Contemplation and Prayer XI©
Dear Friend of Saint Francis,
Contemplative prayer is a deep awareness of what stands before, inside and above us. It reveals truth about our world beyond sensible evidence. It expands our awareness of who we truly are and evaporates illusions. It opens our heart and mind to the truth of love. Simply stated, contemplative prayer sees through the barriers that would otherwise obscure our view and deny us the insights that are needed to develop our God-given gifts and grow into our full potential of joy.
Contemplative prayer leads to deeper awareness but it also changes our way of living, which in turn continues to raise our consciousness progressively. The change takes us to mindful living—mindfulness in the choices that we make whether in response to our basic human wants, needs and desires, or to the pressures of our modern consumptive society that tend to define on our behalf what self-actualization means.
Mindfulness is a process by which we focus our thinking and the energy behind everything that we do on an anticipated set of results and their ultimate outcomes. Contemplative prayer is the gateway to mindfulness because it makes us broadly aware of existing circumstances, the potential for improvement and the trail that must be blazed in order to reach that destination.
An important distinction must however be made between secular and religious mindfulness. The secular world equates mindfulness with the willful pursuit of self-satisfaction. Religious tradition, particularly the contemplative tradition, focuses mindfulness on God’s will as the means of achieving authenticity. Therefore, it is expressed as humility and availability.
So it is with mindful living, which seeks to adhere to particular values, such as taking time for family and friends, despite the pressures of a demanding career; or favour specific priorities, such as advancing in education despite crippling financial challenges. Mindful living acts strategically to overcome distractions in order to grasp the pearl of infinite value. It is methodical rather than impulsive; perseverant rather than stubborn. Mindfulness is mindful of particular blessings that escape the notice of those who are single-minded about selfish motives and inattentive to grace.
At each moment, (St. Therese of Lisieux)’s sole concern is to carry out the will of God as it was revealed to her second to second.
(Hans Urs von Balthasar, Two Sisters in Spirit: Therese of Lisieux and Elizabeth of the Trinity)
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Simplicity is spontaneously associated with Franciscan spirituality. It is the practical expression of evangelical poverty that the poverello lived in a radical way. Simplicity gave Saint Francis a great deal of freedom from the constraints of an economically driven world. He used this freedom to focus his attention on what really mattered to him, the face of God in Creation.
Simplicity is also the alpha and the omega of a mindful lifestyle. Simplicity is not possible without being mindful in our choices, nor is mindfulness possible without a willingness to travel light, that is, the encumbrance of unnecessary baggage or ambiguous plans. Ultimately, the purpose of simplicity is to increase our capacity to focus on the moment at hand, where awareness of God is at its highest potential.
Ernest Larkin, O. Carm. pointed out that the well established practice of awareness of God’s presence does make possible a direct line of communication between the person and God but could lead to “abstractness…a mere nod of the mind to a theological truth with minimal resonance in one’s being.” One might say that mindfulness completes and even incarnates a divinely inspired intuition by allowing God to soak into every part of the body, mind and spirit.
Alluding to the classic spiritual discipline of recollection, what St. Teresa of Avila called “the soul collecting its faculties together and entering within itself to be with its God,” Larkin links true recollection to Christian mindfulness through presence to the moment: “recollection and mindfulness, separately and together, emphasize full commitment of one’s whole being to the moment at hand. They demand awareness of one’s self, the action, and the God who is there.”
Mindfulness fights the enemies of wholeness…our unfreedoms and attachments, our sins and imperfections….Mindfulness faces these temptations head on by maintaining attention to the call of faith.
(Ernest Larkin, Christian Mindfulness)
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Joy is the fruit of mindfulness. This applies to the mundane activities as well as the grand projects of life. The beauty of mindful behaviour is that it increases pleasure. Slowing things down in order to become more aware of them and of their effects makes it possible to savour the sight, sound, smell, touch and taste of what we chose with full intentionality. Conversely, acting reflexively and in haste numbs our senses. With time, we lose sensitivity to subtle aromas, soft notes and gentle movements.
Only the strongest stimuli then connect to the brain.
In many ways, this tendency is well summarized in our approach to food. Many of us tend to eat mindlessly, too fast and without much appreciation for the range of flavours that cross our palate. Once having eaten, we are not likely to be aware of the effect of food on our bodies and intellect, unless the reaction is sudden and dramatic. Except when it eventually results in illness, we are unlikely to register the differences between healthy and unhealthy foods. That’s because when we do not eat intentionally, the appropriate cues are overwhelmed by whatever is actually the focus of our attention: a conversation, a newspaper or simply a thought about what we must do after finishing the “chore” at hand.
Respecting our body and the disposition that is needed to live holy, whole lives requires mindfulness. Mindfulness is a kind of prayer, one that should be constant. It is a prayer of gratitude in that it acknowledges everything as gift, and it is a prayer of discipleship in that it receives everything as material that is ordained to a particular mission.
Attentiveness and delight are the best ways of nourishing the body and the self. One author claims that traditional diets are doomed to failure because they depend on willpower, which we tend to associate with effort and sacrifice, to assure the good choices in the quality and quantity of eating. Eisenstein prefers enjoyment as a barometer, which he assumes to indicate that the body’s true needs are being met. He understands enjoyment to be the result of careful preparation, slow tasting: “Chew your beverages.” He further suggests that attentiveness must extend to the effects and feelings generated by digestion and later absorption by the body.
Another example of mindfulness is breathing. We tend to breathe in as hurried a manner as we do other things. Breath is a proxy for life. Our stress is revealed by shallow and erratic breathing. Sometimes, we catch ourselves and take a few slow and deep breaths, inhaling goodness and exhaling dark emotions. When we do, we feel great. Too soon, however, we resume mindless, superficial breathing that neither provides adequate oxygen to brain nor rest to the heart.
The premise and proof of mindful living is authentic enjoyment. By contemplating what is, and doing so gratefully and prayerfully, we come to hear our body and soul as it expresses delight or revulsion, depending on what is presented. Mindfulness trusts our senses and intuitions to sort through the chaos, and to discern what is whole and holy, what is edifying as opposed to what is toxic. Not to be confused with false pleasures that strive to satiate compulsions and addictions, the joy that is obtained by listening attentively to the body and the heart is pure.
So it is with the more spiritual aspects of mindfulness, including prayer—whether liturgical, discursive, meditative or contemplative. Larkin wrote, “If we want to live intentionally with commitment to what we are about, we have to gather up ourselves in recollection and be involved in what we are doing. It is a short step to being in touch with the God hidden in the moment.” He added, “We enter (each moment) with wonder and gratefulness and with a receptive heart. This is contemplative living; it is living in God’s presence and cultivating the moment.”
Beware lest you lose the substance by grasping at the shadow.
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May God bless you with an attentive spirit, that you may contemplate the beauty inside and around you. May you be deeply touched by the mystery of life and the wonder of creation. May God be revealed in every breath that you take, in every sight, every sound and every smell, and in everything that you touch with heightened awareness.
Crib and Cross