Now that I have begun learning about mindfulness, I have decided to read some of the classic Christian texts on meditation, starting with The Cloud of Unknowing, a fourteenth century European work. As I read, I am trying not to read from a historical perspective or as literature, but really to take to heart what is written. At the same time, the question keeps appearing in my mind: Why is American Christianity lacking this perspective?
Part of the answer to that question, I think, is that American Christianity is largely shaped by the Protestant movement. Even Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox churches in North America bear a Protestant flavor. From the beginning, the Protestant Reformation concerned itself with individual salvation—answering the question, “What must I do to be saved?”—rather than concerning itself with the relationships stressed in medieval mysticism. Although the Pietist movement had potential to return Protestant Christians to a mystical or mindful relationship with God, it gradually evolved into Methodism which again seeks to answer the question, “What must I do?”
American Christianity has several stands of tradition that are entwined with the various denominational and nondenominational labels. One is the Charismatic or Pentecostal movement, which emphasizes exercising various gifts received from the Holy Spirit. Another is the Social Gospel, which emphasizes Christian activism in the community and in politics, seeking to make the world better for all people, especially the poor and needy. A third is Evangelicalism, which continues to focus on individual salvation and on mission work to bring the Gospel to all people. A fourth is the Success Gospel, which promises health and wealth and comfort in the present world. None of these is open to the kind of quiet mystical meditation described in The Cloud of Unknowing. Perhaps this is why so many active Christians seek additional help for their lives from yoga, from mindfulness, and from other somewhat mystical practices inspired by religions of southern and eastern Asia.
I have no desire or intention to start a new Christian movement in the United States. (The Church of Salvageable? Ugh.) For my own personal practice of Christianity for the rest of the year, I have set seven goals.
1. Worship services will be attended, not for me to be uplifted or entertained or educated, but for me to spend time in the house of my God and among the people of my God.
2. Personal devotional time, consisting of reading the Bible and of prayer, will be conducted, not as an intellectual exercise and not for self-improvement, but for bonding. The purpose of prayer and of Bible reading will be to spend time with the Lord, improving our relationship.
3. I will seek to be mindful of the presence of Jesus in every part of my life, not just at church and in personal devotions. I will strive to remember that, when I drive, Jesus is with me; whether I am at work or at home, Jesus is with me; whether I am alone or among other people, Jesus is with me. My goal is not to improve my behavior out of fear of his disapproval and judgment; my goal is to assure myself that I am not alone, no matter how alone I often feel.
4. I will seek to be mindful that whatever I do for another person is also service to Jesus. Customer service is not something I do for a paycheck, but it is part of making the world a better place for other people, for the glory of God. Courtesy on the streets or in the store is not merely good manners, but it also is part of making the world a better place for other people, for the glory of God. Kindness and honor to the members of my family is not just an obligation, but it is part of making the world a better place for other people, for the glory of God.
5. Whenever I am anxious, troubled, or discouraged, I will breathe slowly and deeply while meditating on Psalm 46:10 (“Be still and know that I am God.”). I will do this, not just to control or escape my feelings, but to use that unsettled time to draw closer to God.
6. Whenever I experience pain, whether it is physical pain or emotional pain, I will let that remind me of the pain Christ experienced on my behalf. When enduring physical pain, I will remember the physical tortures of the cross. When thinking of emotional pain (such as the memory of a broken relationship), I will remember Christ’s pain at the broken relationships that have separated the people he loves from him. Any temptation to dwell on my own problems, or to feel abandoned in my suffering, will be resisted by turning the suffering into an opportunity to share, if only in some small way, in Christ’s suffering.
7. Because this is my personal experiment in Christian mindfulness, I will make regular reports by means of this blog to let you know how things are going. If any of you care to join in this experiment, please also make comments on this blog to let me know how things are going for you.
God bless us, every one.