Recently I was asked to attend an event featuring a popular inspirational speaker. The invitation was open-ended and by the end of the day at hand I had decided not to go. The next day I was relieved to get this report from my friend: “It was a good decision you made not to go – as it turned out the featured speaker was absent due to illness and the rest..”
As a churchgoer I’ve heard similar sentiments regarding worship. “Well, don’t worry about not being in church today, you didn’t miss much…” The reason for such pronouncements are varied – a sermon that didn’t quite deliver, hymns that were hard to sing or a service that failed to “connect.”
My mom, who was the mother of six children and a devout Irish Catholic, used to say that she loved going to church because it was the only time during the week that nobody could ask her for anything – that she could sit still for an entire hour without hearing the words “Mom, can you…?” Church was the place where she found her greatest peace, she said.
A couple of years ago I started practicing yoga and the experience has been wonderful in many ways, the least of which being that it has taught me a lot about going to church. As a newcomer to yoga, if I was to gain anything from the experience the onus was mostly on me. I had to learn the basics of the poses and then practice and refine them with a teacher and with others, learning from those more experienced than I. Like church, sometimes one yoga class is “better” than another and there are some teachers that I prefer over others. But I imagine that if in attending any yoga class all I hoped to do was to leave with something rather than bringing a self and a discipline the experience would be endlessly disappointing for me as well as for my teacher.
Rest assured, this is not a clever way for me to suggest that many of us have been consistently disappointing God the teacher or that hoping that church services will lift us up or inspire us is wrong and that if we leave the church without being “filled up” it’s entirely our own fault; prayer is not a works = righteousness event. But there is something we are expected to bring to the practice of church attendance, even if it’s just faithfully “posing” to the extent we can even when we’re tired and when doing so is a stretch.
In describing the act of lighting and offering incense to Buddha (which I’m equating here to the physical act of Christians attending worship) Thich Nhat Hanh writes about the particulars and subtlety required to do so faithfully (always putting your left hand over your right when putting the stick of incense in the burner, for example, and always doing it exactly the same way). The point here is that there’s a physical mindfulness to worship. “Why do you have to put your left hand on your right hand? Because it means that you are doing it with one hundred per cent of your body and your mind. Be there truly…” writes Hanh. There’s a similarity between the Buddhist meditation being described here and my Mom’s mindfulness about truly being at church – and nowhere else – for an hour every Sunday.
As I discussed with another friend at lunch today, our worship tradition is compelling because the liturgies of Word and Sacrament invite us to enter them with our minds and our bodies alike. Like the practice of yoga there is no right or wrong way to pray – to sit and stand and kneel – and each of us, parishioner and priest alike, do so in our own way. But we are asked to pray with mindfulness; with concentration. Are there similarities between a sun salutation and the orans position? You bet. Does the Buddha need our incense, asks Thich Nhat Hahn? Does the sea need us to tell it of its greatness? No. So offer the concentration instead.
See you in church (mats and kneelers are optional but your concentration is required).
This reflection recalls my response to the question.”Why do you walk in the Cathedral before coming to St Alban’s?” Sometimes a good walk gives me the chance to focus on prayer before I start “praying twice” at St Alban’s. I don’t even look at the time but the cairos time is important than the chronos time it takes to walk and pray “on earth as it is in heaven.”
Nicely expressed, Jim. I like the way you brought mindfulness into the liturgy without making it yet one more thing we “ought” to do. As Joseph Campbell expressed it, liturgies are there to engage all of our senses, and in doing so to transport us to a different space or dimension. Bringing a yoga-like awareness of each of our senses to the liturgy seems to be a wonderful way to fully encounter the richness of corporate worship.