Tag: meditation

Spirituality

Spiritual Junk Food

We are seven days away from an election that has dominated the national consciousness for over a year. An election mired in sexual assault allegations, email security, racism and xenophobia, and even some violence. Not only that, but last week water protectors in North Dakota were violently removed from sacred land facing destruction by the Dakota Access Pipeline. We have continued to witness police brutality against African Americans, the steady stream of Syrian refugees fleeing their homes, and the assault on Mosul. This is just a handful of the messages and stories we are consuming daily, and if I’m being honest, I’m starting to get spiritual gut-rot.

Honestly, it is exhausting to be an informed and concerned citizen. The constant stream of negativity that comes across our Twitter feeds or cable news is simply too much for one person to bear. It feels like we’re being continually pushed down before we’re even able to stand back up. The temptation is to say screw it, walk away, and shut out the world. I have some video games that haven’t been played in ages, maybe I could spend my time trying to kill dragons instead. Sometimes it seems that this tactic might be more productive than trying to engage a world that feels so damn broken.

But, for those of us trying to follow Jesus, this temptation is one that we need to resist. We cannot simply exit the world emotionally without also turning our back on Christ. In July at St. John’s Abbey, our Oblate Retreat was led by Sister Christian Morris. Sister Morris asked us to consider where we could see Christ dying in our midst. This struck me as a very powerful lens through which to see the world, and the seemingly hopeless litany of tragedy and evil that often comes with it. Sister Morris played a video for us that strung together images of Syria, Black Lives Matter protests, gun violence, and other tragic narratives that we have encountered over the last year. As the video ended she reminded us, however, that the story doesn’t end with the cross, but with the empty tomb, asking us to stand in hope of resurrection. It reminded me of Tony Campolo’s famous sermon “It may be Friday now, but Sundays coming…”

Now that’s all well and good, and I do think that this is the challenge and the duty of the Christian; to proclaim resurrection to a world that proclaims death, but sometimes that duty feels just too damn difficult. While the grace of God can swallow whole the horror of this world, sometimes as people, we just get tired. And often we find that our spiritual health works an awful lot like our bodily health. When you get tired and run down, your spiritual immune system weakens, and all that toxic sludge starts to eat away at you. You begin to believe in the hopelessness, even calling it realism. Apathy starts to take the place of empathy, and before you know it, you’ve retreated from the world completely. Often we don’t even realize this has happened until we’re already bogged down in it.

Joan Chittister says it perfectly in her book Wisdom Distilled From the Daily:

“…without prayer, the energy for the rest of life runs down. The fuel runs out. We become our own worst enemies: we call ourselves too tired and too busy to pray when, in reality, we are too tired and too busy not to pray. Eventually the burdens of the day wear us down and we no longer remember why we decided to do what we’re doing…And if I cannot remember why I decided to do this, I cannot figure out how I can go on with it. I am tired and the vision just gets dimmer and dimmer”. **

I think this is where Benedictine spirituality has a lot of wisdom. For Benedict, the monastery is governed by the rhythm of the Work of God, the Liturgy of the Hours. This constant and daily prayer and recitation, along with the monk’s daily tasks, grounds the community in the present moment. It reminds the individual that there is something greater than the fear and negativity one might encounter, and it reminds the community that only together can we challenge the prevailing narrative. This is what Benedict is saying in his introduction, “First of all, every time you begin a good work, you must pray to (God) most earnestly to bring it to perfection” *. By centering ourselves first in the spiritual well-being of our own person, and then in the community, we can begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel, or rather, the light within the darkness of the tunnel. As Chittister said, it reminds us why we are doing what it is we are doing.

I have found this to be true from my own experience. When I begin to feel weakened by the stress of my own life, and overwhelmed by the negativity and tragedy of the world, the first thing that I often neglect is my spiritual practice and the small daily tasks that need to be completed. This often snowballs, and before I know it I’ve binge watched some show on Netflix, the dishes are stacking up, laundry is out of control, and the thought of a time of silence makes me shudder. I completely disengage from the world and from myself. I ignore the news in favor of entertainment, and I neglect silence in favor of distraction. This is spiritual junk food, and as I said before, gut-rot is imminent. I know what it is that I need. I know that I need some good old, organic, free range, spiritual discipline. I need to ground myself in the rhythms of prayer, and the discipline of my daily tasks. This is the practice that plants me firmly in the moment, and rejects the temptation to try and predict the future based solely on the crushing negativity of the world around me. I think this is what hope looks like; a lived life in the face of a world that says life isn’t worth living. As stupid as it might sound, every time I light my candle for prayer, or finish cleaning the dishes, or take the dog for a walk, I feel just a little bit more hopeful. It reminds me that life is good, and re-energizes me to proclaim resurrection in the face of death. Spiritual burnout is inevitable if we are not grounded in the present, in the daily.

For myself, I am rededicating myself to the discipline of daily work and prayer. I intend to spend this week tidying up, domestically and spiritually. I will proclaim resurrection first in my own heart, so that from a place of fullness I can proclaim it to the world. There is so much happening in our world that requires our attention, and the work of our hands. Let’s not neglect our own spiritual, mental, and physical health. Let us act out of a place of wholeness, grounded in the present moment. No more spiritual junk food. It just makes you sick.

 

*Benedict, and Timothy Fry. RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in English.

