An Invitation to Drink Deeply of Scripture and the Saints’ Great Prayers
Monika M. Rodman, M. Div., RYT
“Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” – Philippians 4:8
Most contemporary Christians who practice meditation or contemplative prayer do so using one of two methods: “Centering Prayer” (a tradition passed on through Trappist Fathers Thomas Merton, Basil Pennington and Thomas Keating) or “Christian Meditation” (taught by Benedictine Fathers John Main and Laurence Freeman). While these two approaches differ slightly, they share the use of a single word or phrase as a mental focal point on which to focus the mind and heart during a period of meditation. If the mind or heart wanders, or the body exhibits restlessness, one gently – and often repeatedly – guides attention back to the chosen prayer word or phrase, the mantram (South Indian usage for mantra). Preferred mantras among Christians include the climactic closing prayer of the Christian scriptures, Maranatha (“Come, Lord!”), and various versions of Eastern Christianity’s beautiful Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Several years ago I was introduced to another method of meditation. It is called “passage meditation,” and has served as a marvelous tool for prayer and personal transformation. It has helped deepen my intimacy with Christ and his Word, and continues to assist me in my slow, grace-led growth in holiness. In this essay I will describe this method and its allied disciplines as I have learned them through the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation, based in Northern California. I will also attempt to describe some of the fruits of this spiritual discipline, which has been of immense help to me in the last few years of my journey of Christian discipleship. Finally I will suggest passages that could provide many months of fruitful meditation practice for any Christian seeking a daily discipline of this sort.
“Passage meditation” is the term coined by Indian spiritual teacher Sri Eknath Easwaran. I was introduced to this method during a time in which I was experiencing restlessness and aridity in my own prayer. A yoga teacher with whom I had studied for several years, and whose humble and joyful spirit I had long admired, recommended this meditation practice. When I inquired more deeply of her experience with the method, what impressed me is that she did not speak of experiencing any spiritual rush or emotional high from this practice. She spoke of its fruits: those she knew who practiced this method were among the finest, most selfless human beings she had ever met.
With such a recommendation, I chose to learn more. I borrowed her copy of Sri Eknath’s book Meditation: A simple 8-point program for translating spiritual ideals into daily life. Its teaching on passage meditation is given as the foundational discipline of eight “allied disciplines” of the spiritual life, as Easwaran called them. (The other seven disciplines are: use of a mantram [Sanskrit singular for mantra], slowing down, practice of one-pointed attention, training the senses, putting others first, spiritual companionship and reading the mystics. Aside from a few words on the mantram, I will not elaborate on these here.)
Passage meditation involves committing to memory passages from the sacred scriptures and the writings of the holy men and women we call “saints.” One passes the memorized passage through the mind slowly and repeatedly. Should the mind wander, one gently calls it back to the passage, starting over if necessary, as many times as needed. Easwaran recommends tried and true wisdom with regard to posture (comfortably seated, with spine tall but not stiff), place (a clean space dedicated to this practice, comfortably warm but with fresh air to prevent sleepiness), and time (thirty minutes in the morning). With regard to the wandering mind, Easwaran recalls the encouragement of St. Francis de Sales: “Even if you did nothing during the whole of your hour but bring your mind back and place it again in our Lord’s presence, though it went away every time you brought it back, your hour would be very well employed.”
Despite Easwaran’s frequent citing of the teachings of Christian saints on prayer and meditation, it will be important to some readers to note that neither the origins nor the goals of passage meditation are specifically related to the Christian creed. Its teachings focus on that which is commonly shared by all great religious traditions. The strength of passage meditation and its allied disciplines is its universal applicability and its practical, concrete way of helping translate religious aspirations into the rhythm and fiber of daily living. It is practiced by growing numbers of Christians, and could be profitable to many more. Those I have met share experiences similar to mine: increased joy, growth in the virtuous qualities to which the scriptures and saints admonish us, an ever deepening ability to abide in God’s peace and share that peace with others.
Recently, while traveling, I attended Sunday eucharist and was pleasantly caught off guard by an unusual liturgical detour: After the Old Testament scripture had been proclaimed and the psalm had been prayed responsively by cantor and congregation, the presider interrupted the normal flow of the mass. He urged the entire congregation to commit to memory the psalm we had just prayed, reminding us that this was a scripture passage (Psalm 23) that could be universally helpful to those we love, particularly the ones who are sick or otherwise suffering. The presider led us in slowly, deliberately praying the psalm again. The service then proceeded as usual, and I smiled, realizing that this unexpected exercise embodied in an abbreviated form the wisdom of passage meditation.
