Mindful Eucharist

Gong in the chapel at Shepherd’s Dene

For a while now I have been saying that the essential elements of Christian prayer are Psalmody and Eucharist. Not claiming any particular arrangement, frequency or style of doing either of those two things (well, psalmody almost certainly needs to be daily at least) but the universality of them among those of deep prayer and spirituality in Christian history.

Alongside them, the practice of silence, sitting still, simple awareness of the presence of God seems almost as universally important.

So why not put all three together?

I am not suggesting that the form of celebration of the Eucharist suggested here would be appropriate as the normal Sunday diet for a worshipping community. I have used this form on a number of retreats, Quiet Days and parish weekends, where it has always seemed to go down well. I also tried it at a staff meeting where it didn’t work so well. It probably needs to be in the context of teaching about all three elements, particularly mindfulness, and in a situation where people are able to let go of their discursive-critical mind. Perhaps, too, my ‘persona/role’ in the meeting context did not fit quite so well as when I am ‘retreat leader’.

Three forms are proposed here each with a different psalm. They are linked above in PDF format, I create them in Pages and am happy to send Pages or Word exports from Pages (which may lose formatting) if you email me but WordPress will not link to these files.

The versions for Psalm 23 and 119 are for sung/metrical settings. The Lord’s My Shepherd is the popular setting usually sung to Crimond but I have only ever used it at these mindful Eucharists with the tune usually used for Amazing GraceNew Britain -which has, I think, a bit more energy. The same tune is used for the metrical version of Psalm 119 which is from Adam Carlill’s brilliant metrical version Psalms for the Common Era, where he provides this extraordinary alphabetic translation of the psalm. In both cases the text is sung in full at the beginning and end, and various verses are then interpolated into the Eucharistic liturgy.

I have always used this format sitting in a circle around an altar; I just place a stole over my clothes. I extemporise the Collect and post-Communion prayer; the readings are read without announcement or conclusion. Standing for everything except the homily and first reading.

During the Eucharistic Prayer I use manual acts, raising the host (I prefer a single host big enough for everyone, usually a ‘concelebration host’ and cup at appropriate points and holding them aloft throughout the bell that follows the words of Jesus. I genuflect after these elevations, and hold my hands over the gifts at the epiclesis. The Eucharistic Prayer is a slightly adapted form of Prayer H in Common Worship. Another voice for the intercessions (within the EP) works best.

Communion is passed around the circle, concluding with the celebrant. On some occasions the host is passed around the circle and everyone holds it in their hand and consume together with the celebrant. I rather like this, that moment of holding the host is deeply intimate with the Lord and one of my favourite moments when concelebrating.

I would guess that 30 or so people would be the maximum this form of celebration could work with. As the last communicant I consume anything that is left and place the vessels at the side of the altar to be cleansed later. At the start of the celebration the hosts are ready and the chalice pre-charged.

I originally included a sign of peace but find that is disruptive so have removed it. The tropes at the kyries are either from the psalm chosen or a suitably linked text.

The bell/gong ringer needs a practice before hand and the gong should be allowed to ring its full length before any further action or words.

Repetition is key to learning and a key element of this form of Eucharist; at a recent retreat I gave people white cards now which to write a phrase which stood out for them at the end of the celebration and to use that phrase as prayer throughout the day, several participants commented on how useful this was.

I quite often celebrate the Eucharist in informal situations, Headteachers’ offices, school staff rooms, friends dining rooms, and so forth. That form of celebration is described here. I will usually use a small gong before and after that but not during the celebration.

I am not making any great claims for this form of the Eucharist. It has proved fruitful partly because it is both unfamiliar to people and repetitive so they feel safe, I normally do some explanation in advance, ideally not immediately before hand. Let me know if you try this at all and how it goes.

The Chapel at Shepherd’s Dene

Growing the Church: parish weekends and events

This is, famously, an age of anxiety. That anxiety is certainly shared by the church. For the last four or five years as well as retreats and pilgrimages and other teaching and preaching. I have been delivering sessions to parishes which I have been calling “Growing the Church”. Some of these have been weekends, others days or part days, yet others multiple sessions of 90 minutes or so. At the start I generally ask people to write up what they hope to get out of the sessions. It’s a good reality check for me, particularly when I review them at the end. Anxiety is very strong in those hopes expressed at the start for: more children, more people …

These Growing the Church sessions are not intended to replace any of the well developed schemes for church growth and renewal. In many ways I would see the work I do as preparing the way for them. I will almost always mention the New Wine network, Leading Your Church Into Growth, Alpha and more recently tried to plant seeds about starting new worshipping communities outside the church building at times other than a Sunday morning. A way of working that is proving highly successful in the diocese of Liverpool, especially when using our school buildings.

