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Called to the Contemplative Spiritual Path
Little did I imagine what a profound change I would experience in my life when I was introduced to meditation from a Christian perspective.
Christian meditation is a prayer practice deeply rooted in the Christian tradition in which one listens to the Word of God and allows to work within one’s being. (1)
What makes meditation Christian is that the practice is based on the faith that the kingdom of God is within a person. Luke 17:20-21 states: Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you [emphasis mine]” (NIV). In this context, Main writes that we need to understand that the Kingdom of God is not a place but rather an experience. (2)
Also, Romans 8:26-27 states: “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will [emphasis mine]” (NIV).
As Main notes, “prayer, then, is the life of the Spirit of Jesus within one’s heart.” (3)
In meditation we enter more deeply into the space within, and can experience the love of God already present in one’s heart. Romans 5:5 states: “God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us” (NIV). Also, Galatians 4:6 states: “Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father’” (NIV).
The Use of a Mantra
The repetition of a mantra assists one to move into a place or state of silence and emptiness. The simple constant repetition is one of the best ways of casting out the distractions and “monkey chatter” from the mind. (4)
This mantra-based form of Christian meditation, used today in the Eastern and Western Churches, comes from the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the late third and fourth centuries. A Christian monk, John Cassian, introduced the mantra-based practice of meditation to Western monasticism in the late fourth century. It was his spiritual writings which later influenced Benedict in the formation of his Rule. (5) This mantra-based prayer was revived in contemporary times by John Main OSB.
An example of a mantra is the word maranatha, an Aramaic word translated “Lord, come” (1 Corinthians 16:22, NKJV) or “Come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20, NKJV). Another mantra is the Jesus Prayer: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13, NIV).
Gradually, a mantra will become rooted in one’s being, and will overflow into one’s life.
The purpose of saying a mantra, then, is threefold: (1) It helps to deal with distractions since the mind needs a point of focus, something for it to be absorbed on so that distractions can be ignored; (2) it leads to a condition of simplicity; and (3) it is an expression of faith in Christ who lives in our hearts. (6)
In sum, the mantra is simply a means of turning our attention beyond ourselves – a method of drawing us away from one’s own thoughts and concerns. We turn the searchlight of consciousness off ourselves – and in the process attain a harmony of body, mind, and spirit. The psalmist wrote: “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10, NIV). (7) The mantra helps to bring our distracted mind to stillness, silence, and attention.
The Value of Meditation
Through meditation, an inner change takes place over time – recognized by the person themselves, and sometimes by others. Meditation leads to growth in self-knowledge, inner healing, and integration. It is a way of growth, a way of deepening one’s commitment to life, and a way leading to one’s own maturity – coming to a greater fullness of life, fullness of love, fullness of wisdom.
How Christian Meditation Leads to a Contemplative Spiritual Path
Not a great deal appears to happen to the meditator during the time of meditation. Main states that “meditation is not about getting into altered states of consciousness or seeing and experiencing anything out of the ordinary but about entering more fully into the ordinary and discovering thereby the absolute wonder of it, the presence of God.” (8)
In meditation, we are not thinking or imagining about God at all – we go beyond thoughts, even holy thoughts. We seek to do something immeasurably greater – we seek to be with God the Father, to be with God the Son, to be with God the Holy Spirit. Meditation, then, is not concerned with thinking, but with being. (9)
From our experience in Christian meditation, our aim is to subsequently allow God’s mysterious and silent presence within us to become the reality which gives meaning, purpose, and shape to everything we do and to everything we are. (10)
Meditation, then, has been recognized as an often missing contemplative dimension of Christian life today.
Bede Griffiths wrote the
Personally, I find that meditation, morning and evening, every day, is the best and most direct method of getting in touch with reality. In meditation, I try to let go of everything of the outer world of the senses, of the inner world of thoughts, and listen to the inner voice, the voice of the Word, which comes in the silence, in the stillness when all activity of body and mind cease. Then, in the silence, I become aware of the presence of God, and I try to keep that awareness during the day. In a bus or a train or travelling by air, in work or study or talking and relating to others, I try to be aware of this presence in everyone and in everything. And the Jesus prayer is what keeps me aware of this presence. (From the Inner Direction Journal, Summer 1996)
Christian meditation is the keystone for contemplative living. In his book, Open Mind, Open Heart, Thomas Keating presents methods of extending the effects of contemplative prayer into daily life. (11) The following practices that can help maintain one’s reservoir of interior silence throughout the day, and thus extend its effects into ordinary activities, are taken (and adapted) from Keating’s book:
1. Spend time daily listening to the Word of God in lectio divina. Give fifteen minutes or longer every day to the reading of Scripture or a spiritual book that speaks to your heart.
