Christianity

Mindfulness

By Anthony MacIsaac

Lately, over the past few years, the practice of “Mindfulness” has gained credence in the domain of psychology and general wellbeing. It’s been one of the new crazes, with people keen to know more about it and incorporate it into their routine. To be sure, there are various benefits to this, and it is worth realising how closely tied it all is to religion and faith life.

Throughout the world religions, there is great agreement about the necessity of meditation within prayer life. Taking the time to centre oneself, to let go of worries and concerns, and to feel union with God. For Christianity, this meditation has long been associated with finding His presence amidst the Sacraments. The ancient phenomenon of Eucharistic Adoration in the Catholic Church is making a comeback, and the faithful might sit before the Consecrated host for hours. Sometimes they might even fall asleep! Not out of disrespect, but out of the sheer comfort and peace they feel in the Lord’s company. Some of them might focus on intercessory prayer, asking for Blessings, and others might simply want to reflect on God’s goodness – either in the grand narrative of Biblical history, or in how it has played out in their own lives. In the Monasteries the slow reading of the Scriptures – “Lectio Divina” – has long been a staple of the Monks’ routine. Allowing the Word to enter in to the soul, allowing it to digest within, and to give inspiration for the present. Here we might think of the symbolism in the Bible, with Prophets from Ezekiel to Jeremiah to St. John the Divine, commanded to “Eat the scroll” given them by God’s Angel. If Scripture is to have any effect in religious life, it must be approached reverantly, with reflective spirit and gentle mind. Here there can be no room for violent or coarse interpretation, which so damages the religious life.

In Islam too, we have a rich tradition of meditation in prayer life and in approaching the Qu’ran. The Sufis exemplify this best, maybe, but there are also many examples in the mainstream. Whether on pilgrimage to Jerusalem or Mecca, or whether taking time out of the day to pray slowly in the Mosque, there are various opportunities for meditation. In the Islamic tradition, the central tenant within this reflection is surrender to the Will of God. Practically, this might mean accepting and assimilating difficult experiences in life, and building resilence for the future. In other words, we find much of the same net result here as we do with traditional Christianity. There might be small differences in how we understand the Divine Will, altering how we approach difficult situations, but these have little effect on the experience itself of meditation. With the Scripture, often the Qu’ran is sung in beautiful Arabic verse, and while many Muslims across the world don’t understand Arabic – just as many Catholics don’t know Latin – the experience of listening to such rendition is cherished. The mystery of the Book, and its profundity, is encapsulated in such “Lectio Divina”. Occasionally, we hear the Bible sung at Mass in Orthodox and Catholic Churches also – though this is reserved for the most solemn of occasions.

Within Buddhism there is arguably one of the strongest traditions of meditative life in the world. Certainly with Zen Buddhism, the whole emphasis is on reflective living. People might take some time out in the Monastery to meditate and find inner peace, over a few weeks or a few months. Very rarely would they stay for a lifetime. Come what may, however, the idea is to come away from these retreats refreshed and better able to live in Enlightenment. This may simply mean to live with gentle consideration, thoughtfulness in all that one does, and reverence for everything life has to offer. One subtle difference in the meditative practices of Zen, as compared to the Abrahamic monotheisms, is that is often seeks the void. It focusses, quite deliberately, on nothing. Or, in some traditions, on absurdities such as the “sound of one hand clapping”. The idea is that there is peace and understanding to be found in this void, devoid of any ideas, words or dogma. There is the debate to be had as to whether “Nothing” actually exists. Some would argue, from the mathematical point of view, that “Nothing” is just an empty set and therefore “Something”. Is God to be found in the void? Indeed, for the Abrahamic faiths, He created out of nothing. However, leaving these questions aside, the net effect of such Buddhist meditation seems also to be positive in its own way. As much as the self is negated within this tradition, it finds more and more actuality in being at one with Nature. This self-negation is perhaps just what our Muslim brothers and sisters are aiming for when surrending to the Divine Will, and what Christians are doing when they unite in Communion with the source of all reality – God. In the end, God seems to become all, and we subsumed within Him.

