Sunday, November 30, 2008

Advent: A Call to Mindfulness

The Messenger
Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
December 2008

Advent: A Call to Mindfulness

Recently I was interviewed by a writer from our diocesan newspaper, The Voice, for an article about the ordination process in our diocese. My experience of “the process” was generally positive, but as I reflected back, I realized how much of that time I spent thinking about the future rather than living in the moment. From the day I met with my home parish rector to talk about my sense of call to the priesthood I began a long period of nervous wondering about the future…

Would I be accepted into the process? Would I fit in at seminary? What kind of grades would I get? Would I be made a postulant and later a candidate? Would I be ordained? And lingering behind all these questions were two really big questions: Would I get a job? And if I did, where would I be working?

Eventually, of course, all those questions and more were answered. But as I think back I feel some regret because my relentlessly anxious focus on the future meant that I missed out on truly being present during those important and once in a lifetime years. Missing from my life during much of that time was a sense of mindfulness.

Few have written as effectively about mindfulness as the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. In his teaching he has stressed the central importance of mindfulness – being aware of the miracles that occur with every breath that we take. I suspect most of us are not very good at mindfulness. Instead, we are usually thinking ahead to the next item on our to-do list. But Thich Nhat Hanh, along with many other spiritual masters, insists that we must pay attention and see the beauty in such seemingly ordinary events as eating a meal, washing dishes, taking a walk, or even simply breathing.

In his book Peace is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh sees the Eucharist as a powerful act of mindfulness. He writes, “The practice of the Eucharist is a practice of awareness. When Jesus broke the bread and shared it with his disciples, he said, ‘Eat this. This is my flesh.’ He knew that if his disciples would eat one piece of bread in mindfulness, they would have real life.”

In our society it’s a real challenge to live mindfully. For many of us, life is extremely fast-paced. We have so little time to reflect, to be mindful, or even to take a breath. And many of us who do have the time are filled with anxieties surrounding the economy, the election, the environment… And the media seem to be in the business of keeping us anxious. A while back I visited someone and one of the cable business news channels was on the TV. Hearing the frenzied reports accompanied by dramatic music, I could feel my anxiety level rising. Lately I haven’t been watching much TV, so maybe I’m more sensitive to it – but I’m pretty sure that TV is not much help if we hope to live mindfully.

Sometimes even the Church can be a challenge to living mindfully. Many of us have watched with excitement and wonder as the new parish hall has grown from an idea on paper to a concrete and steel reality. Over these months of construction and anticipation, I wonder if we have been mindful enough of the miracle of the present. At the same time, in the midst of an economic crisis there is anxiety about stewardship – will Grace Church be able to provide the same level of ministry as we have in the past? In a time of obvious uncertainty, have we been mindfully keeping an eye out for the miracles that are occurring right here and now in the present?

Fortunately, the Church also offers us many opportunities to be mindful. Our Christmas-shopping-crazy society works against it, but in a very real way, Advent is the season of mindfulness – when we are called to slow down and mindfully prepare for the coming of Jesus at Christmas and also for the Second Coming of Christ at the Last Day.

So let’s consider Advent our special call to live more mindfully, to breathe a little slower and deeper, to keep our eyes open for the miracles all around us each day of our lives, and to open our hearts to the greatest of all gifts, Jesus Christ.