One of the things that strikes me is that in parishes people are very eager to get to the vision writing/mission action planning stage very quickly. In schools a new Head might take two or three terms to work on, and that is seeing each other five days a week for the whole of the working day.
I try on these days to establish some basics – Why do I go to church? Who is Jesus to me? etc before moving any further. I have also begun using Psalm 44 to do some real lamenting about the difference between our ‘memory’ of church as a sort of ideal period we would like to return to, but which in reality can never exist again. I think if we don’t do that we are just frozen in grief or yearning for a mythical past in which there were dozens of children in the Sunday school and crowds at the daily Mass.
Other elements I include are my thoughts on Education and how they relate to our work with children and young people: the need to raise the standard of our education material and make it knowledge-based not simply experiential; and give young people real, substantive leadership. I always include some Mindfulness material. Bookshops, attendance at Mindfulness events etc are evidence that there is a real hunger for stillness, silence and meditation in our wider society. A hunger that we are failing to address in our Sunday worship. This is an open door for Christian mission which we are almost totally neglecting. There is very little opportunity for silence in most Sunday worship. Generally, when anyone leading worship says that ‘now we will keep a few moments of silence’ I barely have time for one breath, I have never, anywhere, had time for more than three. At Taizé they manage 10 – 15 minutes of silence in their worship three times a day. And this is always the thing that children and young people find most intriguing and good.
Finally, I always include an informal celebration of the Eucharist as part of the day. Ideally about half way through. This can bring together elements of Mindfulness, as well as a good chance to re-iterate the overriding importance of memory both as learning and in establishing shared memory as who we are, in Jesus’ words to ‘do this in memory of him’.
Preaching on the second day is a good chance to pick up on themes that strike me from the initial session. Almost always this is the same: the need to root our mission, our desire to grow the church, in substantive Christian faith. I come more and more to see the Apostles’ Creed as useful here. The reasons people give for Jesus being important to them, or what they like about Jesus, are generally either emotional (although there’s often not much of that) or Jesus as an example of living a good life. A living relationship with Jesus is, of course, essential to Christian faith and I often use the icon of friendship (Jesus with his arm affectionately around his friends’s shoulder). However, no one ever mentions the acts of salvation history. So what we have to tell people becomes very weak indeed.
I also stress the cross as an image of us needing grow the church horizontally – to draw more people to Jesus – and vertically – our relationship as individuals and as a community, with God. Interestingly this is the work that people seem to neglect most, or perhaps take for granted.
Unless it is a whole weekend we don’t spend any time writing a Mission Action Plan. That can be done by a small group separately. That is not because I don’t think it is important. On the contrary, being ‘intentional’ about mission is only going to happen if we have a plan and hold ourselves to account for it.

These events are really helpful for me and I learn a great deal from them. I change the material I use every time because I am always learning as well as because contexts are different. The work we have done in Liverpool on new worshipping communities in schools (mainly in the Wigan area) has really helped me to see that developing new congregations can be useful in relieving the anxiety of existing, ‘inherited church’ congregations. So often much of the anxiety comes from expecting that a new priest will suggest yet another set of changes to the worship, or moving of furniture. Sometimes it can be best to leave all that as it is and put our energy into new manifestations of the church. It also helps us to face up to the fact that those of us who love church can find it hard to understand the resistance of people who have no church experience to traditional church.

More children, more people is the constant hope of parishes and congregations. That horizontal growth will only come, in my view, when there is more faith, more experience of Jesus, more faithful living, more deep conversion to the gospel. That is the challenge to every Christian. Why is my life not sufficiently converted that my living alone brings people to Jesus?

The constant mantra in my teaching is a quite simple:

– Jesus centred

– Spirit filled

– Bible based

The anxiety is real. But we should not be controlled by it. In particular we need to be faithful to the New Testament vision of prayer as releasing the gifts of the Spirit. God expects every Christian to experience and share in these gifts. To believe that prayer is somehow difficult or fruitless is to collude with the anxiety.

An age of anxiety, yes. But also an age of liminality, provisionality and that provisionality can contain much energy and the seemed of renewal. Growing the Church never leaves me feeling depressed or anxious for the church. I find these events stimulating and energising. I hope some of those who participate in them do too.

Beginning Contemplation: Review of ‘How to Sit With God’

How to Sit With God – A Practical Guide to Silent Prayer Jean-Marie Gueullette Tr Kieran J. O’ Mahony Veritas, 2018

Jack is twenty-nine, he has been married for seven years and has two children under five. He and his wife both graduated with very good degrees from one of the UK’s best universities. They married that same year and moved to the northern town where they now live and work in full-time ministry for a ‘non-denominational church’.

Jack and his wife are fictionalised versions of many individuals and couples I have come to know in recent years. Their friends have high powered jobs in the City, Civil service or industry. But they became involved in large evangelical churches while at university, took part in summer activities and placements in various parts of the country. They have heard and responded to God calling them to ministry in places they would never have been to otherwise.

I am almost overwhelmed with awe when I see the sacrifice that couples and individuals like this have made. This is taking the option for the poor seriously.

It is not easy in so many ways. The energy and enthusiasm of a large church full of committed young people makes it easy to sustain faith, to feel confident and buoyed up. But the realities of life in places where there are no or few young people at church; where the levels of neediness, mental health issues and all the associated factors of poverty are the dominant reality can eat away at that.

Conferences, visits to and from friends, inspiring podcasts can all help. However, moments of spiritual renewal and refreshment can sometimes make the thirst seem greater at other times.

