Before I preach I say a short prayer: "May be the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer." It's the last verse of Psalm 19. Because of the promotion of Transcendental Meditation since the 1970s, if you use the term "meditation" nowadays people are apt to picture someone sitting cross-legged, eyes closed, and possibly chanting softly a word like "Om." But that stereotypical visual represents but one member of the family of practices called "meditation" which are found in every faith tradition. It generally involves focused concentration on one thing to the exclusion of all other thought. It may be a concept, a word, one's breathing, or the present moment. The object is often an altered state of mind or mode of perception.
This month's slip from the sermon suggestion box asks us to contrast and compare meditation and prayer. It also asks if they vary between Christianity and other religions.
In the Bible the word "meditation" appears most frequently in the Psalms. The object of meditation is almost always God's nature or deeds or law. In these instances, meditation is used in the original sense of "deep thought." The object is not to empty the mind or attain an emotional state but to gain insight and wisdom. However, the effect on the person meditating is often a sense of awe or delight or peace.
Meditation in this sense is not so much ritual as reflection. It can be a rational exercise: ie, If God is love, what follows logically from that? Or it can be simply turning an idea or verse over and over in one's mind, examining it as one would an object with many sides or facets. How many facets are there to the idea that God created everything? What additional insight does each facet add to our understanding? How do the various facets relate to each other or modify our perception of the whole? Or, realizing that all language about God is metaphorical, one can meditate on what a particular metaphor in scripture reveals about God. The Bible speaks of God as father. How far does the metaphor go and at what point does it break down? Another type of reflection is on the practical implications of a verse or passage. If we are to love our enemies, how do we go about doing that?
But do Christians ever use meditation in the sense that other traditions do, as a mental activity not governed by rigorous logic or with a sharply articulated goal? Zen Buddhists may focus on an imponderable riddle called a koan, such as the famous "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" Muslims may meditate on the 99 names of Allah. Some consider saying the Rosary is a form of Christian meditation, and in addition to the Roman Catholic rosary, there are now other versions, including an Anglican one. In Eastern Orthodoxy an aid to meditation since the 4th century has been the Jesus Prayer. In its simplest form it goes like this: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." This can be said over and over. One can emphasize a different word each time and hear how the meaning subtly shifts.
In the case of both the Jesus Prayer and the Rosary, the meditation is also a form of prayer. It is a way of communicating with God and of God communicating with us. As we contemplate the words, new meanings and nuances emerge and resonate in our minds and hearts. Simple words and phrases take on unexpected depths. You may feel as if you are hearing familiar words for the first time.
Unlike yoga, Christian meditation has no set of positions to hold. But finding a time and place that's quiet is optimal for concentration. This may have been easier when these contemplative disciplines were developed in the monasteries, with set times for prayers and meditation. In today's very busy, very noisy world, finding solitude is not easy; rather it is vital. God prescribed the Sabbath for us, a whole day out of the week in which to refrain from labor and rest, while meditating on his Word. But in a 24/7 world, we may need pockets of Sabbaths spread throughout the day or week.
One source of such a pocket Sabbath is found in the Book of Common Prayer. We call it the Daily Office and it boils down the 7 hours of prayers practiced by medieval monks and nuns into 3 main services which may be read individually or by a group. Morning Prayer consists of invocations for the season, confession, selections from the psalms, daily readings from the Bible, the Apostles Creed, prayers, a general thanksgiving, and blessing. The noonday service is shorter while Evening Prayer is the length of Morning Prayer. For bedtime, there is the delightful little additional service called Compline (BCP, p. 127).
If these services are too long, the prayer book offers mini-devotions that run a page each (BCP, p. 136). And the Prayer Book provides outlines of the service for DIY service construction.
I personally use Celtic prayers composed by David Adam to put me in the proper frame of mind for worship or to tackle the frenzied work schedule of the nursing home. It reminds me of the fact that, amid the tribulation Jesus said we would experience in this world, he promises his peace. It reminds me that he dwells in me and I in him. I incorporate the Jesus Prayer as well as a few of my own composition. The best thing is that, having memorized these prayers, I can use them anywhere, anytime, regardless of whether I have a Prayer Book at hand.
And I can alter them to circumstances and include my own petitions and thanksgivings. Episcopalians have been called "the people who love to read to God" but prayer is basically talking with God. We should not be afraid of spontaneous prayer. God is not a prosecuting attorney, ready to jump on any misstatements we make and turn them against us. He is a loving father, patiently hearing out his children and helping them articulate what they really mean. As Paul says In Romans 8, "The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God." God is including us in the divine conversation, helping us even when we don't know how to say what we want to say. But it does help to have some words as a jumping off point.
This is why all forms of Christian meditation are developed around a kernel of content: a passage, a prayer, a spiritual truth. It is important in any kind of meditation to have a focal point, something on which to concentrate one's attention. It gives us a firm grounding, a foundation on which to build spires of inspiration. Think of the words we begin with as C.S. Lewis did of the formal liturgy, not as monotonous repletion but as the flat, even, stable runway the airplane of our devotion needs so that we can take off and soar.
Sometimes we need things repeated for them to make a real impact. For instance, slow, deliberate repetition of the words "God loves us" really lets the idea sink in. It penetrates, resonates, calms and reassures. It says, "I mean it." That's why we use repetition with children or those who are in emotional turmoil.
We are built for meditation, it seems. Studies of Zen Buddhist monks and Franciscan nuns who meditate show that their brains change in many beneficial ways. According to neuroscientist Dr. Andy Newberg, the portions of the brain that have to do with attention and focus are strengthened, as are the parts that foster compassion. The centers where fear and anger originate are calmed. In addition, the brains of those who meditate regularly do not age at the same rate as their contemporaries. They retain more gray matter.
Changing minds is at the heart of Christianity. It is done by what we do and say and think. Meditation is one way we can change our minds. It is a way of expanding our understanding of the God who creates, redeems and sustains us. It is a way of perceiving his many facets. It is a way exploring the names and metaphors for God, saying to each as one mystic did "This, too, is you; yet this is not you." It is a way of teasing out the implications of what we discover and how we should act in response. It is a way that we can communicate our deepest feelings to God and hearing his voice resonate within us. It is a way that we can experience him dwelling in us and we in him.
In this hectic, impulsive world, taking time for reflection can be seen as a luxury. It is not. It is important that we take regularly time out to get in touch with God, who gives all things meaning and purpose. Meditation is one method of discovering those meanings, including those that are hard to articulate. Not everything in the world can be reduced to logic or even expressed in words. Otherwise we would not need poetry, rituals, music, dance, or drama, all of which are also used in worship. Meditation is another way to explore the mysteries of a God too big to be contained by any of the finite methods we use to try to tame unruly reality. This is not to say we can know nothing about him, or not know the essential truths about him, just that we cannot know everything. And that means there is always more to explore about God and the infinite expressions of his love.