A reader named Steven responded to my Wasting Time with God post by writing, in part:
Carl, the terms “prayer,” “contemplation,” “meditation,” “non-discursive contemplation,” have been used in this conversation. I would very much like to understand how you would distinguish between them. Furthermore, I am trying to come to a deeper appreciation of the meaning and purpose of prayer.
Forgive me for not getting too detailed in my response here, for two reasons: 1. it’s late, and I want to get to bed, and 2. I address these issues in further detail in the forthcoming book. So, for now, here is an admittedly brief response.
First of all, “non-discursive” is used only for the purpose of adding emphasis. Talking about non-discursive contemplation is rather like talking about the very truth. Contemplation, as I understand it, is by its very nature non-discursive, or at least has as its goal the entry into a non-discursive way of relating to the divine.
Now, as for the distinctions between prayer, contemplation and meditation (please keep in mind that I am defining and using these terms explicitly in terms of the Christian wisdom tradition. My definitions may not make sense in other contexts):
- Both contemplation and meditation are forms of prayer;
- Contemplation is a form of meditation.
Therefore, let’s start with the broadest term (prayer), and finish up with the narrowest (c0ontemplation).
Prayer, as I understand it, involves communion/communication with God. Now we can go down the rabbit hole of “what is God?” but I’ll save that for another day. If the marker “God” makes you uncomfortable, try replacing it with “Holy Mystery.”
Just as there a variety of ways in which human beings can communicate (verbally, non-verbally) and for a variety of reasons (to get something done, to enjoy intimacy), so too prayer can take on a variety of forms, methods, techniques, and purposes. But it seems to me that whether we are praying to get something from God or simply to enjoy God; whether we pray using lots of words we find in a book or simply sharing the unrehearsed words of our hearts or employing a technique to silence the words in our mind, it all boils down to some action or dimension of communion or communication with God (the Holy Mystery).
So both the meaning and purpose of prayer is to facilitate such communion or communication.
Meditation, as a type or category of prayer, represents that point where we begin to relinquish control over our own prayer. It’s easy to approach prayer as if you need to be making a speech while God, your heavenly secretary, quietly takes good notes. But eventually such prayer dries up. Meditation (in the Christian sense) implies a quieter, more reflective, pondering or thoughtful consideration of God, or of some other aspect of your faith & relationship with the Holy Mystery. We pray using words for rain, but we meditate on God’s goodness. We pray with words to confess our sins, but we meditate on God’s forgiveness. We pray discursively to praise God, but we still our mind to simply rest in God’s praiseworthiness.
In the classical Christian understanding of the word, meditation can still be filled with thoughts, ideas, feelings, and mental chatter. It is, essentially, a cataphatic form of prayer, which is to say prayer that uses concepts and words and images to reach out to God. But there comes a point when we begin to recognize just how impoverished even the loftiest words and thoughts and concepts are when it comes to God. It seems that any word or image or concept that reveals God also in some significant way conceals God. It seems that the more we pray, the more we meditate, the more we mysteriously and inexplicably feel called to a place beyond words, beyond concepts and images, beyond anything that seems to come between us and God. The more and more we are able to move into this prayer beyond words, beyond images, the more we have embraced the path of contemplation.
Now, a number of “methods” or techniques for contemplation have been developed over the centuries, from John Cassian encouraging the repetition of Psalm 70:1 (69:2 in the Douay version) to the eastern fathers and the Jesus prayer, to the centering prayer movement in our own day. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with such intentional forms of prayer that aim to enter into contemplation, but I think that, ultimately, contemplation is a gift, that may or may not be given to us, even when we engage in a method or a technique. Repeating the Jesus prayer for hours a day may not make you a mystic, it could just mean you’re obsessive and compulsive. So, while such techniques for contemplation do exist, it’s important to keep in mind that what efforts to still or slow down the mind actually do is to dispose us to the mysterious action of the Holy Spirit — which may or may not take us where we “want” to go. It’s helpful, therefore, to keep in mind that even the apophatic (no-images) form of contemplative prayer is, at the foundation, still a form of prayer: seeking communion or communication with the Holy Other. And just like human-to-human communication, it doesn’t always go the way we want it to or think it should.
Okay, I’m begin to nod off, so I’ll end here. I hope this helps to make these terms at least a wee bit clearer, and perhaps will initiate further discussion and consideration from those who are more clever (or at least, more alert) than I am…