That’s the question Jack came to me with having followed me on Twitter. How can I sustain my prayer, my relationship with Jesus in the daily grind, the relentless cycle of family, children, pastoral work, ministry?

Like many others, Jack’s family are experimenting with forms of daily prayer. They bought Northumbria Community Office books, and tried other online materials – but found them unsatisfying.

Jack feels a need for silence – not just as an escape from family life! – but in his prayer.

I made two suggestions. For daily prayer just reading Scripture as it is. Beginning with psalmody, as much or as little as wanted at each sitting, and then readings from a ‘bible in a year’ plan.

My other suggestion was around finding some time every day for contemplative practice. Sitting still with God.

I wish I had found Jean-Marie Gueullette’s book How To Sit With God, when I first met Jack. Gueullette is a French Dominican priest teaching at the University of Lyon. I know nothing more about him. His book is an excellent introduction to Christian contemplative prayer. It is wise, unpretentious and practical. I have already bought multiple copies to share.

As I read How To Sit With God, I marked with a pencil important passages and quotations. My copy is very heavily underlined throughout. This is a rich source of teaching. Gueullette begins by showing how the prayer he is suggesting is the simplest possible form of prayer. This simplicity will have a strong appeal to those who are looking for an un-churchy, un-adorned gospel. Jesus in the raw.

Perhaps even more attractive to those formed by conservative evangelicalism will be Gueullette’s emphasis on faith as the fundamental requirement for contemplative prayer. In this short (176 page) book he goes on to describe how to do this prayer and places it within the context of struggle and discipline There is no pretence that this will be easy. He shows how it is one way of praying among others and finally gives an overview of the place of this prayer in Christian history.

It is this final section of the book that is weakest for the purposes for which I want to use it. here, Gueullette is writing very much from his tradition and nation. After the early centuries of Christian history is exclusively Roman Catholic and heavily weighted to France, with sections on Francis de Sales and the seventeenth century French spiritual tradition. That said the English mystics get surprisingly strong treatment in the main text of the book. In particular the Cloud of Unknowing; the source of English Benedictine spirituality (in the English Benedictine Congregation), Augustine Baker, and in its twentieth century flowering in the spiritual letters of Dom John Chapman of Downside. Although as Gueullette points out Baker lived in northern France for significant parts of his adult life and so might well be said to represent, partially at least, French spirituality.

My only other criticism of this book is Gueullette’s reference point in those Christians who have sought, and discovered, a practice of silence and stillness in the traditions of the Far East. I agree with everything he says about the need to be aware of the religious beliefs that underpin some of the practices, making them unsuitable for Christians. However, he never refers to the secular practices of mindfulness that are not rooted in an alien metaphysic. It may be simply a refection of his context in French Catholicism. Again, for my purposes this material is not useful. Most of the people I work with have not investigated Far Eastern traditions but come from evangelical Protestant traditions.

Method

Gueullette presents the method of prayer he is describing simply and beautifully. Quite simply:

It consists of saying a word inwardly while sitting calmly.

(page 17)

Gueullette suggests words such as: Father, Abba, Jesus, Lord, God, Kyrie Eleison, Adonai. Fundamental to his teaching is that the word

… must be a name for God, not an idea about God or a description of God such as ‘love’ or ‘goodness’.

(page 17)

Throughout the book Gueullette stresses that this is a practice for a lifetime, and will bear fruit over many years. He distinguishes the practice from that of repeating a phrase or verse of the psalms or other parts of Scripture through the course of the day (as suggested by John Cassian).

Twenty five minutes a day is the time suggested for silence. Interestingly Gueullette suggests staying faithful to that amount of prayer even when the desire to sit for longer comes. For him it is important to be free of ‘feelings’ as the driver of prayer.

To those who think rules like this rob us of spontaneity he is clear that this practice is principally about faithfulness and discipline:

Faithfulness calls for a certain discipline, which today can appear contrary to authenticity or spontaneity. yet we are ready to accept it when it comes to dieting or keeping fit! In the case of physical exercise, as in the spiritual life, one can only progress at the cost of daily effort. It is not the extraordinary experience that make the life of prayer, but the humble fidelity to it every day, lived over many years.

(page 108)

Posture

Very few books on prayer are helpful on posture. This is extremely unfortunate because it is so important. When I began my first degree, in World Religions, I remember arriving at Buddhist monasteries, Mosques, Hindu Mandirs, Sikh temples and almost the first thing were told was how to sit, what posture to adopt. More than that, detailed instruction would be given on prayer and meditation at the very outset.

Gueullette knows what he is talking about when it comes to posture. He is clear on the role of the spine and pelvis and in using the abdomen (the diaphragm) for breathing.

It is mainly the spine that helps us stay awake: without being tense or stiff it stands, resting on the pelvis, supported by our breathing.

(page 28)

There are good descriptions of using prayer stools and meditation cushions with the lotus, half-lotus or sitting positions. Whatever posture is adopted the author is clear that it is sitting that is essential, and he quotes another English mystic, Richard Rolle:

It is the quiet sitting that makes the soul wise.

