Inside Out: an Invitation to Christian Mindfulness
A Guest Post by Dr. Amy Oden, Professor of Early Church History at St. Paul School of Theology
Editor’s Note: I (Jared) have had the distinct pleasure of corresponding and Skype’ing with Dr. Amy Oden over the past several months, sharing thoughts and inspirations regarding mindfulness and the rich contemplative tradition we have as Christians. I consider her a kindred spirit, and I’m thrilled she was able to take time out of her busy schedule to write a guest blog post for Jared White.com. Her perspective as a teacher and soon-to-be book author of Christian history is greatly insightful. Enjoy.
“Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God … You’ll be changed from the inside out.”
(Romans 12:1-2, The Message)
This sounds like a great description of Christian mindfulness. As a church historian who is currently writing the book, Right Here, Right Now: The Roots of Christian Mindfulness (Abingdon Press, 2017), one common reaction I get is, “Mindfulness, you say? That’s not Christian, it’s Buddhist.”
I’m always shocked when I hear people say that mindfulness is not a Christian practice, given its powerful and persistent role in Christian faith over the last 2000 years. The call to be mindful of our lives “placed before God” rings through every Christian century. As I write this book, I’m struck by the epidemic of Christian amnesia, the fact that many Christians don’t know our own history, and, as a result, miss out on what God has been up to.
For too many Christians, the timeline of faith looks something like this one. It begins with Jesus as the dot on the left followed by a dot next to it for the Bible. A long, blank gap follows, with a final dot on the right end labeled “me,” as though the 2000 years of history in between the Bible and me are truly devoid of God’s life.
This view of history is a form of functional atheism, a belief that God has been impotent or on a cloud somewhere or simply absent from history. Or, perhaps our amnesia is merely the triumph of the world’s message of individualism. In this view, it is only my own life that matters so that all of history God was just waiting in the wings for me to be born so He could get back to work. Ouch.
The Lord of Life might be surprised to learn that that His mighty acts over the last 2000 years don’t matter. One of our central Christian teachings, the Incarnation, expressly proclaims that God insists on acting in history, most notably in Jesus Christ. Further, Jesus promised the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, our teacher sent by the Father (John 14:26). To hear some Christians today talk, Jesus is wrong and God hasn’t been up to anything for 2000 years.
The good news is that our God is the Living God, alive and well, at work in every age. Our history as Christian people is the history of God’s mighty acts of redemption. You know this in your own life. As a Christian believer, you experience the work of the Holy Spirit in your life every day. It’s not hard, then, to grasp that God has also been at work in the lives of others in previous centuries. We inherit these gifts from the communion of saints and squander them at our peril.
The Kingdom: God’s Presence In and Around You
Now to mindfulness as a Christian practice.
Christian mindfulness is simply paying attention to our lives held within God’s life. As the Message says it, “Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God.” This is not a complicated prayer practice, but it can be a difficult one. Mindfulness disciplines us to stop our frantic lives and pay prayerful attention to the present moment in order to attend upon God. Christian mindfulness cultivates what Jesus calls “eyes to see” and “ears to hear” the Kingdom of God at hand in our lives. Jesus calls us to pay attention to the present moment where the reign of God is, in the here and now. It’s almost as though Jesus were saying, “Have eyes to see and ears to hear this present moment, the reign of God, right here in and around you!”
As a church historian, it’s been fun to discover the many ways Christians have practiced mindfulness, from Evagrius in the desert to nepsis in Eastern Orthodox practice to the divine offices in monastic life to prayers of recollection to Wesleyan watchfulness and beyond. My book will trace these prayer practices that turn our gaze to God, that put our minds on Christ, that focus our awareness on the work of the Spirit concretely, in the actual experience of this moment. All these different prayer forms share a common foundation in the focus on the experience of God’s presence with us, here in this moment. Mindfulness of our Lord is the taproot of prayer. Without such mindfulness, prayer can become a noisy gong, a flurry of words, empty and self-absorbed.
To be sure, Christian mindfulness has its own distinctive characteristics and is not exactly the same as mindfulness practice in other religious and non-religious traditions. I devote a section of my book to this.
For now, I hope Christians will become more curious about what God has been up to for the last twenty centuries. You will find a treasure trove of witness, saints, ways of loving God and neighbor, ways of being God’s people. We have a deep well of theologies and spiritual practices. And it’s important to add that we have taken wrong turns and learned to repent, again and again. Yet throughout it all, God has been mindful of us. God reaches out to all peoples in all places with an invitation to relationship. We are hungry for it and in practicing mindfulness of God’s presence here, now, we learn to have eyes to see and ears to hear the kingdom of God in our midst.