“If I want to change my life, I best start with changing my mind.” Words of Pico Iyer in today’s TED Talk selection. This world traveler and travel writer tells us of the importance of going nowhere in our lives.
For years I’ve know of the importance of sitting quietly and doing nothing, i.e. meditating, but in all honesty have excused myself from the activity with the excuse that I didn’t have the time. Lately, I’ve been taking the time, sitting quietly doing nothing and going nowhere after 15 minutes of prayer and I’m amazed at the new sense of serenity and direction it has given me.
If you ever doubted the effectiveness of the contemplative life, we now have the definitive answer, Brown University has initiated a program that studies contemplation from many different aspects declaring it valid and relevant to 21st Century people.
I never doubted its effectiveness; actually I never thought to question it. As a high school student at the Passionist Prep in Warrenton Missouri, we spent 15 minutes a day meditating, that is kneeling (ok, half kneeling and half sitting) quietly reflecting in the chapel as a community. While I don’t remember waiting for that time like I often found myself waiting for lunch, dinner or to just get out of the classroom, I do remember feeling very much at peace and connected to those around me while there. I don’t ever remember wishing not to be there even though the smell of dinner being cooked down the hall often assaulted my senses persuading me to reflect more on what was in store for dinner than on the reflection I just read to start my meditation time.
It’s good to see Brown University, Stanford University and others getting on board and discovering the value of something contemplatives like the Passionists have been and continue to do for centuries. I suppose it’s good to know how the brain functions while meditating and the beneficial physical effects etc, but deep down I believe it’s just something you do, like eating and breathing.
Why do I bother to post this then? While watching the video I couldn’t help but be taken by the young college students who shared their positive experiences with the program. The children of the people I hang with will probably never go to the prestigious Ivy League Brown University. I suspect though, like the students at Brown, they might be interested in learning more about meditation and contemplation, things we Passionists are pros at. Maybe I can plan some introductory information on these practices and invite the young people in my world, whether I know them or not, to come and experience for themselves these life giving practices.
Some people know by book-learning; others by experience. Can we compare them? Is one way better than the other? As a matter of fact, most of us know both ways, but, admittedly, some of us tend toward one more than the other.
There are those who first read the recipe book, and then prepare the meal. There are others who go straight into cooking the meal, experimenting as they go along. Which way makes the most impression on us, that is, a lasting impression? Do we better learn by “book learning”, as some describe it, or by just “doing it”?
We occasionally run into geniuses like Steve Jobs, who dropped out of college at an early stage, and strike out on their own, just as he did, and proceeded to score great success in the computer/electronic industry. There are others who are information collectors, like boys with baseball cards, hundreds of them, covering decades of great players on every team, and they can rattle off more information about a player than the rest of us.
To change an automobile tire, we can read all about it in a car’s manual stashed away in the glove compartment. Or we can go into our garage and do it ourselves, probably badly the first time or two, but gradually grow adept at it. Of course, the same would likely be true of learning about it by reading the manual.
Or we can read about the danger of boiling water, how badly it can burn us if it spills on our hand. And this can lead us to be careful. But we can also experience a burn first-hand, accidentally spilling the water while standing at the oven. Which is the better way of learning?
Experience can be likened to an art, like that of making friends. There was a well known book of several decades ago entitled: HOW TO WIN FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE, by Dale Carnegie . It was a reading approach to doing this. But, of course, there is also an experiential approach to the same task, that is, by just diving into a crowd of people at a party, introducing oneself and start talking.
A standard example of the difference in learning by book and learning by experience is swimming or riding a bicycle. Again, the experience of being thrown in the water or placed atop a bicycle seat and shoved off along the sidewalk differs considerably from learning about these ventures through instruction.
Then there is prayer. There are many books to read on how to pray. Scores of books have been written about HOW TO TALK TO GOD, OR CONVERSE AND COMMUNE WITH GOD. But there’s also the experiential approach of darting into the rear of a church and planting oneself in the presence of God. We recall the gospel story of the tax collector standing at a distance in the temple and asking God to have mercy on him, a sinner (Lk 18.9-14). We suspect this was an experience-based prayer.
Book learning takes place in the head. Experiential learning involves the whole body, almost like a chill running throughout one’s body. Forgetting is more likely to occur in the head than it is at the level of experience. Learning by experience to ride a bicycle, at a young age, surprisingly remains with a person for a long time, so that, even after thirty years of not riding a bike, one can do so again, without more ado.
We can read about the Jewish holocaust, and the skeleton-like humans found in the concentration camps at the end of WWII, and this makes a lasting impression. But the military, who first came on this scene at war’s end, experienced in a totally different way what the holocaust was like, knowing it by presence to it.
