"How can we bring the water and the oil, the bread and the fire, the incense and the ashes the raw materials of Christian sacramental life back into the realm of daily life? How do we renew and encourage the practice of sacramental mindfulness among ordinary people today? How do we provide nourishment and guidance for a world hungering for meaning?
"I would like to begin to answer these questions by sharing a personal experience, an experience of spiritual renewal and insight that I received from the people of Latin America. I think it offers a glimpse of how we might cultivate sacramental mindfulness today through the recovery and rejuvenation of traditional spiritual practices. By the time I went to Latin America to study theology and to minister as a young Dominican friar, my spirituality had already been thoroughly influenced by modern Euro-American secularism. In my limited understanding, the gospel message had come to represent a blueprint for social change, and I was sent out as one of its 'enlightened' architects. Let me state clearly that I recognize and agree wholeheartedly with the social implications of the gospel, and of the following of Jesus. However, I also recognize now certainly more clearly than before that this is just one piece of the whole of the Christian message.
"Thanks to the simple, uncomplicated faith of the people of Latin America, many of whom are still rooted in the indigenous traditions of their ancestors (both pre-Christian and Christian), the blindness caused by my limited vision slowly began to heal. In the mountain villages of Honduras I ran into a tradition that deeply moved me. Since I often stayed in the small, one-room huts of the families that I visited, I experienced their daily life up close. In many places, the parents and grandparents bless their children each morning before they leave the house for school or to work in the fields. Sometimes this blessing is done with holy water that has been blessed previously by a priest. This daily routine is done without much fanfare. The children (and adults, if there are still grandparents in the house) simply walk up to their elders in the household and, with a slight bow of the head, receive a blessing. The parent or grandparent simply places his or her hand on the child's head, sometimes accompanied with a sprinkle of holy water, and says something like, 'God bless and protect you today, son.' That is all. It is very simple, yet for me, as an outsider, it is quite moving. I often would ask for a blessing as well. This very simple sacramental gesture is a concrete way for the family to touch the presence of God in the goings and comings of the day.
"Blessings and the use of holy water are still common practice in the Catholic Church today. Unfortunately, though, they have become more and more confined to the official duties of the ordained priest. What deeply impressed me in Honduras was that this particular sacramental gesture was a daily spiritual practice done within the small circle of the family, and its ministers were the parents and grandparents. The shift of the past several centuries toward limiting almost all sacramental expressions of faith to ordained ministers is truly a tragedy, for in so doing, we are removing sacramentality from the very realm where it should be flourishing the daily life of ordinary people. For too long now, spirituality has become the property of experts, and that always runs into the danger of turning access to God into a commodity that can be sold. If there is anything that Jesus was passionate about during his life, it was the need to 'give God back to the people.' Jesus forcefully denounced the concentration of religious power in the hands of a few self appointed experts.
"What the families in the mountains of Honduras have helped me to rediscover is the beauty and simplicity of a spiritual practice lived harmoniously within the ordinariness of daily life. Not only do they bless their children; they bless their animals and houses too. In many parts of Latin America the people bless the seeds and the fields before planting. They sprinkle holy water on the sick and on those who have died. They bless newborn babies and the midwives who deliver them. They use holy water to bless prayer beads and holy pictures, even new bicycles and taxis! It is somewhat comical to see people arriving at the church for the celebration of mass with plastic Coke bottles filled with water to be blessed, which they then take home to be used in their myriad of daily sacramental celebrations.
"I was a bit skeptical of all this at first (filled, as I was, with all my 'enlightened' theology). Is this not superstition, I wondered? Little by little, though, with the patient example of the people and with some insights shared by others along the way, I began to see that this is the way the people touch God in their daily life. They do not have access to God and spiritual things in the official, sophisticated religious world, so they and their ancestors before them have developed ways of celebrating God's presence through simple pious practices that are 'unofficial.' Everything about their world offers them an opportunity to be mindful of God's presence. As Thay says, 'If you throw away the historical dimension, there is no ultimate dimension to touch. You have to touch God through his creatures. You have to touch the ultimate dimension by touching the historical dimension deeply.' Through gestures as simple as blessing their children and their homes with holy water, these people have been able to keep the presence of God alive and real in the midst of daily life. This sacramental mindfulness is, I believe, one way that Thay's teachings on mindfulness can be translated into Christian practice.
"The use of holy water as a way of sacramentally touching the divine in daily life has the potential of bringing Christians into a deep experience of what Thay calls interbeing. For Christians, to touch water mindfully is to touch our entire story of salvation. We touch, for example, the gratuitousness of creation, as well as the ancient story of Israel's journey through the Red Sea into freedom. Through touching water deeply, we reconnect with the water that God made to spring from the rock in the desert (Ps. 105:41), as well as the water of the Jordan River, where Jesus was baptized and experienced his profound oneness with God. Water brings to mind the crucifixion of Jesus and the water and blood that flowed from his pierced side. We remember Jesus' promise to the Samaritan woman he met at the well one day: 'The water that I will give will become in [you] a spring of water gushing up to eternal life' (John 4:14). Water puts us in touch with our own baptism and the presence of Ultimate Reality in the depths of our own being. When an elderly grandmother in a small village in Honduras blesses her tiny, sick granddaughter with holy water, she is not only touching God, but through her sacramental use of water and through the gesture of human touch, she knows that God is touching her granddaughter too. She knows without knowing. She knows that the water and the wave are one.
"What we have considered here holds true for many other possible expressions of sacramental mindfulness. We Christians could look similarly at the practice of mindfulness through the sacramental use of bread or oil or silence or listening to scripture. The possibilities of learning to practice in this way are infinite. The ultimate dimension of reality is so close to us, 'closer to us than we are to ourselves,' says Eckhart. It is all right here and right now. It is the present moment, and it is also the moment of presence, God's presence. It is the wave dancing upon the water, and it is the water dancing within the heart of the wave."