Picture it: an individual seated on the floor, legs crossed, eyes closed, deep in a state of oblivion to outer surroundings. Perhaps she vocalizes something, softly and repeatedly.
For many of us, this is the image the term “meditation” evokes. We may assume the practitioner is a Buddhist, Hindu or Sufi. Maybe she subscribes to the religion of capitalism, and seeks a new-age relaxation technique to combat workplace stress.
We are not likely to assume she is Christian.
Within the Christian church, the term “meditation” is generally used in quite a different sense than its perception in the mainstream. A keyword search for “meditation” in a large online Christian bookseller is far more likely to yield books of “meditations” (usually the authors’ brief written explorations of Scripture) than it is to provide any offerings explaining the techniques of outer stillness and inner openness utilized for millennia in various religious and secular traditions.
In fact, several of the titles that pop up in the bookseller’s list may actively dispute the use of such practices. Since meditation is often associated with other religions or “new age” practices, some Christian authors affirm their own traditions by rejecting wholly those of others.
Yet there is nothing inherent in the practice of meditation that links it with any religion. It is simply the exercise of physical stillness and release of outer distractions, and is easily adaptable to whatever the practitioner’s belief system happens to be. Similar disciplines exist in the aforementioned Buddhist, Hindu and Sufi traditions, as well as in Native American tribal religions, Judaism, and yes, even Christianity.
Followers of Christ have been using meditative practices for nearly 2,000 years, from the early desert fathers to Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen. Some even view Christ’s 40 days in the wilderness as a time of meditation. While not commonly embraced by mainstream Christianity, several contemporary communities practicing Christian meditation have developed around the world. The best-known of these are Contemplative Outreach and the World Community for Christian Meditation, both of which spring from Roman Catholicism. These and other Christian meditation communities teach techniques of centering and focusing, the purpose being to release thoughts and concerns of the world. In such release, intimate communion with God can exist.
How is this kind of meditation different from praying? Most Christian meditators would answer that it isn’t, that in fact this type of meditation or “contemplative prayer” is one of the deepest forms of prayer. In Matthew 6:5-6, Jesus instructs His followers not to make a show of praying openly, but to “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (RSV). This shutting out of exterior influences to focus one’s attention fully on God is exactly what meditation seeks to provide.
Then why hasn’t meditation developed as a regular part of Christian practice, as it has in other traditions? Certainly, the Christian church has continued to emphasize the importance of prayer through the centuries. Why has contemplative prayer largely fallen by the wayside?
Humans are by nature practical beings, and Christians in result-driven American culture are even more so than our brothers and sisters around the world. Our prayers often focus on tangible reality: We ask for help or forgiveness; we express thanks. In all these cases, our prayers center around the events in our and others’ lives.
Christian meditation seeks to liberate the practitioner from these concerns, and instead focus attention on simply being with God. For those of us accustomed to expecting measurable results from any use of our time, such focus may seem innately unsatisfying. What are we getting out of our prayers if we aren’t concentrating on what we and God can achieve?
But ironically, contemplative prayer may be the most “productive” type of prayer Christians can engage in. We regularly pray, “Thy will be done,” but how do we know what “Thy will” is without hearing God’s leadings? It is in the release of our own agendas that the “still small voice” experienced by Elijah (1 Kings 19:12) can be heard.
In fact, such prayer is central to the events leading to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Between the lines in Matthew’s and Luke’s reports of His prayers in Gethsemane is His listening for the Father’s will. Christ pleads for the possibility that the cup set before Him might be removed, but releases His own will to God’s. Then He listens. Though it is not explicitly recorded in Scripture, it is obvious that some time passed for the well-meaning disciples to have fallen asleep. No other of Jesus’ words spoken aloud are set down. It seems reasonable to infer that after asking for assurance of God’s will, Christ entered into contemplative prayer in order to hear it.
This listening confirms for us the reality of Christ’s humanity, and stands as an example for us in our own. Our human frailty necessitates that we seek God’s guidance in our lives. Through His words and actions, Christ has directed His followers as to how such guidance can be provided. For those willing to accept the discipline and expand their horizons beyond the leadership of the mainstream church, Christian meditation may provide a means to hear the voice we seek.
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