Why I practice meditation in the Christian tradition

Christian Meditation photo

In my discussion of Meister Eckhart’s ‘Wayless Way’ I touched on the Dominican master’s notion of the need for detachment from everything if we truly want to break through to union with God. For Eckhart, ‘everything’ includes all our talk of God. This means, paradoxically, that if we are truly to encounter ‘God’, the ultimate reality for which we long, we must be rid of the ‘God’ captured in our theological definitions, concepts and images. At the conclusion of that discussion I asked why, if there is any truth in this teaching of Meister Eckhart, we should persist with Christian talk of ‘God’ at all. Surely it makes more sense to bypass altogether images and concepts we must ultimately let go anyway. Why not adopt at the outset a more ‘secular’ approach like that of Eckhart’s modern namesake Eckhart Tolle, or even of Buddhism which many claim is not a religion at all?

What follows is a first step in the development of an answer to this question, a defence of the value and relevance of meditation in the Christian tradition in a world where people drawn to spiritual practices have a rich abundance of options from which to choose. The simple point I make is that the value and relevance of the Christian meditation tradition derive both from what it shares with the other great meditation traditions and what distinguishes it among them.

The end goal of meditation is the experience, beyond all thought, feeling and perception, of pure, formless being. In its commitment to this end and in some of the means it adopts to reach this end, the Christian tradition stands among the great meditation traditions and herein lies its value to the human community in general. As Jonathon Shear stresses, however, it is a mistake, on the basis of such common ground, to regard all systems and procedures of meditation as “more or less the same.” [1] They are all different, and their relevance – applicability to what is immediately at hand – is a consequence of this difference.

To whom, then, is the Christian tradition of meditation relevant? My answer is simple. It is principally relevant to those in whom the stories, symbols and expectations of the Christian narrative are deeply embedded, like a native language or culture.

Following a  discussion of meditation in general and the rightful place of the Christian contemplative tradition within the community of great meditation traditions, I will introduce two of the Christian tradition’s distinctive tenets – that the ultimate reality encountered in meditation is ‘God’ and that the practitioner’s union with that reality is a participation in the filial relationship of Christ to ‘the Father’. These will be explored in greater depth and in relation to Eckhart’s teaching in Part Two.

The universal value of meditation and the ‘kingdom of God’

Meditation is arguably the single most important force for good in the contemporary situation. More than any one religious system, political ideology or technological advance meditation has the power to transform individuals and thereby to effect profound social change. I derive this claim from two facts. The first is that meditation works. Research has demonstrated not only that meditation and mindfulness practices can result in significant physiological and psychological benefits but also that these benefits can flow on to effect a shift in an individual’s fundamental orientation to life and to other people.

The second fact is that meditation is a truly global and trans-cultural phenomenon. It is not the exclusive domain of any one cultural framework or belief system but is readily available in one form or another to every population on the planet. The implication of these facts taken together is that if enough individuals in enough different cultural, social, religious and political contexts engage in meditation the positive effects of meditation may spill over into the global social domain. And it is not too big a leap to conclude that if such a shift in global consciousness transpires a transformed planet will ensue.

This hope of individual and social transformation is a very Christian notion, expressed in the preaching of Jesus as the ‘Kingdom of God’. The old view was that this ‘kingdom’ would be realized through the Christianizing of the world. Christians would usher in the kingdom by inviting the ‘world’ to ‘convert’ or exchange their beliefs, morals and manners for Christian ones. This approach may have been a comfortable fit in the age of empires and the era of colonialist expansionism, but it is, for a growing number of people who identify as Christian, particularly those engaged in inter-faith dialogue, simply no longer tenable. They see the kingdom as bigger than the Church and have concluded that it is already as much among and within the ‘world’ as it is among and within them. For when one encounters the fruit of meditation practice such as compassion, peacefulness, kindness, and gentleness, whatever the cultural context in which it might have grown, one is compelled to acknowledge the Spirit’s indelible mark and the presence of God’s kingdom.

Commonality: Meditation as an end in itself

With roots in Jewish wisdom literature the Christian contemplative tradition emerged in the Egyptian deserts during the early centuries of the Christian era and is, although younger than the great Asian traditions, nonetheless an ancient meditation tradition. Ignorance of the Christian tradition can possibly be attributed to the isolation in which it emerged and to the fact that it was for centuries sequestered within monasteries. Further, while some monastic orders developed practices similar to those of the other traditions they did not refer to these practices as ‘meditation’ but as ‘contemplative prayer’, which masks the commonality with the other traditions.

As Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk and one of the architects of the Centering Prayer movement, observes, Christian meditation historically knew nothing of the easily transmitted techniques that have, since the middle of the twentieth century, made Eastern practices so popular among spiritual seekers from the West. Says Keating, the gurus “proclaimed their teaching in the form of methods that were carefully worked out, noteworthy for their psychological wisdom, and based on the experience of centuries of dedicated people who had both enjoyed the fruits of their varied forms of meditation and endured its difficulties.” [2]

By comparison, Christian contemplative prayer seemed outdated, inaccessible and irrelevant. Thanks to the likes of Bede Griffiths, Thomas Merton and more recently Thomas Keating, John Main and Laurence Freeman and others who have laboured to bring monastic spirituality out of the monastery and into the modern world, contemplative prayer has been revitalized. There now exist accessible, elegant and deeply enriching meditative practices that originated in the historic Christian tradition but can be incorporated by ordinary people into their everyday lives by following a simple method.

