‘Mindfulness’ isn’t a secular invention
As the end of June brings more rain and grey skies to England, I escape for a few days to the Benedictine monastery of St Pierre de Solesmes, near Angers.
I arrive in time for the midday office of Sext. At its conclusion the guests are led from the abbey church through the smaller cloister which encloses a parterre garden of box hedge. We wait at a corner of the large cloister where the abbot receives us and greets us individually with a few kind words. Then one by one we line up to have him wash our hands in the traditional manner of the rule which dictates how guests are to be received. This gesture has a simplicity and holiness which crowns the warmth of the human welcome. It expresses in ritual the truth that something more sublime than merely a social encounter is taking place.
I am more than ready for a retreat. But even so, like weary limbs the spirit takes a while to untense. This process is greatly helped by being able to enter into the modus of a community of prayer and silence. In the great monastery of Solesmes it is a revelation to see how everything is seamlessly connected to the life of prayer. I reflect, too, that perhaps this is where our human efforts are best deployed, in creating the conditions for prayer. Prayer itself seems to become a much more passive process as I grow older, an increasing awareness of the truth that I know nothing about reaching God, but a time-honoured tradition can show me the things that conduce to his reaching me. Foremost I need to find silence again: an exterior silence and lack of preoccupation with busyness that allows me see reality in a manner less distorted through my own internal monologue. Paradoxically, only then will I become aware of myself and what I am really feeling.
This is the “mindfulness” which the secular world is waking up to, and mindfulness starts by coming out of one’s head and back into one’s body, to the reality that I am enfleshed, that I am here and now, that there exists a reality outside my own thoughts and concerns and it is precisely because it is so that I can face them without being overwhelmed by them.
The greater reality, of course, is God and the world of creation that reveals his hidden presence. “Mindfulness” for the Christian is the practice of the presence of God. It is, as a wise Dominican once put it, the difference between my being in the garden and the garden being in me.
The liturgy helps. The feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist, the one who desires to decrease as Christ increases, is celebrated at the point where the days begin to shorten. This first started pointing me towards the cosmic aspect of the liturgy, but even to talk in such times may sound theoretical and effete. Liturgy is, in fact, what psychologists would call “grounding”. Chant, colour, ritual, incense: all help the escape from the labyrinthine ways of the mind. Too many words detract. The task of the liturgy is to sanctify time. Through it the Church seeks to bring my time and history into the ambit of Christ, the Alpha and Omega, the Principium et Finis of all things. Where is the graced point of encounter? In this “now” he gives me. It is of this “now” in which his love fills me with the utter fullness of being that I must be mindful.
Thus at Vespers, as the day ends, the hymn asks the Lord of light to be our guardian and bring us to light again, and that meanwhile the light of faith illumines the darkness.
The monastic rhythm of prayer seems the very opposite of the secular priest’s preoccupation with fitting prayer in round his work. It is the antidote to a prayer life which all too often sees prayer as having to surf the varying currents, moods and impulses to pray which wash over the average day. An axiom of twelve-step groups is that “you can act your way into thinking, but you can’t think your way into acting”. In an analogous way, I think that one can only act one’s way into praying. Waiting for the propitious moment is a form of self-absorption. Seven times a day the great abbey bells call out to remind the world of why it is still turning and invite the heart to become one with Him whose cross redeems it. I begin to open my being to the eternal presence of God, rather than informing God that I have a window for him now.
Pastor Iuventus is a Catholic priest in London
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