Today’s so-called progress tends to come in the form of new answers to very old questions. It also seems humanity sometimes seeks change for the sake of change, forsaking along the way the most zealously guarded treasures of its forefathers. That same humanity later makes inadequate attempts at rediscovering its lost treasures by giving them different forms, names or connotations, thus unnecessarily obscuring and even obstructing their true purpose and full value.
A good example is the growing popularity of the practice of mindfulness. Even in this postmodern world people have an urgent need to tend to their spirit. But in a world which rejects the idea of God or organized religion, the spirit’s nurturing must necessarily be reduced to a caricature of what was once an effective program for fulfillment, joy and real peace on Earth: the Christian life.
Today people describe mindfulness as the practice of paying attention to the present moment. It is the art of being self-aware, guided by meditation practices that pay close attention to one’s thoughts and emotions. Mindfulness is part of the New Age family and follows a long line of practices that have grown and diminished in popularity at different times over the past decades, i.e., yoga, reiki, etc.
Today’s mindfulness enthusiasts attempt to reduce their levels of stress, increase focus and/or regulate their emotions, empathy or resilience. All of these are noble aspirations, agreed. But through the centuries – at least in the western world – we had already advanced far in this area through the Christian practices of prayer, examination of conscience, and mortification. That’s right, mortification.
You see our spiritual forefathers, those who lived in that land called Christendom, knew what it meant to be self-aware. They also understood how to increase focus and better regulate their own emotions. Yesterday’s Christians knew that the key to a fulfilling life was growth in virtue. And thus, they started every day with prayer and saw each day as an opportunity to become a better version of themselves.
The first prayer in a Christian’s day was called the morning offering. It was the practice of dedicating the day and all its fruits to God. This early prayer accomplished something very important for believers – it started their day with the right mindset, a commitment to exemplary behavior. So each day started with self-awareness. The rest of the day would then be punctuated by prayer, the Angelus at midday, the Rosary, a short prayer before every meal, and several instances of meditation that Christians called contemplation. These were all opportunities for self-awareness. This routine provided Christians a reminder of who they were in relationship to their Creator. It also reminded them of everything they had to be grateful for, and of their own gifts and shortcomings in character.
The Christians of long ago would then end each day with something called an examination of conscience. This was nothing more than the daily habit of going through a mental list, typically at night. An examination of conscience would cover each aspect of one’s life and focused particularly on areas of weakness, areas where further growth in virtue was necessary. An examination of conscience would be followed by an act of contrition, in which Christians would ask for forgiveness for the wrongdoings of the day, and for strength with a renewed commitment to do better the next day.
A daily examination of conscience was further strengthened by the practice of going to confession and regular spiritual direction. The inhabitants of Christendom did not need to write big fat checks to a personal coach or a therapist to fix their lives – they simply sought the guidance of a priest. A monthly or sometimes weekly visit to a priest allowed Christians to relieve themselves of the heavy weight their worst mistakes had placed on their shoulders. They called this Reconciliation. In addition, Christians would seek advice from the priest for further growth in virtue. The priests would draw inspiration and examples from Scripture or the lives of the saints. And all this helped believers be more aware of who they were, and what they were called to be. They referred to it as holiness.
But one of the most effective tools Christians used so they could live in the present moment and be more aware of their thoughts and emotions was the practice of mortification. Mortification borrowed heavily from the life of the Founder of Christianity and provided a path for growth in virtue by drawing from ordinary pain and suffering. Perhaps the most mystical aspect of Christianity and the most misunderstood, the practice of mortification capitalized on the reality of human pain and turned it around by transforming suffering into something of transcendental value.
The Founder of Christianity had already shown Christians that the glory of His Resurrection came only after the pain of His Crucifixion. And so, the Christians of long ago took those ordinary occasions of anger, sadness and frustration – inescapable aspects of the human experience – and offered them up as sacrifice. They learned to embrace suffering with patience and meekness, even joy. Christians realized that every time they responded this way to their daily struggles, they became stronger and more virtuous. In time, they learned to habitually seek out small acts of sacrifice that they could offer up in order to continue their growth in virtue, specially in the areas of self-control, courage, prudence, and justice. Our spiritual forefathers did not need mindfulness. They had something better, they had God.
As I continue to watch the postmodern world try to reinvent the wheel in different shapes, such as with this trend of mindfulness, I take comfort in knowing that a remnant of Christendom still lives today and is still faithful to the wisdom of its forefathers. They know the wheel is round and have no need to reinvent it. Most importantly, they know who they are, children of God, and what they were made for, Heaven, so they seek no shortcuts. True to the hope of their founder, today’s Christians rejoice in the opportunity to once again share with the world the truth, the wisdom and the joy of their Catholic faith, just as it was entrusted to twelve of them 2000 years ago by a man called Jesus Christ.
I hope you won’t mind if I ask you to share this commentary with others. And please tell me, how do you tend to your spirit? Write your comments below…