Bro. Richard Hendrick OFM Cap.
Mindfulness is the buzzword of the moment. It seems to be everywhere. From psychology to education, from psychotherapy to the worlds of business and management, the ‘mindful way of doing things’ is the prescribed way of achieving success and the conduit by which all of these disparate disciplines hope to move to the next level.
This current wave of mindfulness arises primarily from the work of Dr John Kabat-Zinn an American professor who, with his book, Full Catastrophe Living (which itself arose after his own experience of the usefulness to himself and his clients of a series of exercises proposed by the Buddhist Monk and Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh at a retreat he attended), opened up the practice of mindfulness for the 20th Century.
At a time when humanity seems to be mindless in so many of the directions it is taking, mindfulness, as proposed by Kabat-Zinn and many others like him, has offered a way of becoming present to ourselves, to each other and to the transcendent dimension of life in a way that is accessible to everyone.
However, sometimes this way of presenting mindfulness has led to a false belief that the discipline is one that is only found in the Eastern traditions. In fact, all religions and cultures have taught that the mindful state is the prerequisite for beginning the meditative path, and this includes our own Judeo-Christian tradition.
Since Old Testament times mindfulness, kavannah in Hebrew, has been taught as an essential practice on the way of prayer. The revelation of the Divine Name to Moses as he encounters the burning bush invites the chosen people into a unique awareness of God as the ‘I am’, literally the only One who is truly present, who truly is and whose presence is accessed through deepening our awareness of his presence in every succeeding present moment.
The ancient Jews taught that unless the law, the Torah, was observed with kavannah, with mindfulness, then it could not be said to be observed truly. Jesus himself teaches the disciples to dwell in the present moment, having no care for tomorrow but trusting in the loving providence of the Father.
In teaching them of prayer he insists they must enter the inner room of their heart and there encounter the presence of the Father who is already there, present and waiting for us in the present moment.
Jesus himself teaches the disciples to dwell in the present moment”
In speaking of the Holy Spirit, the life of God within them, Jesus teaches them to perceive the presence of the Spirit as the breath of life (pneuma), and after his resurrection breathes the Holy Spirit over them.
The ancient fathers of the Church such as Ss John Climacus, John Cassian, Benedict, Gregory Nazianzus, and all those coming from the desert monastic tradition, continually returned to these ideas and spoke of the necessity of developing the “art of attending to the present moment”, being mindfully aware (prosekai), as the essential art of the man or woman who prays, and they developed many techniques for centring the mind in the heart through the use of the breath and the ‘prayer word’ (versiculum), so as to remain in this inner watchfulness in which the love of God may be truly encountered and then yielded to in such a way as to allow the Holy Spirit to begin his healing work of sanctification.
Over the succeeding centuries many of the saints, mystics and great teachers of prayer have even spoken of the present moment as a ‘sacramental space’ in which, if we deepen our attention fully enough, become mindful enough, we will be able to discern the presence of God inviting us into contemplation and then hear the voice of God inviting us into mission.
In modern times saints and teachers such as St Thérèse of Lisieux, Dom John Main, Thomas Merton, Abbot Thomas Keating, and Pope St John Paul II have all insisted that this contemplative, mindful dimension of Christianity must be taught once again as the birth-right of all the baptised and so have preached and taught its ancient way of practicing the presence of God.
Practices as seemingly diverse as Lectio Divina, centring prayer, the practice of the presence of God, the rosary, the divine mercy chaplet, the Jesus prayer, Eucharistic adoration, are all instruments that, when prayed mindfully, with the attention of the heart, may become ways by which divine grace can lead us into the encounter with that deep stillness and silence that exists behind the noise of our distracting thoughts and allows us to “be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46).
We can, therefore, safely say that the practice of mindfulness meditation, centred on Christ, has always been a part of our prayer tradition and we must give thanks that the modern wave of mindfulness has woken us up to the ever ancient, ever new contemplative path that is distinctively our own as Christians, while also allowing us a space in which to dialogue with our brothers and sisters of other traditions and learn from them as they learn from us.
The mindful, meditative path is the path of every Christian and indeed of every human being, and a universal invitation to know the God who is and whose ‘isness of love’ is revealed in the precious present moment.
As one of our own saintly brothers, Blessed Solanus Casey always taught:“All that God asks of humanity is that they be faithful to the present moment.”