(page 27)

Breathing

At the heart of sitting still is an activity we are engaged in as long as we are alive. Breathing. In this fascinating lecture at St Vladimir’s Seminary Bishop Alexander of the Orthodox Church in America shows how the roots of using the breath in prayer have textual evidence as early as the 5th to the 6th centuries. Again How To Sit With God gets this exactly right. Breath is not something for the author, that requires too much attention, but is significant. The ‘letting go’ that is the end of the out breath is particularly significant. If we think at all about breathing we tend to think of it as something that requires equal effort on the out and in breath but in fact once the contraction of the ribs that is the out-breath has reached its limit the air naturally fills the lungs again:

We do not need to look for air, we just have to empty the air inside us. … You just have to let go, to stop exhaling so that breathing in takes place spontaneously.

(page 36)

Theology of Sitting Still

Gueullette carefully addresses the apparent contradiction between faith and works in his explanation of this method of prayer. For him God’s action is paramount. His key conversation partner is, not surprisingly Augustine. Fundamental to his view is that:

The methods under discussion here act upon us and not upon God.

(page 45)

and

The one who prays does not seek to feel the presence of God, but rather is called upon to believe it.

(page 59)

Distractions

One of the key issues facing anybody who tries to sit still and be with God, or even follow the breath in Mindfulness practice is thoughts. What are often called ‘distractions’. Gueullette helpfully quotes Abbot Chapman at length:

We want to use our will to ‘want God’, and not to keep our thoughts in order. We want to be ‘wanting God’, and detached from everything else. hence we want to let our thoughts run about by themselves … and not to control them; in order that our will may turn wholly to God. the result is naturally that, while our will is making its intense (but also imperceptible) act of love, our imagination is running about by itself, just a sir does in a dream; so that we seem to be full of distractions, and not praying at all. But this is contrary of the fact. The distractions, which are so vivid to us, are not voluntary actions, and have no importance; whereas the voluntary action we are performing is the wanting God …

(quoted on page 60)

For busy people

If you lead a very active lifestyle and feel there are never enough hours in the day, you are the ideal candidate for silent prayer.

(page 62)

Gueullette is clear that like breathing, thinking is what we do when we are alive, it is:

the signs of cerebral activity and it is not really helpful to dream of a time when the brain would no longer function.

(page 75)

Lifestyle

Gueullette suggests ways in which this form of prayer will change our lives. Getting up earlier. Watching less television. Creating a place for prayer at home. Silent prayer will have ethical consequences in our lives.

Seriousness

Silent prayer is then a fight at every moment, where, each time the name is repeated, it is necessary to take oneself again in hand and to bring oneself back in the presence of God.

(page 124)

I understand the author’s (or translator’s) use of ‘struggle’ to describe this prayer, however, I am not entirely sure it is the most helpful image. “while the struggle is real, it is at the same time delightful” he says. Which seems to capture the balance better. I prefer to think of this as a serious business, a work. And like all hard work it is deeply satisfying; often most when most difficult.

It is always different after silence

Some time in 2013 a large group of headteachers came to visit Trinity, the school where I was Head in Lewisham. We had been practising Mindfulness as a school for three years. One of the places we used silence most effectively was in the Restorative Meetings that replaced sanctions on poor behaviour. One Year 11 (15-16 year old) pupils was describing this to the group and how when things became stuck in those meetings often someone suggests a time of Mindfulness using a five minute sand timer: “It is always,” she said, “different after the silence.”

Silence changes things. More importantly silence changes us. It make us more loving, more able to be attentive to others, to children, partners, those we minister to and with. As Gueullette so clearly shows silence isn’t the only way of prayer. It need not replace other forms of prayer and worship but take place alongside them in our lives.

Jack has been practising silent prayer in this way for almost 18 months now, “It has changed my life,” he says. It is always different after silence.

Mindfulness for Mission: there is no God-shaped hole

Some time in 1989/90 I was due to meet the then Bishop of Winchester at Wolvesey, his home next to the Cathedral, having been recommended for training for ordination. As I walked across the Cathedral green coming towards me were monks and nuns from the Theravadan Buddhist community at Chithurst. I knew them well having made several retreats there, and it seemed like a good sign to see them as they began a lengthy walking pilgrimage.

I can’t remember when I first became interested in meditation, or indeed started meditating. It may have been reading Thomas Merton as a fourteen year old, or perhaps it was talking to Fr Peter Bowe at nearby Douai Abbey? Either way I am glad that right at the beginning of my preparation for ministry as a priest that important thread was present. I would never have guessed then how significant the teaching of what is now almost universally called “Mindfulness” would be in my life.

It is easy to sneer or at least feel an inner rolling of the eyes in church or other circles when Mindfulness is mentioned. “Religion-lite” or “just another fad” are phrases I’ve heard. But I am always impressed with the seriousness which participants bring to the training. Formal meditation of this sort is a fundamental part of my life. I have taught it in all the schools I’ve worked in with four to eighteen year olds and with colleagues. It was an essential part of school improvement as a Head teacher and I have taught Mindfulness in parishes, on pilgrimages and on retreats. I can’t possibly meet the demand from across the country for this teaching. I am interested in this and in how this relates to mission. Does mindfulness lead to people meeting Jesus? The simple answer is yes, I have seen it happen. It does this in a number of ways.

