Social distancing and religious gathering

Every Friday night I walk through the core of the small town close to where I live. And, every Friday night these restaurants—a popular Indian restaurant, a British-style pub and pizza parlor—are jammed full. Week after week, it never fails. It impresses upon me the common, human need for social interaction.

Here, far off the beaten track, the COVID-19 threat in early March is still far from reality. At the time of this writing there is not (yet) one confirmed case in the Ottawa area. And yet, last week when I walked my route by these restaurant windows and looked in, they were nearly empty. 

Clearly for my community the anticipation and fear of the pandemic has taken hold in our imagination. These fears are fueled by images in the media of empty planes and check-in lines at airports. St Mark’s Square in Venice, normally crowded with tourists, is empty. Classrooms in big name educational institutions are empty.

“Social distancing” is the catch-phrase. As a human community we are now becoming practiced in what it looks and what it feels like to be ‘distant’ from each other in the public sphere. But sports stadiums and convention venues are not the only places considered verboten during a pandemic. Places for religious gatherings are suffering the same scrutiny. Though, perhaps, religious people are used to seeing empty pews for some time now. 

In our social distancing during the COVID19 pandemic we are properly encouraged to inform ourselves of the risks and take the necessary precautions. Best practices in worship and community life together are emphasized especially for the most vulnerable to this disease.

People who like to meditate are generally drawn to spaces and places with others that embody some ‘distance’ and detachment. We close our eyes. We refrain from touching each other. We repeat the mantra not as a voiced, liturgical, chant but interiorly, individually. We who meditate and pray in silence and stillness are practiced somewhat in the art of non-interaction in contrast to the dominant extroversion of our culture. We say little and keep our distance as we sit in silence and stillness together.

Even in our solitude, however, we are reminded in the tradition of John Main not to neglect the coming together in faith even as we pray in silence. Yes, the twice daily meditation times to which we aspire belong normally to our private, individual work. Yet, the importance of the regular meditation group builds the community of love. 

We are not meant to be alone on this journey. In meeting with others we resist allowing our fear to overwhelm us. We trust in ‘God with us’ and in the revelation of God in Christ who speaks often in the Gospels the words of promise: ‘Do not be afraid’. We are called, on the contemplative path, to reassure others in the same promise. (See pastoral letter from bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, link below)

During this time of social distancing we pray with all who are affected by this disease. God be with those who grieve, are ill, isolated and afraid, and the many people involved in medical and emergency care.

This may also be a good time to try an online meditation group. On the front page of the wccm.org website click on ‘Online Meditation’ to find a group suited for you. The first time I participated with an online group it felt strange to see on my computer screen the faces of several meditators praying in silence with me. It took some time and patience for me to adjust.

On the one hand, I was physically by myself. But I was not alone. I was still virtually connected with others far away from me. Talk about social distance. Yet, accountability and responsibility to each other are still felt values in the online meditation experience. There may times in our lives when a virtual group is the best option for remaining connected.

In this time of social distancing, I pray in the love of Christ Jesus who overcame the boundaries of fear and social stigma. I pray in the love of Christ who reached out to touch and heal the blind man, the leper, the diseased, and who placed himself, even to death on a cross, in the public sphere. I pray in the love of Christ whose life and love extends to our times and public places, into our hearts and into our very own relationships and communities.

The Peace of Christ be with you all,

Martin

canadacoordinator@wccm.org

Toward Discovering the True Self

The true self, as Thomas Merton described, is like a deer. It doesn’t really want to be seen, noticed. It is somewhat elusive. We cannot easily identify and claim it as we would a car, computer or fashion. In other words, it cannot be objectified.

The message of the Gospel of Jesus, according to Luke, is that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. When Jesus begins his ministry in the synagogue proclaiming the good news, he confesses his purpose: “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43).

So, where is this kingdom?

English translations will render the original Greek concerning where the kingdom of God resides, in 17:21, “among you” or “within you”. Jesus says about the kingdom — you cannot say to it, “It is over there, or over here.” The kingdom of heaven, our true identity — who we are — is only discovered deep within us.

When I catch myself concentrating on something, am I really concentrating? When I say I am humble, am I exercising humility? Saint Benedict said that when a monk knows he is praying, he isn’t really praying.

Self-consiousness is the bain of the contemplative life. Self-consciousness is a sure sign that we are not being our true selves in whatever we are and do: when we worry how we appear before others; when we try to please others; when we speak and are thinking not feeling into the moment; when we show off who we think we are to others – we are likely further away from our true selves, our place in the kingdom of God.

Personal liberation cannot even be the goal of the true self. Being free cannot stand as the ultimate end-game in our devotion and spiritual practice. If you engage in Christian Meditation, for example, because you want to experience personal freedom in who you are, be careful. Because Christian Meditation is not a self-help program whose ultimate goal is the self, self-fulfilment, self-realization, self-glorification.

The goal of Christian Meditation is counter-intuitive and paradoxical: Poverty. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus opens his sermon on the beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel (5:3), echoing Luke’s version in 6:20. And here’s the trick: If poverty is the goal, then the liberation of our true selves is often a consequential benefit. We need to work towards poverty of self; then the paradox: We will discover our true selves when we lose our self-conceived, self-created identity.

Imagine the shape and form of a typical hour glass. What is important here is not the function of the time piece; that is, merely keeping time as the grains of sand funnel through the narrow centre and spill out into the bottom of the glass in chronological time. What is important to hold as a guiding image of the hour glass are both the direction and the form in describing the process of Christian Meditation.

The direction is downward, signifying the call to go deeper into prayer, deeper – initially – into the self (in the top half of the glass) toward the centre (the focal, still point) and finally farther downward into the broad space beyond the centre. The form leads us – beginning with gathering all that we are: our personal, unique, individual expressions of character and activity, passions and occupations, needs and strengths, our ego compulsions, our fear, our anxiety, our shame and guilt, our anger; in other words, what is visible and easily apparent in our identities, on the surface, so to speak.

Then, into the focal, impoverished centre point: in silence and stillness into the singular prayer of Jesus — the silent and still hub at the centre of the prayer wheel. It is here where we discover the starting and end point of all that we are in the poverty of prayer, in our own personal poverty, in stripping away all our ego compulsions and repeating, concentratively a simple word, mantra, or prayer phrase. The important spiritual practice here can be summarized in the art of “letting go”, releasing, simplifying, surrendering all that we have and are. Each time we meditate we experience this process.

The journey is toward the centre, which is not completely the self, because it leads beyond the self to engage the world in a renewed way. The aim of all prayer is the poverty of the self at the centre, where all we find is the human conciousness of Jesus praying to Abba. This is our soul, the quiet, still centre of our being, that leads us into communion with God, into our true self.

At the National Conference of the Canadian Christian Meditation Community, held in Ottawa in June 2011, Rev. Glenda Meakin was asked a question dealing with our soul. I am told she responded by saying (I am paraphrasing): “The soul is that part of me that nothing can touch. It is so of God it cannot be taken away from me. My centre. My true self is coming in touch with the way God created us. When we meditate we learn who we really are.”

Here, we participate in the kingdom of God — our true selves — and then engage the world to “…proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also.”