Thursday, May 6, 2010

Syncretism, Style, and Substance

Over the last half-year, I've been teaching a monthly class on styles and approaches to prayer. After sputtering a bit at the beginning...folks were just too full up on church on Sunday after worship/Bible study...I moved it to mid-week on Wednesday. Since then, it's been cozy and pleasant, as I've explore some of the classic techniques of Christian prayer with some of the dear saints of my church.

We've been following an online Upper Room guide to ancient forms of prayin', and it's been generally helpful. We've done lectio divina. We've done Ignatian prayer. We've even popped into the sanctuary and used the stained glass windows as a focal point for icon-based contemplation. Yeah, John Calvin wouldn't be pleased, but hey...if contemplating Christ is wrong, I don't wanna be right. A symbol is a symbol is a symbol, be it word or image. If you worship the image and not the thing it points to, you're an idolater. If you worship the text and not the thing it points to, you're an idolater. Six of one, half dozen of the other.

Yesterday, though, we did something a teesny bit different. I loaded up my little group into my minivan and went down to the C&O Canal Towpath for some walking meditation. It's a technique I've used for years, but it's not one I learned in church. It is, instead, something I did naturally. I then discovered that it was, well, a thing Buddhists do. In particular, it's the schtick of Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn. It's a simple exercise in mindfulness and self-emptying, and particularly useful in stilling the anxieties and petty demons that can beset humankind. You don't fret about tomorrow, about things that might be. You don't anguish over the pains of yesterday. It places you squarely in the now, and at some fleeting, ephemeral moments, in the great peace that can be found in the Eternal Now of the Kingdom.

Having read up on it and practiced it over a decade or so, I find it's completely simpatico with a Christ-centered faith. It is simply a style of prayer. There are, of course, Christians who would be stressed by such a thing. Learning a prayer style? From a Buddhist? Outlandish! That's a step down the slippery slope of syncretism!

But focusing on form and technique rather than intent and purpose is the dangerous ground on which a Pharisee builds his home. If the purpose is deepening an awareness of our Maker, opening ourselves to the movement of the Holy Spirit, and finding a source of strength for our Christian journey, then it isn't to be feared. It is no more antithetical to Christ than pressing one's hands together in prayer.

I hear Buddhists do that too.