in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Monday, 20 November 2017

Book Review: Living with the Mind of Christ: Mindfulness in Christian Spirituality. Stefan Reynolds

This, the first book from Stefan Reynolds, is an accessible account of the modern mindfulness phenomenon and its relationship to the Christian mystical tradition. Stefan Reynolds is very well placed to undertake this survey having not only completed a doctorate on the Cloud of Unknowing but spent some time studying with the late Bede Griffiths OSB at his ashram in Tamil Nadu – Shantivanam. Reynolds begins his task by setting before us the biblical roots of Christian contemplation by reviewing the biblical passages pertaining to the ‘mind of Christ’ – or as he transposes it – ‘the mind(fulness) of Christ’. He is happy to go beyond the canonical Gospels to the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas to support his argument that mindfulness and attentiveness are integral to the Gospel message. From here he moves to the modern mindfulness movement reviewing its development in recent decades, especially its clinical aspects. From this he makes an appeal for a more inclusive Christianity that will embrace Christ’s maxim that he is the Way, Truth and Life for all people. From this analysis Reynolds asks the question ‘whether, alongside Buddhism and secular humanism, Christianity can also serve as a broadening and deepening context for mindfulness?’ (p.53). His answer, as demonstrated in the remainder of the book, is ‘Yes’ and for him this is found in the ‘Christian mystical tradition’. Thus, for the rest of the book we have a review of this tradition showing how the various ‘mystics’ reflect the modern concerns of mindfulness, including a host of luminaries from the Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, to the early Desert Fathers and Mothers. In reviewing this latter tradition the author translates the key term apatheia as ‘mindful attention’ which ‘establishes health in the parts of the soul that deal with anger and desire’ (p. 84). From here we move to St Augustine and his Confessions where, in Chapter 11of which, Reynolds finds ‘the samatha aspect of mindfulness’ (p.99). However sense-awareness, Reynolds stresses, remains a ‘lower capacity for the mind’ in Augustine which cannot lead to knowledge or contemplation. From Augustine we move to Eckhart and the Cloud where again Reynolds contrasts their respective approaches to contemplation with the work of contemporary mindfulness exercises.  Throughout Reynolds is keen to impress the dictum of the late John Main OSB that ‘the journey of prayer is simply to find a way to open our human consciousness to (Christ’s) human consciousness, and to become, on that way, fully conscious ourselves’ (p. 129) assisted by the use of a prayer-word or mantra as advocated by the group inspired by Main: the World Community for Christian Meditation. Despite his desire to show parallels between the various traditions: Buddhist, Christian and contemporary mindfulness, Reynolds also acknowledges the pitfalls in such syncretism by stressing that mindfulness, in many respects, fails to address what he calls ‘the deeper motivational resources’ that lie at the heart of established religions, especially when it comes to aspects of social action and having a socially-minded ethic. Here, he says is ‘where religions can give resources for the on-going journey’ whilst ‘mindfulness practice can help religions to find their contemplative centre again, to bring religion back to its senses’ (p. 173). Reynolds vision, then, is essentially optimistic, where the dynamo of mindfulness will invigorate and restore a new purpose and drive to the sometimes moribund forms of contemporary religion. Readers may disagree, but I think he presents his argument cogently and with passion. His book, well written and scholarly, will certainly appeal to anyone wanting to know more about the contemporary practice of mindfulness, its place within Buddhism and its relationship to the Christian tradition.

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