November 3, 2011

Merit: showing up and offering the best we have.

If one offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, fruit or water, I will accept it.  –Bhagavad Gita 9:26
Ninety per cent of life is just showing up.  –Woody Allen

This morning I went to the chapel at my parish church, where we have daily morning meditation. (My wife said, “Are you sure you have time for morning meditation today?” I countered that Gandhi meditated an hour a day, except on very busy days, when he meditated two hours.  She pointed out that Gandhi didn’t have his mother-in-law coming over.)

Because I arrived at the last moment, I took a seat on a bench rather than on a cushion or prayer stool. The result was what I should have expected: I kept nodding off. (This is my main reason for using a traditional meditation posture–it keeps me awake.) I was disappointed, because I have a to-do list as long as my arm today, and I was counting on the meditation to ground, center and energize me.

Fortunately­–and here is where my Christian undercoat starts to show through the yogic veneer–I rely on grace as much as, or more than, my own poor efforts.  (Yogis rely on grace, too, but it isn’t emphasized as much, it seems to me.) I firmly believe that, whatever my experience in prayer or meditation may be, and however I feel afterward, and irrespective of whether I am alert or dull, God receives my offering graciously.

But “offering” is the operative word, here. If we regard our sadhana, or practice, simply as spiritual push-ups, we advance only insofar as we are at the top of our game. If we regard it as an offering of love, as bhakti (“devotion”), then our showing up and offering the best we have in us at the time counts for something. Simplistic, perhaps, but simple is good.

This is where the old Roman Catholic concept of “merit” speaks to my Anglican soul.  When I see old-fashioned prayer-cards or other devotionals which promise X years of release from purgatory for people who pray this novena or that chaplet or what-have-you, it certainly smacks of what I was taught to regard as “works righteousness.” But understood in the proper light, the concept of merit frees us from the fear of wasting our efforts whenever we are at less than full capacity. We aren’t responsible, primarily, for how well we do, but for how faithfully we show up. “Merit” accrues more to our intention and effort than to apparent “results”; if we practice faithfully, we gain merit to offer up for the healing of the world. (Buddhists, or course, also speak of “merit” accruing to spiritual practice, and of offering it for the good of others.) And the effort of praying through drowsiness or distraction is never wasted, even if we don’t walk away feeling the way we wanted to.

Screwtape, the senior demon who coaches his nephew through his first temptation assignment in C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, put is this way:Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling; and never let them suspect how much success or failure of that kind depends on whether they are well or ill, fresh or tired, at the moment.

So rather than reproach myself for wasting time and effort this morning, I am going to assume that the effort itself, poor as it was, was still an opening for grace.

Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”  (Mark 21:41-44)

This post originally appeared at Open to the Divine.
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