Recently, Fr. Dennis shared with me an article that appeared in “The Tablet” in an early November issue. (“The Tablet” is a distinguished British-based Catholic weekly with a long history and an international readership. It “reports on religion current affairs, politics, social issues, literature and the arts with a special emphasis on Roman Catholicism while remaining ecumenical.” I would say that it is a bit like a European version of “Commonweal.”) The article, by Benedictine monk Laurence Freeman, is entitled “Teaching meditation to the poor is a political act. It leads to new personal dignity.” Fr. Dennis passed the “Tablet” piece along to me by way of affirmation and support for the “spirituality” (a.k.a. “life recovery”) programming which we do in connection with our Outreach feeding program…
Friar Laurence writes out of his experience as a participant in an international movement called the World Community for Christian Meditation. He describes their meditation teachers as “volunteers with family and careers” who “pour talent, time and their very selves into … contemplative renewal of Christianity and into sharing the fruits of meditation with the secular world.” Freeman acknowledges that his travel to international meetings involves its share of personal wear and tear; but he also has no hesitation in pronouncing these meetings well worth the effort. “The really transformative and inspirational part of these meetings has been the experience of seeing the marriage of the mystical and apostolic dimensions of the Gospel-centered life.”
Freeman goes on to describe in some detail the experience of a Dr. Pierre – a medical doctor and hospital director who has been much involved in treating horrific spinal cord injuries caused by the tragic earthquake in Haiti nearly two years ago. What is perhaps unique to Dr. Pierre’s experience is that he has started a meditation group with his spinal cord patients – a meditation group that has had a positive impact not only on the patients themselves, but on the entire hospital. Dr. Pierre, says Friar Laurence, has taught his patients (and their weary caregivers) “a way of inner healing, helping them to accept the new realities of their lives and to live with the hope and peace that no drug or medical technology by itself can give.”
Freeman wonders: “How can those who have neither the self-esteem nor the bare physical necessities of life be expected to see life as a spiritual journey? If you are endlessly worried about where your next meal is coming from, religion will be more magical than mystical. But when the poor discover meditation as the prayer of the heart, the white magic of religion yields to the faith-energy of the Gospel.” Friar Laurence goes on to explain that Dr. Pierre’s plans for teaching meditation are “based on an understanding of prayer as more than consolation or an escape for misery. Teaching meditation to the poor is a political act. It leads to new personal dignity, clears the mind, purifies the heart and releases wisdom and compassion.” He further speculates that “one day, perhaps, when this alchemy of contemplative prayer occurs in an individual with the right intellectual gifts and leadership skills, it will empower revolution, first in the heart and then in the body politic.”
In other words – at least as I read it – when the Gospel of Jesus Christ becomes a lived experience, it has the capacity to change lives, and even to change the world. Now here’s the point I want to make. I suspect that it is easier to lead “the poor” to such a transformative “mystical” experience than it is to lead “the rich and the comfortable.” I have never believed that Jesus was just trying to annoy the Pharisees and the other religious and political authorities when he chose to spend a lot of his limited time on Earth with tax collectors, prostitutes, fishermen, shepherds, and farmers. I tend to believe instead that he intuitively understood that he simply would not have the time it would take to persuade the “rich,” the educated, the powerful. In order to embrace a Savior, you need first to acknowledge that you need to be saved. If we look at the apparitions of Mary down the centuries, she seems to have learned this lesson from her Son; she, too, has routinely appeared to the poor – most often, to children or adolescents. When the message is urgent, Jesus and Mary don’t have the time to wear down our defenses or to deconstruct our pat “answers.”
And here is the little “secret.” The truth is, we are ALL “poor.” In a famous little pamphlet called “Poverty of Spirit,” the great German theologian Johannes Baptist Metz (a student of Rahner, referenced above) wrote: “We are all beggars. We are all creatures plagued by unending doubts and restless, unsatisfied hearts. Of all creatures, we are the poorest and the most incomplete.” We may have buried this uncomfortable truth below the level of consciousness; but our hunger to embrace Harry Potter and the “virtuous vampires” (plaster saints?) of “Twilight” speaks volumes about our need for the supernatural.
A couple of other pieces of the little “secret.” Prayer is simple, but it must be tried. No one is too dumb to learn to pray; but alas, many are too smart. Fact is, prayer and spirituality have much more to do with the heart than they do with the head. Perhaps we are suspicious because prayer seems too simple, too easy. Yet we might ask ourselves: “How is that complexity thing working out for you?”
There are people and programs in this parish to teach you – anyone – how to pray. Try it; you’ll like it. “Blessed (happy) are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:3).
©2011 Fr. Daniel M. Ruff, S.J.