So for the secular practice of Mindfulness, what can we say? It seems that the central similarities are already there – though perhaps with more points of contact to the Buddhist tradition, in that there aren’t any doctrines attached to the practice. That being said, with Mindfulness, there is a crucial point of departure from this. In Mindfulness, we are encouraged to pay attention to our thoughts and our mind, as we relax and begin to meditate peacefully. We are not necessarily exhorted to abandon all thought entirely, or think about irrational phrases like the “One hand clapping”. The focus is on mental and physical well-being, so the whole therapy seems designed to reap the corresponding benefits attached to the apparently exclusive religious practice of meditation. It stops short with spirituality, and in many ways it might provide a good gateway into religious life for some people. Or at least help them understand what it might be like to pray. Some scientists have argued that we might find common neurological states, within the brain, for prayer across all religious traditions. This may well be the same for Mindfulness.

Holidays

By Sr Isabel Smyth

The holiday period has come to Scotland and with it some sunshine which is a welcome change.  Everything and everyone looks so much brighter, happier and friendlier.  Holidays are important in our lives.  Originally they would have been associated with holy days –  festivals which would have given a break from work to allow families and communities to come together to celebrate and remember significant moments in their community’s life.  This was a way of reconnecting, of enjoying a change of routine and often diet, of taking time for fun and laughter away from the drudgery of normal living.

Today holidays are often an opportunity to visit new places and meet new friends.  But they have not lost their sacred significance as moments to renew and refresh our spirit as well as our bodies.  Today life is so hectic that people find it difficult to switch off even on holiday or their holidays themselves become a frantic pursuit of new experiences and new challenges. The Jewish community can teach us something  about switching off.  Every week Jews observe the Sabbath, a day on which they rest from normal work to spend time with their family and, for those who are religious,  to give time to prayer and study of the scriptures.  They do this in imitation of God who, according to the scriptures, rested on the seventh day of creation and commanded His people to do likewise.

Resting for the Jewish community, and for all those who follow the Judaeo-Christian tradition,  is a divine act, an act of worship, an act of renewal and celebration.  This celebration of Sabbath tells me that often there is a deeply human truth hidden in what seems to be a religious belief or ritual. We all need Sabbath times, holidays and holy days to renew and refresh our spirit, to savour and enjoy life. Without these our work will be ineffective and we will be in danger of suffering burn-out or some other illness.  But we also need Sabbath moments—moments when we can be quiet, still the mind and return to the space within us to restore our spirit and get in touch with our inner wisdom. And Buddhism offers a practice for doing just this. Mindfulness, focusing on the present moment is now used by the NHS to help people who are depressed or have a mental illness.

It is something we could all do with practising.

Washing of Feet

From the blog of Sister Isabel Smyth
www.interfaithjourneys.net

Easter weekend and, in the interfaith world, the two great religions of Judaism and Christianity have been celebrating their foundational festivals. Both festivals tell stories of liberation and remember the values and beliefs on which their religion is founded. For Judaism the celebrations take place at home and are focussed on the ritual meal eaten on the first of the eight days of Pesach. The story is about how God intervened in their history to free them from slavery and set them on the way to becoming a people. The refrain throughout the story is “on this night…..” because the memory of this saving act is an eternally present reality.

The Christian celebration of Easter takes place in community – in Churches – and over three days enacts the last days in the life of Jesus, from his last supper with his disciples, to his death as  a common criminal and his resurrection on the third day. It too is a festival of remembrance which makes ever present the possibility of liberation from the slavery of selfishness to a life of love and service.

Because Christianity grew out of Judaism it recalls the liberation of the People of Israel and celebrates God’s presence both in creation and in history.  It goes just that little bit further in that it also celebrates God’s presence in our very humanity and in our very human struggle to live a good and wholesome life. Like Pesach it is a festival of movement and journey from despair to hope, death to life, selfishness to love.  For Christians the story of Jesus’ passage through death to resurrection contains the truth of the continuing power and presence of Jesus and the possibility of new life that’s always a possibility.

Easter isn’t a story about the past but an insight into a truth about the present. Who can doubt that we live in a world that’s in need of redemption?  Surely it’s obvious from the mess we’re making of the environment, from the violence that so characterises our race, from the growth of isolationist politics, from our growing xenophobia etc. etc. The bombings in Sri Lanka, coming at this particular time, bear witness to that fact. But the Easter story tells us that death and destruction don’t have the last word, that things can change, that peace is possible, that new life can come out of old if we pray for it, are open to it, welcome it and work for it. Northern Ireland is an example of that and there are examples in other parts of the world and in our own individual lives if we look for them. This can give us hope.

