The Sleeping Lady, still adorned with snow in August, lay against a shockingly clear blue sky overlooking the high desert valley below. Aspens quivered in the gentle breeze carrying smells of fragrant sage, broom and rabbit brush. But I nearly missed all of this.
I was so worried about several looming deadlines that I hadn’t looked up from my computer and out the window. When I caught sight of the stunning morning, I wondered how often I failed to see the beauty of God’s creation or hear the whisper of the Holy Spirit simply because I was so busy fretting about the future or agonizing over the past. It’s still summer! God is good! How we miss out when we blind ourselves to the glory of the present moment!
In fact, scientific research now shows that we can reduce stress, improve our mood, and become more attentive when we learn to attend to the present moment.
A report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that a certain form of mindfulness meditation can improve attention and decrease anxiety, fatigue, anger, and depression. Dr. Michael Posner (Professor Emeritus at the University of Oregon and Adjunct Professor at the Weill Medical College in New York) and other researchers observed strong behavioral changes—in mood, attentiveness, and stress reduction– after only five days of training for a half hour each day. Plus, brain scans showed actual changes in the white matter, which is significant for self-regulation.
Eastern style meditation often requires focusing on breathing, a single image or a word. The researchers in this particular study used a Chinese method of mindfulness training that enabled the participant to remain focused totally on the present moment.
It is interesting that we reduce stress, improve our mood, and become more attentive when we focus on the present moment. But it’s true. Just this morning when I was feeling stressed about the future deadlines, I failed to appreciate the present moment—a moment in which God’s presence was revealed. Worrying about the future (or ruminating over an incident from the past) creates tension, anxiety, and even a sort of blindness to what is around us.
Jesus knows how we are prone to anxiety and stress and so he tells us, “Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day” (Matthew 6:34).
Not only did meditation help combat depression (brooding over negative thoughts only increases feelings of sadness), it also help prevent overeating. Even more fascinating is the research from Virginia Tech’s marriage and family therapy program with high conflict couples. When these couples meditated (whether together or separately) for just 10 minutes at a time, they began arguing less. Being present to your loved one (rather than harboring past resentments or wishing he or she were somebody else) increases your empathy and love.
Many years prior, in the mid-1600s, Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, a humble Carmelite brother and monastery cook, discovered the healing power of the present moment. Brother Lawrence had been plagued by negative thoughts and severe melancholy and for many years was convinced that he would suffer final damnation. But he suddenly realized that, whether he were ultimately saved or damned, he could do his best to love God right now. His depression lifted and he never again suffered from scruples or negativity. Brother Lawrence called this the practice of the presence of God.
Practicing the presence of God “is to take delight in and become accustomed to his divine company, speaking humbly and conversing living with him all the time, at every moment…” writes Brother Lawrence. Dwelling in the presence of God is central to Christian prayer.
Unlike Eastern forms of meditation, Christian prayer is not an effort of concentration on breathing or focusing on a word or image, or emptying of the mind. Prayer (whether vocal, meditative or contemplative) is communicating with Someone. Christian prayer tries above all to meditate on the mysteries of Christ, seeking to know and love Him. But it should even go further, the Catechism tells us, to union with him (#2708).
Christian prayer is more than reciting rote prayers; it is a quest, a sharing between friends, an attitude of the heart that seeks the beloved: “I sought him whom my soul loves; sought him, but found him not; I called him, but he gave no answer. I will rise now and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares; I will seek him whom my soul loves” (Song of Songs 3:1-3). And it is a gift. Unlike the Eastern method of meditation, beneficial as it is, prayer that seeks union with God is a gift, not something we can achieve through our own effort alone.
“We live as we pray” the Catechism tells us. If we do not pray, then perhaps we do not truly live. Just as I nearly missed the glory of the sun rising over the mountains into a cloudless blue sky, so too, one who doesn’t pray may miss the glory of God’s presence in the present moment.
Though the effects are surely greater attention and an improvement in mood (as Brother Lawrence found) Christian prayer can also be a battle. The image of Jacob wrestling all night with the angelic visitor to attain a blessing (Genesis 32: 24 ff) reminds us of our need to persevere on our faith journey. We fight against our temptations, distractions, discouragement, and even sometimes our own lack of faith. Sometimes there is nothing but the Spirit who groans within us: “for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).
Saint Paul tells us to pray constantly (1 Thessalonians 5:17). “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances.” Notice the connection between praying, being thankful, and joy! Not only is prayer the life of our soul, but also it makes our daily lives rich and vibrant with God’s love and peace and joy in the present moment.