Spiritual directors must be vigilant in discerning unhelpful trends in the field of spirituality. It is certainly the case that books and websites on prayer and spirituality proliferate; there is no assuaging the appetite for those seeking ‘a way to pray’ or a ‘spirituality to explore.’ But it is not every spirit that can be trusted and it is helpful to test any innovation with three tests: Is it in accord with the teaching of Jesus? Does it further the proclamation of the Kingdom of God? Does it lead to ‘koinonia’—the unique experience of communion and shared life of the church?
Of all the most recent trends, ‘mindfulness’ seems to have the most staying power. Mindfulness began as a tool of cognitive behaviour therapy approved by mental health practitioners, and is now a technique taught in day courses and retreats throughout the churches. Mindfulness is the practice of giving attention to the moment, of deliberately shedding concerns of the past and the future to cherish the present and through this attention come to a fresh and renewed appreciation of the possibilities of life. In this way the practioner of mindfulness can gradually reorder their interior life to become happily stable in who they are and where they are. This is, of course, a rather crude summary but it does explain the essence of the practice.
Transposing this into Christian prayer prompts a question: why look to the techniques of mindfulness when the whole rich and varied range of scripture teaches the same thing? The same practice but with one important difference: the Christian attends to the moment because in it the eternal love and purpose of the Father is revealed. Christianity has long taught that there are only two elements of time: now and eternity. One example that springs to mind is ‘The practice of the presence of God’ by Brother Lawrence.
Jesus is the teacher of ‘mindfulness.’ When Jesus urges us to ‘consider the lilies of the field’ he is teaching mindfulness, likewise at the end of the same chapter (Matthew 6) when he urges us ‘do not be anxious about tomorrow.’ The psalms repeat this counsel or command to be in the moment and direct the mind to God in the midst of the turmoil of the world; Psalm 46 is renowned for its verse ‘be still and know that I am God.’ The repeated teaching to ‘wait upon the Lord’ is nothing else than mindfulness. Consider (Ecclesiasticus 6): ‘Let thy mind be upon the ordinances of the Lord and meditate continually in his commandments; he shall establish thine heart and give thee wisdom at thine own desire.’
At the root of this apologia for a Christian basis for mindfulness is a nagging question. Why is so much contemporary Christian spirituality borrowing from the secular world, or even other faiths? There is a very worrying answer to this question: it is because those who sense a call and responsibility to teach and guide others in prayer have a very poor knowledge of scripture, tradition and the treasures of the faith. If that is the case, we all should be deeply concerned.