Meditation in the Christian Tradition
Some people hear the word meditation and immediately think of eastern practices, Buddhism, Transcendental Meditation, etc., but there is a Christian form of meditative prayer.
One way of thinking of God’s presence is as a river of life deep within – a river of God’s flowing compassion. We are sustained in being by the love of God, flowing through the universe, and through our own depths. The question then becomes – “If God dwells in us, if there is this river of God’s love deep within, how can we take a dip in the river?”
And one of the answers is through meditation, known also as contemplative prayer or centering prayer. This has been a submerged tradition within the church, but one that goes back right to its beginnings.
Jesus took himself off to the hills on numerous occasions to pray- early in the morning or even overnight. Do we imagine he talked with God all that time, or was he still and quiet? We don’t know for sure, but we do know about the Desert Fathers, the monks who took themselves off into the deserts of Egypt and Syria to find time for God and spent hours and days in meditation. It was out of these desert communities that the first monasteries formed, with their emphasis on the discipline of prayer.
John Cassian, one of the Desert Fathers in the 5th Century, recommended that anyone who wanted to learn how to pray, and to pray continually, should just take a single short verse and repeat this verse, over and over again. Prayer then becomes more a listening, and to listen, we must become quiet and still -repeating a short verse or word is the way to do that.
In the Orthodox church, this was developed in the Jesus Prayer – “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” This was repeated continually in all prayer times, until it became a constant prayer happening at a subliminal level. It is a strong tradition still today in the East.
Other people recommended a similar practice. A thousand years after Cassian, the English author of a very influential book, ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’, said “We must pray in the height, depth and length of our spirit, not in many words, but in a little word”
In the western church, this teaching has been rather submerged since the reformation, but a number of teachers of contemplative prayer and meditation have emerged in recent years.
Christian Meditation following John Main’s teaching
John Main(1926 -1982) recovered this way of bringing the mind to rest in the heart through his study of the teachings of the first Christian monks, the Desert Fathers, and of John Cassian (4th century AD).
“In meditation we do not seek to think about God, but to be with God, to experience him as the ground of our being.” John Main
The method involves the repetition of a single word faithfully and lovingly during the time of meditation.
John Main’s legacy inspired the formation of the World Community for Christian Meditation (WCCM), and his work is being carried on by Father Laurence Freeman, also a Benedictine monk. The WCCM continues John Main’s vision of restoring the contemplative dimension to the common life of Christians and engaging in the common ground shared with the secular world and other religions.
How to meditate (from the ‘World Community for Christian Meditation’)
“To meditate seek a quiet place, and find a comfortable upright sitting position. Close your eyes gently. Sit relaxed but alert. Silently, interiorly, begin to say a single word or short phrase. We recommend the prayer phrase maranatha. It is utterly simple. Say it like this, ma-ra-na-tha. Four equally stressed syllables. Some people say the word in conjunction with their breathing. The speed at which you say the word should be fairly slow, fairly rhythmical. Maranatha is in Aramaic, the language Jesus himself spoke. It means “Come Lord”. It is probably the most ancient Christian prayer. St. Paul ends Corinthians with it, and St. John ends the book of Revelation with it. Listen to the word as you say it gently but continuously.
Do not think about the meaning of the word. Just give your attention to the sound of it throughout the time of your meditation, from the beginning to the end. Whenever distractions arise, simply return to your word. Meditate for 30 minutes each morning and each evening, every day of your life. John Main always said: “Just say your word.” Meditation is a way of pure prayer marked by silence, stillness, and simplicity.”
The other strand that has emerged in the last forty years is Centering Prayer and the Contemplative Outreach organisation, drawing on the teaching of Fr Thomas Keating in the USA. It has many similarities to John Main’s teaching, and has further been developed by other teachers, notably Revd Dr Cynthia Bourgeault.
The practice of Centering Prayer is to spend daily periods of time in silence, consenting to the action and presence of God. Despite our best intentions, it is not always easy to be detached from our thoughts. The Centering Prayer method involves choosing a word, of one or two syllables, which we gently return to when we become engaged in our thoughts. This word is called a sacred word because it embodies our intention to consent to God’s presence and action within, a sacred intention.
