Prayer and meditation have never been my long suit — I don’t have the patience for either. But thanks to a recent bout of pneumonia, I may have found a practice that works for me. It combines two of my interests, Western Buddhist spirituality and Martin Luther’s Small Catechism. And, best of all perhaps, it gives me something to do when I’m taking the nebulizer treatments they sent home with me when I was discharged from the hospital.
The treatments last 10 or 15 minutes, and it’s an awkward length of time for watching cable TV news. Especially in the morning. But, I figure, that’s about enough time to work in a quick morning prayer.
So this morning I plugged in the nebulizer and tried a variation on something I’ve been doing from time to time — call it kind of a mashup of the morning prayer that Luther recommends for family devotions in the Small Catechism and the “Lovingkindness Meditation” that Buddhist mindfulness teacher Jack Kornfield practices. Kornfield’s lineage is in the Vipassana tradition of Theravada Buddhism, rather than Zen, but the combination is close enough for a self-proclaimed Zen Lutheran.
In Luther’s Small Catechism, which he wrote in 1529 for the instruction of children, he recommends the “head of the family should teach his household to pray morning and evening.” His family devotions (like the idealized picture of Luther Making Music in the Circle of His Family by 19th-century German artist Gustav Spangenberg above) were simple enough. Simple enough, that is, for the 16th century in a made-over Augustinian monastery at the de facto center of the Protestant Reformation in Wittenberg.
“In the morning when you get up,” says Luther, “make the sign of the holy cross and say:
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Then, kneeling or standing, repeat the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. If you choose, you may also say this little prayer:
I thank You, my heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, Your dear Son, that You have kept me this night from all harm and danger; and I pray that You would keep me this day also from sin and every evil, that all my doings and life may please You. For into Your hands I commend myself, my body and soul, and all things. Let Your holy angel be with me, that the evil foe may have no power over me. Amen
“Then,” Luther continues, “go joyfully to your work, singing a hymn, like that of the Ten Commandments, or whatever your devotion may suggest.
I’m not going to claim my devotion suggests anything that elaborate. Nor can I pretend I do it every day. And Luther’s hymn on the Ten Commandments, Dies sind die heil’gen zehn Gebot’ (These Are The Holy Ten Commands), is of intense historical interest, but maybe not a rousing picker-upper to start the day with. That said, however, Luther’s prayer of thanks for getting through the “harm and danger of the night” and invocation of God’s holy angel to “keep me this day also from sin and every evil” is as appropriate now as it was in 1529. At least on my good days, I like to start the day with something like it.
So that’s the Lutheran part of my Zen Lutheran meditation. The other part, like I said above, isn’t technically Zen. Like my own spirituality, I think it’s a blend of different traditions. Jack Kornfield, who is of Jewish heritage, was a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand who became a monk in the Vipassana (insight) school of Buddhism, returned to the United States and founded the Insight Meditation Society and the Spirit Rock Meditation Center. His “Meditation on Lovingkindness,” like the rest of his practice, combines Eastern and Western psychological influences in a context of what I believe to be a healthy does of Jewish ethics. I take it an extra step, I guess, and combine it with Luther’s catechism.
Done right, Kornfield’s lovingkindness meditation takes 15 or 20 minutes. (I don’t do it right — we’ll get to that in a minute — but I do try to touch all the bases.) Kornfield says to sit down, in a comfortable position, breathe gently and “recite inwardly the following traditional phrases directed toward your own well-being.” You start there, he says, is because if you don’t love yourself, you can’t direct love to others. The phrases are:
May I be filled with lovingkindness.
May I be safe from inner and outer dangers.
May I be well in body and mind.
May I be at ease and happy.
Kornfield counsels his readers to go at it slowly, “for a number of weeks, until the sense of lovingkindness for yourself grows,” and then by degrees to expand the circle of lovingkindness to include others. He suggests widening the circle to a benefactor, “someone in your life who has loved and truly cared for you,” and then to a wider circle of friends.
“After this,” he says, “you can include others: Spend some time wishing well to a wider circle of friends. Then gradually extend your meditation to picture and include community members, neighbors, people everywhere, animals, all beings, the whole earth.”
But Kornfield’s not quite done yet. And the last part can be the hardest part.
“Finally,” he says, “include the difficult people in your life, even your enemies, wishing that they too may be filled with lovingkindness and peace. This will take practice. But as your heart opens, first to loved ones and friends, you will find that in the end you won’t want to close it anymore.”
I wish I could report that I do this faithfully and it has made me a better person. Well, I’m not there yet. But when I try hard to stick to it, I can say I do feel a little better about some the blankedy-blanks in my life, the anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers who insist on prolonging the pandemic, certain members of Congress and … well, you get the idea. I wish them well. I really do. Really, I do.
None of this is easy, and it doesn’t come overnight.
It’s been 20 years since I first read Kornfield’s classic After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, and I haven’t got it all down yet. But I’ve taken to treating the Lovingkindness Meditation as a kind of prayer — combining a pared-down version of Luther’s morning prayer, O Lord protect me from sin, danger and evil, with Kornfield’s petition “may I [and all creation] be filled with lovingkindness.” Once I’ve prayed for myself, I expand the protection and hope of lovingkindness in wider and wider circles. And I think it helps center me; it takes my mind off myself — love God, love thy neighbor — as I expand the circles. Even when I do it haphazardly and on the fly.
In fact, Kornfield has a bit of good news on his webpage for guys like me who do everything on the fly:
Lovingkindness can be practiced anywhere. You can use this meditation in traffic jams, in buses, and on airplanes.
Or when you’re taking a nebulizer treatment.
Instead of a meditation cushion in a zendo or retreat center somewhere, I sit in a kitchen chair at home next to the ironing board — the power cord doesn’t reach all the way from the outlet to the dining room table — but I am definitely mindful of my breath as I draw the aerosolized medicine down into my lungs:
May all sentient beings INHALE be filled with lovingkindness. HOLD IT. May they be safe from inner and outer dangers. EXHALE. O heavenly father, INHALE, you have kept me his night from all harm and danger; HOLD IT; and I pray that You would keep me this day also from sin and every evil. EXHALE. And keep us all from harm and danger in the coming day.
Again, I don’t want to claim too much for this. It isn’t Zen, like I said, and it isn’t exactly Lutheran either. At least it’s nothing that Gustav Spangenberg would want to paint — I don’t play the lute (Luther was an accomplished musician), and I don’t start my day singing a paraphrase of the Ten Commandments. But the mashup seems to work for me.
[Published Nov. 7, 2021]