I'm finally getting around to writing out part 3 of what I shared at the Pacific Northwest Quaker Women's Theology Conference in June! I did that part more extemporaneously so I didn't have it written out. See these links for my reflections on the conference, part 1 and part 2 of what I shared (or didn't have time to share but wanted to!) during a plenary session.
In parts 1 and 2 of this talk I focused mainly on grace: what grace is, what it looks like in our everyday lives (particularly mine) and what we can learn about grace from the way it is used in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. To conclude the discussion I wanted to draw in the idea of contemplating grace. What does it mean to contemplate grace? Why would we want to do so? How do we contemplate grace in our particular Quaker setting(s)? What might the effects be if we contemplate grace?
As Friends, we're part of the contemplative, mystical tradition. We believe that when we spend time intentionally in contemplation, we come into direct contact with God/the Divine/Something Other. When we do this together, something powerful can happen to us internally that moves us to external action. This is basically what we talked about when we discussed the meaning of the Hebrew term hesed. We're so filled with joy at the unmerited grace we receive that it overflows into loving, just action in the world. Hopefully this occurs in our times of individual contemplation as well as corporate contemplation, as we "live in the Life and Power that takes away the occasion for all wars."We're comfortable with the idea of contemplation, but we don't generally talk much about "grace," or spend much time intentionally contemplating grace in our meetings for worship. We do sometimes talk about "holding others in the Light," which perhaps is a way of contemplating grace: we're entrusting our loved ones (or enemies) to the God of grace, desiring for God's grace to infuse others and heal them physically, spiritually, emotionally and in all other ways.
There's a really interesting body of research emerging from several different fronts on "the power of positive thinking," as we might put it in layman's terms, or mindfulness meditation, compassion or loving-kindness meditation, or the lack of these. Many researchers have studied the effects of personal meditation on our brains and behavior and on the world around us from plants to water to ecosystems. There are also studies on the lack of silence and its effects on the planet, ecosystems, plants and human behavior, and the effect of thinking negative and/or violent thoughts toward water.
My favorite study is by Masuro Emoto on frozen water crystals. Now, Masuro Emoto is called a "doctor," but I'm not sure what he's a doctor in, and I'm pretty sure it's not in a scientific field. Some are skeptical of his research methods. That being said, he did some really interesting work. He took macro photos of frozen water crystals from various locations to show the differences between water from different places and different conditions (polluted or spring water). Then he took water from the same source and had different music playing as it slowly froze. Then he had water from the same source frozen with people thinking different thoughts at it, ranging from, "Love" to "Thank you" to "I want to kill you." The results he presented were amazing (see examples here or go to this website). He also took samples of water from a body of water before and after some Buddhist monks prayed over it, and found that the polluted form had reorganized into a more beautiful and symmetrical form after the prayer. Now, remember that our bodies are between 50-70% water, and the Earth as a whole is over 70% water. So when we "hold each other in the Light," when we spend time in contemplation thinking love and wholeness toward one another, we might actually be changing the physical make-up of the water molecules (and probably other molecules) in their body.
There's also a lot of fascinating research on mindfulness meditation. You've probably heard about research on the brain images (fMRIs) of monks as they're meditating (here's a link to a BBC article). This research shows that the brain of a person who practices meditation reorganizes itself in helpful ways that focus attention, and focus it in positive ways. Even normal people who practice meditation on a smaller scale are able to be more compassionate, loving, optimistic, etc. than control groups. This helped people with their relationships with significant others and children. It seems that children whose parents practice compassion meditation actually start to have better behavior--even when the children are not themselves involved in meditating! Part of this is, apparently, that the parents are treating them better and are less stressed and so forth, and perhaps part of it is the parents' loving-kindness toward the child actually changing the way the children function physically or chemically. (Check out this website from UCLA, the Mindful Awareness Research Center, to read up on research and to find mindfulness meditation resources.)
So I wonder if the act of contemplation, in the spiritual sense, actually makes us more able to enact grace in the world? It allows us to give ourselves grace, or to accept grace from God. It also allows us to give grace to others--to our children and significant others, and to wish grace on the rest of the world in a way that actually restores balance. I wonder if God has truly given us that power in this interconnected world in which we live? Perhaps we can't singly be the ones to change the entire world for good, but we can be one spark of Light emanating wave upon wave of Grace into the world around us as we contemplate the goodness of the Grace we're receiving. In this way we enact hesed, and we're able to give freely of the grace we've received because of the joy of the experience of oneness and centeredness that we experience when we contemplate Grace itself.
Perhaps this is the secret of our witness as Friends. I hope Friends of all stripes will remained focused on both contemplation and grace, taking the time and space to contemplate and allowing ourselves the joy and freedom that comes from receiving and giving grace to those (animate and inanimate) around us.