A Brief Teaching: Christian Contemplation
Contemplative awareness is regarded as a gift of the Holy Spirit. When we speak of “Christian meditation,” we are referring to a way of opening ourselves to receive this gift which we believe God most wants to give. Meditation is a preparation for contemplation. It is a way of reducing the hyperactivity of our lives and bringing us to a state of quiet, open receptivity wherein we are ready to receive the grace of contemplation. Today, Christian meditation represents a recovery and renewal of the fifth century teachings of John Cassian, the Eastern Christian practice of the “Jesus prayer,” the fourteenth century classic The Cloud of Unknowing, and other sources. In the 1970s, leading monastics such as John Main, Basil Pennington and Thomas Keating put order in the scattered elements of the tradition with an eye toward our contemporary inclination for simple, clear, “how-to” instructions.
Get started by meditating each morning and evening for twenty to thirty minutes.
THE ESSENTIAL TEACHING
Seek a quiet place
Sit in a comfortable, upright position, relaxed but alert with your eyes lightly closed. Remain as still as possible.
Silently, interiorly, begin to say a single word or short phrase, e.g. Jesus, Abba, or Maranatha. Say it with faith and love. Some people find it helpful to say the word in equally stressed syllables in conjunction with their calm and regular breathing, e.g. Je-sus, Ab-ba, or Ma-ra-na-tha.
Do not think or imagine anything, spiritual or otherwise. When thoughts and images come and your attention strays, gently return to your word.
SEEK A QUIET PLACE
Choose a quiet corner of your room. A space which you use only for meditation and which is free from other associations is ideal. Decorate it with an icon, a candle, or an open Bible. If there is no quiet place in your home, look for one along the way of your daily route, e.g. a church.
SIT IN A COMFORTABLE, UPRIGHT POSITION
Find a posture in which you can be settled, still, and alert. Be comfortable so that for the duration of the meditation period the mind will not need to tend to the body. A quiet body inclines a quiet mind. An erect but not rigid spine facilitates easeful breathing and alert wakefulness. Examples: sitting in a straight-backed chair; sitting with one’s seat on a prayer bench and one’s knees on the floor; sitting cross-legged on the floor with the buttocks slightly elevated by a cushion.
SILENTLY REPEAT YOUR PRAYER WORD
Take a word from the context of faith; it will serve as a “pointer” for the mind. For example, “Maranatha” is Aramaic (Jesus’ own language) and means “Come Lord!” It is probably the most ancient Christian prayer. St. Paul ends his first letter to the Corinthians with it, and St. John ends the Book of Revelation with it. Because it is a foreign word, people generally do not have a lot of thoughts and images attached to it, which is an advantage since meditation is a way of prayer that goes beyond thoughts and images.
Another four-syllable mantra that easily accords with the breath is “Jesus, Abba.” Praying the holy name of Jesus has a long and rich tradition, and “Abba” evokes his own intimate communication with God. The breath on which the mantra rides is the Spirit, the bond of love uniting “Jesus” and “Abba.” Other prayer words or phrases are possible, and the tradition has many of them. Whatever your sacred word, by saying it with faith and with love, you generate the flow of faith and love in your own heart. Prayer’s first effect is in us. Once you have chosen your prayer word, stay with it and do not change it so that it becomes rooted in your consciousness.
Faithful repetition of the word is significant both in terms of attention and intention. The nature of the mind is to produce thoughts. One cannot expect the mind to all of a sudden come to a screeching halt just because it’s time to meditate. So the mind is given something to occupy it: a single word, which “thins out” the flow of thoughts in the mind and holds one’s attention on the Presence within. The word also carries one’s intention, one’s consent, to the work of God in us.
DEALING WITH THOUGHTS, IMAGES, FEELINGS AND MEMORIES
All of these are a normal experience in meditation. Expect a constant flow of them. To try to suppress all thoughts and feelings is both impossible and unhealthy. It is a question of not entering into dialogue with them, of not investing any energy by reacting, resisting, or retaining them. Just let them go. Their surfacing and passing up and out is part of the healing process of emptying, purification, and liberation that makes meditation a divine therapy. Each time you become aware that you have been “hooked” into dialogue with thought, gently return to your word, allowing it to repeatedly express your intention to be before the One Who Is, in full, loving attention.
TIME AND FREQUENCY.
The traditional times of meditation in all the world religions are early morning and late afternoon/early evening, before meals if at all possible. The recommendation of twenty to thirty minutes is made with an eye to two things: one, the minimal amount of time generally considered necessary to establish inner silence; and two, the maximum amount of time most contemporary people can realistically afford. The end of the prayer period can be indicated by a timer provided it does not have a loud tick or make a startling sound when it goes off. At the end of meditation, some make a gradual transition back into cognitive activity by slowly, interiorly reciting a prayer which expresses the attitude of openness and surrender which they have embodied during their time of prayer.
FINDING SUPPORT FOR YOUR PRACTICE
The “how-to” of meditation is simple. What is difficult is faithfulness to the discipline, holding that priority in place, interrupting what you are doing in order to pray. A support group praying and sharing together once a week helps maintain one’s commitment to the prayer and provides an opportunity for further input on a regular basis through talks, tapes and discussion.
The Christian Meditation School offers further explanation and resources for Christian Meditation. Contemplative Outreach offers excellent resources for Getting Started with Centering Prayer.
IN A PRAYER GROUP