Sometimes we need to focus on the riddles and mysterious statements Jesus makes, staying with just the one or two verses of that riddling.
For example what does Jesus mean when he says this in Mark 4:21-24?
‘He said to them, ‘Do you bring a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don’t you put it on its stand? For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.”
‘Consider carefully [see] what you hear,’ he continued. ‘With the measure you use, it will be measured to you – and even more. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.’
A clue is that this has to be considered in the context of the rest of Mark 4. Two key questions are: what is the lamp, and what is being measured?
I’m going to leave it as a riddle to think about, and I’ll come back to what I think Jesus is saying.
In J. K Rowling’s first book Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone orphan Harry looks into the Mirror of Erised and sees his parents. It is a mirror that shows the deepest and most desperate desire of his heart (Erised = Desire). It is a mirror, that his headmaster, Dumbledore tells him, shows ‘neither knowledge or truth.’ In fact many have wasted their whole life sitting in front of that mirror.
Paul uses the image of a mirror in the first book to the Corinthians, and James the brother of Jesus also uses the idea of a mirror – but this is the mirror of truth, the living book of Scripture.
‘But the man who looks intently into the [mirror of the] perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it – he will be blessed in what he does.’ (James 1:25)
The question is which mirror are we continually looking in? Are we looking in the narcissist’s mirror, where there is no room for anyone else to be reflected? A mirror that dooms us to disappointment as our appearance ages. Are we looking in the glittery mirror of our culture of consumerism, which tells us all the products we see in it will make us happy and fill our inner emptiness (until at least the new model comes out)? Are we looking in the mirror of distortion, that is suspicious, paranoid and misinterprets everything anybody says to us? Or are we looking in the mirror of truth that shows us the living book of Scripture that gives freedom? And we are doing this continuously as James urges?
James talks about this metaphor in the context of addressing anger. Anger is one of the afflictive thoughts identified by the Desert Fathers and Mothers as most destructive of community. We often feel guilt and shame for the anger that grips us and that we indulge. Paul tells us something helpful in Ephesians 4:26, he says ‘In your anger do not sin.’ The feeling of anger is itself not a sin, but what we do with it often is.
With that in mind what does James want to tell us? The first thing he tells us is that ‘Everyone’ is to be ‘slow to become angry.’ (James 1:19). The word ‘everyone’ is used a lot to address important issues in the Bible – and I talk to many Christians who want to qualify this and say ‘everyone…but me.’ They are somehow the exception to the rule, the person who doesn’t have to tithe, live in community, be chaste in their sexual practice and so on.
Anger is one of those issues where many Christians wish to qualify that direct biblical teaching. Why does James say that we must be slow to become angry? Because we are usually very quick to become angry. On my smartphone I have an icon for a game called ‘Angry Birds’ – it is a shortcut that goes straight to the game. On many of our chests we have an ‘angry man’ or ‘angry woman’ icon – which is easily pressed and provides a short-cut straight to the land of angry.
If we are to be slow to become angry we must learn to slow down the chain of thoughts that make up the shortcut in our psyche. The Desert Father and Mothers called these chains of thought logismoi. I’ll say more about that in part 2.
But the question is are we going to deal with our anger or not? Suppressing it is not the answer, nor is indulging it. There is another way.
Many access anger too quickly, and others try to suppress or avoid the feeling altogether. For some it has become an ‘Angry Bird’ icon in their minds which is too easily pressed and accessed. They need to slow down the process of thoughts and feelings that make up that hot button. Others need to face their anger and not hide from it.
Jesus recognizes that anger might stream inside us but says that it can be transformed and that we shouldn’t direct it on to others(Matthew 5:21). If we are slapped round the face our automatic response is to get angry. By telling us to turn the other cheek Jesus is challenging our automatic response(Matthew 5:39). In others words we need to be mindful of our anger.
Jesus reveals himself through his words to be the first neuroscientist (not surprisingly). In their book How God Changes Your Brain, leading neuroscientists Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman explain how anger is humanity’s greatest enemy. When we get angry the rational, social and compassionate parts of our brain close down…meaning no communication is possible.
John Cassian a fourth century monk says anger is a ‘deadly poison…that must be totally uprooted.’ Some researchers believe that anger is a coronary-prone behaviour that damages our bodies. But it’s very useful isn’t it for getting our own way…
I was very encouraged last night as I led a seminar at church on the latest neuroscientific evidence for how God changes our brain for the better through contemplative/mindful practices. We had over 30 people, with folk from churches, neighbours and friends. The discussion was really helpful, especially as people shared their insights about anger.
Time stress is rife in our culture, and is a silent killer, being responsible for some forms of heart disease and other ailments according to some research. Time stress can lead to competitiveness, cynicism, anger and hostility which have been called ‘coronary-prone’ behaviour.
Many clues appear in our bodies which we ignore because we are on auto-pilot and stuck in automaticity. One of the first places to begin to learn mindfulness is to pay attention to our bodies. Our 5 senses operate as a kind of outer rim of awareness of what is outside our body. Daniel J Siegel talks about the sixth sense, which is the ability to be aware of what is going on in our bodies.One of the ways we can do this is to start paying attention to our breath.
The breath belongs to no one, we take it with us wherever we go and it often indicates to us when we are stressed or not. For example I do a simple exercise of counting my in-breath, followed by my out-breath.
‘Inhale one, exhale one…’ and so on up to a count of ten. If I lose count I start again. There are many mindful breathing exercises. Will van der Hart and Rob Waller have one in their book ‘The Worry Book’. The key thing is practice and repitition.
