“The only trouble is that in the spiritual life, there are no tricks and no shortcuts.” “We do not want to be beginners. But let us be convinced of the fact that we will never be anything else but beginners.” –Thomas Merton
In July, Fred and I taught at the Upper Room’s SOULfeast Conference, a time away designed to renew and empower the faithful in their spiritual purpose and practices.
We shared, “Be Still: Discovering God’s Presence Through Meditation,” a class that both the organizers (and we) were certain would not be well attended.
Christians have a dicey relationship with the term “meditation.” It conjures up all sorts of opposition, the way teaching “yoga” in your Protestant church’s fellowship hall is sure to lead to a contentious congregational debate.
But my devout Hindu husband did masterful job digging into the theology, roots, and ethics of mediation. Devotional meditation, in particular, offers Christians an opportunity to go deeper in their contemplative practice.
Our SOULfeast students were surprised to learn that, historically, “meditation” is not new or foreign to Christianity. For centuries, monastics used the term interchangeably with “contemplative prayer.” The word “contemplation” comes from the Greek theoria, or “to gaze at.” From Orthodox icons, to rosaries, to the Jesus Prayer, Christians have historically been comfortable with such “gazing” practices.
So, why the modern rub on practice that many Christians deem “dangerous”?
“Doesn’t meditation empty our minds so that the devil can come in?” is one question worth exploring. Another: “Isn’t meditation only for eastern religions?” One doesn’t have to far to find the case against Christian meditation.
But, perhaps the better questions to ask of a meditation practice are:
1. Can forms of meditation like centering prayer and devotional meditation strengthen my relationship with the Triune God?
2. What might “Christian meditation” look like for me?
3. How might I use a piece of scripture (like Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God”) to keep my mind focused on God’s word and promises?
Let’s look at the Biblical evidence to support a contemplative life:
Christ had a quiet, meditative practice:
“In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” –Mark 1:35, NRSV
“But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” –-Matthew 6:6, NRSV
We need the silence and solitude Christ exemplified. We need time to listen and experience the presence of God through holding an image or word or intention in your heart (centering prayer), or repeating a phrase or verse of scripture (devotional meditation and/or lectio divina).
The challenge with most of our out-loud, formulaic prayers is that when we do all the talking, it’s difficult to hear what God is saying.
Still hesitant to try Christian meditation?
Here’s three reasons to try it—and they might surprise you:
1. It actually helps you listen. Henri Nouwen wrote: “Jesus was ‘all ear.’ That is the true prayer: being ‘all ear’ for God. The core of prayer is indeed listening, obediently standing in the presence of God … It’s difficult to hear this voice when we are talking!”
2. It’s historically Christian. As early as the Christian Orthodox Hesychasm tradition, which means “to be still,” Christians have embodied Matthew 6. Early desert fathers and mothers “meditated” on all 150 Psalms day in and day out. In the 19th century, the anonymous Russian pilgrim (The Way of a Pilgrim) shared the instrument of “ceaseless prayer” using the Jesus Prayer:
Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. —The Jesus Prayer
3. It’s flexible. No one is asking you to chant “om” in a lotus position. Instead, envision how Christian meditation might work for you. Are you interested in Centering Prayer? Breath prayer? Praying with Protestant Prayer beads? Repeating a beloved piece of scripture? Or, utilizing the Jesus Prayer?
Meditation creates more space for “an awareness of the Divine Guest within … a deep loving communion with the Triune God.” –Sister Mary Colombiere, of The Carmelite Sisters of Los Angeles
Ccontemplative practice gives us “the priceless gift of spiritual rest.” –Evelyn Underhill,The Essentials of Mysticism
This morning, tonight, or at lunch time, set your phone timer for five minutes. Hold a sacred image or word in your awareness, concentrate on the life force of your breathe, or repeat a passage of scripture. Listen for God’s voice; be aware of God’s presence.
Then, tell us what happens! You might be pleasantly surprised.
Be still and know that I am God. –Psalm 46:10