Baltimore Sun prints a plug for ‘meditation’ — one form of it

Long ago, I worked in for a newspaper that published a large, large feature story in its style pages about divorce recovery. The package included — this was at the dawn of the “news you can use” era — a list of local divorce-recovery groups similar to the ones discussed in the story.

This directory included at least two dozen such groups, many offering unique spins on this painful subject. There were feminist divorce-recovery groups and New Age groups. There were groups for those interested in outdoorsy activities that would aid recovery. I seem to remember that there was a group for gays and lesbians recovering from the break-up of straight marriages. There were groups for those struggling with addiction issues, as well as a divorce.

What was missing? Well, for starters, the list did not include the region’s largest divorce-recovery groups and networks. For example, there was a major evangelical megachurch that had an large ministry — 100-plus people at least, at times more than that — for those struggling to avoid a divorce or to recover from one. There were other churches in various traditions with similar ministries. The newspaper’s list included none of the local Catholic ministries linked to divorce recovery.

In other words, the story said it was about divorce recovery. Period. In reality, it was about every imaginable kind of divorce recovery except for those linked to traditional religious faith groups.

I asked the editor who worked on the story how she would feel, after reading the story, if she was the head of that massive megachurch ministry for those struggling with divorce. She thought that over for a second and she said that she would probably assume that the newspaper staff was biased against the church’s work. In reality, she had never heard of any of these traditional religious groups and their divorce-related ministries. None of her friends had gone to those groups.

Birds of a feather, you know. The editor didn’t know what she didn’t know and, well, no one thought that that there was a religion angle to a story about divorce.

This was a classic GetReligion ghost, long before I created that term.

Now, I flashed back to that case study while I was reading the recent Baltimore Sun story that ran under this double-decker headline:

Getting into the groove of meditation

As practice goes more mainstream, experts offer insight into what it is, how to start

Veteran GetReligion readers can probably tell where this is going.

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USA Today offers faith-free look at meditation, stress

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Journalists who try to cover the life and teachings of Deepak Chopra always face the same question: How much ink should they dedicate to the debates about whether his fusion of Hinduism and science are secular or sacred? In other words, is this man a religious leader who is teaching specific doctrines or not?

The skeptics at Sceptic.com state the issue this way, coming from — obviously — a totally nonreligious perspective (as opposed to the views of Chopra critics within specific religious traditions):

The content of Chopra’s philosophy is often obscured by logical inconsistencies, but it is possible, nonetheless, to identify its key components. First, he views the body as a quantum mechanical system, and uses comparisons of quantum reality with Eastern thought to guide us away from our Western, Newtonian-based paradigms. Having accomplished that, he then sets out to convince us that we can alter reality through our perceptions, and admonishes us to appreciate the unity of the Universe. If we allow ourselves to fully grasp these lessons, Chopra assures us, we will then understand the force of Intelligence permeating all of existence — guiding us ever closer to fulfillment. Each component of this philosophy has serious flaws. …

So that is one side of the debate. There are also people who believe, in the end, that the heart of Chopra’s work is best understood in terms of, well, marketing and the sound of ringing cash registers.

Is it possible to write about Chopra and issues related to his phenomenal popularity without even mentioning its religious content?

I would argue “no.”

However, it appears that the editors of the USA Today business section would say that the answer is “yes,” and that market trends ultimately trump religious concerns (either pro or con). Here is the opening of a long news feature about current sales trends in stress reduction:

Deepak Chopra says he never feels stress.

He wakes up at 4 a.m. daily and meditates for two hours. Then, he writes for an hour before going to the gym. The famed 66-year-old holistic health guru takes no medicine. He’s never had surgery. And he’s never been hospitalized.

“This is embarrassing,” he says, “but I do not get stress.”

Even then, he has made millions off the unrelenting stresses from which the rest of us suffer — linking his name to everything from stress-busting techno gadgets to spiritual retreats. Few things, it seems, are more stressful, or expensive, than trying to shed stress.

This raises the obvious question: Does Chopra “meditate” for two hours in the morning or does he “pray” for two hours and, in his tradition, is it possible to draw an journalistically meaningful line between these two terms? More on that later.

