Mindfulness is a great word – especially in context of exploring the Christian practice of Lent. It’s a helpful word particularly because it enjoys a general acceptance in popular culture. As a result, it does not suffer from the assumptions that often limit conversation about religion. In other words, conversations about mindfulness are not associated with organised religion, which in our current cultural context often leads to awkward conversations.
However, one of the challenges is that often there is a sense of competition or either/or between spirituality and religion. You can’t be mindful if you’re a Christian, since the media often portrays of Christian spiritual practices as being judgemental others or as advocating in ways that are framed as politically conservative: even prayer can become a tool for public control, as opposed to an inward journey to awakening.
These challenges often detract from mindful Christian disciplines that stretch back to the third century, if not earlier, where they were practiced by those who are known as the ‘Desert Fathers.’ One of these mindful practices – sometimes called contemplative or centring prayer – is grounded in the intention of inward reflection and connecting beyond that which tempts our ego, a challenge in a consumer culture.
There have been different historic expressions of what this Lenten journey is about and how to practice its invitation to walk into the shadows. These rituals and disciplines have been and should be both an external/communal exploration, as well as an inner/personal one. The difficulty, however, is when one is preferenced. Or, as we have discussed, when there is a perception that only an external practice is pursued.
For Christians, this time is about preparing for a difficult exploration in which we acknowledge that the human choices that surrounded Jesus ultimately led to his execution by the Roman Empire. This political act, intended to undermine any resistance through the brutality of the spectacle, left the disciples feeling lost, disarrayed and fearful. There was no Good News the first time those 40 days unfolded – there was no awakening or resurrection. There was no miracle … yet!
I think that mindful or contemplative practices allow a way for deeper digging and exploration that gets us away from the distractions around us. They allow us to be in the Now, the present, in a way that can lead to curiosity. When we wonder, it often allows us to wrestle with difficult questions, which might otherwise lead us to judge and shame one another and/or ourselves. Shame and judgement ultimately do not motivate us to compassion, self-sacrifice or hope.
Often – from a secular vantage – Christianity does not appear to be a compassionate religion. And – as with any system, person or organisation – when one experiences a negative appraisal, it is easy to become defensive. This sadly creates a feedback loop, in which a sort of self-fulfilling-prophecy occurs when defensiveness leads one to enact those initial critiques. Often one responds by debating the critique or by withdrawing from the conversation. If we are mindful, however, perhaps using the ancient disciplines of contemplation and centring, we might hear those challenges in a way that leads to unexpected generative responses. If we get out of our head, making space for silence, we might hear the Holy speaking to us; to the church …