In the last few years I have developed a two stage process in mindfulness training. In the first stage of four sessions I teach practices which could be used by anyone, regardless of faith or belief, I use no specifically Christian language or imagery and I make clear that the results will be a reduction in stress, relaxation and greater clarity, although meditating to get these results is unhelpful. I then offer additional sessions on specifically Christian forms of meditation, lectio, the Jesus Prayer and recently I’ve added the technique of the Cloud of Unknowing. Interestingly, the expectation is always made clear when these sessions stretch over a number of weeks that some people will not want to attend the explicitly Christian sessions. Usually a few people will tell me at the first session that they are not going to. But what actually happens is that on every occasion, so far, everybody does attend all the sessions. Happily, as a result of doing so, some individuals over the years have begun attending church and have come to faith.

I have come to believe – and it really is only from my conversations with participants – that there is something about the experience of meditation that prepares people for faith. Over the next year I hope to use feedback forms to get a clearer picture of this, but my working hypothesis is that mindfulness leads to these four experiences all of which are good foundations for faith:

1 – compassion

2 – connectedness

3 – watchfulness

4 – abandonment

COMPASSION When people sit still, observe their breathing, notice their thoughts coming and going they always experience something close to a feeling of love. They feel more loving and more loved. Although, very occasionally distressing thoughts and memories do arise this is really quite rare and even then it is within a larger experience of love.

CONNECTEDNESS Although mindfulness may appear to be a very solitary, individualistic exercise, focussed on the self, in fact the internal experience is of being less separated and more connected, not just to people but to the physical world. Sitting still and observing the breath is a strongly physical experience. It is not “all in the mind”.

WATCHFULNESS I have been undecided on what to call this experience and wondered about ‘awakeness’. In the end I’ve decided on watchfulness because it has Christian history in the Philokalic tradition where the writings of the Philokalia are the writings of the neptic ones, the awake, the watchful. Participants typically describe this as being more alert, or even more alive. Occasionally, in the early stages and often with teenagers, there is a feeling of sleepiness, sleep deprivation is a significant problem, but this usually passes.

ABANDONMENT Again, I haven’t been very certain what to call this. Because mindfulness is about noticing things, and particularly noticing thoughts as they arise and as they pass, it increases the ability to let go, to not need to be in control. This is very helpful preparation for abandonment to God.

Over the last year I have been reading and re-reading Augustine’s Confessions, although he is frequently held up as an example of “conversion experience”, notably his experience in the garden when he hears a voice tell him to “tolle, lege“, take up and read the Bible, in fact his experience is really of a long process of conversion through reflection on his own life. Indeed, that is exactly what the Confessions is, an extended meditation on his own life that Augustine hopes will show not himself but his method of coming to faith. It is not surprising therefore that for Augustine, using the human mind as an analogy for the god-head, our threefold experience of memory, understanding and will is one way of perceiving the existence of the Trinity. We are hard-wired for faith, it is in the structure of our minds not just in our thoughts. One homiletic reflection on mission is that people have a need for God that cannot be met in any way other than by knowing God, this is sometimes referred to as a “God-shaped hole” . This blog post has a good discussion on the origins of this phrase. I am not convinced that the phrase is particularly helpful either missionally or in our understanding of how and why people come to faith, I think (contra some of the comments on that blog) that it does not describe Augustine’s experience. It may be that I am simply trying to say kataphatically what “God-shaped hole” is saying apophatically, but I think the effect of saying it in that different way is quite significant. Frankly, if there is a God-shaped hole most people in our societies don’t feel it, or the need to fill it. Rather, it seems to me that people find not a lack of something in mindfulness but a waking up of a very real, positive part of themselves that has been underused, this is a good biblical image too since Jesus reminds us to “stay awake”.

When people experience compassion, connectedness, watchfulness and abandonment, they are experiencing God. In fact I am not convinced of the helpfulness of the distinction made in some spiritual writing between apophatic and kataphatic. John of the Cross’s powerful poem on the Dark Night is notably passionate, and positive in what it says about God. There are two other areas of interest for me which I hope to investigate further. One is the practice of the Cloud’s method of prayer. The slow repetition of a single word. I only began this practice myself a relatively short time ago and have only taught it to groups twice. I need to work further on the teaching of it but I am encouraged that some people reported finding it helpful. The other area is in the teaching of the Jesus Prayer. The form I use myself is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner.” Sometimes I omit the latter two words. If I don’t one or of the participants will say that they find thinking of themselves as a sinner difficult. This too must relate in some way to our difficulties in communicating Christian faith, I would like to think more about that.

Now, I am not claiming that Mindfulness will lead seamlessly to conversion to Trinitarian faith. Clearly it doesn’t. Buddhists have been practising Mindfulness for centuries without embracing Christianity! Mindfulness is not the whole of conversion and solid teaching of Scripture and doctrine is also needed (part 2 of this series on Mission) but it can be a very helpful preparation. Any bookshop will have rows and rows of books on Mindfulness but very little on Christianity. If we avoid Mindfulness we are losing an important tool for mission. When I teach mindfulness practices from the Christian tradition, lectio, Jesus Prayer, the Cloud’s method, a reaction I regularly hear is that participants had no idea that Christianity has such practices. A final difficulty for us is that people who have had profound experiences in Mindfulness practice are often disappointed by the lack of silence and stillness and the sheer busy-ness they find when they go to church.