One of the most moving moments during the Christian celebrations of the last days of Jesus is the washing of the feet. On Holy Thursday the priest presiding at the service washes the feet of 12 members of the congregation to re-enact the washing of the disciples feet by Jesus as they took their last supper together. It was an unusual gesture. Feet were washed on entering a house but never during a meal nor carried out by the master of the household. Peter protested and was told by Jesus that he could have no part with him unless he had his feet washed. It was for Jesus a sign of friendship. Then Jesus said ‘If I your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example,  that you should do as I have done to you”.  In this action Jesus changes the order of things – the master has become the servant. There’s a way through the desire to dominate or the fear of being dominated, a way through competition for resources that leaves some overly wealthy and others impoverished, a way through the xenophobia that divides the world into ‘them’ and ‘us’. And that way is service.

The Ark of Fraternity

Blog by Sister Isabel Smyth

Pope Francis made a historic visit to Abu Dhabi, the first Pope to visit the Arabian Peninsula and by all accounts the visit seems to have been a success. At the Interreligious Gathering the Pope acknowledged that he was following in the footsteps of St Francis of Assisi who had met the Sultan al-Malik al Kamil 800 years ago during the Fifth Crusade, a meeting during which each recognised the other as men who knew and loved God. It’s said that for twenty days they conversed with one another about the ways of God.  Like his namesake, Pope Francis came to Abu Dhabi as a pilgrim of peace, stating “I have welcomed the opportunity to come here as a believer thirsting for peace, as a brother seeking peace with the brethren. We are here to desire peace, to promote peace, to be instruments of peace”.  He called those present at the Interreligious Gathering at which he spoke to a new way of being together, “we too in the name of God, in order to safeguard peace, need to enter together as one family into an ark which can sail the stormy seas of the world: the ark of fraternity”

What a wonderful image – the ark of fraternity! So often the ark has been used as a bulwark against those who are different, protecting communities from the enemy, the only place that is secure and safe in a troubling world. Noah’s ark, to which the Pope refers, saved Noah and his family from the destruction of the rest of the population who were living a sinful life. The ark  was a place of  justice and goodness and only within it was one safe. This image was transferred to Christianity where Jesus was seen as the Ark of Salvation. Only within the confines of a relationship with Jesus could people be saved and protected from the forces of evil that raged not just in the world but in other faiths too. For the Catholic Church this ark came to be associated with the Catholic Church so that membership of that Church alone could guarantee salvation. Thank God this attitude has changed though many religions are still suspicious and fearful of religious proselytization and conversion which reflects a little of that mind-set.

Now we have the image of the ark extended and expanded to include all those who desire peace and recognise the common humanity of all.  We are quite literally in the same boat, members of the same species, interconnected with one another, facing the same hopes and joys, concerned about and vulnerable to the future of our planet and our world. As the Pope said, echoing his two predecessors, “There is no alternative: we will either build the future together or there will not be a future.”

In his speech the Pope set out a full agenda for humanity if we are to establish this ark of fraternity and truly recognise one another as brothers and sisters. This includes an appreciation of plurality and recognition of difference, a sense of our own identity, while respecting the identity of others, a protection of the rights and freedoms of others especially religious freedom. What the Pope wants for all of us is an open identity that doesn’t in any way compromise who we are or closes itself off from others but is enriched by our relationships.

Dialogue of course plays a part in all of this. Religions, the Pope says, “cannot renounce the urgent task of building bridges between peoples and cultures. The time has come when religions should more actively exert themselves, with courage and audacity, and without pretence, to help the human family deepen the capacity for reconciliation, the vision of hope and the concrete paths of peace”.   And something not often mentioned in interreligious dialogue, but mentioned by the Pope, is prayer “as for the future of interreligious dialogue, the first thing we have to do is pray, and pray for one another: we are brothers and sisters!”

