21 April 2011

Mindfulness and the Holy Three Days

During Lent, I have been been exploring and deepening my engagement in what is known as "mindfulness meditation." I actually started this practice in the mid-1980s when I read Gerald May's book, Will and Spirit: A Contemplative Psychology. Dr. May is a psychiatrist and theologian -- a combination one does not often hear about. Not only did he attempt to explain the dynamics of contemplative practice; he taught the reader how to disengage from momentary preoccupations and experience the deeper reality of what we call "spirit" (aka, soul, true self, ontological ground). I reread this book so many times that it began falling apart, and I had to buy another copy. It is still in print with updates.

While also studying the works of Thomas Keating, Basil Pennington and John Main (all excellent teachers and practitioners of contemplative prayer), I began branching out a bit and reading the works of John Kabat-Zinn (Full Catastrophe Living. Wherever You Go, There You Are & Mindfulness for Beginners are excellent) and Thich Nhat Hanh (You Are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment). There are a number of other notable teachers and writers in both the Christian and Buddhist traditions that help foster a state of mindfulness in daily life.

Learning this technique was not always necessary. It is very much in our genetic makeup and was part of our normal routine in ages past. If we read Scripture from the standpoint of the experience of the Patriarchs, Matriarchs, Prophets and Apostles, we can easily see that they were living very much in the moment of their lives. Thus, they were quite capable of experiencing transcendence as well as the nuances of their surroundings.

This is not the only aspect of mindfulness. It includes the capacity to experience self without either affirmation or judgement -- simply observing self for "what is" at the moment. It includes being able to see self not as separated from the rest of creation but being integrally invested in its expression.

This last element of mindfulness had always escaped me. It was not until my sabbatical in 2008 that it finally became real in my practice. I was given the honor of participating in a variety of rituals at the invitation of my Lakota mentors. Their historic traditions remain part of their daily experiences of life. I was able to see, for the first time in practice, what it means to be connected in the current moment to all that is around me and to allow creation in the present to embrace me fully. It opened a new dimension to the experience of true prayer and the practice of contemplative meditation.

When I was in the fifth grade (ca. 1960/61), we were each given a Gideon pocket-sized New Testament. It was when such things could still be done in public schools. It was an emerging tradition in our home for my Dad to wake me up early on Good Friday morning -- before sunrise -- and take me with him to St. Paul's Episcopal Church (where I grew up in Winter Haven, FL). The church was dark except for the chapel whose windows glowed with soft light from the outside. Inside, there were several parishioners quietly reading devotional material or praying quietly. My Dad and I would find a seat, and I would take into full vision the Chapel Altar -- filled with flowers, plants and candles. In the center of the Altar was a veiled Ciborium containing consecrated bread. Behind it was a flagon of consecrated wine. This was Christ Present in the Eucharistic Sacrament. These things I came to learn very early from parents and teachers who were deeply committed to both their faith and their parish.

I had received the above mentioned pocket-sized New Testament just before Holy Week from our fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Dixon. I took it to the Chapel that Good Friday morning, and my Dad showed me where the story about the last days of Jesus appeared in each of the Gospels. I marked those spots with slips of paper. Beginning with Matthew, I read each story...starting with the entry into Jerusalem (our Palm Sunday) and finishing with the Resurrection. We spent an hour in the Chapel for the Watch with Jesus (called variously the "Watch Before the Altar of Repose" or the "Gethsemene Vigil"). At the end of the hour, I had only read three of the Gospel narratives. We went to breakfast, and Dad dropped me at home on his way to work. I finished the narrative from the Gospel of John (which is now my favorite) sitting cross-legged on the floor at the foot of my bed. I was totally in awe and mystified by those readings. From that time forward, every Holy Week has been a unique experience of journey from the gates of Jerusalem, to Gabbatha, to Golgotha and to the tomb. At the empty tomb, I had to "wait" until I was about 15 years old before I suddenly "got" what Resurrection was all about. It was while serving as an acolyte at a Sunday Eucharist that I encountered Jesus in a way totally unexpected, unanticipated and undeserved. I came away knowing I was in a different place in life from that moment forward (no, it was not when I knew I would be a priest... that didn't happen until I was in college...another story).

In reality, I was practicing a type of mindfulness when, in the environment of our parish chapel, I was caught within both past and present reality. The Jesus of biblical narrative was the Jesus with whom I sat in vigil. The Jesus I experienced in the Eucharist as an acolyte was the Jesus in the Sacrament and community of that moment. The Jesus I experienced in the love and faith of my parents was the Jesus that embraced me in a never ending relationship.

Forty-seven years later, on top of a tall hill in the center of the Black Hills -- while on Vision Quest -- I experienced a oneness with all that was around me unlike anything I had known before. While engaging in that night of vigil and prayer with an ancient Lakota ritual, I touched heaven and earth simultaneously and caught a glimpse -- just a glimpse -- of what Transfiguration is all about. It was all I needed. The next summer, during sabbatical, everything seemed alive in the moment. I made the effort to be present to everything I did...no matter how mundane. Drinking a cup of coffee -- smelling, tasting, feeling and savoring -- became a matter of moment. In being mindful, I observed/heard/smelled/tasted/felt things that were always around me but never experienced in those ways.

After getting back into my daily work routine, I all too quickly lost what I had learned. It happens when we begin to over-focus on the past and future -- always trying to stay ahead of the game in order not to get "caught out" when the impatience of others rule the business of the parish church. It may (just may, mind you) be a chief reason for early retirement. If there is anyone in a parish who needs to be regularly and completely mindful, it is the priest. It is he/she who models that life to the congregation and leads/teaches them the path to that place.

The Holy Three Days (the Triduum Sacrum) of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Vigil tell a continuous story of community, servanthood, obedience, judgement, condemnation, abuse, death and the glory of Resurrection. Easter is not able to be truly experienced without true mindfulness of the story that leads to that new life. Mindfulness isn't truly possible without being "in the moment." That is why the Church engages in the most ancient of its ritual practices during these times of worship and gathering community. Those moments put us in step with Jesus and refines our experience of the relationship we have with God by virtue of our own creation and journey.

More later.

In Christ's Love,

Fr. Fred+

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