The Little Hours: a gift for the forgetful

First published in May 2018.

At Plum Village, the Buddhist monastery founded by Vietnamese teacher Thich Nhat Hahn, when a clock strikes or a gong sounds, everyone stops, breathes deeply and remembers a brief gatha or mindfulness verse:

“Listen, listen,this wonderful bell

brings me back to my true self.”

We human beings are forgetful, half-asleep creatures. Mindfulness is nothing more than waking up, becoming attentive and aware. You can download a mindfulness bell to sound on your computer. I used to have it ringing in my office when I was a Headteacher, an old fashioned chiming clock can serve the same purpose. Stop and breathe deeply three times. The Christian tradition, too, has many ways to remind us to stay awake. One of these is the Liturgy of the Hours. For some people, two longish liturgies a day, in the morning and evening, are sufficient, as in the Book of Common Prayer.

For some of us, however, little and often is best. One way many Anglicans have found to pray, in this little-and-often sort of way, is through the ‘Little Hours’ of the Daily Office: Terce, Sext and None, at the third, sixth and ninth hours of the day. One of the Anglican books used for this, for many decades was the Monastic Diurnal, a translation of the Latin Benedictine Office, produced in 1933, and edited by Canon Winfred Douglas. Writing in the Preface to The Monastic Diurnal he said:

“The Monastic Office was planned from the first for busy men [sic] … for our frequently overburdened parochial Clergy, it is an ideal Office because it combines great variety with comparative brevity.”

(Monastic Diurnal, OUP, 1933 v-vi).

From the very beginning of the separation of the church in England from Rome, many people have supplemented the Offices of the Prayer Book with liturgical devotions at other times of the day. In 1627 John Cosin (later Bishop of Durham), then just thirty years of old, published his Collection of Private Devotions for The Hours of Prayer. It is a beautiful combination of Prayer Book liturgy and language, providing forms of prayer for Prime, Terce, Sext, None and Compline, translated from traditional sources, as well as many other prayers and devotions.

We know too that the community at Little Gidding prayed the psalms throughout the course of the day. There were, no doubt, many other examples of the punctuation of the day with psalmody (see Anglican Devotion, C.J. Stranks, SCM 1961, for the period from the Reformation to the Oxford Movement). The Catholic Revival of the nineteenth century continued this tradition. Many clergy prayed the Western Office in Latin, but soon books of Hours appeared to enable the traditional canonical hours to be prayed in English, using the texts and Calendar of the Prayer Book, and usually providing for the Little Hours to be prayed alongside the Prayer Book Offices of Matins and Evensong. Versions of these books are so numerous that it would be a long list if it was reproduced here. Two traditions predominated among Anglo-Catholics: the monastic version of the Office, as in Canon Douglas’s book, and more popularly, translations of the traditional western Office (before the 1911 reform) which made provision for the recitation of Psalm 119 over the course of each day at the Little Hours. These Offices found their way into the Cuddesdon Office Book and the very popular Prime and Hours and The Priest‘s Book of Private Devotion and are recommended in Fr Whatton’s magnificent The Priest’s Companion. For the laity they appeared, in simplified form, in A Manual of Catholic Devotion.

An 1891 version of The Day Hours.

It was the reforms of the Second Vatican Council that reduced the normal Office to a fivefold form, with a single daytime Hour, and Prime removed. However, The Divine Office, the current western (Roman) rite does make provision for Terce and None. Even now, some people use the old books, including The Anglican Breviary (a translation into Prayer Book English of the post-1911 Breviary) to pray a sevenfold, or even eightfold, Office.

I often hear the claim that a Catholic renewal in our Church is not a management issue but a spiritual one. I believe that all renewal needs good management. St. Paul was highly efficient.

Next week, when I am at the New Wine Leaders’ Conference I have no doubt that I shall be part of something that is superbly managed. When Anglican Catholicism was at its strength it was a serious enterprise. Fasting, as Newman and Pusey recognised, was an essential part of the spiritual life. The praying at regular intervals during the day was the foundation of the energy and mission of countless heroic priests and laypeople. It seems unlikely to me that spiritual renewal will come unless we too embrace these disciplines, as our predecessors did, joyfully.

Like many Catholic Anglicans I have been praying the five-fold Divine Office for almost all of my adult life. Using it as a supplement to Common Worship. In 2014 I added Terce, using Psalm 119 over a week, to end the quiet desk time after my morning prayers and before the workday begins. In Eastertide 2016 I added None to the daily round and in September 2016 a brief Office of Prime. I do so using Psalm 119 to link myself to Catholic and Anglican tradition. I recently put together a little card to tuck into my Breviary with some simple music and the distribution of the psalms. Common Worship: Daily Prayer also refers to the Little Hours and they could easily be prayed using it. Here are the cards:

(Music for the opening verses is from Abbot Alan Rees OSB)Word version here. (You will need to install the St Meinrad fonts to read the music, available here)PDF here.

