A brief theological foundation:
Humans are made in the image of God who is Trinity – Father*, Son and Holy Spirit, eternally one in love and relationship. Humans are therefore made for relationship and love, not only with each other but supremely with God. Many come to realise that this is the deepest desire within them. It is through meditative prayer that a human finds the grace to peal off the onion layers of false self with its superficial desires, and find the deepest yearnings of the heart which God longs to satisfy. It is God who reveals himself* and initiates the relationship of love with humans, supremely demonstrated by the Father sending his Son, Jesus Christ, into the world as a fully human person thus enabling us to relate to God through him, in the Holy Spirit.
(* God is not male, but beyond gender since both males and females are made in his image. The terms Father and Son primarily reveal the vital relational aspect of God. The male personal pronoun is used throughout this publication for reasons of convention – unfortunately English lacks a personal non-gender pronoun available in some languages).
The meaning of the word ‘meditation’ like many terms, varies depending on context. It is sometimes defined in Christian literature as prayerful reflection on the scriptures but something different to contemplation. For some, the term connotes eastern religious practices of prayer. For the purposes of this introduction, the term includes both the concept of contemplation and prayerful reflection. The emphasis is on silence and solitude which helps still our ego driven minds. This facilitates listening more attentively to God and entering into more intimate communion and loving relationship with him.
Some background information
Many places in the Old and New Testaments, especially the Psalms, indicate that meditation of the sort referred to here, is part of the Christian heritage and certainly has been explicit and emphasised in the church through religious movements as far back as the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the 4th Century AD.
Unfortunately in recent centuries, the Church, especially Western Protestantism, has largely ignored this vital aspect of prayer. A reason for this may be the concentration on ‘left brain’ (logical thinking, intellectual, narrowly focused, result oriented) learning which formal education and many churches have adopted. Recent scientific investigation of the brain and its thought processes has revealed the role of the ‘right brain’ (creative, imaginative, intuitive, feeling, lateral thinking) as being essential in solving complex problems and maintaining balanced psychological health and social relationships. Both modes of thinking are essential not only in day to day functioning but for a healthy spirituality. It is worth noting that Jesus reiterated the Old Testament command that we should love God with all our mind – not just the left side and much of his teaching such as the parables appealed to right brain thinking.
Christian and Eastern Meditation
The approach of eastern religions is to empty the mind through certain physical and mental techniques such as relaxation exercises, images and chanting in order to seek a state of nothingness, an ‘absorption’ into the cosmos or ‘Nirvana’. Such a goal makes the meditator vulnerable to malevolent spiritual influences which can fill the void.
Christian meditation may use some similar ‘techniques’ such as relaxation, music, focus on a word, image, story or symbol to help disengage from temporal concerns and be available for God. But the purpose is not to achieve a void, but communion with the living God. Thus the Christian meditator seeks ‘the still small voice of God’ (1Kings 19:12), which is the way God usually seems to speak to us subjectively. It is for this reason the Psalmist exhorts us, ‘Be still and know (not just intellectually but experientially) that I am God’ (Psalm 46:10) and ‘My soul, wait (be silent, cease, be still) only upon God.’ (Psalm 61:5)
It is in this context that the meditator can use the ‘left brain’ outside any ‘experience’ to humbly reflect on it in the light of Scripture especially, but also in the light of the writings of other Christians who have practiced meditation down through the centuries. A spiritual director is of great benefit in assisting such a person discern and interpret the spirit of the experience. Without these helps and guidance, there is a danger of misguided mysticism that convinces itself that the voice of the subtle false ego and exalted feeling is really the voice of God.
Some helps to meditation
· A quiet unhurried atmosphere
· A relaxed mind and body
Relaxation techniques include:
- good posture (lying flat on your back; kneeling or sitting with a straight but not stiff back)
- muscle relaxation exercises
- focus on breathing – long, slow deep breaths from the pit of the stomach
- focus on a symbol, word, phrase or scene in the imagination
- pray a ‘prayer of the heart’ – slowly, deliberately and repeatedly; eg, “Jesus have mercy”, “Come Lord Jesus”
· A short explicit prayer to God for help and guidance
· Discipline – set aside time regularly. Start modestly and as your desire for communion with God develops then increase the amount of time. Some people with busy family and work commitments may pray this way for say 15 minutes daily but on weekends find a whole hour.
· Perseverance to switch off from other concerns and keep returning to God if distractions come. It is best to acknowledge these briefly (perhaps commit them to God specifically and also briefly) and then deliberately put them aside and return to God.
· Meditate on the scriptures, especially the Gospel stories and parables and imagine the scene with you entering it. Then let the Holy Spirit guide what happens.
· A sense of poverty and humility. Poverty makes beggars of us and creates a sense of urgency and humility in our desires. It is not that God is unwilling to respond (in fact our relationship with him is always initiated by him) but he knows that our ability to receive is limited without a real sense of need. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 5:3). Part of this poverty is an awareness of our sin and shortcomings. Thus we come to God confident only in his gracious acceptance of us as our Father.
· A hunger and thirst for the things of God. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.” (Matthew 5:6) Note that it is the desire for righteousness (ultimately the desire for Him who is its source), not desire for ecstatic feelings or an experience of God ‘speaking’ to you, which is promised to be fulfilled.
· The Holy Spirit. He is God on our side, our ultimate Helper. He communicates with the Father on our behalf in a manner beyond words (Romans 8:26-27). Invite him to help you, revealing the depths of both your own heart and that of God’s heart for you.
What to expect
· If meditation as described is new to you, you might find it difficult to let your mind be still. Do not worry if this happens; just keep returning to your focus on God and appreciate whatever you receive – which may simply be the grace to persevere despite the struggle. This is pleasing to God.
· You might experience strong emotions which surprise you. Do not suppress these. Release them, you need not be embarrassed if it occurs in the presence of your spiritual director, who is trained to expect such emotions to surface (and they do, frequently!). Release often brings relief, healing, self-understanding, revelation of God’s love and growing intimacy with him.
· You may hear God’s still small voice as interiorly audible words, images or pictures (a vision), or through a dream when sleeping. But remember, such wonderful experiences for which you should thank God, are not an end in themselves. The goal is more intimate communion and relationship with God. It is a mistake of some involved with the Charismatic movement to become focussed on experiences rather than the God who gives them.
· You may not hear any interior voice or see an interior vision but just have a real sense of God’s presence bringing you some freeing truth, enlightenment or just a sense of his love.
· Often, there is no discernible experience of God. We cannot manipulate him by following a particular set of rules or techniques. Prayer is about a relationship between 2 persons – you and God. Sometimes we get to know God better in the deserts and shadows of life. The evidence of the value of meditation is not ecstatic experience but a life which is gently changed to produce the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience etc.
· Finally be prepared to be surprised and delighted. Remember, Jesus rose from the dead and is fully alive. He is therefore able and desirous of meeting with you, where you are and as you have need and desire, at its deepest level. The risen Jesus says, “Behold I am with you always.”