**Joan Chittister “Wisdom Distilled from the Daily” (Seriously, this is one of the greatest resources our their concerning Benedictine Spirituality)

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Practicing Silence

It happens like clockwork. Thursday rolls around and that checklist in my head starts to flash red. So many tasks to be completed, so many things to write, and read. So many people to visit and call. Class to attend, work to be done. Each week, right about now, I start to breathe a little quicker, my eyes begin to dart and my heart rate kicks up a notch. For some people it’s the start of the week that causes the most stress, for me it’s the end. On Monday, I usually feel organized and prepared. By Thursday, the wheels have come off and I’m playing a dangerous game of organizational triage. It’s so dang predictable.

This is when I need to remind myself that there is a peace to be found in the chaos, and its name is silence. I don’t mean simply turning off Spotify while I write a paper or clean the house. I mean silence inside and out. Silence that fills my entire being, body and soul. This is my antidote.

Silence is part of nearly all spiritual practice, because the ancients and mystics of all faith backgrounds understood that peace is found in the silence. St. Benedict had very strict feelings about silence in the monastery, saying, “Indeed, so important is silence that permission to speak should seldom be granted even to mature disciples, no matter how good or holy or constructive their talk” *. Benedict reminds us that a flood of words most often leads to problems. Gossip, slander, complaining. Thus, when we refrain from speaking we build up sturdy walls against such dangerous floods. This is true also for interior silence. When we allow our minds to spin wildly around the business and negativity of our weeks and our days, our work and our relationships, we find that we are unable to know inner peace. We simply spin out of control. This is what happens to me on Thursdays around 10 A.M.

Joan Chittister speaks of silence in her book Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, saying:

“Monastic spirituality says it is the clamor of the self that needs to be brought to consciousness. Monastic spirituality says it is the cry of our own passions that mute the cry of others. Monastic spirituality says people who cannot live comfortably with silence can never live comfortably with noise.

But silence is a frightening thing. Silence leaves us at the mercy of the noise within us. We hear the fears that need to be faced. We hear, then, the angers that need to be cooled. We hear the emptiness that needs to be filled. We hear the cries for humility and reconciliation and centeredness. We hear ambition and arrogance and attitudes of uncaring awash in the shallows of the soul. Silence demands answers. Silence invites us into depth. Silence heals what hoarding and running will not touch.” (Chittister **)

This is the healing I need, and I am fully aware of the ways in which I hoard and run in my own life. Running for me often looks like procrastination. It offers moments of relief in a world too full of tasks and relationships for me to manage. I feel so overwhelmed that I just turn on Netflix for an episode…or two…or a season. But eventually the world snaps back into focus and I have less time maneuver it than I did before. This is where I start to say “I have no time for silence”, which is a complete cop-out, but an effective one nonetheless. However, all the practitioners of silent or centering prayer that I have read; Thomas Keating, Henri Nouwen, they suggest something in the area of 40 minutes a day. 20 in the morning, 20 in the evening. If I have time to watch one episode of Ancient Aliens, I can manage 40 minutes of silence a day.

This is not simply a spiritual notion, as the science of silence has started to back up the claims of the desert fathers and mothers, the yogis and mystics. An article on Huffington Post discussed the number of ways that noise and distraction harms our physical and mental health. Studies have shown that noise pollution can raise blood pressure and risk of heart attack, and create a greater sense of stress. A 2013 study, focusing on the effects of noise on mice, found that silence might actually lead to the creation of brain cells in the hippocampus. This Psychology Today article links to a number of studies that illustrate the benefits of silent meditation, with results like decreased pain, decreased anxiety and stress, and an increased sense of compassion and empathy. The mystics have had it right all along.

We live in a world that values production and hard work. We see people who work themselves to death, and we celebrate their dedication and come to believe that this is what success looks like. But this is a dangerous way to live. When we don’t take the time to settle our bodies and minds we soon find that we lose whatever sense of control we were aiming for in the first place.

Ultimately, silence is a settling into the experience of God, into the Ground of All Being. It heals us because this presence is itself healing. Thomas Keating in Open Mind, Open Heart, says:

“The root of prayer is interior silence. We may think of prayer as thoughts or feelings expressed in words. But this is only one expression. Deep prayer is the laying aside of thoughts. It is the opening of mind and heart, body and feelings – our whole being – to God, the Ultimate Mystery, beyond words, thoughts, and emotions. We do not resist them or suppress them. We accept them as they are and go beyond them, not by effort, but by letting them all go by. We open our awareness to the Ultimate Mystery whom we know by faith is within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than choosing – closer that consciousness itself. The Ultimate Mystery is the ground in which our being is rooted, the Source from whom our life emerges at every moment.” (Keating ***)

This freedom to settle into the experience of Mystery and silence is one that offers us peace and healing in a world that demands certainty and offers cacophony. It is a way for us to care for ourselves, and to claim our identity as Beloved, and to extend that love out into the world. Whether we enter silence as a way of being good to our own bodies and minds, or as a way of resting in the presence of the Mysterious God, it is clear that it is a wise thing to do. So, now I’ll shut up, get up from this desk, and start taking my own advice. Peace.

*The Rule of St Benedict

**Joan Chittister “Wisdom Distilled from the Daily”

***Thomas Keating “Open Mind, Open Heart”