Good Morning America about ten years ago -- in front of 5 million viewers. He knew that if he wanted to keep his career, he needed to make sure that it never happened again. So he takes the reader through a fascinating story, both into the world of TV news and the personal benefits of meditation -- all with great humor and wit. His account of enduring a 10-day silent retreat is hilarious. He hated most of it, yet it was also one of the most profound experiences of his life.

What has helped me is to see the Christian practice of contemplation in light of a more general human practice of what we might consider mental or spiritual hygiene. Harris writes, for example:

On my travels to various Buddhist seminars, I had started to hear mentions of scientific research into meditation. It sounded promising, so I checked it out. What I found blew my mind. Meditation, once part of the counterculture, had now fully entered the scientific mainstream. It had been subjected to thousands of studies, suggesting an almost laughably long list of health benefits, including salutary effects on the following: major depression, drug addiction, binge eating, smoking cessation, stress among cancer patients, loneliness among senior citizens, ADHD, asthma, psoriasis, irritable bowel syndrome.
Studies also indicated that meditation reduced levels of stress hormones, boosted the immune system, made office workers more focused, and improved test scores on the GRE. Apparently mindfulness did everything short of making you able to talk to animals and bend spoons with your mind. (pp. 167-68)
A frustration, though, of this practice is that it's hard to put in a book. It's one of those practices that's best passed on person to person. As Dan Harris became interested in trying meditation, he was frustrated by not being able to find it in a book, which is partly why he was motivated to write his book. The appendix is worth the price for its basic instructions of how to practice meditation -- though he, too, admits that it is best to learn with someone who knows the practice. But here's just another brief snippet about why it's important:
Meditation is the best tool I know for neutralizing the voice in the head. As discussed, the ego is often a hatchery of judgments, desires, assumptions, and diabolical plans. The act of simply feeling the breath breaks the habits of a lifetime. For those short snatches of time when you're focused on the rise and fall of the abdomen or the cool air entering and exiting the nostrils, the ego is muzzled. You are not thinking, you are being mindful -- an innate but underused ability we all have, which allows us to be aware without judging.

When you repeatedly go through the cycle of feeling the breath, losing your focus, and hauling yourself back, you are building your mindfulness muscle the way dumbbell curls build your biceps. Once this muscle is just a little bit developed, you can start to see all the thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations that carom through your skull for what they really are: quantum squirts of energy without any concrete reality of their own.

Imagine how massively useful this can be. Normally, for example, when someone cuts you off in traffic or in line at Starbucks, you automatically think, I'm [mad]. Instantaneously, you actually become [mad]. Mindfulness allows you to slow that process down. Sometimes, of course, you're right to be [mad]. The question is whether you are going to react mindlessly to that anger or respond thoughtfully. Mindfulness provides space between impulse and action, so you're not a slave to whatever neurotic obsession pops into your head. (pp. 230-31)
Sound helpful? Let's finish up with at least a hint of why I think this is so important to our Christian practice. Richard Rohr has a chapter in this little book on contemplative prayer called "The Path to Non-Dual Thinking." What's dual thinking? Our normal thinking of judging everything in pairs, the basic one being good and bad, but also pairs like pain and pleasure, suffering and joy. The voice in our heads, as Harris calls it, is constantly judging everything along some line of good and bad. Non-dual thinking, as Rohr calls it, is not to think away good and bad but to be aware of it in less judgmental ways because you are aware of the oneness of everything.

If the Gospel readings from John in recent weeks have sound mystical to you, let me suggest it is because of our usual dual thinking. When we are on the path to non-dual thinking, these passages actually begin to make more sense. And the bottom line of it all comes in the closing words to today's reading. Jesus ends his farewell to the disciples praying to his Father that "they may be one, just as we are one." Oneness. That's the antidote to the dangers of dual thinking, our normal thinking. Our most immediate reaction to judging something bad is to expel it, often with any force we can muster. Through Contemplation, we learn the practice of responding instead of reacting. We learn to hold off our normal reaction of trying to violently expel the bad, and instead respond with love. That doesn't mean there aren't bad things that need to be resisted. There are! And we are called to resist them. But with a response of love, not a reaction of anger and force.

Why? Because, first of all, in love we are aware of our own badness, our own sin. As Luther taught at his most mystical moment, we are all saints and sinners at the same time. We learn to see the oneness of everything, the good and the bad together. And so, second, we learn that the only ultimate way for the bad to be healed is love. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, You can't drive out darkness with darkness; only with light. You can't drive out hate with hate; only with love. Contemplative prayer is about interrupting the dual thinking and reacting, so that we might instead respond with love.

Spiritual Abiding and Contemplation

The timing of Brian Robinette's insightful presentation at the 2014 Annual Conference of Theology & Peace coincided with my my own growing interest in Contemplative Spirituality, which had been part of my preaching in the latter part of the Easter Season. What follows are two pieces on contemplation; the first a parish newsletter column on John 14 and the second a sermon on John 17.
Our Gospel readings from John at the end of the Easter season give a brilliant example of the older and newer reading of our Christian message. Let's begin with a beloved passage that gives much comfort at a time of loss, a passage that is often read at funerals. Jesus, on the eve of Good Friday, says to his disciples,
"Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house there are many abiding places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also." (John 14:1-3)
Even though "heaven" is not mentioned here, the older reading of this passage is that it's about Jesus taking us to heaven when we die -- a message of immense comfort when we face death, either our own or our loved ones. It is truly a "Blessed Assurance" that God holds us in life when our earthly bodies die.

