Peace, Harmony, Centeredness
By Charles Rush
April 2, 2000
John 20: 19-23 and Luke 19: 41-42
wonder if it is not getting harder to be centered in our fast
paced world. I tried to get hold of one of my fraternity brothers this
week to ask him about a simple tax question. I missed him in New York.
He picked up the message on the plane, called me back left a voice
message with his number in London. When I called, he was in a meeting,
so I left a message to check his e-mail because I would write down the
question. He called me back from Frankfurt, left a message that said
he had a question before he could answer my e-mail, and it would be too
long to type, and he left his cell number for when he would be back in
the States the next day. I called in the afternoon and he was
whispering in the phone, apparently his wife was giving him the look
across the room for being slightly late and bringing a cell phone into
his daughter's ballet recital- you know the look.
We have created for ourselves this world where we are continually
connected and there is almost a status that comes from being
necessary. Remember the headlines from New Year's Eve that pronounced
the phenomenon of top executives who almost talked as though it was
prestigious to be on-call or available for the roll over?
Bell Atlantic called me last year to offer a cell phone feature.
The salesman was giddy with excitement. "Reverend, you can turn this
puppy on so that the phone rings at the church and it forwards to your
cell phone. Get this, you could be walking down the 12
fairway, your parishioner's, talking to Mrs. Jones about her
problems, and your parishioner's will think you are at your desk."
Believe me, Mrs. Jones doesn't want to hear the language I lapse into
after my golf shots. Furthermore, I don't want to be available 24-7.
I love the sanctuary of the golf course.
What is happening all around us is we are staying connected. Cell
phones, e-mail, after-hours trading, maybe 24 hour trading in the not
so distant future... Add to that the fact that the weekend is as full
as any other day, just with different activities.
In our cultural background, images are speeding up too. I think of
MTV- the way that it moves- boom, boom, boom. News is more and more
about a quick visceral image, concise summary, on to the next thing.
American movies move faster and faster. You watch a European film,
they are almost quaint, often sleep inducing, they seem so slow. The
Internet images, sharper, faster, more angular.
It is a speeded up world and it stays speeded up most of the time.
I don't know about you, but I can see its affects personally. I have a
harder and harder time reading a long book. I just can't keep
focused. I flip around, skim the middle, find the thesis... blah,
blah, blah... next. Who has time for those long feature articles in
The Atlantic Monthly? I'm slightly worried about my shrinking
attention span. Soon, I will be ready for the New York Post... That
will be about the right size.
I think most of us are running just to keep on the schedule we have
set for ourselves. How do you find peace in such a world? How do you
I got to thinking about that this week and how different our path
is from the spiritual path of meditation that is taught in Buddhism.
The Buddha taught us that the way of peace was the cessation of
desire. He said that through our senses and our mind, our egos make
contact with the world. With that contact comes desire (tanha) or
craving. This desire means that we cling to existence, throughout our
lives, despite the fact that all existence is merely transitory.
Because of this, we periodically are filled with sadness or suffering.
We are sorrowful at the passing of our youth, when our children leave
the home, when business colleagues make a career move, when a lover
dies or leaves us. All phases of our lives, he said, are filled with
an incompleteness. Indeed, even at the end of our lives, most of us
simply quit rather than really conclude. Incompleteness and suffering
attend us right up to the very end. Suffering and incompleteness, the
Buddha said, bring pain and disruption. Thus, the Third Noble
Mindfulness and Meditation are principally important in this path.
Eventually, one is able to develop sufficient concentration and
centerdness that the ephemeral and evanescent world around us no longer
defines reality for us because we have gotten in touch with that which
is eternally changeless in our inner being. When you have achieved
that state, you have reached Nibana or Enlightenment. Ironically, you
cannot desire Enlightenment because you have to be rid of all desire.
But Nibana is the break in the endless cycle of desire and suffering
that comprise our earthly existence.
So you see these statutes of the Buddha in which a little rotund
man sits impassively, almost irenic. They are meant to depict Nibana,
sculpting the figure of someone at pure peace, in the midst of
meditation, mindful or alert. And the little belly shows the fullness
that comes from overcoming desire. It was said that the Buddha ate
only enough to sustain a bird, yet he had the belly that was a symbol
of rich people in the Ancient world, because it showed they had more
than enough to eat.
On one level, there is an obvious appeal of Buddhism that arises
from their insights about meditation and mindfulness or concentration.
As a spiritual discipline this can be very profound. No question, this
is what attracted Thomas Merton, the Trappist Monk, to the Buddhist
Monks because he recognized that there were close parallels between
Catholic mystics and Buddhist monks, at least in terms of their
spiritual disciplines. I've seen some Buddhist monks with amazing
powers of concentration, some that can control their breathing and take
them into an almost trance like state that require almost no oxygen for
20 minutes. More than that is the transcendent powers of focus that
develop when you have the ability to contemplate one thing.
Personally, I have come to recognize and practice some of this in
my own life; even I will never be very good at it and am not
constitutionally disposed to it. Increasingly, I've come to see that
prayer probably ought to be principally conceived as meditation Herbert
Benson, the physician that has studied the reality of meditation for
therapy and healing (at Harvard), cites a number of double blind
studies that show that people who are prayed for heal faster, are less
likely to be ill, etcetera. One study I particularly found amusing was
the mold on agar study. They took two molds on petri dishes with the
agar. These petri dishes with agar were ubiquitous in lab when I was
growing up. They had one group that prayed for the growth of the mold
and compared it to another mold that received no prayer. The prayed
for mold grew significantly faster. I sent the article to a friend of
mine. She wrote back, "Thanks, but my mold is already growing fast
enough on its' own."