That is why so many veterans of war and military ventures are loathe to talk about it upon returning home. The experience of war has embedded itself into the sinews of their bodies in such a way that it’s basically non-communicable to those lacking that experience. Reading war episodes is fascinating, but cannot match personal presence to it.
Mothers relate to their children, especially infants, in this experiential way. They know, without being told by the baby, what is going on within the tiny confines of that body; they need not read Dr. Spock. Or similarly, there is the quality of compassion some people enjoy, whereby they can enter into the sufferings of another person and experience it as their own. They are not told of the suffering by the sufferer, but they know in a “feeling” fashion what another is going through. They experience it.
So we ask: how best do we learn: by head, or by experience?
It’s music to my ears! A welcoming response to something we have heard about: MUSIC. The very word denotes something pleasant, even delightful. Or, is that always the case?
After all, there is good music, tastefully, even artistically, done (or produced), and then there’s bad music: raucous, intrusive, belligerent, maddening. Some would call it noise.
We live in a musical era, but is it of the caliber of the classical musical produced in the 16th-19th centuries, or is it the music of “the common (wo)man”? With our mobile electronic conveyors of all sorts of sound, we can, if we so wish (and it seems many of us do so wish), be awash in music of our choice on a 24/7 basis.
Some have envisioned heaven as nothing but a vast music hall where those of us who have “made it” there are incessantly immersed in celestial sound waves: an angelic experience. Do not artists often depict angels strumming on harps 24/7 (except that time is no longer a factor in heavenly bliss). Indeed, when we reflect on the history of the so-called classical period, we note how beauty (along with the good, the true and oneness) takes its place in the ranks of what was perennially cherished. Today, however, beauty receives less attention from us, among the elements contributing to what ancient peoples considered the building block of culture and civilization. But is it true that beauty is a “light weight” when it comes to the elements comprising a pleasant and desirable way of life?
How does beauty rank among the elements making for a desirable way of life? And, within beauty, what most significantly contributes to it: the arts, architecture, poetry, drama, dance, music? It seems music has sometimes been downplayed for its contribution to a life worth living.
Music admits of various kinds: it can be divided according to the era in which it was produced, or to the geographical place where it originated, or to the kinds of instruments available for producing sounds, such as strings, horns, percussions. Then, there is the organ.
Music is distinct from the other arts because of its appeal to the ear, rather than to the eye or the sensitivity of the body to its rhythm. Am I a person of the eye, or of the ear? If I had to choose between losing eyesight or hearing, which would I prefer? Which brings me more fulfillment, satisfaction, contentment: what I see or what I hear? The voice of a friend, or the sight of a loved one?
When I need inspiration, energy, contentment, satisfaction, peace, excitement: what best meets my need: music or the other arts (mostly visual)? Is the human voice more significant to me than the sight of another person? If I were to encounter Christ, would I prefer to see or to hear Him? Do we not call Him the Word of God? On the other hand, did He not come down into our midst and mingle with us, to be seen? We have access to His word in the bible. Yet we also see His presence to us in the sacramental liturgy in which we share, or in the statuary and the paintings that artists of old have produced?
Music: is it the melody, the lyrics, or the rhythm, that captivates me? Is dance more reflective of melody or of rhythm?
We are a culture of music. Music is important to us. We can judge a person by the music he or she prefers. There Is music favored by the young, and that preferred by the old. Music is valued primarily for its melody, or its lyrics, or its rhythm. Loud music is often preferred over quiet/soft music (elevator music). There is music that relaxes and music that rouses and excites. There is fast and slow music, music by strings or by horn, music for dancing or music for reflecting.
Music is an important part of life. It’s obviously a God-instilled component of human experience. The prayer-life of the church centers around the psalms, the main composer of which was King David, himself a musician. It is likely the psalms were set to music. Can we make our way to God without music?
Lawns are curious by nature. Originally created by the upper class of the renaissance and indoctrinated into the middle class spawned by the industrial revolution, the lawn serves many purposes. Lawns are an external statement of status, personally and socially. They are statements about our standards of work, lifestyle and our expectations of the neighbors. In a sense, lawns are cosmetic and unnatural however, they have the potential to serve far more than mere superficial purposes. Grooming grass requires physical presence but little mental agility. In the business world and more and more interpersonally, ideas and answers are expected to be instantaneous as the millisecond responses to high speed internet computer requests. Time to contemplate is regarded as down time and wasted or dumb. The inner sanctum of free thought finds few places to abide. The shower is too brief, the men’s or ladies room stop even shorter and random thoughts are forced out while exercising by the hip new gadget known as an Ipod. Perhaps using a lawnmower is the elevation of mind experience needed by western civilization and is exercised subliminally by those who do it regularly.
