Picking up on some recent topics here on the Anglicanorum Coetibus Society blog, I came across an interesting piece at The Stream by Mark Judge on prayer that goes with some of what I have come across in reading David Torkington.
Judge writes in Jesus in the Desert: a Christian approach to trauma:
Christians can practice mindfulness, but it’s not the same mindfulness associated with Buddhist and New Age practitioners. Mindfulness is defined in the dictionary as “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.” It’s a practice that in recent years has become hugely popular in the West.
Noticing God’s Grandeur
Hindu or Buddhist mindfulness tends to treat the material world as an illusion one must transcend. My experience in the ocean, in contrast, focused on the beauty of God’s nocturnal world and a belief that Christ could salve my wounds. Its raised my awareness that the world, though fallen, is still a place charged with the grandeur of God.
The best term for what I experienced, and continue to practice, is what the theologian Charles Stone calls “holy noticing.” In his book of that title, Stone argues that the original mindfulness is not New Age, but biblical. He defines it as “the art of holy noticing – noticing, with a holy purpose, God and His handiwork, our relationships, and our inner world of thoughts and feelings.” He then goes on:
Should Christians embrace [mindfulness] just because everyone else is doing it? No. Much about mindfulness in popular culture has nothing to do with God, Jesus, the Bible, or Christianity. And ‘Christianizing’ the latest fad dilutes the faith and can lead us astray.
David Torkington also warns against importing New Age or Eastern religious practicessuch as the use of a mantra even if the mantra is a Christian word. This kind of meditation is not the same thing, he says, as what the anonymous writer of The Cloud of Unknowing was advocating.
What is so pernicious about these mantra movements is that the whole emphasis is on self, and seeking self-satisfaction, in the form of inner states of peace or of esoteric forms of transcendental awareness. If you are continually encouraged to act selfishly time and time again seeking psychological palliatives you become more and more selfish. Selfish acts lead to selfish habits and selfish habits eventually lead to an inner disposition, not of love but of selfishness which in the end makes a person porous to evil. In the same way selfless acts that pertain to the very essence of authentic Christian prayer make a person porous to love, the love of God. In authentic Catholic teaching the profound experience of God’s love does eventually begin to abide with and in genuine mystics, but only permanently after the purification that the mantra-men know nothing about.
The key is whether one is willing to repent, and whether the “holy noticing” one practices allows the Holy Spirit to purify us by convicting us of sin, and bringing about repentance. This does not mean an unhealthy introspection and navel-gazing where we take it upon ourselves to go on a search and destroy mission regarding our sins and weaknesses. That can be a form of pride, of scrupulosity and of taking it upon oneself to be the judge, rather than acknowledging God as the Judge. Instead, gently bring your attention back into the present moment as you discover during your prayer you have become lost in a thought-stream, daydreaming or distracted.
I don’t want to start hair-splitting, but I think it is very important to distinguish between what is the essence of prayer and what are the means to prayer. People are always asking me to advise them what method of prayer to adopt, or more usually to bless the prayer pattern that they have already adopted. Some people fritter away their lives searching for the spiritual equivalent of the Philosopher’s Stone, the magic formula for prayer which will infallibly lead to mystical contemplation, or to whatever other spiritual ‘goodies’ they have set their hearts on. The truth of the matter is there is no perfect means of prayer. There are just different means, to help us keep gently trying, to turn and open our heart to the only One who can make us new. Methods and techniques of prayer are like props. Their purpose is to help a person to keep on loving, to keep turning back to God. If the rosary helps to do this, if the stations of the Cross, or some other devotional practice helps to do this, then that is fine. Others may find the slow meditative reading of the Scriptures helpful responding to them in their own heart-felt prayer, or by using ancient prayers like the ‘Jesus prayer.’ Or by saying prayers from the liturgy like the Gloria from the Mass or even the great Eucharistic prayers themselves saying them very slowly and prayerfully.
No Magic Formula
The important point to remember is there is no magic formula, no infallible method or technique. There are just hundreds of different ways of prayer to do one and the same thing. A means of prayer is good for you if it helps you, here and now, to keep gently turning your heart back to God.
“Keep gently turning your heart back to God.” Easier said than done! The first thing though is to show up and do it. If you experience distraction after distraction and find while praying the Rosary you are somehow doing up your shopping list as you say Hail Marys, gently bring yourself back to God. If you are doing the offices, and finding yourself not able to remember what you just read because you are thinking about that difficult person you have in your life as you are glossing over the text, gently bring yourself back to God. Don’t force. You don’t need to whip yourself if you have not prayed everything perfectly.
Show up and gently turn your heart to God, as Father Bob Bedard, the founder of the Companions of the Cross used to say, “Give God permission.”