‘We spend so much of our adult energies thinking, planning, worrying, trying to get ahead or stay afloat, that we lose touch with the natural intimacy of God within us. The gift of silence gradually recedes in the face of the demands of daily life. But even when the outer world has been wrestled into silence, we still go right on talking, worrying, arguing with ourselves, daydreaming, fantasizing. To encounter those deeper reaches of our being, where our own life is constantly flowing out of and back into the divine life, what first seems to be needed is some sort of an interior on/off switch to tone down the inner talking as well.
That’s probably the simplest way to picture what Centering Prayer is, and to describe its relationship to contemplative prayer. It’s very simple.
You sit and allow your heart to open toward that invisible but always present Origin of all that exists. Whenever a thought comes into your mind, you simply let the thought go and return to that open, silent attending upon the depths. Not because thinking is bad, but because it pulls you back to the surface of yourself. You use a short word or phrase, knows as a “sacred word,” such as “abba” (Jesus’ own word for God) or “peace” or “be still” to help you let go of the thought promptly and cleanly. You do this practice for twenty minutes, a bit longer if you’d like, then you simply get up and move on with your life.
What goes on in those silent depths during the times of Centering Prayer is no one’s business, not even your own; it is between your innermost being and God; that place where, as St. Augustine once said, “God is closer to your soul than you are to yourself.” Your own subjective experience of the prayer may be that nothing happened—except for the more-or-less continuous motion of letting go of thoughts. But in the depths of your being, in fact, plenty has been going on, and things are quietly but firmly being rearranged.’
From “Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening” by Cynthia Bourgeault
‘What is contemplation? Many equate it to prayer or meditation. You might be surprised, however, to discover that you can practice contemplation while mindfully washing dishes, singing, being with a friend, or walking in a park. Contemplation is simply being fully present—in heart, mind, and body—to “what is” in a way that allows you to creatively respond and work toward “what could be.” Contemplation is both personal and communal, internal and external. It helps us let go of our usual, ego-centred way of thinking and doing things so that our compassionate, connected, and creative self can emerge.
Many Christians and Buddhists practice forms of silence like Centering Prayer or observing your breath. Other expressions and cultures emphasize community experiences (like sharing meals or speaking in tongues), movement (for example, dancing or yoga), and music (drumming, ecstatic singing, or chanting). You may resonate more with some practices than others. Whichever practice(s) you choose, we invite you to stay with them for a while. Through contemplation and life itself, God works on us slowly and in secret. Contemplative practice gradually rewires our brains to perceive and respond to reality with love.’
Notes from Richard Rohr and The Center for Action and Contemplation https://cac.org Below they have listed some additional resources on contemplation.
Drumming: Practicing surrendering the mind and attuning the body through rhythm
Walking Meditation: Taking slow, mindful steps
Ecstatic Dance: Moving freely to music
Chanting: Singing with intention
Centering Prayer: Observing and letting go of all thoughts without judgment during a period of silence
Lectio Divina: Reading short passages of text in a contemplative way
Christian Meditation: Repeating scripture or a sacred word as a mantra (see above)
Welcoming Prayer: Welcoming any feeling, sensation, or emotion that arises in the midst of your day
YHWH Prayer: Consciously saying God’s name through each breath
Pranayama: Breathing mindfully
Loving Kindness Meditation: Recognizing your inner source of loving kindness and sending love to others
Fruits of meditation
Don’t expect anything dramatic to happen during the meditation time – it is a discipline that allows the opening of the heart, so that the divine presence can begin to bloom. The fruit will be changes in behaviour, relationships, inner peace, godliness. The end goal is an increase in compassion – taking a swim in the river of God’s love.
Christian meditation is simplicity itself in its concept – the difficult bit , as with all prayer, is maintaining it on a daily basis. One of the best maxims about prayer is ‘Pray as you can, not as you can’t’, and its good to remember that whenever we encounter a new way of prayer. Try it, experiment, find what’s right for you.
“We meditate simply to prepare ourselves to receive that fullness and life and light for which we were created.”
To enhance our individual meditations a number of us have agreed to link together at the time of full moon, opening ourselves to the highest purpose for the highest good and building a pathway towards a universal spirituality.
We also meditate together with a focus is on Praying for the Planet at the new moon when we remember our beautiful planet in prayer, meditation, awareness or involvement, with love, hope and gratitude.
If you would like to join us and receive email reminders, then contact email@example.com