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(An article I’ve written which will be published in the winter issue of the All Saints’ Epciscopal newsletter here in Atlanta.)
Noise – a bad economy. Noise – stress from work. Noise – a packed social calendar. Noise – a family to take care of. Noise – bills to pay. We have so much going on in our lives, and we know that so much of it is too important to set aside, but in the end it can be consuming. In the end, so much small noise can become deafening. In a society where we are taught to be as productive and over achieving as possible, we inherently feel guilty if not outright uncomfortable if we pause for even a moment to catch our breath.
We are conditioned in our society to avoid stillness. Without the rush of people around us, we feel disconnected. After all, we live in a world now that is fueled more than ever by constant connectivity. Not too long ago, a person seen walking down the street talking to no one around them would have been seen as mentally unstable; now we just look for the Bluetooth headset to verify that they’re still all there. But I can’t help but wonder – are they really? It’s as though our sense of identity is lost if it is not constantly being defined by our relationship and interaction to others.
Living in a world of constant connectivity with cell phones, wireless internet and Blackberries galore, it’s not difficult to spend one’s entire life focused on the world around us and yet never have to take a moment to spend time with our own private world inside of us. Like Jonah trying to run from a Voice that he can never escape, we spend so much of our time trying to avoid our own emotions, our own issues and personal baggage that keeps piling up around us. To escape ourselves, we find one distraction after another. Eventually, all our distractions become nothing but noise that we wrap around ourselves to keep us from hearing the real disquiet that hides within us.
It was for this very reason, that over 2,000 years ago, religious seekers would escape the cities and delve into the deserts of Judea and Egypt. And from that movement immerged a man who returned from the desert – John the Baptist. It was over 1,800 years ago that Christians began to move in earnest into the deserts to live as hermits. Some left to escape persecution, but over time, the majority left because the city was just so much noise. As the Church entered the mid-4th century, Christianity had become an institution, protected by the Emperor’s very favor. It was in reaction to this that the hermits fled because they said it was now too easy to be Christian. A roman city was a jumble of constant distractions, from Rome to Jerusalem, and Alexandria to Constantinople – hardly different than our own cities today for their want of distractions.
So what was so inviting in the harsh deserts that men and women by the thousands left the comfort of the cities to find their own ways on scant food and barren rocks? What could the desert have to offer that a thriving imperial city could not?
Silence – at least outwardly so. For it was in that silence that these Christian hermits were forced to listen to the noise and chatter, their “demons” as they called them, that they bore inside. It was only when they took the time to sit still, escape the noise that surrounded them that they were able to really grasp the turmoil within. As so many of them discovered, looking inward can be one of the most difficult and even frightening tasks anyone can undertake. Yet what they gained in that process of delving inward was emotional stability and spiritual discovery. This process of introspection was usually done by means of meditation or center prayer.
Despite the 1,800 years that separate us from those early contemplative Christians, our worlds are not all that different when it comes to our society’s need for spiritual and emotional well being. As we approach and enter into the season of Advent, now is a perfect time to focus on our spiritual and emotional wellbeing. Advent is about preparing ourselves for the coming of God into the world; taking stock and cleaning house, if you will. Part of that is setting aside the commitments with which we have surrounded ourselves to focus on that one commitment which is most important above all – our commitment to ourselves. If God chose to glorify human life to the point of being incarnate in this world, then we owe God the same responsibility to take care of the lives we are given. And as any good doctor or counselor will tell you, you cannot take care of others unless you take care of yourself.
I have no doubt that for many, the thought of sitting still for twenty minutes a day in order to drastically improve mental and emotion health seems farfetched. But the fact remains that monastics and contemplatives have proven this to be the case for millennia. Only within the past few decades has science started to catch on. Now we find studies being conducted in the most prestigious circles of academia, like Emory University, that are correlating meditation and centering with emotional well being. Back in 2005, Dr. Daniel Helminiak, a professor of psychology at West GA College and former Roman Catholic priest, wrote his tremendous work “Meditation Without Myth,” which serves as an excellent introduction for anyone looking to explore centering and meditation, regardless of religious background.
So what exactly is this process that Christian contemplatives use? Simply put, centering prayer is a practice of repeating a word over and over in order to focus the mind and still the heart. As the mind begins to settle, thoughts are allowed to pass by without demanding our attention. As the noise of our daily lives is allowed to move to the background, we begin to see ourselves more clearly. We feel those emotions that we’ve been trying to avoid. We can experience those parts of our lives that cause anxiety without the fear of being judged or consumed by them. And at the center of it all, once we have allowed our emotional baggage to finally have its space and then fall away, we can rest in a space free of distractions.
What we find in that space has been described many different ways. Some call is peace. Others say it is a feeling of all encompassing love. In any case, it can best be summed up as God. Once the noise and clutter of our daily lives is allowed to fall away, there is a space inside each of us where we can be solely with the presence of God – a space of peace and tranquility. It was in this space that hermits out in unforgiving deserts found bliss. It is in this space that psychologists have shown depression and even addiction can be relieved. It is in this space that even the most spiritually parched individual can find renewal.
As we enter into Advent, let us a make a commitment to find that space within us. After all, God is already there, He’s simply waiting for you. Amen.