Science fiction is the perfect genre for exploring the meaning of our own times. Isolating an issue, seeing things from a different perspective, altering the variables can help us reflect creatively on the way we live. To describe Ursula le Guin simply as a “science fiction writer” is wholly inadequate. Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light is a powerful reflection on what it is to be human, as is the Philip K. Dicks novel which is the basis of Blade Runner, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Miller’s Canticle for Leibowitz is as much theology as it is science fiction.
The Jesuit approach to mission continues to inspire and fascinate. The immersion in an alien culture, the learning of language and social habits, ‘inculturation’ centuries before that term had been coined are powerful signs of a way of reading a society in order to evangelise it. A reading that has dangers as well as benefits. Scorsese’s recent film The Silence, on the Jesuit mission to Japan based on Endō’s novel, is a good reflection of our fascination and of the dangers and cost of mission.
Science-fiction writers are also fascinated by the Jesuits. Mary Doria Russell was brought up a Catholic but lost her faith as a teenager. In her writing she explores what of the culture of her upbringing can be passed to the next generation. For me, her best writing is in the two novels about a Jesuit mission to another intelligent species, The Sparrow and Children of God. Interesting as it is to speculate on what an appropriate approach to mission will be with aliens, the books really make us think about ourselves and our own times. Reading the signs of the times, learning the language of our culture and recognising it as a language, standing both outside it and within it is essential to mission.
This learning the culture is essential because we have a missional problem. Growing congregations in cathedrals, examples of thriving congregations (usually, but not always, charismatic evangelical) can’t mask the fact that overall the church is in significant decline. The near absence of children from many congregations suggests that this decline is likely to accelerate.
It would be naive to believe there is one solution to the missional problem. The church has always been a diverse community with a variety of expressions of the gospel. However, I am surprised by the amount of criticism and snide comments the popularity of Mindfulness practices receive from within the church.
“Our heart is restless“, wrote Augustine, “until it finds its rest in you.” ‘God-shaped hole’ was a common phrase at one time, used to describe what some understood as a fundamental human need for God. One indicator of what that God-shaped hole might be like is what people are looking for in bookshops. Self-help sections are generally far larger than the religion/spirituality section. It is clear, and not at all surprising, that self-esteem, anxiety and fear loom large in many people’s lives. I suspect that Christianity is not often thought of as an antidote to low self-esteem. Instead many people would think of it as contributing, or at least encouraging, a sense of sinfulness, “I am not worthy-ness” etc. We probably ought to think about the language we use if we are to show that this is not a true picture. But it is another section of bookshops that most interests me: Mindfulness.
Mindfulness is everywhere. The bookshelves creak under the strain of the latest publications. Even Church House Bookshop in London had a whole table of books on Mindfulness on my last visit. At a Conference organised by the Mindfulness in Schools Project last week nearly a thousand teachers gathered in London on a Saturday to reflect on the future of Mindfulness in Education. I am asked to speak on many topics and in many situations but could speak and teach almost every day on Mindfulness if I accepted all the requests. Which is great. One of the things I love about my job is the opportunity to teach. The current Mindfulness course I am teaching in St Helens was full within hours of being published on Eventbrite.
When I am teaching Mindfulness as a course of sessions (which is the best way) I normally offer a number of sessions which are not in any way religious, these will include learning a basic body-scan, attention to breathing, full mindfulness of breathing, loving kindness meditation, visualisation and mindful walking. I usually then offer an additional session with specifically Christian content, lectio divina (Mindful Reading), and the Jesus Prayer. This time I am going to add the use of the single syllable word practice as found in the Cloud of Unknowing to my current course and see how that goes.
It is always interesting to hear people, at the start, tell me that they will be attending just for the non-Christian sessions. So far everyone actually goes on to attend that session as well, at which they, as well as those who are practising Christians, will always say “I never thought Christianity included that”.
I have written before (here) about the difficulty that clergy and others who lead worship have in allowing for silence. But if the bookshops and interest in Mindfulness is to be believed silence, and how to be silent is one of the greatest hungers of our time. This is a real God-shaped hole that we are not working hard enough to fill. There is a contemplative deficit in our parishes and churches. People are hungry for stillness, for an escape from the constant chatter of their minds, they are looking for something that is an essential part of our Christian tradition and that we are not making known to them. They want to know how, like Isaac, to find a way of meditating in the cool of the evening (Gen 24:63) to be still as the Psalmist encourages (Ps. 46:10), to find the divine in the still small voice with Elijah (1 Kings 19), to go and be alone as Jesus did (see a list here).
