My Mind Wanders: Can I Stop It?

Instant messageI remember a few years back when “Instant Messaging” was the rage seeing an auto-response posted when someone was away from their computer and an I M came in which read: “My mind has wandered and hasn’t come back yet.”

Wandering minds are a common plague for church goers – if measured by the numbers of people who mention it in confession.  However, it is not a new problem or one created by modern society and the rise of boredom.  We find in the desert fathers some discussion and advice on the wandering mind.  In the following story from the desert fathers, a monk asks Abba Poeman about his wandering thoughts, using the Greek word logismoi which was the common way the desert fathers referred to their thought process.

“A brother came to Abba Poeman and said to him: ‘Abba, I have many logismoi and am in danger from them.’

The elder took him out into the open air and said to him: ‘Inflate your chest and hold the winds’ (Prov. 30.4), but he said: ‘I cannot do that.’

The elder said to him: ‘If you cannot do that, neither can you prevent the logismoi from coming: your (task) is to withstand them.’ ”

(Give me a Word: The Alphabetical Saying of the Desert Fathers, p 232)

We can’t exactly stop all the thoughts that enter into our minds.  Even in church little things can remind us of other people, things we need to get done, problems which need to be dealt with.  The mind can wander away from the words of the liturgy and from the liturgical ritual.  The spiritual warfare consists not in preventing such thoughts, but in how we deal with them – whether we let them lead us, or we learn to corral them and return to the important spiritual work at hand.  So if you find your mind wandering during the liturgy, know this is the experience of even saints and seasoned monks.  You are in good company – now fight the good fight and return to the community’s spiritual warfare at hand.

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Reflecting on America

SchmemannSometimes emigres to a country see things about their new homeland that those born in the country cannot see.  Fr. Alexander Schmemann immigrated to America and found many things he loved about the USA.  He also could be insightfully critical about our culture.  In his journals he often reflected on America.  Here is one thought he penned:

“After so many hours spent watching television, I am quite impressed by this system that purges politics of that which would make it evil: hatred! This is the American miracle, whereas America’s lie, its original sin, is in its cult of riches and its denial of poverty. More precisely: happiness without wealth is impossible; happiness is identified with success. Thus, whatever is rhetorically said, in reality America does not respect the poor man, for his existence is shameful, fearful, like a secret disease. The very first basic myth, therefore, is the faith that each poor man can attain riches, ‘make himself rich.’ Now that this myth has collapsed, another myth has replaced the first: that society must make the poor wealthy, must provide for them, and the debate between Republican and Democrats consists only in how to do it.” (The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann 1973-1983, p 132)

At least in Fr. Alexander’s eyes at that time, he somehow imagined American politics were free of hatred.  American politicians could bitterly disagree, but, at least in his mind, did not actively hate one another.  One has to wonder  whether he would have still held this view had he lived to our current political divide and polarity, in which hatred seems prevalent and malevolent in modern politics.

He, like many who come from outside the U.S., also do not always see the great divide between America’s right and left.  As he writes above, Fr. Alexander saw both Democrats and Republicans accepting the same basic premises.  The goals of the two parties are the same, their difference is not in the goals but only in how to achieve the goals.  Don’t know if he would have held that same view had he lived until today.  And despite how different the two parties might portray themselves to Americans, outside the U.S. many still do not see any real changes taking place in U.S. policy no matter which party comes to power.

The American mythology as Schmemann saw it was that everyone can lift themselves out of poverty into prosperity if they try hard enough.  He felt that myth was disproved and so a new thinking emerged that if people can’t lift themselves out of poverty, then the government must help lift them up.  His contention seems to be that as Jesus said, we will always have the poor with us.   What to do about that reality, is the painful question America must face.

What I learn from this is that sometimes in the midst of political debates one can realize that the solutions being proposed to a problem may limit the real discussion needed because they frame the question in a particular way which causes people to think they must chose between the two choices put before them, when it may be true that the wrong questions are being asked which in turn misshape the approach to a solution.

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Christian Freedom: To Love and To Serve

Commenting on St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (Chapter 5), scripture scholar Elliott Maloney notes that “freedom” has a very particular meaning to it in the epistles of St. Paul because he clearly connects all notions of personal liberty with Christ’s teachings on love.

“Paul cleverly combines his explanation on the proper use of freedom with an instruction on the new principle for right action, the Spirit. He starts off with a positive note, ‘You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters,‘ and then wisely cautions, ‘only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence’ (5:13). The only way to be sure of your behavior is to make sure that it is oriented in love for the good of others. Two points are made here: righteous living always serves, and acting justly is always done not for the sake of being ‘right,’ but out of authentic love. Those who continue to gratify the flesh, that is, those who look to their own advancement (as if there were nothing else to guarantee their own survival), will in fact perish. They ‘will not inherit the kingdom of God’ (5:21), since they do not live as its heirs. Paul contrasts life in the flesh to the fruit of the Spirit (5:22-23), the various facets of behaving with the good of the community in mind.”   (Saint Paul, Kindle Loc. 3006-3012)

God gifts us with free will, and we are indeed free to act as we wish.  St. Paul’s teaching is that to use the gift of free will merely to satisfy our personal physical desires is in fact to enslave ourselves to desire.  What we are gifted by God for is to love one another.  Freedom is a gift given to us to enable to love and serve others.  Self indulgence is something we can do with our freedom, but in the end we will become slaves to selfishness and sin.  Whereas, God has gifted us to aspire for the divine life of love.