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Buddhism and horse-race politics

Campaign journalism is a favorite of reporters and readers alike. I am not a fan, finding the horse-race coverage to be frustrating. But with just one campaign of national interest right now, it’s bearable.

The Associated Press reports:

It’s now up to voters render a verdict on former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s quest for political redemption, as one of the more unusual political campaigns in a state known for rough and tumble politics draws to a close.

Sanford, once mentioned as a potential GOP presidential contender, saw his political career disintegrate four years ago when he disappeared for five days, telling his staff he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. He returned to admit he had been in Argentina with his mistress – a woman to whom he is now engaged.

Sanford later paid a $70,000 ethics fine, the largest in state history, for using public money to fly for personal purposes. His wife Jenny divorced him.

Now Sanford is trying to stage a political comeback by winning the 1st District congressional seat he held for three terms in the 1990s when the conservative coastal district had a somewhat different configuration.

The race has had quite a few ghosts in it, what with Sanford’s public moral failings. He faced a tough primary and his entire campaign was walloped with the recent news that he’d trespassed on his ex-wife’s property, in violation of their custody arrangements.

And yet, somehow, he’s actually still a contender. Today’s election day, so we’ll know more soon.

So, what does this have to do with GetReligion? Well, tons of campaign reporters are down in South Carolina covering the race and I rather enjoyed Yahoo News’ update from the road (literally!):

Between stops around town, Sanford ditched his campaign driver and started hitching rides with reporters. He asked to ride in Yahoo News’ rental car and we zoomed off toward the next event. On the way, I asked him about his unorthodox campaign tactics. After all, Sanford was meeting only a couple people at each stop. The entire exercise seemed grossly inefficient.

“My view is, bigger the crowd, the fewer the votes,” Sanford said. “If you can just keep moving as an individual and you’re present–I don’t want to sound Buddhist on you–but you’re in the moment. You’re present with them, you actually can have a real conversation. You can talk about issues that they like, what they don’t like, in a way that you can’t if you have a crowd.”

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Dancing alone in that D.C. Franciscan hermitage?

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Back in my Rocky Mountain News days, I covered an ecumenical gathering in Boulder, Colo., focusing on contemplative prayer and meditation. One of the main speakers was a leader at the Nada Carmelite monastic community — part of the Spiritual Life Institute — located in Crestone, Colo., at on the western face of the Sangre de Christo mountains.

During the question-and-answer session, the mother abbess was asked why she kept insisting that her prayers and meditations were focused on the person of Jesus Christ, and not on her own spirit, her own soul, her own personality. Why, she asked, did she keep insisting that the Divine was outside of herself.

For starters, she said, the reality of the Holy Trinity and a transcendent God is at the heart of Christian theology. Deny that and you have denied the faith. Plus, she added, “I have never enjoyed dancing alone.”

I will help to keep that quote in mind while reading the recent Washington Post Style section feature about the urban hermitage that has been opened by the Franciscan brothers of urban Washington, D.C. Here’s the top of the story, which sets the tone for this three-pronged news feature:

The headline in the monthly Ward 5 newspaper described what sounded like an antidote to the nonstop iPhone-checking, list-making, ladder-climbing, goal-setting, Washington mind-set: “Refuge for the Metropolitan Hermit.”

The article described a postage stamp of a cabin, urbanely designed and gloriously sunlit, standing alone amid four acres of maples and white oaks on a protected hilltop you’ve probably never seen, although it’s in the middle of the city. Dubbed “the hermitage” by the brothers of the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Northeast Washington, the space has no WiFi, TV or radio, and its occupancy limit is one.

It’s been booked nearly solid since it opened in October.

Now, I called this a three-pronged story for a simple reason. On one level, it’s a story about this unique and interesting hermitage. On another level, it’s also about the noisy crush of urban life and the challenges faced by those trying to flee it, even for a brief period of time.

So far so good. The problem, from my perspective as an orthodox and Orthodox Christian, is that the story also seems to have assumed that all theories, doctrines and methods of contemplative prayer are one and the same or, at the very least, they are all seeking the same end.

The journalistic question this story raised for me is whether that this story accurately represents the beliefs and ministry of this hermitage and the brothers who operate it. More on that in a moment.