2. Use Scripture-based affirmations. Keating states it this way: Choose a prayer for action. This is a five to nine-syllable sentence from Scripture (or an aspiration drawn from Scripture) for use in daily life that you gradually work into your subconscious by repeating it mentally at times when your mind is relatively free (such as while washing up, doing light chores, walking, waiting). Synchronize it with your heartbeat. Eventually, it says itself – that is, in time it becomes a “tape” similar to the old “tapes” that accompany one’s upsetting emotions. When this occurs, the active prayer (or aspiration) has the effect of erasing the old tapes. This practice is indeed similar to using affirmations. Here are some examples:
a. O God, make haste to help me.
b. Bless the Lord, my soul.
c. My Lord and my God.
d. Lord increase my faith
e. Not my will but Thine be done.
f. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.
g. Through Him, with Him, in Him.
h. Our help is in the name of the Lord.
i. Holy Spirit, pray in me.
j. Speak Lord, Your servant is listening.
From personal experience, active prayers can spring from one’s Scripture reading. Examples, taken from the New International Version of the Bible, follow:
a. Be still, and know that I am God. (Ps 46:10)
b. God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts. (Gal 4:6)
c. The Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” (Gal 4:6)
d. Do everything without complaining or arguing. (Phil 2:14)
e. My grace is sufficient for you. (2 Cor 12:9)
f. My power is made perfect in weakness. (2 Cor 12:9)
g. The LORD is my shepherd. (Ps 23:1)
h. I will fear no evil (Ps 23:4)
i. You are with me. (Ps 23:4)
j. My cup runs over. (Ps 23:5, NKJV)
k. I will trust, and will not be afraid. (Isaiah 12:2, NRSV)
l. I will give you rest. (Matt 11:28, NKKV)
3. Practice mindfulness. Keating uses the words, “practice guard of the heart”. This is the practice of releasing upsetting emotions into the present moment. The guard of the heart requires the prompt letting go of personal likes or dislikes. When something arises independently of our plans, we spontaneously try to modify it. Our first reaction, however, should be openness to what is actually happening, so that if our plans are upset, we are not upset. It disposes us to accept painful situations as they arise – then we can decide what to do with them, modifying, correcting, or improving them. In other words, the ordinary events of daily life become our practice. The routine of daily life is the path to holiness.
4. Cultivate a basic acceptance of yourself. Have genuine compassion for yourself, including all your past history, failings, limitations, and sins. Expect to make many mistakes. But, learn from them. To learn from experience is the path to wisdom.
5. Have unconditional acceptance toward others. By accepting other people unconditionally, you discipline your emotions that want to get even with others or to get away from them. You allow people to be who they are with all their idiosyncrasies and with the particular behavior that is disturbing you.
6. Avoid excessive group identification. This is the practice of letting go our cultural conditioning, preconceived ideas, and over-identification with the values of our particular group. It also means openness to change in ourselves, openness to spiritual development beyond group loyalties, and openness to whatever the future holds.
7. Remind yourself of your commitment to contemplative living. Keating suggests carrying a “Minute Book”. This would be comprised of a series of short readings – a sentence or two, or at most a paragraph – from your favorite spiritual writers (or from your own journal) that reminds you of your commitment to Christ and to contemplative prayer. Carry it in your pocket or purse and when you have a stray minute or two, read a few lines.
8. Transcend the false self (your ego). Keating writes in terms of deliberately dismantling the emotional programming of the false self. The effort to dismantle the false self is a part of extending the good effects of Christian meditation into every aspect of daily life.
9. Join a contemplative prayer group. Join or set up a support group that meets weekly to do Christian meditation – and to thereby encourage one another in the commitment to the contemplative dimensions of the Gospel. The weekly meeting also serves as a means of accountability, and just knowing that one’s support group is meeting together each week is an encouragement to keep going.
(1) Australian Christian Meditation Community, An Introduction to Christian Meditation (Brisbane: ACMC, 2008).
(2) John Main, Community of Love (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1990).
(3) Quoted in ACMC, An Introduction to Christian Meditation.
(4) ACMC, An Introduction to Christian Meditation.
(8) Quoted in ACMC, An Introduction to Christian Meditation.
(9) ACMC, An Introduction to Christian Meditation.
(11) Thomas Keating, Open Mind, Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel (New York: Continuum, 1992), 105-107.
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