Ready to get your hands dirty? Alexander Schmemann (1921-1983) had an idea for everyday folks who are drawn to Christian mindfulness and contemplative living. It’s in Bridges to Contemplative Living with Thomas Merton: Lent and Holy Week. Schmemann suggested a way of monasticism for laypeople living a typical American life in cul-de-sacs, apartments and offices.
We would not not take vows of celibacy and poverty. But he suggested that we could take these three vows:
A rule of prayer: Keeping a well-defined spiritual discipline of prayer and reflection maintains personal contact with God through the day. We would maintain specific times of prayer and study that aligned with our work and family schedules.
Obedience: This vow fights not our tempers, but our individualism. This is a practical obedience to small things from traffic laws to chores. We do what is legal and right even if we don’t feel like it.
Acceptance: Schmemann wrote that people want to do anything for God, except what God wants them to do. Instead of continually searching for a better place and a better people to serve, we would understand that God has put us here and now … in this cul-de-sac, this church, this job and this family. Just as many monks take a vow of stability, meaning that they do not leave their monasteries for “better” monasteries, we look around where we are and we serve.
Many of our churches have reminded us of this during the pandemic. Lots of us have been going to church online … trying to stay holy (and awake) from the couch. And many have found the circle of people that we interact with daily drawing down to a literally precious few.
The editors of this devotional, Jonathan Montaldo and Robert G. Toth, got me thinking with these ideas. They wrote: “Christ is most intimate to us when we recognize Christ in those we live most intimately every day, in those with whom every day we share the sacrament of time.”
I’ve been asking the Lord to help me see more of Christ in the homeless and the poor. I’ve never asked to see more of him in my housemates and colleagues before. Yet this presents so many opportunities as we cook the 5,000th dinner at home and stay on endless Zoom calls with colleagues.
Our intercessory prayers for these everyday people — family, friends, co-workers, customers — help “weave the web of the Church into deeper communion — a unity the early Church called koinonia — until the Lord comes,” Montaldo and Toth write.
We are billboards for God. Or even handwritten notes for God stuck on the refrigerator with a magnet. Let us empty ourselves to allow the presence of God to permeate our homes. For now more than ever, our homes are churches.
Negativity bias, also called the negativity effect, is hard-wired in our brains. But that doesn’t mean we have to live with it! What is negativity bias? When things are of equal intensity, people tend to focus on the negative (thoughts, emotions, events etc.) more than neutral or positive.
Scientists believe this brain attitude stems from times when flight-or-fight literally meant run before the animal eats you. Having negative thoughts is not a pleasant mindset, nor is it something that the Lord wants for us. Luckily, we can fight negativity bias deliberately.
Neuropsychologist Rick Hansen has written extensively on this subject. He says: Use your mind to change your brain to change your mind. As Christians, we also can turn to God in this process. Mindfully and actively looking for the good can change your brain through the process known as neuroplasticity.
Dr, Hansen teaches that when we focus on the good, sets of neurons fire together. Neurons that fire together wire together, he says. So the tendency to look for the positive and feel serenity gets embedded into the brain. More information from Dr. Hansen are on his blog here and here. Another detailed explanation of the negativity bias is here.
This Christian mindfulness exercise will help:
After morning prayer, ask the Lord to help you to notice the good and the beautiful today.
Keep a gratitude list for the today going on a sticky note or piece of paper in the kitchen or at your desk.
Check in with your thoughts regularly during the day. You can use an alarm on your phone if needed to help you stay mindful about what you are thinking. Are you seeing the negative? Can you see a moment of joy to focus on instead?
Intentionally look for little things that bring you joy, connection and serenity.
Thank God for each moment of joy as it occurs.
Other ways to counterbalance our proclivity towards negativity? Grant Brenner, MD, Adjunct Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Mt. Sinai Beth Israel Medical Center (New York), advises:
Be mindful and recognize when negative patterns begin. Do something each and every time—even something very small—to break the pattern. (A brief prayer would work well here.)
Notice when you talk to yourself in a negative way. Replace “Well, that was stupid” with “I wish I hadn’t done that, but I will learn from it.”
Talk to your inner critic with compassion: “Are you ok? What’s wrong? Why are you so angry? Are you feeling hurt?” Dr. Brenner said this will seem strange at first, but interrupting yourself when you are being mean to yourself is actually following the Golden Rule.
Other Christian mindfulness exercises that can help are the loving-kindness exercise and gratitude.
The concept that “No sin only hurts us” struck me as I read it. I tend to think that I keep the shiny side up around other people. Life at home is a looser interpretation of the Gospel commands. So I am pondering that quote today.
The Ash Wednesday section asks some good questions about our faith journey that I also wanted to share:
How has your personal understanding of Lent, sin and conversion changed as you have matured in your spiritual life?
What hoped-for change in your mind and heart do you pray for this Lent?
In what ways have you, by grace and your own inner work, grown beyond your former way of life?
The nice thing about growing is there’s always more to do. These questions make good prompts for meditating and journaling. We can go before the Lord in contemplation to ask what His answers for us would be.
Bridges to Contemplative Living is a series from the Merton Institute for Contemplative Living, which closed in 2012. Ave Maria Press still publishes the books.