During his stay in Abu Dhabi the Pope signed a document with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb. Its title is: On Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together. It’s easy to dismiss these kind of initiatives. Often documents and statements are assigned to the bookshelf if not history and readily forgotten but the fact that two very prominent leaders from Christianity and Islam have signed such a document is significant and it’s always on hand to be used as reference for the best intentions of the two faiths, even if we, their members, don’t always live up to the ideal. So what do we do with it? Hopefully we Christians and Muslims, with others, will dialogue about it. Hopefully, we will take it seriously and begin to think in terms of an ark of fraternity and, as the document suggests, the document itself will become the object of research and reflection in all schools, universities and institutes of formation”. Now wouldn’t that be something?

A Hannukah and Advent Party

Adapted from the blog of Sister Isabel Smyth.

www.interfaithjourneys.net

Before Christmas the Council of Christians and Jews organised a Hannukah and Advent party. These are festivals of light and have a focus on candles which links the two festivals.

The hanukkiah, the candelabra used at Hanukkah, has 9 candles.  On each of the eight evenings of the festival a candle is lit from the ninth one which is called a helper or shamash so that by the eighth day of the festival all nine are burning. The tradition is to display these candles at a window to illustrate that the Jewish community can now enjoy religious freedom. Today large hanukkiahs are lit in major cities and public places such as the Scottish Parliament and the White House as an expression of religious freedom and tolerance.

The lighting of the candles commemorates the victory of the Maccabees over the forces of a Greek ruler Antiochus Epiphanes who, in the second century BCE, desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem and forbade Jews to practice their faith. Defeating Antiochus, the Maccabees purified the Temple but found they hadn’t enough oil to light the everlasting lamp. Miraculously the little oil they did have lasted for eight days until replenishments could come. This is the miracle celebrated at Hanukkah with prayers, gifts, family fun and games. It’s a family, happy time to cheer us up on dark winter days – at least in this part of the world.

Advent is also a time for the lighting of candles but it looks forward rather than back. It begins the Christian year and is a time of preparation for Christmas. Some people use the time to do some kind of penance in the sense of a discipline to free them from a habit or even an obsession like giving up social media for four weeks. And there are candles. In some homes but in many churches there will be an Advent wreath – a circle of everlasting greenery to symbolise the infinity of God, purple ribbons as a sign of anticipation and waiting and four candles for each of the four Sundays of Advent. Three of them are purple and one pink for Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday in which the opening prayer in worship is Rejoice. It’s now become common for a white candle to be put in the middle of the wreath to symbolise the birth of Jesus at Christmas.

What made our party this week so enjoyable was the presence of children. We held the event at the Synagogue just as the pupils from the local Jewish primary school were leaving, having visited the Synagogue to light the Hanukkah candles. Their school is rather a special one as it shares a campus with a local Catholic school. We think it’s the only shared Catholic – Jewish campus in the world and we’re very proud of it. Each school promotes the ethos of their particular faith but the pupils share the playground and are getting to know one another. The Jewish children, though, who told us the story of Hanukkah were not at the school but were two of the home-schooled children of the Rabbi. With great confidence they told us about the Maccabees, the lighting of candles, the gift giving, the eating of doughnuts but what got us all laughing and participating was a game that had us passing little parcels left and right as the words were mentioned in their story – parcels that contained a reward for all of us. And of course we lit four candles for the fourth day of Hanukkah accompanied by the Rabbi’s blessing.

It was the head girl and head boy from the Catholic primary who told us about Advent. Telling us that the Advent Wreath helped Christians take time to think about the real meaning of Christmas and reflect on how they could bring God’s light, joy, peace and love into the world today they explained the four candles – the first one representing hope. which is like a light shining in a dark place: the second candle representing peace and reminding us to try to be peacemakers in our schools and homes; the third representing the joy we feel celebrating the birth of Jesus and the fourth one representing the love we share in Jesus and how we try to show this love in the way we treat those around us, not just friends and families but also those less fortunate than ourselves.

As you can imagine the children were very well received. I found it very moving to see the children from both faiths participate in our celebration. What a contrast to the enmity that existed between our communities for centuries but has thankfully given way to a new reality. The shared campus offers such hope for the future. Already the children from both   schools have collaborated on helping the homeless, enjoyed a ceilidh together and are now beginning to learn a little about one another’s faith. As one of the children said “we really do enjoy one another’s company and love finding about one another’s faith. In St Clare’s we are always saying we are making memories to last a lifetime but we also think we are making lifelong friends.”  We cannot ask much more than that.

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