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Coloring My World

Since my diagnosis with Stage 3 lung cancer and the lung resection (lobectomy), I’ve found myself slowing down in many areas of life.  Sometimes just feeling tired, or having a hard time concentrating.  I’ve been an avid reader all my life, but I find reading more than a few pages tires me and I can’t read for hours.  I don’t have the energy to go on photo safaris as I’ve done in recent years.  So I took up a new hobby – coloring.

It apparently is a very popular creative hobby and fad these days.   In this blog are a few of the pages I’ve colored.  I have no training in art whatsoever, so I have to experiment a bit on any one page as I know nothing about coloring, shading, blending.   I’ve found the hobby to be every bit as relaxing as it is claimed to be.

There are many adult coloring books available to choose from.  Two that I have are COLOR ME CALM: A ZEN COLORING BOOK   and  SECRET GARDEN.

Each of the books that I own have a very different feel to them – so have detailed pictures to color, some are larger, landscape type pictures, some are mandalas.

I first heard about these adult coloring books on NPR a few months ago, and bought one.  I had plenty of old color pencils lying around from when my 4 offspring were children.  It happens that simultaneously one of my sons heard about this and bought me another coloring book and some color pencils.

You can find photos of other pages I have colored on my Flickr page at Coloring.

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On Track Again

After consulting with my oncologist on Monday evening, I spoke with a few family members and friends about what the options were for my cancer treatment.  We all agreed the best path open to me at the moment was to begin standard chemotherapy.  So on Monday, July 6, I will enter a local cancer center to begin that treatment program.  I will undergo four rounds of treatment, each of which involves three weeks.

There was the option to do nothing, but Americans aren’t much for that option.  No one I spoke with liked the nothing option.  The word “nothing”, by the way, occurs 362 in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible that has the books of the Septuagint as part of the Old Testament.

“It’s better than nothing,”  one cliche says advocating that something is always better than nothing.  But one of my old seminary professors used to say in response to that cliche – “But that is the only thing it is better than.”

There is of course reason to try something.   The medical folk think it offers reasonable hope for an improved outcome.  Nothing, of course, is guaranteed in life.

So, the track is laid down and it is the one I will follow.

I was asked what my attitude was in approaching chemotherapy.

I think it is the same one with which I approach Communion –

In the fear of God,

with faith and

with love.

The Church is in the business of healing sinners, not condemning them.  The roots of the medical industry are in that same goal – healing the sick, not judging them.  So it seems to me.

God is the healer of souls and bodies.  His power and love can come to us through medicine – whether for the soul or the body.  Those who are well have no need of a physician, but I am not well, so need both healing and the Healer.   I need Christ to be present at Communion and at chemotherapy.

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Communion and Community

“Bill interjected. ‘I don’t go to church to relate with others, I go to receive the sacrament. Receiving Christ feeds my prayer life, makes me feel closer to him. It helps me to keep up my devotions throughout the week.’

‘I think part of the reason you say this, Bill, is that you’re missing a crucial dimension of what the Eucharist is about,’ Father answered. ‘The liturgy is not a “me and Jesus” phenomenon. The Eucharist ushers in the kingdom of God and makes us its citizens. Here we willingly enter into a relationship with God and with each other through the command of Christ and his mediation. This transcends and supersedes every separation and division – a challenge for us all, for Christ says, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Isn’t is remarkable that we become most truly who we are by giving ourselves entirely to others! That’s the only way we can become most fully ourselves. The sacraments feed our union and make it visible in the assembly where we partake of them. Many of us still don’t understand that this worship is more than just “me and Jesus”; after all, no one can “muster up” the eucharist alone; it’s interpersonal, “we together” who are shown how expansive the mystery of Christ is. Again, it’s beyond anything we could achieve alone.’” (The Monks of New Skete, In the Spirit of Happiness, pp 222-223)

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St. Paul the Apostle and the Gospel

As our parish community celebrates its heavenly Patron, St. Paul the Apostle, here are two quotes with some thoughts about St. Paul.   First biblical scholar Peter Ellis notes that St. Paul’s faith deepened with experience.  The original Twelve Apostles didn’t like Jesus discussing his own death, but wanted to sit at His right hand in His triumph.  They learned that Christ’s death and triumph were the same event, and they were called to share in it!  So too St. Paul had his own lesson about this to learn.

“Paul’s close brush with death at Ephesus, reflected in Phil. 1:12-26 and 2 Cor. 1:8-11, had a double effect on him: it made him realize that he might not be alive for the Parousia and that following Christ meant more than sharing in his victory – it also means sharing in his sufferings and death. This latter realization was the more significant. It led Paul to a more profound conception of Christian existence and its relationship to the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. Growth in Christ meant sharing in Christ’s sufferings.” (Seven Pauline Letters, p 7)

As St. Paul himself wrote about this in Romans 6:3-11:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Scripture scholar N.T. Wright points out that St. Paul is consistent in all his thinking about the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

“According to Paul’s view of creation, the one God was responsible for the whole world and would one day put it to rights. According to his covenant theology, this God would rescue his people from pagan oppression. His messianic theology hailed Jesus as King, Lord and Savior, the one at whose name every knee would bow. His apocalyptic theology saw God unveiling his own saving justice in the death and resurrection of the Messiah. At every point, therefore, we should expect what we in fact find: that, for Paul, Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not.” (Paul, p 69)

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