They say that people who go to church regularly tend to live longer! There are lots of theories on why that is, that nobody can prove either way because what happens to us at Mass quietly, gently, without us realising it, each time we are here, is not easy to understand. I watched a programme on the TV a week or so ago, and I wondered if there are any clues to be gained from the evidence it presented. The person who fronted the programme was a Doctor who admitted that he was an obsessive worrier, and that he therefore found it difficult to sleep. We then saw him having a brain scan which showed exactly why this was the case, the right side of his brain, compared to the left side, was overactive, and his negative thoughts were stronger than his positive ones. He tried two courses of treatment. Both were things he had to do for a short time every day, and as he did them I thought “Wow, this is what happens to us when we go to Church or pray.”
The first was that he was taught to spend 10 minutes every day practising “mindfulness”. All he had to do was to sit quietly somewhere and just breathe slowly and concentrate on his breathing, turning off, as much as possible, all active thinking. The second was a daily dose on a computer looking at images of faces, and training his brain to find the one face that was smiling rather than the others that were not. In both cases he was surprised at how quickly he got better at doing both things day by day. What surprised him more was that when they did the brain scan some weeks later, the changes in his brain were quite remarkable, and he was sleeping much better.
Now why do I say that this is what Christians do when we pray or go to Mass? Perhaps I should have said that it is what Christians ought to do when they pray. Thinking positively is what our faith is all about. Practising positive thinking. Looking for the smiley face rather than concentrating on the gloomy ones. The priest says “Lift up your hearts”. The whole Mass says – yes there is suffering, yes there are challenges in life – but do not be afraid – God (the power of goodness and love) is near. It is what Jesus teaches us in the Lord’s Prayer as we saw in our Gospel today. God is a Father, his name is holy, his kingdom will come, our sins and failings will be forgiven. St Paul says it too in a famous passage, “What ever is true, what ever is noble, what ever is right, what ever is pure, what ever is lovely, what ever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. (Phillipians 4:8)
That is what we are urged to do as Christians. To share the sufferings of the world, yes, in prayer and action, but to affirm how much good there is too ; to “give thanks in all circumstances.” (1 Thess 5:18) Julian of Norwich, writing in the 14thC having lived through the Black Death which killed a 3rd of the people in England, could say “All will be well That’s positive thinking for you.
Then there is the practice of “mindfulness”. Sadly many Christians are not aware of the various ways in which the Church down the centuries has taught us the prayer of what we call “meditation”. The first way is to use familiar words repeated over and over again in the mind or on the lips to override our worries and fears, and help us grow closer to God’s love. The Eastern Church practises it in what is called the Jesus Prayer – a form used by us Western Catholics too nowadays. I used to use the traditional words, but now urged by my Confessor I use something shorter and simpler, just “Remember, I am the Lord”. The Rosary is a bit like this, though sadly all that counting makes is less effective than it could be. Some people say “But how can it be prayer, repeating the same words over and over again?” The point is that you are not meant to mean the words, only to use them, familiar as they are, to quieten the mind and its active thoughts, and just come closer to God. I know quite a few people who use it if they cannot sleep, provided you don’t worry about losing count! It is rather like some who confess that they start to pray at night but fall asleep. I always say – To fall asleep praying… sounds good to me!
Or we can simply use our own breath, as the man did in the TV programme. Just sitting quietly with God. It’s one of the reasons we have these silent times of what we call “Adoration” in many churches, where the Blessed Sacrament is exposed as a visual focus. Or we can come into Church at another time, or practise being quiet with God at home. We just sit quietly with God. Yes, it can be difficult, as our minds wander, but when they do, we just bring ourselves gently back into the silence, so that the active side of our brain can have a rest. Music, by the way, just singing a familiar tune – ignore the words unless you know them by heart – can also produce the same effect.
So what the secular scientists are discovering about the brain, we religious people have practised all along!