Two Forms of Meditation

Two Forms of Meditation June 6, 2019

Source: n.a. /pxhere

There are several ways to practice meditation. Each of them can provide unique encounters with grace, helping those who practice them become spiritually mature.  It is possible to divide all of these practices into two particular types. The first could be described as kataphatic, embracing kataphatic theology and the attempt for imaginative or deliberative contemplation. The second could be described as apophatic, leading away from all discursive thought and into a silent union with the divine.  That is, some forms of meditation embrace the intellect, having us contemplate theological truths, developing insight into those truths, while others would have us silence ourselves, slowly removing all thoughts from our minds, one by one, until we rest in silence and embrace the divine in that silence, letting us experience the grace and bliss God sends us in that silence.

Kataphatic Meditation

We generally follow the type of meditation which best suits our character and talents. For most of us, kataphatic forms of meditation, embracing the intellect and its imaginative qualities, is what we find most natural. It is the most common form of meditation. Nonetheless, we can find ourselves distracted and led astray by our own ideologies, which is why it is best for us to have some sort of spiritual guide to direct such contemplation. This aid does not have to be another person, it can be a popular devotion, like the rosary, or a proven work like The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, though it is ideal that there is some person we can talk to who can make sure our practice does not go astray. When we have had much experience in such contemplations, we can then begin to explore difficult theological questions as we enter a meditative state; we will know how to direct our thoughts to make sure we look at the question from a variety of complementary angles, which then will allow us to gain a better understanding of the theological truth in question. This is very common for theologians who find their theology centered around prayer: the prayer might begin with particular, indeed ritualized, petition, but then it starts to transform itself and become a contemplative prayer, where the words become a glorification of God, a glorification which reveals itself as the contemplative embraces the grandeur of God and expresses it in the words which come from the midst of that experience.

With such meditation, our focus must be on the theological truth, or the insight which is being embraced; it can come from the intellect as it examines the issue in meditative calm, but it can and should also come from the heart, that is, from what is drawn out of us in our engagement with God and what we experience of his glory.  Though the fulfillment of such meditation, as with all meditation, is dependent upon grace, our cooperation with that grace, including properly preparing ourselves for our reception of it, is important. We need to be at peace. We need to embrace justice and charity. We need to have purified ourselves of our sins through confession and penance. Of course, even if we have not done so, God can still draw us in if we open ourselves into a meditative state, but our sins, our bad thoughts, our evil inclinations can get in the way, making us misunderstand what we experience and so be led astray.  There is always danger in meditation because we can become self-absorbed, despite attempting to be otherwise; we can become lost in our thoughts instead of controlling them. But that is the same with theological exploration in general; we can be warped by our sins, but that does not mean the enterprise is unfruitful and should be abandoned.

When reading philosophical and theological tracts, we can often encounter words which suggest the author has had such a meditative experience, encouraging us to likewise follow along with them in our own contemplation. For example, in Marsilio Ficino’s Commentary on Plotinus, we are presented an example of this, where Ficino himself suggested we contemplate the unity of creation:

Intellect itself also differs from the Good in that it always, thanks to its proximity to the Good, enjoys it to the fullest. The Good itself, just like light, has no need of vision. Moreover, if anyone could contemplate the entire ordering of the entire visible world in a single simultaneous intuition, he would stand in amazement of it to an immeasurable degree, and would more easily – as though by means of an image – get an inkling of the intelligible world that is the creator of this world, albeit much more beautiful than the latter. [1]

While we might not be able to fully contemplate the universe, with all of time and space, drawn into one, we can nonetheless enter into a meditative state, engaging and exploring elements of that unity, giving us a better grasp of it than before we engaged such contemplation. In doing so, as Ficino explained, we should gain a better grasp of the goodness of creation, indeed, its beauty, as we begin to see it the way God sees it.  Normally, we see and experience it all divided up, seeing the parts outside of their proper place in time and space, and therefore, without seeing how they all work together and form one whole. That is, we usually experience it broken up into parts, like a dissected animal: no wonder it appears ugly to us when we see it in its decayed form, destroyed by sin. The work of God with creation through the incarnation is to restore this integral unity and its beauty: in the end, all will be well,  because God will have restored creation, bringing it to its eternal state, the state which God sees and knows it in his eternity: the eschatological fate of the world is one with the vision God has of it in his simple eternity. If we want to understand the purpose of creation, we need to explore this vision, the best we can, and meditation, when properly directed, can give us as Ficino suggests, a glimpse of this eternal order preparing us, therefore, for our own entrance into eternity.

Apophatic Meditation

The other form of meditation, that of silence, is far more difficult because it goes against our normal way of engaging the world. Nonetheless, there are many ways in which apophatic meditation can begin, making it easier for us to embrace such meditation by slowly silencing our thoughts. A popular way  doing this is through the Jesus Prayer. While praying it, a person begins by closing off all thoughts but the words of the prayer itself, focusing on the words of the prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner,” until all external thoughts are stopped. Then the prayer itself can be diminished, slowly becoming one word, the name, Jesus. Then even we can drop off that name as we sit in silence. By doing this, we put our focus on God through Jesus, so that when we come to the silence itself, our orientation will remain with God, allowing us to have an experience of God without any words or thoughts getting in the way. Those who embrace this form of meditation can become so adept at it that they might not need to begin by focusing with any words; they can find themselves embracing silence directly and focusing on God in that silence. There are, to be sure, dangers involved with this form of meditation, just like the other, because we are forced to confront ourselves and our inner demons: they can get in our way, they can confuse us, make us afraid, or tempt us to think we have achieved the proper state and just see our own thoughts reflected back at us instead of the true silence which we need. This is why what is experienced as we begin the process to silence is to be ignored: it is not true silence, and even if they are grace filled thoughts, the value is the grace, not the thoughts themselves.

Meditation is important for us. Though there are two general ways, that of kataphatic and that of apophatic meditation styles, each of them can and do have a diverse number of ways that they can be practiced. What is important is that we learn how to enter into a meditative state, and properly embrace the form which we want to engage. Proper direction is important. Those who are experienced with meditation can warn us and help us away from those errors which we risk when we begin our own spiritual practice. Likewise, though the two forms differ, they remain connected:  with kataphatic meditation, there remains an element of apophaticism as the meditator has to learn how to focus their contemplative insight instead of letting their mind and heart wander around. Pure apophatic meditation is rare, but after its engagement, people will begin to reflect on their experience and give voice to the glory of God: the path of silence does not decry speech, it only regulates it to its proper form and function, realizing the relative value of such speech in comparison to the absolute which is beyond all speech.

[1] Marsilio Ficino, Commentary on Plotinus: Volume 5: Ennead III, Part 2 and Ennead IV. Trans. Stephen Gersh (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018), 119.


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