Tuesday night The Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh spoke to 3,500 people at the University of San Diego, my alma mater. Listening as he spoke, my first impression was, “this guy sounds a lot like Desmond Tutu.” Apparently being a powerhouse for the Spirituality of Justice and Peace comes with a tone that is lilting, soft-spoken, full of a quiet cadence, and joy. I’ve been running a great deal lately as I listen to sermons and speeches on my iPod, and have found myself at pace with the rhythm of the speakers voice. The rhythm of “Thay” (as his followers affectionately call him), begs us to slow down, to listen. Through cultivating inner peace Thich Nhat Hanh has become an effective peacemaker.
Nhat Hanh was exiled during the Vietnam war for his attempts to bring the two sides together for talks. He was nominated by Martin Luther King Jr. for the Nobel Peace Prize, and took Communion with members of the Catholic Worker Movement. His words about the Kingdom of God were among some of the most profound I’ve heard. He said: “It is not that the Kingdom of God is not available to US, it is that we are not available to the Kingdom.”
Thay’s way of practice involves mindfulness, the Buddhist practice of awareness of the present moment. One breathes in and remembers that they are present in the Now, in the present moment, then breathes out and smiles knowing that it is a perfect moment. This Buddhist monk reminds us of Jesus’ teaching that the Kingdom of God is already at hand, we simply have to practice living into it. Rooting ourselves in prayer we can open ourselves, seeing the Kingdom of God around us. That sight allows us to see the places where God is working to make the kingdom more present, and to join in that work. Whether in our neighbor who lacks food or housing, or in a system which denies rights to human beings, we can be reminded that we dwell in the reign of God now, we are citizens of the Kingdom, by our practice of prayer.
As I listened to this great teacher, I was mindful of the tiredness I felt. I’ve been helping the Social Issues Committee at USD to prepare for this talk for over a year, and spent 14 hours helping out that day. I had just finished “Welcome Week” at UCSD and had worked several days from waking until just before bed. I had been very busy, but had not spent time to be prayerfully, mindfully, present. I had let my daily practice of reading scripture and spending a quiet moment in meditative prayer slip. More than the amount of activity I think this lack of a daily time of centering had contributed to my exhaustion.
When asked how he found time for a daily hour of prayer during the war in El Salvador, Archbishop Romero replied that on the more difficult and busy days, he needed two hours for prayer. Archbishop Desmond Tutu began his formation with a group of Anglican monks in South Africa and has stayed rooted in a practice of prayer which includes several hours a day. To practice peace, we must find the peace of God, the kingdom of God, available to us NOW, discoverable when our sight is rooted in mindful prayer.