The pandemic slugs on, giving us a time to think about how we will do things differently once it’s over. Lent is a wonderful time to prayerfully consider resolutions about friendship. Of course, we know full well that the only person we can control, with God’s grace, is ourselves.
I can across two friendship resolutions that I made a couple of years ago. They still feel fresh to me. So I’m going to bring them top-of-mind as things open us.
It will be interesting to see how a year of online conversations and physical separateness will change our relationships. I know I’m going to have to overcome what I call “introvert inertia.” I’d rather stay home and deal with folks online. I will have to push myself to be “in person” again.
How weird this all is came home when I walked up to a pastor that I’ve chatted with regularly online. I had my mask on, as did he. I said something to him and hurried off. It was only then that I realized that he had no idea who I was. We had never met in person before. I look a lot taller on Zoom.
I think these resolutions … building relationships with persons of peace, treating each person as someone to be known and loved … will serve me well online as well as off. They will only happen if I stay open to God’s grace and support.
If you can’t attend church due to the pandemic, here’s an Ash Wednesday service you can do at home.
Write down a list of your sins. Burn the paper in a bowl or ashtray. Then pray:
Let us ask our Heavenly Father to bless these ashes, which we will use as a mark of our repentance. Lord, bless these ashes. Wearing them reminds us that we are from the dust of the earth. Pardon our sins and keep us faithful to the resolutions that we have made for Lent. Help us to prepare well for the celebration of your Son's glorious resurrection. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.
Mark each person’s forehead in the sign of the cross saying, “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.”
Close with this prayer:
Loving Father, today we start Lent. From today, we make a new start to be more loving and kind. Help us to show more concern for the less fortunate, the hungry and the poor. Help us to love you more and speak to you more often. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.
Lent begins tomorrow on Ash Wednesday. Today is Fat Tuesday, the day to party and indulge before the great Lenten fast. Except most people keep indulging and few fast.
This pandemic Lent is an opportunity to renew our faith. Lent, the period of 40 days before Easter with Sundays off, began as a period for converts to prepare themselves for baptism on Easter Vigil (the night before Easter). The church modeled the period on Jesus’ 40 days and nights in the wilderness preparing to start his ministry.
When the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its state religion in fourth century, new Christians who knew little about the faith overwhelmed the church. Many were Christians in name only and continued to practice their pagan religion.
As a result, the church made fasting and renunciation a part of Lent for everyone. The church invited its members to commit or re-commit more deeply to the faith. This also was a strategy to keep the church separate from the pagan culture around it.
Some cultural separation is a good idea for the American church today. Start by participating in a Lenten lifestyle assessment. Here are a few questions to ponder on this Fat Tuesday:
How can you make your daily Scripture reading and prayer more meaningful?
Can you find an online course or retreat to deepen your practice or your knowledge?
What Christian books and biographies have you been meaning to read?
What are the places in your life where you routinely exclude the presence of God?
What does God want you to give up in your daily life? (Look at use of food, social media, drinking, etc.)
Start preparing today for a Lent that deepens your experience of Christian mindfulness.
The season of Lent is nearly two weeks away. Hopefully it’s the last Lent we’ll spend in a pandemic, so let’s make the most of our difficult situations.
As we plan for the Lenten season, let’s keep our resolutions positive. It’s not just about giving things up. It’s about moving forward in our faith. My theme for Lent 2021 is “Light Tomorrow With Today.” I’m looking at what I can do to increase the light of God in my life.
For example, let’s think about the content we consume. I pick out some books to read or re-read every Lent. I know many people abstain from social media. Since that’s how I see photos and videos of my grandchild these days, I will look at ways to stop “doom-scrolling.” I will see only family/friend/faith content during this time.
My pastor gave a sermon this weekend about what we are taking in. Is it, as Paul would like, “true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy.” The wonderful sermon is below.
Other places to look for positive resolutions include prayer, fasting and giving. If you are in the two-thirds of Americans who are OK financially in the pandemic, you might consider how you can help the one-third who are struggling.
Pray over these Lenten resolutions. Then when Ash Wednesday comes, your Lent can become a light for tomorrow.
Celebrating Easter Vigil with a Christian mindfulness approach helps the experience to become so much more alive, even during this unique pandemic experience.
We are facing the final illness of a beloved pet, Clarence, in the midst of this quarantine, as well as having a mother-in-law we can’t visit in an assisted living facility that has at least one coronavirus case. It is sad, yet we know that so many other people have it much worse. One benefit of this season is that I have been able to participate more fully in Lent and Holy Week than usual. The Lord is speaking to my heart.
Today He reminds me that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens us (Philippians 4:13). If we mindfully abide in Christ, he gives us the strength we need moment by moment. We need to move forward with our eyes on Him.
Today we renew our baptismal vows, decorate for Easter and make our Easter eggs. It is a day that, for more than two millennia, Christians have taken an attitude of watchfulness and prayer.
All-powerful and ever-loving God, your own Son went down among the dead and rose against in glory. In your goodness raise up your faithful people buried with him in baptism, to be one with him, in the eternal life of heaven.
Spend Good Friday with Jesus. Fast during the day, perhaps taking some soup at 11ish. Spend the hours between noon and 3 p.m. in prayer, spiritual reading and meditation before a candle. Blow out the candle at 3 p.m.