Overview & History of Christian Mediation

Fr. Tom Ryan, CSP

Meditation is a universal path employed by seekers of God throughout history in their quest to penetrate surface appearances and come to grips with the Real. Meditation is not intellectual effort to master certain ideas about God. Its purpose is not to acquire or to deepen our speculative knowledge of God or of revelation. Rather than seeking to know about God through words, thoughts, and images, the meditator is seeking to experience God directly with the awareness of loving faith and God's indwelling presence.

In the Gospel of John in the New Testament, Jesus affirms God’s indwelling presence: “I will ask the Father and He will give you another Helper to be with you forever, the spirit of truth (whom) you know because he abides with you and will be in you” (14:17). And again: “If any loves me, they will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our abode with them” (14:23). Jesus’ invitation is to abide in him; his promise is that he will abide in us (15:4). Paul’s letters refer to the “mystery of Christ, hidden throughout the ages, which is Christ in you” (Col. 1:27).

The form of prayer referred to by the term “meditation” is based upon the conviction that, in addition to the mind and imagination with which we ordinarily communicate with God, we are endowed with what the Christian tradition calls a “mystical heart,” a faculty which makes it possible for us to be aware of the Presence within, to grasp and intuit God’s presence and being, though in a dark manner, apart from all images and concepts which necessarily distort God’s reality. In most of us, this heart lies dormant and undeveloped. If it were to be awakened, it would be constantly straining toward God.

The Christian monastic tradition developed a progressive way of awakening this mystical heart and coming to an experiential awareness of God. This process of unfolding encompasses the four kinds of prayer: oral, mental, affective, contemplative. In this process we see where contemplative prayer enters into the Christian experience of God. We generally learn how to pray with memorized prayers or hymns said or sung aloud (oral prayer). Then as our capacity to reason develops, we engage our minds more fully in prayer through analysis or reflection, such as in reading and reflecting on a passage of scripture (mental prayer). Our thoughts by and large stir the heart with emergent feelings of gratitude, fear, sorrow or joy which we express to God (affective prayer). When the heart has poured itself out, silence grows between the words, and we simply sit in the silence, resting in God’s presence and open to God’s love (contemplative prayer).

In this “resting in God,” there is an awareness that God is not only close or present, but is intimately present within us as the source of our being. Faith is the free consent to God in me. The life of faith is a conscious communion with that Presence. The core experience of the Christian life is a heart-to-heart relationship with the person of Christ and the indwelling Trinity who have come to make their home in us. In the words of twentieth century spiritual writer Thomas Merton, contemplation is not so much a way to find God as a way of resting in the One whom we have found. Coming to this awareness of the indwelling Divine Presence is the birthright of all Christians, the natural development of the grace of baptism. It is that communion with the Divine which is the longing of our hearts.

Three Schools of Meditative Practice

In the early 1970s, the increasing number of people from North America and Western Europe who were turning to Eastern forms of meditation served as a wake-up call to western Christian monastics to take a fresh look at the resources available in their own treasure chest to meet this pronounced interest in and hunger for more contemplative forms of prayer.

1. Christian Meditation 

In 1974, the Benedictine John Main opened a Christian meditation center at Ealing Abbey in England. While in the English foreign service in India, he had learned to meditate from a Hindu swami. Later, when he became a Benedictine monk, he began to discover the rich resources in his own tradition for meditative prayer.

In 1977, John Main and his colleague Laurence Freeman were invited by the bishop of Montreal to come and establish a Christian Meditation Center in the heart of the city. By the time John Main died in 1982, it had already become a key resource center for a growing international movement among lay members of the Christian churches. In 1991, the international center moved to London, England, as the World Community of Christian Meditation under the leadership of Laurence Freeman, OSB.

2. centering prayer

In 1975, a year after John Main opened his Christian Meditation center, three Trappist monks at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, MA,William Menninger, Basil Pennington, and Thomas Keatingbegan bringing together the scattered teachings on contemplative prayer and sharing this tradition with others in retreats.

Whereas John Main called his packaging of the tradition “Christian meditation,” the Trappist monks decided in favor of the title “centering prayer,” borrowing a reference from Thomas Merton, who spoke frequently of attaining the experience of God by going to one’s center and passing through it into the center of God. But both Trappists and Benedictines were working with the same primary resource material in the tradition.

Today, we might think of Christian Meditation and Centering Prayer as two “schools” in the recovery of Christian contemplative prayer as something intended, not just for the religious “professionals,” but for all those initiated into Christian faith. A difference between the two is that the Christian Meditation school attaches greater importance to the retention of the sacred prayer word or mantra throughout the period of meditation than does the Centering Prayer school.

3. In Silence and Awareness

In 1987, Mary Jo Meadow, with Carmelites Kevin Culligan and Daniel Chowning, began to lead Silence and Awareness meditation retreats, based on the teachings of St. John of the Cross and Vipassana (Insight) meditation practice. Rather than focusing on a sacred word, this third school enters meditation by cultivating awareness of the breath and experience of being.

Christian Contemplative Prayer

Together, these dedicated people have rendered the invaluable service of sifting through the gospels and the writings of the early desert fathers, as well as many Christian holy men and women like Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, and the rich Jesus Prayer tradition in the Christian East. With an eye toward the modern inclination for convenient “how-to” formats, they then brought these disparate teachings together into synthesized presentations for modern men and women seeking guidance in meditation today.

As a result of this effective crystallization, the tradition of Christian contemplative prayer is available to laity and clergy alike and is enjoying an unprecedented period of flowering among Christians throughout the world.