Psalm 23 is, in fact, one of the first passages that Easwaran suggests new meditators memorize and practice. The other is the “Prayer of St. Francis.” He recommends passages from the Buddhist and Hindu scriptures, as well as those of the great Christian mystics. While Easwaran’s universalism leads him to recommend that all persons memorize wisdom passages from traditions other than their own, a Christian might most worthily invest his or her time and attention compiling a rich repertoire of strictly Christian passages: Old and New Testament writings, sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, traditional prayers such as St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Anima Christi and “Take, Lord, Receive,” and prayers and inspirational writings of the founders and reformers of one’s own Christian confession, such as John Wesley or Martin Luther.
What basic principle underlies the practice of passage meditation? While the priest who led us in slowly repeating Psalm 23 at mass emphasized the apostolic value of being able to share scriptural and saintly wisdom with others, passage meditation assumes that its chief benefit is for the practitioner. The image that best describes for me what the method offers is “drip irrigation” for mind, heart and soul. Through patient, persistent practice, the wisdom of the chosen sacred passage makes its way deep into the recesses of one’s consciousness. Over time one’s personality and one’s very being are shaped and formed in that wisdom.
The practice evokes St. Paul’s admonition that Christ’s followers not only offer our bodies as a living sacrifice, but that we be transformed by the renewal of our minds. Certainly, to slowly and repeatedly “drink in” the power-packed Truth of the Word and the wisdom of the saints helps effect this transformation. This renewal of mind shapes our vision – our way of seeing ourselves, our relationships to others, our mission and purpose on earth, in our family and our workplace. To spend time drinking in eternal wisdom has a way of putting into perspective quite dramatically both the frustrations and elations that arise throughout the day. We begin to see differently, to re-frame our reactions to others and our interactions with them. In slowing down, we can choose to respond according to our better instincts rather than our “old self”.
By practicing meditation on these longer passages, what then happens to the use of a more abbreviated mantram such as Maranatha, Shalom, or the Name of Jesus? The passage meditation school considers use of a mantram the first of the “allied disciplines” that accompanies meditation as a foundation for the spiritual life. I myself have found a rich complementarity between a morning practice of passage meditation, and moment-to-moment use of the mantram throughout the day. Easwaran particularly recommends use of the brief mantram as a help when one is seized by strong emotions or temptations. Moments of anger, lust, deep sadness or perplexity are optimal times for repetition of the mantram. Certainly in the Christian tradition, the Holy Name of Jesus has great power to diminish the seemingly overwhelming power of temptation and carry the believer across the rushing waters of struggle. My own practice of the Jesus prayer most often takes the abbreviated form, “Jesus, Mercy,” and accompanies me through many moments of the day. It has proved spiritually fruitful in the wide variety of experiences that make up my daily effort to seek and find Christ, to love and serve Him in others.
For the last several years, passage meditation has made up the explicitly “meditative” part of my prayer life. It is not the sum total of my prayer life, but it has been one of the most deeply transformative dimensions of it. It is a wonderful complement to other prayer forms, both individual and communal. Along with daily prayer of the liturgy of the hours, passage meditation has become the daily bread of my prayer.
I am not by nature an early riser. So to help my morning transition from sleepiness to a more wakeful disposition for prayer, I generally precede my meditation practice with 7-10 minutes of pranayama. First, basic three-part yogic breathing, followed by rapid diaphragmatic (skull-shining) breath and alternate nostril breathing. Then, following 20 minutes of passage meditation, I move directly into the liturgy of the hours’ Morning Prayer, including chanting of the psalms. Thus, my morning practice incorporates several elements of yogic practice (breath, chant and mind concentration) within an entirely Christian framework. I do not generally meditate at night, but I do practice an Ignatian review of the day and most often pray a Night Prayer psalm. I repeat the mantram while falling asleep, and find it helps bring depth and quality of rest, so as to rise refreshed for another day which starts once again with the passage. My asana practice of body movement consists of a brief morning practice daily, and a couple of longer evening practices each week.
In conclusion, my exploration of passage meditation and its allied disciplines has been immensely helpful in my life of Christian prayer. Together with yoga’s body and breath practices, and complemented by my ever-challenging connection to the liturgical life of the Christian community, passage meditation has been a wonderful companion on my spiritual journey. It not only allows me to “drink deeply” of scripture and great Christian prayers, but helps me respond in a more Christ-like manner to the many people and situations I encounter in daily life. It opens me up to respond to God’s transforming work to fashion in me a “new creation” that reflects but a spark of God’s own goodness and beauty.
About the author: Monika M. Rodman lives in Southern Italy, where she is involved with Italy's first-ever post-abortion healing ministry, Rachel's Vineyard.