7th Sunday of Easter
Texts: John 17:1-11;
Acts 1:6-14; 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
CONTEMPLATION AND ONENESS
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 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. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, June 1, 2014