Sunday, May 24, 2009

Dwelling on grace

I was reading about how meditation can change people's brains. There's some evidence that people who spend lots of time meditating, like Buddhist monks, have brains that actually function differently from those of non-meditating people. Particular parts of the brain grow far more active. I do believe that focusing on something makes it grow bigger in your life - I've seen myself dwell on small problems until they become medium or large problems. But I love the idea that you can actually change how your brain works by practice.

My attempts at meditation have not been very satisfying. I fall asleep, make lists, or get up and do something else. Most Sunday mornings in silent Quaker meeting for worship I start by trying to focus my mind, but I don't last more than a few minutes. The only meditation technique I ever learned was counting breaths until you reach ten and then starting over. I often do this for part of meeting, but I've never experienced anything that made me want to keep doing it. I don't feel refreshed or relaxed.

So today in meeting I tried something different. At Pendle Hill I was introduced to centering prayer, which is focusing on a single holy word and letting all other thoughts go. The method had more or less existed for a long time, but was popularized in the 1970s by Catholic monks who wanted a way to draw in people familiar with Eastern religion. I picked the word "grace".

People talked about grace a lot at Pendle Hill. I remember a woman standing up in meeting and saying with wonder in her voice, "I was thinking about oil spills. And then I thought, what about a grace spill? A spill of grace?" I imagined it flowing and pooling over land and water, coating animal and people like petroleum on seagulls. I think it was the most potent thing I ever heard in meeting. But I realized I didn't have a solid definition of the word.

Christianity defines grace basically as "Gifts from God that we don't deserve." I don't believe in God, but I do see lots of undeserved gifts flowing around, pooling and spilling.

I see grace in my mother-in-law all the time. I try to do chores before she gets to them, but I keep finding some way she's cheerfully done something for me - my laundry hung up, the crumbs I left on the counter wiped up. I tried to talk her out of it, feeling I was accumulating debt to her. But she's not keeping track.

Actually, grace seems a main requirement of parenting. When I see people dealing patiently with their fussy children or surly teenagers, I'm impressed with what they're able to give when they don't seem to be receiving much.

And Jeff's grace pools around me every day. He's steady when I'm fragile, generous when I'm needy, loving when I'm prickly.

I'm not sure if what I was doing in meeting was what the monks had in mind, or if it was reshaping my brain. But I hope that by dwelling on grace, it will come to dwell more in me.

No comments: