This past Sunday marked the beginning of the season of Advent in the Christian tradition. On Sunday evening at a dinner gathering with family friends, our friend Anna commented that she felt as if the world were particularly broken right now and that she felt called to somehow respond. This led into a long discussion among us six adults – while our eleven children ran around us a never-ending whirlwind of chaos – about how we felt called to respond. How do we keep our hearts open amid our world full of struggle and violence?
I was born and raised as a “cradle Catholic” – that is, I was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church as an infant and I grew up in a Catholic family environment and culture. My professional life is built around my role as a theologian who works primarily out of the Catholic tradition of ethics or moral theology. At the same time my interest in contemplation has drawn me into the practices and sacred texts of many traditions, including Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and yoga philosophy. I unwittingly began to practice yoga three years ago when I walked into a yoga class with Myra Rucker at the downtown Minneapolis YMCA. There have been distinctive moments where my yoga practice has helped me to tune into the way that I read Scripture with a heightened awareness to how the body is involved in many of these texts.
When I teach introductory lessons on reading Scripture in my THEO 101 courses, I emphasize that every single word, phrase, and sentence in these revealed texts is very carefully chosen and meaningful. Learning to read Scripture – in these courses this refers primarily to the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament – or other sacred texts requires one to slow down and tune into the subtle nuances, meanings, and texture of the words. Paper and the time to write were scarce resources in the ancient world, and so the decision to write something down and then preserve it and hand it on was a very carefully selective process. Thanks in part to a greater awareness of the connection between mind-body-spirit in my yoga practice and experience of contemplative prayer, I have come to recognize more and more those places in Scripture that highlight the role of the body in God’s plan of salvation.
The reading from last Sunday’s Gospel was Luke 21: 25-28 and 34-36. This is a difficult chapter in which Luke describes the signs of the end – what theologians call his apocalyptic vision. The author of Luke describes the many natural and human-caused tribulations that will occur prior to the end of the world as we now know it. And then he writes:
Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near (Luke 21: 28; NRSV)
Now, what happens if you take Jesus’ words literally? “Stand up and raise your heads.” (Try it now; nobody will think you’re too crazy:). If you stand up straight and raise your head, you will automatically bring your chest forward and up, you shoulders back – you will open your heart (I mean physically).
Recent psychological studies have found that the way we carry our bodies has a profound impact upon how we feel (subjectively) and how our brains respond to external stimuli (objectively and neurologically). For example, researchers have shown disturbing images to people who were told to hold a pencil in their mouth so that they are “forced” to hold their facial muscles in a manner similar to a smile, or people who have had botox that has damaged their ability to frown, reported feeling less disturbed by those images and also measured lower levels of neurological reactivity compared to a control group! In other words, how we hold ourselves physically affects our emotional and neuro-biological responses to what is occurring around us.
So, while many of us struggle with the most recent manifestations of violence in our world today (France, Chicago, Minneapolis, etc.) we might do well to take Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Luke literally – to stand up tall and raise our heads. This intentional but gentle physical response to the anxieties of our world may help us to
Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life (Luke 21: 34).
Notice that it is anxieties that weigh us down, but it is our physiological response to stand up tall and raise our heads that enables us to meet the suffering of the world with an open heart. Perhaps in this Advent season – or whatever season you find yourself in within your particular tradition – we could all heed Jesus’ advice and bring just a little bit of extra attention to how we choose to hold our hearts open as we discern a gentle, loving, and compassionate response to our own suffering and that of others.