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Sanctuary of the Soul: A Journey Into Meditative Prayer
By Richard Foster
Chapter 4: Being Present Where We Are
The price of true recollection is a firm resolve to take no wilful interest in anything that is not useful or necessary to our interior life.
In biblical times people were well versed in how to meditate; it was in the air they breathed. Today, however, the situation is quite different. The word itself is not unfamiliar, but the language associated with that word is an ocean away from Christian thinking. It is all about emptying the mind and merging with the cosmic consciousness and more. To be sure, there is an emptying in Christian thought, an emptying of all that opposes the way of Christ. The inside of the cup must be cleaned, as Jesus teaches us (Mt 23:26). The weight of Christian teaching on meditation, however, focuses on filling both mind and heart with God, the Creator of all things. Consider the words of Frederick W. Faber:
Only to sit and think of God,
Oh what a joy it is!
To think the thought,
To breathe the name;
Earth has no higher bliss.
The tradition of meditation is long and profound all through the life of the church. But today serious teaching and practice from a Christian perspective is minuscule, if present at all. Hence many are helped immensely by a simple description of the three basic steps into meditative prayer. This chapter will focus on the first step: recollection.
Recollection involves a re-collecting of ourselves until we are unified or whole. The idea is to let go of all competing distractions until we have become truly present where we are. Sometimes anchoring our mind to a brief Scripture phrase or passage helps us in recollection. Evelyn Underhill observed, "In Recollection . . . Christian contemplatives set before their minds one of the names or attributes of God, a fragment of Scripture, an incident of the life of Christ; and allow—indeed encourage—this consideration and the ideas and feelings which flow from it, to occupy the whole mental field."
Let me warn you at the outset: recollection does not come easily or quickly. Most of us live such fractured and fragmented lives that collectedness is a foreign world to us. The moment we genuinely try to be collected we become painfully aware of how distracted we really are. Evelyn Underhill notes, "The first quarter of an hour thus spent in attempted meditation will be, indeed, a time of warfare; which should at least convince you how unruly, how ill-educated is your attention, how miserably ineffective your will, how faraway you are from the captaincy of your own soul."
One of the genuinely wise teachers on recollection is Romano Guardini. He is so helpful on this exact point that it is best to hear his counsel in its entirety:
Prayer must begin with this collectedness. As said before, it is not easy. How little of it we normally possess becomes painfully clear as soon as we make the first attempt. When we try to compose ourselves, unrest redoubles in intensity, not unlike the manner in which at night, when we try to sleep, cares or desires assail us with a force they do not possess during the day. When we want to be truly "present" we feel how powerful are the voices trying to call us away. As soon as we try to be unified and to obtain mastery over ourselves, we experience the full impact and meaning of distraction. . . . Everything depends on this state of collectedness. No effort to obtain it is ever wasted. And even if the whole duration of our prayer should be applied to this end only, the time thus used would have been well employed. For collectedness itself is prayer. . . . Finally, if at first we achieve no more than the understanding of how much we lack in inner unity, something will have been gained, for in some way we would have made contact with that centre which knows no distraction.
As a beginning experience in recollection we might want to seat ourselves comfortably, and then slowly and deliberately let all tension and anxiety drop away. We become aware of God's presence in the room. If it helps we might picture Christ seated in the chair across from us, for he is truly present. If frustrations or distractions arise, we will want to lift them up into the arms of the Father, letting God care for them. This is not suppressing our inner turmoil but letting go of it. Suppression implies a pressing down, a keeping in check, whereas in recollection we are giving away, releasing. It is even more than a neutral psychological relaxing. It is an active surrendering, a "self-abandonment to divine Providence," to use the phrase of Jean-Pierre de Caussade.