Those who dismiss Mindfulness as a fad, or criticise it for being Buddhist, are missing out on a huge missional opportunity. But more importantly are missing the opportunity to give people what they need and which we have in our Christian tradition. The literature on ‘Christian mindfulness’ is growing all the time, I wrote about some of the available writing here. While the growing Christian literature shows how much a part of the tradition and how Scriptural Mindfulness is I think there is an element which is missing: a theology of Christian mindfulness. I have begun to explore how that theology might have its roots in St Augustine.
We are used, perhaps because of too much science fiction and ideas of time travel, to imagining that time is a straight line on which any moment could be travelled back or forwards to like points on a train track. But this is nonsense. Only now exists, only the present moment. It is the human mind that lives in the past, present and future. Augustine was well aware of that and writes extensively of time and memory. Here is Rowan Williams in his On Augustine, writing about time and memory:
“As soon as we try to think about our own acts of thinking, the spatial model is useless. The most ordinary activity of making sense –uttering a connected and intelligible sentence –is in fact quite a strange business: the syllables of a word, the words of a sentence, have to ‘vanish’ for the sequence to build up and do what it is meant to do. There is no meaning without this passage into absence because we cannot accumulate sounds without succession in language. What I am now saying, in any possible present moment, has to disappear, to fall silent and be displaced; even if I think I am repeating something, I shall have displaced one utterance by another, pushed what has just been said into silence and absence, rather than simply retrieving something that is the same. And when I do seek to retrieve what has already been said, I face problems once again: my memory is not a territory, a space, that I can survey at a glance. My present consciousness is bordered by drifts of sequences, half-grasped or half-recollected connections, neither wholly present nor wholly absent. Understanding myself, understanding what I am saying, involves not only speaking out what I clearly see but listening for those ‘drifts’, gently interrogating them. All of which leaves tantalizingly unclear just what and where the ‘I’ is that is doing the interrogating: it is not and cannot be a thing that stands apart from another thing called ‘memory’: in a crucial sense (as Augustine says explicitly) 2, memory is what I am. The puzzle is that so much of what I am is absent from conscious awareness. To acknowledge the role of memory is to recognize that ‘I’ am not a simple history to be unveiled and displayed for inspection, nor a self-transparent reasoning subject. To be an intelligence in time is to be inescapably unfinished, consistently in search. I am never just ‘there’. Je est un autre, ‘I am another’, might be a summary of much of Augustine’s reflection in the Confessions.”
Augustine is a key influence on the author of The Cloud of Unknowing. It is Augustine’s teaching on the present moment, I believe, that leads to the technique of prayer suggested by the author, a single, monosyllabic word (for more on this and the common misunderstanding of the Cloud see here and here). The importance of that word is not the meaning but the fact that it is monosyllabic. Praying with a single syllable like this is to pray in the shortest possible interval of time, to attempt, and always to fail, to stay in the present moment. That failure is vital. It is what Rowan Williams means when he says “To be an intelligence in time is to be inescapably unfinished, consistently in search.” It is, as he puts it, a “passage into absence”.
The Sacrament of the Present Moment, is the Christian tradition’s gift to the desire that leads people to mindfulness. Experiencing now is the authenticity that Jesus brought to every moment, Jesus could do this because to experience eternity is not to experience an endless line of events, it is to experience existence in its purest form, in the now. That is what people are hungry for. Like the missionary Jesuits this is the language we need to learn if we are to communicate with the deepest desire and longing of our time and culture. This is the language we need to speak if we are to be heard and understood. When people experience the desire for stillness and silence and think ‘church’ then we will have solved our missional problem, the contemplative deficit will have been made good.
Posting has been light on this blog for a while because I am working on a fuller, book length piece (working title: Serious Christianity), that’s likely to take a while. Pieces like the one above are ways of thinking aloud. I would be glad of any comments on this and other pieces.