Sometimes I talk to people and they describe the remains of a prayer life, like a discarded nest.
Spring is a good time though to start the process of rebuilding a prayer life again. We can take our lessons from the nest-builders.
The most difficult thing in prayer and mindfulness is a daily practice. It is also the most important thing. You have to gather the stuff of a nest, and the stuff of prayer consistently and regularly.
Just as with the birds the stuff we need is all around. In our prayer times God interweaves his Word with all that we bring into a place that we can begin to find, home in on, like a nest. It becomes a home.
Just as the birds find the stuff they need from the environment around, so can we. Time spent in nature, letting the grass whisper of the Creator, as embodied contemplation, adds to the nest. The flight of silence and solitude where we attentively look and listen for the footprints of the Invisible God who is already there with us. The encouragement of others we see flying in the sky, also looking to build a nest of prayer.
The building of a nest and the life of prayer require stability, the returning to one place, from which we can fly. In that place, just like the birds, we can nurture new life, that will grow wings of its own. Like the birds we also need to migrate, to find a place to retreat to. For me over the last 10 years that has been Worth Abbey.
Perhaps each year, like the birds, we need to re-examine the nest, and start the process of building a new one. Automaticity in prayer and life can be the thing that leads us to discard the nest prematurely, and not try to build again.
Building again asks us to hope again, to not give up, to become resilient in our prayer life. In our prayer life our ordinary, embodied and relational life is transformed, as we meditatively consider His Word, the work of His hands…
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.
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?’
Being mindful is as important as breathing. Unfortunately just as we breathe automatically so we often live automatically. We live on autopilot as many psychologists call it. People have been aware of mindfulness almost as long as the human race has been aware of breathing.
What is interesting about mindfulness is the way you can interact with ancient witnesses to mindfulness as well as the latest neuroscientific evidence. One such text is from the book of James in the New Testament.
‘But the man who looks intently into 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)
One aspect of mindfulness is to learn how to ‘look intently’. The Greek word here is parakypsas, which also occurs in 1 Peter 1:12, where it talks about angels longing ‘to look intently’ into the mystery of the gospel.
Within James it appears to be being used as a technical word to talk about meditating on the ancient texts that make up the Bible. Meditation on a text in this way is what we would call today a MAP, a mindful awareness practice. Mindfulness as a state of present moment awareness needs MAPS, mindfulness awareness practices. Within the first chapter of James there are a number of words to do with perception, an aspect of mindfulness.
The other element of how our minds works that James points out, and he is not just being metaphorical is that we forget how to live wisely, and we also have the capacity to not forget, or to remember (James 1:25). James often gives us one thing, for example, ‘forgetting’, to bring to mind it’s opposite – in this case remembering.
The ‘remembering’ that is important here is the Greek word mnesthenai usually translated ‘to be mindful of’. These are two important capacities of our mind, forgetting and remembering. The forgetting in today’s language is akin to what psychologists call automatic thinking, or being on autopilot, which is an unaware and forgetful way of living.
The mindful awareness practices (MAP’s) help us to ‘remember’ to live wisely and in awareness. In my experience God plays his part in this. This is the missing dimension. What I would call mindFullness.