The body and the spirit are good and belong together – it is not ‘body bad – spirit good’. That is bad theology. There is much more to be said about this. But think about those who have given their bodies for you?
As a Christian I believe Christ gave his body for me. My mother housed me in her womb, and fed me from her body. My father has protected me with his body from a drunk. The body and the spirit belong together in God’s redeeming wholeness.
Listen to your body today and its messages, it might just save your life.
I have learnt a lot about mindfulness in the present moment from my dog Coco. Especially in his intense desire for freedom from his leash/lead.
I think I realised watching him attentively that for much of my life I have been on an invisible lead. Becoming mindful is taking the lead off, throwing off the shackles, breaking the chains.
Coco loves free running – he puts all of himself into it. He desires to be free and then inhabits all of his freedom to run. I think God enjoys seeing him run. But when I first got him I was afraid to let him off the lead. What if it wasn’t safe? What if he didn’t come back?
Of course it doesn’t always go to plan. Sometimes (often) he is aware of exactly where the fox scat is, and rolls in it ecstatically. It is a vile smelling perfume. Apparently his nose is 1,000 to 10,000 times more aware than our noses. He follows invisible trails of scent that we are completely unaware of.
Then, he is often very slow and methodical. I have to slow down as well. The present moment is a delight to him. The moment he finds the exact smell that he has been looking for – he is fully present to it – neither occupied by the past or worried about the future.
We can become mindful through looking at art, reading poetry, becoming a carpenter, fishing – being a poet, or artist.
One such artist who can help us journey into a state of greater awareness is Odilon Redon, the French Symbolist.
ODILON Redon the French Symbolist (1840-1916) shows us in his paintings the spiritual reality underlying our material reality. Although that spiritual reality is veiled and ambiguous, Redon enables us to see through the physical to the spiritual beyond. Redon achieved this through his use of symbol in the mysterious world of dreams and the subconscious.
I recently had the privilege of visiting the recent exhibition of Redon’s work at the Grand Palais in Paris (23 March- 20th June 2011). This is apparently the first major exhibition of his work in Paris since 1956.
Although I have been drawn to his pastels by their ecstatic use of colour, this exhibition traces the development of his work from the beginning of what is called the Noirs, charcoal drawings and lithographs, through to the luminous vibrancy of his later pastels.
What is brought together in this major collection of over 170 pieces is the shadow side of our humanity and the light that also inhabits us. A religious experience and a serious illness in the 1890s brought out this explosion of colour in his work which had until then lain dormant.
The paintings are often spiritually evocative although never labelled as ‘religious’. In this way their appeal would be to all who love art.
The centrepiece of the exhibition was a painting called The Golden Cell (1892). You gaze at a mysterious yet still and peaceful cobalt blue profile of a face, eyes closed, painted over a metallic gold background, much like an icon. What is striking about the painting is the unrealistic use of colour – a blue face. Blue here is seen to be symbolic of holiness.
Another painting of a still but attentive face is called Closed Eyes (1890), this is a recurring theme, and believed to be the transition point between the Noirs and the later vivid colour. If part of the reason for art is for us to experience something, as it was with stories in an oral culture, then these are paintings that create a yearning in us for the peace that is being portrayed before our eyes.
Another key painting that lies at the end of this journey into stillness is called The Silent Christ (1911), or perhaps even better, The Silence. This is not the silence of Christ before Pontius Pilate, or his silence on the cross, but the silence of his contemplation in communion with his Father – which is the silence. Paradoxically, although Christ’s eyes are closed, this is a watchful face, not the watchfulness of anxiety and suspicion, as characterizes so many faces in the twenty first century, but the watchfulness of love and trust. This is interesting as Jesus talks much about watchfulness in Mark’s gospel – a concept that overlaps with modern ideas of mindfulness.
Even in the earlier charcoal and lithograph pieces, with their weird and anguished themes of smiling spiders, and plants with human heads, there is still the attempt in drawings of angels and demons to show light and dark through a mastery of the technique of chiaroscuro. The French term clair-obscur brings out the tension that lies within all of his work, clarity and hiddenness are woven together.
The one theme that is missing from this collection is a greater representation of the ‘mystical boats’, a series of sailing boats with mysterious passengers and elusive destinations – but still infused with the colour of hope and faith. These paintings encourage us not to remain anchored in an imaginary safe harbour, but to sail through the shadow into the light beyond. Perhaps, most encouragingly of all, Redon’s work draws out the spiritual which lies dormant in so many people. It is there where his importance lies.
I remember sitting outside a French cafe in Paris just before my last sabbatical 7 years ago. The children who were young were just playing in the square in front of us. I couldn’t enjoy the capuccino, the sunshine or their free play, I was plagued with irrational anxious fears that someone was going to snatch them. At that moment I didn’t know how to handle those anxious fears. I knew that I longed for an interior freedom. I found help within Christian contemplative mindfulness practice as well as modern psychological therapy.
If you are depressed, anxious, suffering from stress or many other modern ailments then mindfulness is being used within psychological treatments of these afflictive thoughts. There are mindfulness-based treatments like mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT). There are other therapies which are mindfulness-incorporating like dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).
Mindfulnes as a theory and in terms of mindful aware practices (MAPS) is growing exponentially within psychology and Western culture. It is both a universal human capacity and can be reached in many different ways. The primary influence within Western psychology has been Buddhist theory and practice in this area.
I am interested in examining it from all angles as well as showing that Christian contemplative practices also lead to a state of mindfulness. I know from my own experience that it works. The key question, however, that anyone needs to ask, is ‘how do I discern what help to access in the confusing market-place of help?’