The strength of the story focuses on that second point, with the Style team reaching out to its core readers, those urban folks trapped in their noisy ruts. This is the “we” in the story, the assumed point of view.

What do we complain about more these days than the tyranny of constant stimulation? Our attempts to tune out the outside world — the occasional radio-less drive to work, the concerted decision to leave the phone at home for a few hours — are often ineffectual. It has come to this: True solitude is such a rarity in our modern lives that we have to buy it — or, in this case, rent it for $70 a night.

But it turns out solitude isn’t that simple. Although participation in silent retreats is on the rise, many of those preparing to spend time at the hermitage said they were so unaccustomed to unstructured time alone that they made to-do lists — then feared they were doing “solitude” wrong and scrapped them. They agonized over what to bring and wear and eat, as if they were traveling to an exotic land.

Michelle Harris-Love, a neuroscience researcher, wife and mother who lives near the monastery, was happy to pay $140 for two nights at the hermitage. But as the days drew closer, a stressful question surfaced. “I thought: ‘How am I going to fill my time?’”

This is a serious question.

The Catholic University architecture students who designed the RV-size space worked to envision the needs and rhythms of tenants who were unplugged. They were asked to turn off all their own devices and spend an hour alone and silent. Of the 12, only three were able to do it.

This explicitly Catholic context is then linked to a larger trend in American culture, broadly defined, which is the interfaith quest for silence and peace, as represented by the rising numbers of people attempting spiritual retreats of various kinds.

Various expert voices are marshaled to help flesh out this perfectly valid story. However, things get interesting — some would say distressing — when we jump into the history of the Franciscans.

The 350-square-foot hermitage was the idea of brothers whose order is named for Saint Francis, the legendary Catholic preacher who ditched his wealthy upbringing in pursuit of a material-free life of contemplation. Typically hermitages — the word means a place for someone who wants to live in seclusion, usually for spiritual reasons — are in remote areas, but the Franciscans wanted to create one in the middle of the city.

The 42-acre monastery grounds lent themselves to the project; the property sits on one of Washington’s rare hilltops and feels almost Mediterranean. Its main building is a huge Byzantine-style church built in the late 1800s and modeled after Istanbul’s 4th-century Hagia Sofia. Its grounds include sprawling rose gardens tended by a 100-volunteer guild and the four-acre wooded hillside that is home to the hermitage. Although 20 friars live in the monastery, the property emphasizes aloneness, its design intended to facilitate contemplation of the inner self. (For the Franciscans, such contemplation ideally deepens one’s relationship with God.)

This website has many informed Catholic readers of various stripes. Thus, I would like to ask them to chime in as I ask one or two basic questions.

First and foremost, which description best describes St. Francis? Was he a “preacher” or was he someone whose ministry primarily focused on “contemplation”? I know some Franciscans and I have written about members of contemplative orders, such as the Carmelites. These are not the same ministries. The brothers in D.C., for example, describe their work this way, stressing that:

… 800 years ago, the Roman Catholic Church entrusted the guardianship of the Holy Land and other shrines of the Christian religion to the Order of St. Francis. This work has grown to include support of schools and missions in the Holy Land, as well as care for refugees and other needy people throughout the region.

The Franciscan Monastery in Washington, D.C., sustains this 800-year mission of the Franciscan Friars in the Holy Land through education, fundraising, recruiting vocations, promoting pilgrimages and providing pastoral ministry locally to religious and lay Catholics and to all of good will.

Also, it is rather strange to say that their spirituality focuses on the “contemplation of the inner self,” even if — the Post hastens to note the order’s narrow Christian vision — the purpose is to deepen “one’s relationship with God.” I thought that the primary purpose of self examination, in Franciscan and Catholic thought, was to lead to repentance of sin and, ultimately, to a state of thankfulness and union with a forgiving God. The goal, as the Carmelite abbess said, is the opposite of dancing alone.

In the end, I was left wondering about the purpose of this beautiful urban hermitage. This is a fascinating news story about a fascinating and timely subject. Still, I was left asking: Did the Post team get this right or not? Were the views of the Franciscans accurately reported or not?


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