The newer reading of this passage does not take away or diminish this assurance but extends it to this life -- not just to when we die. It is about the new possibility of "heaven" coming to us through the cross and resurrection, not us waiting to go to heaven someday in the future. The abiding places that Jesus prepares for us? First himself, and then you and me. The many abiding places of God's house become us!

This way of reading comes from the wider context of John's Gospel -- "my Father's house" and his specialized use of "abiding." "My Father's house" appears only one other time, in John 2. When Jesus is taking prophetic action in the Jerusalem Temple, he says, "Stop turning my Father's house into a marketplace" (2:16). Here "my Father's house" means the Temple, the traditional locus of God's presence in the world.

But Jesus is about to change the traditional thinking. When the temple leaders confront Jesus about his authority to cause such a stir in the holy place, Jesus responds with a baffling statement: "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up" (2:19). No further explanation from Jesus. Only John the Gospel Writer tells us the reader, "But he was speaking of the temple of his body" (2:21). In other words, the three days of Good Friday to Easter worked the miracle of, among other things, changing the place of God's presence in the world from the temple to Jesus' body. That's what he means when he later says, "I go to prepare a place for you." The basic place of God's presence in the world is no longer to be sought out in a building. The place has shifted to a human body.

But not to just one body, Jesus' body, because Jesus, in being raised up on the cross and on Easter morning, is "ascending to my Father" (20:17). And so in John's 'Pentecost' scene, on Easter evening, this happens:
Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit." (John 20:21-22)
This is the Spirit of Truth, the Advocate, that Jesus promises to send us in John 14-16, the same passage where he also steps up all the talk about "abiding." Laced throughout these chapters are multiple ways of Jesus talking about spiritual abiding. Jesus is in the Father, and the Father in him. Using the image of the vine and branches, he tells us that he will abide in us and we in him. This is all topped off with a lot of talk about love. We are to abide in Jesus' love and his love in us. And the giving of the Spirit is involved in all of this abiding.

Do you see? Yes, when we die -- when our loved ones die -- we/they abide in God's power of life. This is true! It is certain! It is a great comfort! But it's also all true because the abiding in God, and God in us, has already begun since the first Easter. In going to the cross, Jesus went to prepare a place for us and in us. He makes it evident that God's abiding Spirit is not limited to a holy building. The place of God's abiding in the world is first and foremost in human beings. It's supposed to have been that way from the beginning, as we were made in God's image to be God's image bearers. Sin got in the way, and so Jesus was sent to go to the cross as the way to make happen what was always God's intention. God's abiding Spirit desires to abide in us that we may bear God's loving presence to others, and to the whole Creation. Even as the Father sent Jesus, so now he sends us -- with God's Spirit abiding in and among us, so that we do the same work as Jesus, and even greater work (14:12). God wants to help us come alive in new and fresh ways right here and now. God wants us to be part of God's work of making everything come alive.

Wow! But what does that mean on a practical, everyday level? This is where I think our older way of reading these passages has gotten in the way. It has put the focus of our hope on what happens after we die, such that our work in the present has been focused on believing certain things about Jesus as the key to getting to heaven someday. Yes, we are assured of life after death. But the really important message is that God calls us to come alive today. We are to follow in Jesus' work of battling the powers of sin and death in God's work of making everything come alive.

What does this look like? Since the newer readings are new, what this looks like is still in the process of coming into focus, of emerging. I think the new Pope is onto something in taking the name of one our Christian history's greatest saints, Francis of Assisi, as one benchmark in the past for understanding our task today. One of the most important guides for me in recent years has been the Franciscan priest and teacher, Fr. Richard Rohr. His Center for Action and Contemplation names for me the twin foci of what this will look like, naming, too, what we have seen in our Gospels from John 14-20. Action names the work Jesus talks about throughout John's Gospel, the work of loving one another as Jesus loves us, a work that heals us and makes us come alive in new ways. It is a work of God's Justice and Peace, of bearing God's presence to Creation as we were made to do from the beginning. Contemplation names the spiritual abiding in John's Gospel, the process of God's Spirit coming to abide in us that sends us out to do Jesus' work. Rohr often says that the most important word in the name of his Center is and. Action and Contemplation always accompany each other.

Finally, in recent sermons I promised to say more in my newsletter column about Dan Harris' recent book 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works -- A True Story. I chose to begin here with reading our Easter Gospel texts. Harris' book comes under what Rohr names as Contemplation. So I'll promise to say more in next month's newsletter column. For now, I leave you with suggestions for summer reading: Harris' book, and then two coming out this summer: Brian McLaren's We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation, and Richard Rohr's Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi.

Have a great summer!