Psalm 119 arranged for praying over a week at Terce (or any other Hour) here, in the Grail translation.

The obligation to pray Morning and Evening Prayer is a serious one for Anglican clergy, and they should not be omitted except for a substantial reason. I find it deeply moving on my travels as Superior of the Sodality, and in the diocese of Liverpool as Director of Education, to pray with my sister and brother priests and to know they are praying day by day. Some people choose to add to the basic obligation the praying of the Office of Readings, Daytime and Night Prayer. This is a personal choice, so not of obligation. Just as with fasting, there is always a danger of scrupulosity or adding these devotions as ego-centred ‘works’, this is why a Spiritual Director is so important. We must never forget that we are freely saved and can never merit the salvation Jesus brings – we don’t have to, and can’t, earn it. However, if done lovingly and freely, like a lover who wishes to phone his beloved during the day, not once but many times, or when in the beloved’s presence can hardly resist their touch, this can be a beautiful way of enjoying the divine Presence throughout the day. It is not just a cure for forgetfulness, but a satisfying of the desire and need to be with God intensely.

Just as with fasting there is the suggestion that somehow modern people are not quite up to praying so often. That we are too busy, our lifestyles too full. I am not at all sure about this. I particularly object to the use of the word busy. I think we need to think more carefully about how we use, and control the use of our time. Surfing the web, watching TV, even listening to the news can suck up time. We could all fill our days many times over, but we can, mostly, choose the things that we want to do. Why not choose to spend a few extra minutes with God? If prayed quickly each Office can be said in three or four minutes, it would be hard to make them last longer than ten. Today, for example, I prayed Terce sat in my car on a street in St Helens, Sext on the same street, after the meeting I was attending and None, outside the school I was due to visit in Garston in Liverpool, a little later. These are, for me, refreshing pauses, Psalm 119 a gentle brook, gently gurgling its way through my day and renewing me.

“Happy indeed is the man … whose delight is in the law of the Lord and who ponders his law day and night. He is like a tree that is planted beside the flowing waters.” (Ps 1)

The Little Hours are little mindfulness bells, reminding us of the great story of salvation told in Scripture, but they are also a loving touch in the working day with the One who made us and loves us. As Fr Jonathan Graham CR wrote,

“Psalm 119 is a love song.Not a passionate love song; certainly not.It is not the song of love at first sight,nor of the bitter sweet of emotion and desire.It is the song of happy married life.That is not to say that it is, literally, the song of a poet happily wedded; but it breathes all the way through   the charmed monotony of a life vowed to another;it repeats with endless variety and sweet restraintthe simple inexpressible truth that can never grow weary or stale– I love thee. Thou, thee, thine;every verse of the poem, except the three which introduce it,contains thou, thee or thine.And a very large number of them echo: I, me, mine.Well might its author find the sum total of his song in the high priestly prayer of Jesus:All mine are thine and thine are mine.”

Serious? Well, yes, but joyful, light and energising, if prayed freely and as a free gift to Him.

Mission and Mindfulness

An old post lightly edited.

From my earlier post, here:

“it is the missional problem of our time that needs most thought and reflection and most occupies my mind. Our failure to evangelise, to communicate the gospel, particularly to the young, and the decline of the church. I have a series of posts planned that will address this problem in four key areas for further investigation:

