NEW YORK — “Mindfulness” is more than just an act of meditation, or something one achieves during yoga practice — according to Luigi Gioia, a Benedictine priest and academic scholar, it’s the foundation for contemplative prayer.
Last year, Gioia penned the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lenten prayer book, meant to serve as a practical guide to prayer during the Church’s annual penitential season. This year, he’s back with a follow-up, Touched by God, where he makes the case that St. Paul’s command to “pray without ceasing” is actually possible if it’s understood as a constant desire for God.
Gioia, who is a research associate at the Von Hügel Institute in Cambridge, England, spoke with Crux about his new book, now out from Bloomsbury.
Crux: You begin by reflecting on the passage from St. Paul where he says one should “pray without ceasing.” Is that really possible?
Gioia: We often say to the person we love most (a partner, a dear friend): “I think of you all the time.” This does not mean we have no other thoughts or that we are unable to pay attention to anything else (although sometimes, and for short periods of time, this might happen). It means that whenever we pause for a moment or we change activities or are not absorbed in something important, the first thing that comes to our mind is the person we love.
In the same way, praying without ceasing does not mean that we talk to God literally all the time, but that beneath all our activities and thoughts there is a constant desire for God. When we are absorbed in other activities we might not be aware of it, but as soon as we have a little pause in the midst of our activities the thought of God and our trust in him immediately comes to the surface again.
How is contemplative prayer different from the notion of “mindfulness” that seems in vogue these days?
When I was young I had to commute to school for almost two hours every day. At that time there were no mobile phones, so if I was not talking to my friends I was often admiring the countryside. Today I would spend most of that time on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or texting with friends. The landscape I travel through remains the same, but I am not aware of it unless I decide to be ‘mindful’ of it (and set my mobile phone on airplane mode for a little while!)
Mindfulness is what happens when, instead of being absorbed in our activities, we learn how to pause from our legitimate daily tasks and spend some time cultivating awareness of ourselves, of our sensations, of being alive. Contemplative prayer follows essentially the same process with the difference that what we become aware of is God’s presence and love. God is always there, but we have to learn how to become ‘mindful’ of his presence.
You use the example of reading bedtime stories to children as an analogy for learning to listen to stories from a trusted voice. What does this have to do with one’s prayer life?
Bedtime stories owe their soothing effect to the fact that those who listen to them and those who read them become somehow involved in the plot, identify with the character, and enter into another world. The stories wouldn’t work without this emotional involvement.
Something similar happens with the stories related in Scripture. They can affect us, ‘touch us,’ only insofar as we listen to them not only with our intelligence but also with our heart. What matters is not just what they say to me but especially how they make me feel. Feelings are part of the process of understanding.
Scripture, of course, is not just about feelings: it instructs us, it questions us – and yet it is also about giving us joy, peace and rekindling our desire and our love. If we find Scripture difficult it might be that we have an instrumental approach to it (for example using it to preach) but we have forgotten how to delight in it, like the author of Psalm one who says: “Happy are those who find joy in the words of God.”
It seems fair to say that you draw a lot of inspiration from the Gospel of John. Do you find him to be the most helpful of the gospel writers for embracing a prayerful disposition?
John is unique among the Gospels in that it shows Jesus engaging in long conversations with people: Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, Thomas and even his opponents. When John says that Jesus is the “word” he simply means this: in Jesus, God shows how eager he is to talk to us, how interested he is in what we have to say to him, and how patient he can be with our suspicions, our inability to trust, our constant tendency to use the divine for our own purpose.
God loves to spend time with us and is delighted when we find time to spend with him. Also, in this Gospel we see that Jesus is not afraid of letting John rest in his arms, or of being hugged by Mary Magdalene or of letting Thomas touch his wounds. When John says that God becomes ‘flesh’ I take this as meaning that he is ‘eager to be touched by us.’
What do plays like Angels in America and novels such as Stoner have anything to teach us about contemplative prayer?
The main characters of the wonderful play Angels in America by Tony Kushner are gay people who feel abandoned or rejected by God (the setting is the beginning of the AIDS epidemic). However, instead of giving up they take up the challenge and fight against God just as Jacob did in the book of Genesis (a major theme underlying this play).
This teaches us that the closeness to God we experience in prayer is not always similar to John resting in Jesus’ arms but sometimes it looks more like arm-wrestling. Prayer does not make us resigned and passive — on the contrary it makes us bold and daring.
In John Williams’ novel, Stoner, God is never mentioned; it is as if he did not exist. This novel helps us to see that even if we believe in God and pray we are just as exposed to the non-evidence of God as any other human being. Prayer does not give us any privilege other than an even greater solidarity with every other human being, especially those who have reason to feel that God is absent, cruel or a fiction.