Patterns are typically followed when mowing the lawn thus liberating the full attention of the mind. . Certainly, people have various attitudes while performing lawn work. The obsessive compulsive may carefully cut on a diagonal and cross cut twice while the ‘waste no time’ folks try to cut in a continuous strip. Opportunities to think about things large and small are overlooked by not merely going slowly back and forth.
Monastic ritual, rich in patterns of prayer and behavior was widely regarded as an enlightened lifestyle of those closest to God. It seems hard to imagine how a person could be a reclusive monk just praying all day, day after day. They would still do chores, read and recreate however, their attitude set the mind free for higher reflection. Turning the mundane but necessary tasks of daily life into productive reflection brings to mind the vaunted skill currently referred to as multitasking. Thinking with a clear mind is not as easy as it sounds with all the clatter available and seemingly unavoidable almost everywhere. Alone in a desert, the distractions faded away for the biblical holy men. Jesus spent forty days in the desert fasting and praying in preparation for the fulfillment of the promise God made with his flesh and blood on Calvary.
Great things need to be conceived in the mind and thought out and planned ahead. A desert, monastery or walking along a beach provides entrée to a place of solitude. Unfortunately few people have convenient access to such as these. Reviewing the past, putting the present into perspective and anticipating ways to make tomorrow a better day are all ways to enjoy the benefits of therapeutic contemplation. Many important revelations are there for the taking by simply slowing down while mowing the lawn.
Which is more commendable: praying while you drink, or drinking while you pray? Are these two different things, or are they the same—perhaps two sides of the same thing?
They certainly involve the same kind of actions—or do they? Would it be helpful to describe them as my primary action, and a secondary one? If they occur simultaneously, how could I distinguish one as primary and the other as secondary? Perhaps I have to revert to my intention, that is, my initial intention. That is, maybe I initially intended to pray, but then thought it would be nice to take a drink while I’m praying. Or, on the other hand, perhaps I at first planned to relax with a drink, and then thought it would be a good thing to say a prayer while I’m drinking.
On the basis of this last example, some of us may feel that what starts off as a good and defensible action becomes vitiated by trying to insert prayer into an inappropriate setting, while others of us may judge that, if I begin by seeking some R and R, I elevate this relatively innocuous action to the level of a better action by deciding to pray while relaxing. It is possible, of course, to vitiate an action that, to all intents and purposes, seems to be a good and commendable deed, by slipping in an evil, or inappropriate, purpose or intention, like giving a gift to a politician with a view to soliciting a favor from him or her later on. Just as it is possible to ennoble an action that to all intents and purposes seem to be wrong and hurtful, like speeding through a red light, but with the intention of rushing my pregnant wife off to the hospital to give birth to a child.
Hilaire Belloc, the combative Catholic apologist, once wrote a poetic ditty to the effect that: “Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, There’s always laughter and good red wine. At least I’ve always found it so. Benedicamus Domino.” On the basis of this verse, Belloc seems to have had no great problem in combining drink and prayer. Does this, however, throw any light on the issue of whether he enjoyed drinking while he prayed, or praying while he drank? Perhaps we had better look to Jesus Himself, especially His presence at the wedding feast of Cana, on which occasion we may wonder: did He drink while there, and, if so, did He combine His drinking with a prayer recited over the newly-weds? Was He at Cana primarily to pray for the couple, or to celebrate with them, or both? And we can well wonder if His miraculous amplification of the water-made-wine was the result of His Mother’s prayerful concern lest the newly-weds be embarrassed, or was it compensation for over-drinking on the part of His Apostles, who were also there, and who may have been responsible for the wine shortage?
Perhaps the key to untying these knotty problems lies in a full-blown appreciation of what joy is all about: joy in drinking, joy in praying. If both of these activities could fall under some same larger appreciation, they would no longer stand in contrast with one another as irreconcilables, and be two ways of looking at the same thing. Pope Francis seems to be on to something in his recent exhortation about THE JOY OF THE GOSPEL. After all, the gospel means GOOD NEWS. Joy is a scarce commodity in our contentious society today , unlike the era of Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill, who could disagree all day on Capitol Hill, but who, during the after hours, could enjoy a good drink together, while swapping jokes. Belloc seems to have had it right: “…laughter and good red wine…Benedicamus Domino.” Surely they can go together.