“Mindfulness,” originally a Buddhist concept, has of late become popular. But I think just about everybody has it wrong. Buddhist authorities it has to do primarily with engaging the memory. Yet everybody in the West thinks it has to do with emptying your mind of thoughts and concentrating on your breathing. So it is described in a text I am currently teaching.
Some Buddhist source or sources no doubt said as much. But this is probably a joke, of the sort Buddhism loves: a koan. It is intrinsically impossible to empty the mind of thoughts. If one could, the result would self-evidently not be “mindfulness.” And it is hard to see great spiritual progress in concentrating on a process that, left to itself, is spontaneous.
Yet real mindfulness is important, in Christianity as much as Buddhism. Real mindfulness is learning to notice little tears in the matrix of shared delusions in which we usually live; little discrepancies that suggest something more is going on. The prime example of a truly mindful individual would be Sherlock Holmes.
Last Sunday’s gospel offers an example. The disciples ask Jesus how to pray. He responds with the Lord's Prayer. But also with something strange that nobody seems to notice. See if you spot it.
Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he had finished,
one of his disciples said to him,
"Lord, teach us to pray just as John taught his disciples."
He said to them, "When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread
and forgive us our sins
for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us,
and do not subject us to the final test."
And he said to them, "Suppose one of you has a friend
to whom he goes at midnight and says,
'Friend, lend me three loaves of bread,
for a friend of mine has arrived at my house from a journey
and I have nothing to offer him,'
and he says in reply from within,
'Do not bother me; the door has already been locked
and my children and I are already in bed.
I cannot get up to give you anything.'
I tell you,
if he does not get up to give the visitor the loaves
because of their friendship,
he will get up to give him whatever he needs
because of his persistence.
"And I tell you, ask and you will receive;
seek and you will find;
knock and the door will be opened to you.
For everyone who asks, receives;
and the one who seeks, finds;
and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
What father among you would hand his son a snake
when he asks for a fish?
Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg?
If you then, who are wicked,
know how to give good gifts to your children,
how much more will the Father in heaven
give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?"
Did you get that?
Jesus compares God to a lukewarm friend who is too busy and too tired to answer an urgent appeal. And he suggests irritating Him to get what you want.
It is funny as Hell, and nobody seems to notice. Simply because it does not fit preconceptions.
True mindfulness notices such things.
It is not a flattering portrait of God. It does not suggest a God who is Love. God, omnipotent, cannot be too busy or too tired to answer the door. And because he is busy with his children? Who are his children? Isn’t that us?
But perhaps this is to trigger the realization: isn’t it absurd to ask God for stuff in the first place? As Jesus points out elsewhere, God, all-knowing and all-loving, necessarily knows our needs, and will always give us whatever is best for us.
So despite the apparent literal sense of the Our Father, prayer is not about petitioning God. That would be absurd, like seeing God in the grumpy and tired acquaintance we have disturbed in his bed.
The point of prayer is to develop a personal relationship with God. As William Blake observed, man cannot really comprehend anything greater than a perfect human person. This, therefore, is how we must understand God. God is not a coin machine: insert your prayer, and out pops what you want. That would not be a Supreme Being, but a being less than ourselves.
This is a poignant response to those—and there are many—who maintain that they cannot believe in God, because at one time or another, feeling in desperate need, they prayed for something, and they did not get it. The heavens were silent.
In addressing God as “Father,” and using the familiar, childlike term, “Abba,” Jesus more broadly compares our relationship with God to that of a child to a parent. Yes, if a child asks their father for a fish, they will not be given a snake. On the other hand, they may not be given a fish. Perhaps instead they will be told to eat their vegetables.
We are children, and God is our true parent, He knows better than we what is good for us. He may give us a special treat at times to show his love, but we must not expect or demand this. A good parent does not spoil his child.
Jesus promises that, if we persist in prayer, we “will receive.” But notice that Jesus does not say we will get what we pray for; we will get “the Holy Spirit.”
And that is the point of prayer. If we persist in it daily, as the words of the Lord’s Prayer imply, we become no longer an occasional friend who knocks loudly on the door in time of need, but one of the true children in the inner rooms.