1 Mindfulness for Mission: there is no God-shaped hole

2 Learning for Mission: it’s all about memory

3 Seriousness for Mission: the easier we make it the less attractive it is

4 Morality for Mission: why people think the church is immoral”

Some time in 1989/90 I was due to meet the then Bishop of Winchester at Wolvesey, his home next to the Cathedral, having been recommended for training for ordination. As I walked across the Cathedral green coming towards me were monks and nuns from the Theravadan Buddhist community at Chithurst. I knew them well having made several retreats there, and it seemed like a good sign to see them as they began a lengthy walking pilgrimage. I can’t remember when I first became interested in meditation, or indeed started meditating. It may have been reading Thomas Merton as a fourteen year old, or perhaps it was talking to Fr Peter Bowe at nearby Douai Abbey? Either way I am glad that right at the beginning of my preparation for ministry as a priest that important thread was present. I would never have guessed then how significant the teaching of what is now almost universally called “Mindfulness” would be in my life. It is easy to sneer or at least feel an inner rolling of the eyes in church or other circles when Mindfulness is mentioned. “Religion-lite” or “just another fad” are phrases I’ve heard. But I am always impressed with the seriousness which participants bring to the training. Formal meditation of this sort is a fundamental part of my life. I have taught it in all the schools I’ve worked in with four to eighteen year olds and with colleagues. It was an essential part of school improvement as a Head teacher and I have taught Mindfulness in parishes, on pilgrimages and on retreats. I can’t possibly meet the demand from across the country for this teaching. I am interested in this and in how this relates to mission. Does mindfulness lead to people meeting Jesus? The simple answer is yes, I have seen it happen. It does this in a number of ways. In the last few years I have developed a two stage process in mindfulness training. In the first stage of four sessions I teach practices which could be used by anyone, regardless of faith or belief, I use no specifically Christian language or imagery and I make clear that the results will be a reduction in stress, relaxation and greater clarity, although meditating to get these results is unhelpful. I then offer additional sessions on specifically Christian forms of meditation, lectio, the Jesus Prayer and recently I’ve added the technique of the Cloud of Unknowing. Interestingly, the expectation is always made clear when these sessions stretch over a number of weeks that some people will not want to attend the explicitly Christian sessions. Usually a few people will tell me at the first session that they are not going to. But what actually happens is that on every occasion, so far, everybody does attend all the sessions. Happily, as a result of doing so, some individuals over the years have begun attending church and have come to faith. I have come to believe – and it really is only from my conversations with participants – that there is something about the experience of meditation that prepares people for faith. Over the next year I hope to use feedback forms to get a clearer picture of this, but my working hypothesis is that mindfulness leads to these four experiences all of which are good foundations for faith: 1 – compassion 2 – connectedness 3 – watchfulness 4 – abandonment COMPASSION When people sit still, observe their breathing, notice their thoughts coming and going they always experience something close to a feeling of love. They feel more loving and more loved. Although, very occasionally distressing thoughts and memories do arise this is really quite rare and even then it is within a larger experience of love. CONNECTEDNESS Although mindfulness may appear to be a very solitary, individualistic exercise, focussed on the self, in fact the internal experience is of being less separated and more connected, not just to people but to the physical world. Sitting still and observing the breath is a strongly physical experience. It is not “all in the mind”. WATCHFULNESS I have been undecided on what to call this experience and wondered about ‘awakeness’. In the end I’ve decided on watchfulness because it has Christian history in the Philokalic tradition where the writings of the Philokalia are the writings of the neptic ones, the awake, the watchful. Participants typically describe this as being more alert, or even more alive. Occasionally, in the early stages and often with teenagers, there is a feeling of sleepiness, sleep deprivation is a significant problem, but this usually passes. ABANDONMENT Again, I haven’t been very certain what to call this. Because mindfulness is about noticing things, and particularly noticing thoughts as they arise and as they pass, it increases the ability to let go, to not need to be in control. This is very helpful preparation for abandonment to God. *** Over the last year I have been reading and re-reading Augustine’s Confessions, although he is frequently held up as an example of “conversion experience”, notably his experience in the garden when he hears a voice tell him to “tolle, lege“, take up and read the Bible, in fact his experience is really of a long process of conversion through reflection on his own life. Indeed, that is exactly what the Confessions is, an extended meditation on his own life that Augustine hopes will show not himself but his method of coming to faith. It is not surprising therefore that for Augustine, using the human mind as an analogy for the god-head, our threefold experience of memory, understanding and will is one way of perceiving the existence of the Trinity. We are hard-wired for faith, it is in the structure of our minds not just in our thoughts. One homiletic reflection on mission is that people have a need for God that cannot be met in any way other than by knowing God, this is sometimes referred to as a “God-shaped hole” . This blog post has a good discussion on the origins of this phrase. I am not convinced that the phrase is particularly helpful either missionally or in our understanding of how and why people come to faith, I think (contra some of the comments on that blog) that it does not describe Augustine’s experience. It may be that I am simply trying to say kataphatically what “God-shaped hole” is saying apophatically, but I think the effect of saying it in that different way is quite significant. Frankly, if there is a God-shaped hole most people in our societies don’t feel it, or the need to fill it. Rather, it seems to me that people find not a lack of something in mindfulness but a waking up of a very real, positive part of themselves that has been underused, this is a good biblical image too since Jesus reminds us to “stay awake”. When people experience compassion, connectedness, watchfulness and abandonment, they are experiencing God. In fact I am not convinced of the helpfulness of the distinction made in some spiritual writing between apophatic and kataphatic. John of the Cross’s powerful poem on the Dark Night is notably passionate, and positive in what it says about God. There are two other areas of interest for me which I hope to investigate further. One is the practice of the Cloud’s method of prayer. The slow repetition of a single word. I only began this practice myself a relatively short time ago and have only taught it to groups twice. I need to work further on the teaching of it but I am encouraged that some people reported finding it helpful. The other area is in the teaching of the Jesus Prayer. The form I use myself is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner.” Sometimes I omit the latter two words. If I don’t one or of the participants will say that they find thinking of themselves as a sinner difficult. This too must relate in some way to our difficulties in communicating Christian faith, I would like to think more about that. Now, I am not claiming that Mindfulness will lead seamlessly to conversion to Trinitarian faith. Clearly it doesn’t. Buddhists have been practising Mindfulness for centuries without embracing Christianity! Mindfulness is not the whole of conversion and solid teaching of Scripture and doctrine is also needed (part 2 of this series on Mission) but it can be a very helpful preparation. Any bookshop will have rows and rows of books on Mindfulness but very little on Christianity. If we avoid Mindfulness we are losing an important tool for mission. When I teach mindfulness practices from the Christian tradition, lectio, Jesus Prayer, the Cloud’s method, a reaction I regularly hear is that participants had no idea that Christianity has such practices. A final difficulty for us is that people who have had profound experiences in Mindfulness practice are often disappointed by the lack of silence and stillness and the sheer busy-ness they find when they go to church.