Why to meditate

© 2012 Phil Fox Rose — North-South Lake, NY

In a famous exchange, Dan Rather asked Mother Teresa of Calcutta what she says in prayer and she replied, “I don’t say anything. I listen.” Rather asked, “Well, then when you pray, what does God say?” She said, “He doesn’t say anything either. He listens.”

I often describe meditation in this way: Imagine you and a loved one on the couch, each sitting quietly, not talking, just being in each other’s presence. Not thinking, simply loving. You don’t need to talk.

Meditation in the Christian tradition is sitting in the presence of God — not expecting answers, just being. And like sitting with a loved one, this simple act is heartening and strengthening.

Many people see meditation simply as quiet time — a refuge from their hectic lives. They know they’re spinning out of control a bit and they want some relief or some help. It is relief and it will help, but that’s not really what meditation is about. My meditation for Christians resource page here focuses on how to do it, so I want to expand on why it’s so useful. In particular, I want to speak to why it’s so useful for Christians, because there’s a lot of fear-based misinformation out there. I see it in comment threads; I hear it from churchgoers and friends. And most of the criticism starts with basic misunderstandings that meditation is “Eastern” and self-centered.

Anyone who makes even a cursory survey of the literature on the Christian contemplative practice of Centering Prayer will discover that its purpose is to cultivate one’s communion with God. While other forms of sitting meditation may not be as direct in this focus on God’s presence, almost all serve to help you become more awake and aware, and more accepting of reality just as it is, which in Christian terminology means accepting God’s Will as it unfolds, rather than fighting against it.

Obediently accepting

In meditation, we bask in the Love of God, but we also practice and deepen our experience of obedience and nonattachment. The Kenosis hymn found in Philippians 2 — one of the most ancient Christian hymns, chanted still by Catholic monks as part of their Vespers service — contains the best description of this obedience:

Though He was in the form of God,
Jesus did not deem equality with God
something to be grasped at.
Rather, he emptied himself,
and took the form of a slave,
being born in the likeness of men.
He was known to be of human estate,
and it was thus that he humbled himself,
obediently accepting even death
(part of the Kenosis hymn in Philippians 2:6-11;
version taken from The Liturgy of the Hours)

The translations in the Liturgy of the Hours, the NRSV and New American Bible use the term “slave,” but many say “servant.” Slave is better. To be human means to be a slave to reality, a slave to the laws of the material realm, including death. We must “obediently accept” our powerlessness in the face of this reality if we are to be at peace, with ourselves and with God. Even Jesus, as a human, was obedient to this truth.

The Original Sin of the Garden of Eden was that Adam and Eve grasped at equality with God. It is in trying to play God — trying to defy God’s Will and not accept reality the way it is — that we create suffering for others and ourselves. Jesus’ example, for us to model, is to not grasp at equality with God, but to obediently accept God’s Will and the laws of the physical realm, “even death.” This does not mean that the laws can’t be overruled — but rather that if this happens it is through grace, not through our applying our willpower to the situation.

“Of God Himself can no man think”

Perhaps the best explanation of why kenosis, or self-emptying, through meditation helps us to have this attitude modeled by Jesus — and thus why it is just as relevant for Christians as for anyone else — is in The Cloud of Unknowing, the 14th Century source on which Centering Prayer is based. While its Middle English is challenging, this mystical classic, written by a cloistered English monk, offers the patient reader rich guidance — the reasons to meditate, the pitfalls to watch out for, and techniques to aid in its effectiveness.

Here’s how it explains the reason for a Christian to practice silent meditation:

“For of all other creatures and their works, yea, and of the works of God’s self, may a man through grace have fullhead of knowing, and well he can think of them; but of God Himself can no man think. And therefore I would leave all that thing that I can think, and choose to my love that thing that I cannot think. For why: He may well be loved, but not thought. And therefore, although it be good sometimes to think of the kindness and the worthiness of God in special, and although it be a light and a part of contemplation: nevertheless yet in this work it shall be cast down and covered with a cloud of forgetting.”

In other words, you can know God only through loving God. Thinking about things of the world is fine; thinking about God can even “be a light and a part of contemplation,” but to fully open to loving God, you must set thinking aside and just be.

About Phil Fox Rose

Phil Fox Rose is a writer, editor and content lead based in New York. He is coordinator of Contemplative Outreach of New York, helping promote centering prayer, which has been his contemplative practice for nearly 20 years. Raised atheist by ex-Mormons, Phil has journeyed through Quakerism, deep ecology, Buddhism and Catholicism. Now he's a congregant, worship leader, cook and chair of the leadership team at St. Lydia's, an awesome dinner church in Brooklyn, NY, and spends as much time in nature as possible. Phil has been a political party leader, videographer, tech journalist, punk roadie, software designer, sheepherder, stockbroker and downtempo radio DJ. A common thread is the process of learning about stuff, figuring it out and then sharing that understanding with others. Follow Phil by RSS feed, email, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

  • ToronadoBlue

    Very interesting points to consider. One thing that I’ll be thinking about is the comment you made in the final paragraph:
    “… you can know God only through loving God….”
    I don’t if I’ll put this in the right words, but I’m wondering if a person can truly love God without meditating upon the scriptures, his word. I’m sure we would agree that just because a person knows the scriptures, doesn’t mean they love God, but I’m wondering if a person could love God without attempting to know his word. My thinking is that the answer is ‘no’.

    Anyway, I would agree, silent meditation is beneficial… I need to do it more often myself.

    • Phil Fox Rose

      ToronadoBlue, thanks for the comment. I can’t say whether it is possible or not, but personally I spend lots of time with the Word — at church in the readings, in bible study, and in my own reading. You probably already know of the practice called lectio divina, which is a method of reading scripture that incorporates periods of contemplation. It is an amazing practice and I will write about it here in the future. It also addresses the point you raised, that people can read scripture but still not know God. I would rephrase what you said slightly to say that they don’t “know” scripture in that case. The difference being between reading and knowing, which is what lectio addresses. It makes you sit with the scripture and feel it and savor it, rather than just skim its surface. Thanks again for the thoughtful comment.

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  • http://www.spiritofthescripture.com joshua tilghman

    Thanks for this. A lot of Christians don’t realize that meditation is the holiest act one can immerse the self in. It is the path to God. Even Jesus said the kingdom is within. The confusion does lie in Christ as our redemption. Our redemption does lie with Christ, but as Paul mace clear, Christ is to be FORMED in us. It doesnt matter whether or not meditation reflects eastern ways. Its pointing to the same source.

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