Earlier in this discussion reference was made to the benefits of meditation. While it is true that individuals may find themselves more relaxed, stress-free and clear-headed through meditation practice, meditation as practiced in the spiritual traditions of the world, including Christianity, is not primarily a way of obtaining for oneself some benefit or other. It is not a means to an end at all, but an end in itself. All meditation traditions teach that human beings, regardless of the language in which they frame their view of the world, and whether they are conscious of it or not, are spiritual beings. Humans have at their core a silent expanse, a quiet internal ‘clearing in the forest’ wherein lies their deepest self. Simply put, ‘meditation’ is being there, inhabiting that spiritual centre. And being there is done entirely for its own sake, and not for any other reason.

People often use the word ‘meditation’ as a catch-all for the methods or practices we use to enter that spiritual centre. For the great spiritual traditions meditation is not the method to connect with that centre but the simple state of being at that centre. It might be made possible by what we do – being still, being silent, noticing the breath, using a sacred word – but it is not what we do. Meditation is not an activity, but a state.

We could illustrate it like this. Picture a darkened room in which a lighted candle sits on a table draped with a white cloth. Beneath the candle and illuminated by it are various objects. If we remove these objects one at a time, what is left? Only the candle and its light reflecting on the white cloth. Now think of these physical objects as metaphors for mental objects – thoughts, images, ideas, impressions – the various things of which we are aware when we think or feel. If we were to remove these mental objects from the field of conscious awareness what would remain but that which ‘illuminates’ the objects of thought, conscious awareness or presence? When only presence remains, without an object, that is meditation.

Thus, meditation is not the act of removing the mental objects but the present awareness that remains when they are no longer in the field of awareness. It is the state of simply being there and being aware. Meditation is not what we do; it is what might occur in the stillness that, if we are blessed, follows the doing.

Particularity: Meditation as encounter with the God and Father of Christ

Spiritual and secular meditation traditions have various names for what one connects with in the stillness of meditation. For the Hindu it might be Brahman, the spiritual energy that unifies all things, and for the Buddhist, the nothingness that is left when the illusion of individual existence is dissolved. For others it might be transcendence or inner peace. For those who meditate in the Christian tradition, that which meets us in the silence we call ‘God’.

This more than anything is what distinguishes Christian approaches to meditation: the faith that in the silence we are met by the mystery of the God who became human in Christ. This simple truth affects our entire approach to meditation practice. It keeps us ever mindful that although there are things we do, methods and practices that prepare us for meditation, it is the divine mystery we’re approaching and not some genie we conjure from a bottle. As Thomas Merton puts it, contemplation “is a gift of God that absolutely transcends all the natural capacities of the soul and which no man (sic) can acquire by any effort of his own.” [3] The meditative encounter is a divinely initiated grace or gift, and our practice, Gerald May suggests, “is the practice of opening one’s hands to receive the gift.”[4]

This notion of the silent interior encounter with the divine mystery is deeply rooted in the Judeo-Christian scriptures. In the book of Kings we find a story about the prophet Elijah who climbs Mount Horeb and enters a cave to wait there for God to “pass by”. As he waits a roaring wind blows up, so strong that it splits mountains and breaks rocks in pieces, but, we are told, “God was not in the wind.” Then comes an earthquake, then a fire; but God is in neither. After the fire comes “the sound of sheer silence.” When Elijah hears it he wraps his face in the mantle of his cloak and stands in the door of the cave where at last God makes himself known. This story of a wind that splits mountains is clearly symbolic, a beautiful metaphor for the experience of the Divine mystery through meditation; God was not in the earth shattering and awe-inspiring events; God came to Elijah as he waited in the stillness of his cave, and was there in the “sheer silence”.

The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel is a collection of ‘wisdom sayings’. In one of these sayings Jesus instructs his disciples in the art of prayer. “When you pray, enter your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” As with the Elijah story and most wisdom sayings this is not meant to be taken literally, as if we need a special prayer room built into our homes. Rather, like Elijah’s cave, the “inner room” is a symbol. To “enter your inner room” is to turn within oneself, and to “close the door” is to detach from the exterior sensory world: both prerequisites of contemplative prayer. Possibly the most poignant thing about this saying, though, is something that doesn’t come through in our English translation. In the original Greek text the word translated ‘Father’ is not a Greek word for father at all but the un-translated Aramaic ‘Abba’, a simple word akin to ‘papa’ or ‘mama,’ the name a small child might call its parent. Leaving this authentic word of Jesus un-translated was clearly intentional and, according to Thomas Keating, deliberately subversive, signalling a rejection of the traditional identification of Israel’s God with “the God of armies” in favour of a welcoming God to whom even the most vulnerable may turn in absolute trust. This saying makes very clear that the primary attitude we are to bring when we enter into the inner room of secret prayer (meditation) is “the realization that God is Abba: close, concerned, nurturing, bending over us with boundless protection, tenderness and love.” [5]

Interestingly, Abba is used on only two other occasions in the Christian canon, in the letters to the Romans and the Galatians where the emphasis each time is on our participation in the relationship of Christ to his Father. The clear implication is that to approach God in secret prayer as Abba is to share in the relationship of the Son to the Father: it is nothing less than to experience intimate loving union with the divine mystery.

The implication of the line of reasoning presented in this brief discussion is that while the Christian contemplative tradition in its contemporary incarnation may legitimately lay claim to its place alongside, for example, Hindu and Buddhist practices, its greatest utility is in its capacity to open up the possibility of an authentic meditative experience for people whose native ‘spiritual language’ is Christian. Such people are those for whom meditation in the Christian tradition is truly most relevant because, of all the great meditation traditions, this is the one whispered in the language their heart most readily hears.

Christopher Malcolm Knauf, 2014.

Notes:
[1] Jonathon Shear, (editor) The Experience of Meditation: Experts Introduce the Major Traditions
[2] Thomas Keating, Manifesting God 
[3] Thomas Merton, What is Contemplation? 
[4] Gerald May, The Awakened Heart: Opening Yourself To The Love You Need
[5] Keating, Manifesting God

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