The recent interest in ‘Mindfulness’, those practices which NHS online says can improve mental well-being, by ‘paying more attention to the present moment, to thoughts and feelings and to the world around you’, has connected with many people estranged from Faith. Echoing Christian teaching ‘Mindfulness’ is the ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or over-whelmed by what’s going on around us.
From its use in prisons and schools its benefits are becoming more widely realised. Yet it draws on practices older than Christianity which, unfortunately, became generally forgotten at the Reformation. Christianity has taught these practices as aspects of contemplative prayer, practices which encourage us to enter the caverns of the heart as we let go of our thoughts and feelings and descend to our soul. Unfortunately, our Faith became caught by notions of ‘onwards and upwards’ rather than ‘stillness and descent’, yet the great mystics of the Church always knew that this was the better way.
This ‘prayer of the heart’ is one of the simplest ways in which we can open ourselves to that ‘ground of our being’ which lies beneath the surface of our lives. It’s a way of praying which is intended to cultivate that interior silence which can calm the raging seas of life and we can overcome the fear of our own hidden depths. It requires of us nothing more than developing a deep inner stillness and silence as we seek to focus into our desire for God. At a time when people are beginning to waken to the importance of their inner world the Church needs to re-discover its treasury of contemplative prayer where we can find the most important ‘fresh expressions’ of our Faith which speak to the actual needs people have.
St Paul recognised the importance of Mindfulness when he prayed that ‘with the eyes of your heart enlightened you may know what is the hope to which (God) has called you.’ The 3rd century Desert Mothers and Fathers taught that we need to focus into a word which we can gently repeat beneath our breath, which is often spoken of as Centring Prayer; Lectio Divina, taught by the Benedictines, allows words of scripture to enter the heart, and in the 17th century Brother Laurence taught the importance of living in the Present Moment. In fact, these practices might be more rightly called ‘heartfulness’ for as St Theophan the Recluse, a 19th century Russian monk, reminds us:
‘To pray is to descend with the mind into the heart, and there to stand before the face of the Lord, ever present .. within you.’
That reflects a far older teaching that if we gaze deep within our heart, we shall find there the ladder that leads to heaven. (St Isaac the Syrian)
THE HEART OF CHRIST
This reminds us that we need to give far greater attention to the heart. We need to re-discover the importance of the Heart of Christ, the Sacred Heart of Jesus for His Heart reveals what our heart might be like. ‘The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and of great kindness’ says the psalmist (145.8) and reveals aspects of the Heart of God which it can be so hard to incarnate in our lives. Can I be merciful, compassionate and kind? If that’s the nature of God’s Heart, and if we were created in the image and likeness of God, then this helps to identify what being human is all about.
We resonate to these human qualities which pierce beneath the shell that we can build around us and invite us to fix our heart upon them. Yet they’re only emanations of the nature of the invisible and unknowable God whose nature must be greater than these describe. To fix the heart on the Heart of God involves deepening our desire to reflect the Sacred Heart which doesn’t just call us to devotion to its physicality, any more than devotion to Christ is about tribal loyalty. Rather, devotion to the Sacred Heart slowly opens us to the fullness of divine life. I want my heart, my life, to be like His. That’s what makes the saints so attractive, for they are people whose lives reveal something of the attractive beauty of God.
God gently invites us to ‘fix our heart’ on His, to be awakened by and to Divine beauty. To cleanse our heart that it might shine with the beauty in which it was created. To recollect this call, hear its echoes and resonances. This fixing of the heart means I’m being drawn out of my-self into the Sacred Heart. Yet the heart can be distracted, can become enslaved to another who will lead me away from the Light of Love and needs cleansing, liberating and renewing in the image and likeness of the Sacred Heart.
THE HEART OF THE OTHER
This drawing into the Heart of Christ opens my heart to want to encounter the heart of the other. In fact, what I have found, like so many others, is that encountering the heart of the other – of all Creation – I find my–self profoundly moved out of that ‘self’ as I gaze on the other. From the simplest leaf, tiniest insect or most fragile butterfly, to the grandest mountain, vastness of ocean or celestial panoply my heart is moved and drawn more deeply into desiring at-oneness with that ‘other’. And in allowing my heart to be moved in this way I notice how my own sense of humanity is nourished and affirmed. I am more ‘me’ as I allow myself to be embraced by the Other. This seems connected to the way the early Franciscan, St Bonaventure, noted that the very universe is a kind of ladder for ascending to God (cf. ‘The Soul’s Journey into God’) only this is a ladder which takes us into the wonder of the Divine.
BEING AND BELONGING
St Francis of Assisi knew that at heart, we are intimately connected with the heart of all that is. He taught that we are sisters and brothers with the whole of creation. The reverence I feel when contemplating the stars connects me to them, for I am made of the same stuff; the fact that I am moved in my depths when I gaze on the animal world should remind me to reverence it - and if it doesn’t, then there is something wrong with my humanity. If I am not moved it suggests that my heart is closed and needs awakening so that it can be fixed on wonder, love and praise. I find my sense of belonging widens from the particular (this family, place, nation) to a greater sense of belonging as a creature in creation. This seems to be what Jesus recognised as he reached out beyond the confines of family (“who is my mother...”) and Paul taught (“circumcision is nothing ... what matters is a new creation”) and calls us to have a heart large enough to embrace the whole. Slowly the heart needs to break free of its constraints so that it can sing the song of freedom.
This is what being a Christian is all about - realising myself as a new creation whose heart is fixed on mercy, compassion and love for all things. I need to be ‘mindful’ of this calling – to recollect this attention in the depths of my heart so that I’m not given to distraction. And when – inevitably – I am, to collect my attention to its roots in the Heart of God. This needs to be my well-spring. And even though I may have a particular love, it is that Sacred Heart of Christ which is to enable all my loving. As I gaze on His Heart so mine can be warmed. It can also be challenged to grow beyond the limits of the self; challenged to be renewed (“a new heart create for me, O God...”) and refreshed.
THE HEART AND DIVISION
This deep and often unconscious yearning for union – at-oneness – which is endemic to our being as a part of Creation will inevitably find the notion of separation a threat and a challenge and it’s experience deeply disturbing. Yet, at a deeper level, our union cannot be broken – I remain your brother or sister and a brother or sister to the whole of creation whether that is recognised or not. That recognition was the great gift of St Francis and other saints and their insights need to be recalled at times when we experience brokenness. The eye of our heart needs to be fixed on the Heart of God which enfolds the whole of creation as we pray: “may you be well; may you be happy; may you know the compassion of Christ.”
MINDFULNESS AND MEDITATION
At a time when people are beginning to awaken to the importance of their inner world the Church needs to re-discover its treasury of contemplative prayer. Here we can find the most important ‘fresh expressions’ of our Faith which speak to the actual needs people have. If we want to re-connect with them then why not begin by organising a contemplative prayer group – call it ‘Mindfulness and Meditation’ if you like, but let’s do something!