Benson's work is interesting because he surveys dozens of these
studies in a number of different contexts, working with people from a
variety of different faith traditions. One thing he concludes is that
it doesn't seem to matter much what the theological content of the
person praying on outcome. You can have a Reformed Jew, a group of
Catholics, or even God forbid, a group from Christ Church, and the
results are pretty much the same. This suggests, at least in my mind,
that prayer is probably best understood as a resident spiritual
capacity that is very much related to concentration, focus,
imagination, and transcendence.
What Benson tries to get us to do is to think of prayer as a
meditation, a focus, a blessing. He says that what happens in prayer
is that we open ourselves to being filled with the Divine Spirit. We
allow ourselves to become a conduit. We are focusing our divine energy
on a subject. So when our Tuesday night prayer group actually gets
round to praying, which we do, the actual speech of praying is very
simple. We will make a list of people or situations we need to pray
At the beginning of our session, we start to slow down our breathing to
a slow regular pattern. We are setting up the conditions so that we
can be focused entirely in the present. It is a discipline that you
get better at with practice. When you first start trying to do it,
your mind is filled with lots of distracting thoughts: anxieties from
the day, odd stuff you can't imagine why you would think about, lusts,
yearnings. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to the bombardment.
The point of breathing slowly, closing your eyes, focusing your
attention on a point past your nose, is to be able to let go of these
extraneous thoughts and let the transcendent power move through you in
a concentrated way.
We will take up these people one at a time. "For Jim, for blessing
and healing, for strength", and we will spend a couple/three minutes
focusing on Jim. I often imagine people I am praying for surrounded by
light. I can feel a connection between myself and this image, like an
energy is being released.
I do not claim to know how prayer works. But it does not surprise
me that when a group of people focus their energies together on one
person, when you release positive energy in blessing, people report
that they are better. It seems to me sensible to imagine that we have
considerably more transcendent, psychic powers than we generally make
That said, there are a couple of important ways that the Christian
teaching on peace is substantially different from Buddhism. One is the
view of the self. The Christian understanding of the resurrection of
the dead means, among other things, that there is an indissoluble
connection between the spirit and the body. That notion is also borne
out in these recent books on prayer and healing. In meditation, we are
not trying to escape from the outer world to an eternal, never-changing
internal essence that we make contact with, as Buddhism would suggest.
Instead we are focusing spiritual energy in concentration. One of the
reasons that meditation is so profoundly important is that there is
this integral connection between body and soul, between God, self, and
Secondly, Christians have never taught that the exterior world is
illusory or that it brings only suffering. Quite the opposite!
Christianity recognizes that we cannot truly attain peace inside
ourselves if the world outside us is full of injustice, poverty,
oppression, or war.
There is a wonderful line in the Psalms that looks forward to the
day when "Peace and Justice will kiss". Internal harmony requires
social harmony. It is not an either/or. It is a both/and.
There is a plaintive hope in Isaiah. The scripture says, "You will
build houses and inhabit them. You will plant vineyards and harvest
the grapes." That is a simple hope. But it is set against a long
history where very few people made it through a generation without
experiencing some devastating war or natural catastrophe that rent them
to the very core of their being.
The Roman Empire, to take one example, had a scorch and burn
policy, particularly in the later Empire. They set the tribute, or
taxes, that your town was to pay to Rome annually. If for some reason
you didn't pay it, and Rome thought that your reason was inadequate,
they sent an Army of soldiers, who burned the city to the ground,
sometimes salting all the fields so they wouldn't grow anything, raping
the women in public, torturing and killing everyone that didn't
escape. That experience leaves a searing scar on the soul. Precious
few in the Ancient World lived their entire life without some kind of
destruction wreaked on them.
Even this century, this has been the experience of a large
percentage of the world- from WWI, to Mao's Great Starvation, to the
Gulag's in Russia, the Holocaust, right on up to Rwanda and Kosovo.
Anarchy, violence, oppression have hit very nearly every generation
from the beginning of time to the present.
Jesus taught us about the Kingdom of God, recognizing that our
peace cannot be achieved until everyone finds their place and the
table, everyone is recognized as worthy and precious, and everyone is
able to actualize the divine potential they were born with. "My peace
I leave with you." Peace is a higher order reflection that cannot be
attained unless we have relative harmony and justice in society.
You is plural because Jesus left behind a community of disciples
to figure out how to make peace among themselves. It is an outward and
an inward harmony. The challenge changes for every generation. We are
blessed to live in a generation of relative peace and prosperity. Most
of our inhibitions to our own peace are of our own making. We have
created a hectic world for ourselves and we make ourselves crazy living
the life we choose to live.
My sense is that one of the immediate challenges in the quest for
peace, is going to revolve around creating a sense of Sabbath for
ourselves as a community, for ourselves as families.
There are so many possibilities for diversion, engagement,
entertainment. We are going to have be intentional creating a space
for our spiritual renewal and grounding. We are going to have to define
Sabbath rest. Some of my colleagues complain that this generation only
make room for church, one hour a week. I'm glad that we are willing to
give it a week. That is a start. From there, we will grow. It is
going to become increasingly apparent that we have to have some Sabbath
time, some time to collect ourselves together, as families, as a
spiritual community. I think my colleagues complain because they want
this to be done institutionally, through the programs of the church.
Some of it will, but some of it will also be in other settings that are
important spiritually as well- for families, for personal re-grouping.
If the Church keeps up with the changing face of society, we won't
have anything to worry about. The need for peace will become obvious
to more and more people; it will become important; it will require
discipline. Today, we offer a modest opportunity for just such an
exploration. In a moment, our children will return to be with us as we
celebrate the Eucharist together, as a family of families. It may be a
little more noisy but it is good noise. It is a blessing to be
together. And that is the point. We can only find our peace with each
other, for better for worse... Listen in the midst of us and let us
see what just might settle upon us. "My peace I give to you," said
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