by Michael Redmond
Lent is traditionally the church’s high penitential season, during which we take stock of our spiritual inventory and assess what we may need to re-supply, relinquish, or make room for. We all know the traditional observances — giving up something we enjoy; devoting more time to worship, scripture, and prayer; giving alms; volunteering our time and talents; and the like. In preparation for Holy Week and Easter, we do something special.
I’m here to suggest instead that we do nothing, as it were — and make that special. I suggest that instead of doing, we focus on being; we can set aside a modest amount of time each day — 15 minutes, that’s all — to wait upon the Lord in prayerful meditation. It’s a practice with a long and venerable history in the life of the church, and a practice that can be especially beneficial in high-stress, troubled times. It’s a way to discover and grow within the love, grace, and peace of Christ.
Let’s be clear straight away about what we mean by Christian meditation. Unlike the various schools of meditation in Eastern religions, the goal of Christian meditation is not to empty the mind, dissolve the self, and attain some kind of higher consciousness by dint of our practice. As Christians we accept our minds and selves as gifts of God, not as impediments to knowing God, and we rely upon the Holy Spirit to do such work within us as the Spirit wills. But our role is not completely passive. It’s up to us to seek and welcome the Spirit and cooperate with the Spirit’s work. Sometimes that can mean we need to get the mind out of the Spirit’s way.
With most prayer — whether formal, structured prayer, or personal, spontaneous prayer — we do all the talking. We’re praising, adoring, thanking, petitioning, interceding. There’s a lot of mental activity going on with this. Then there’s the other side to prayer — the prayer of the heart: listening for God, being aware of His presence, resting in His grace, reaching out to God not so much with words and thoughts as with love and desire. The mind is present here, too, but in a different, perhaps deeper way.
Jesus is our Teacher, of course. The gospels depict Him with the disciples, out among the people, day after day, living a busy life, just as we do — but the gospels also speak about the times He goes off alone to pray. Then there’s this: “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Mt. 6:6–8)
That’s a really important point, worth repeating and, well, meditating upon: “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” Sometimes the only prayer we need is “You know what’s in my heart, Lord. May your good and perfect will be done.” The goal of Christian meditation is to quiet the mind by anchoring it on a simple, Christ-centered point of attention (e.g., a verse of scripture, a line of a well-loved hymn, an inspiring image), thereby opening up an interior space for the prayer of the heart. The anchor, whatever it may be, serves to keep the mind fixed against the constant internal audiovisual that all of us live with. It’s the job of the mind to make thoughts. The mind just keeps doing that, willy-nilly. Buddhists call this the monkey mind.
Try this for 15 minutes. Choose a short verse of scripture, or a short prayer, such as “Come, Holy Spirit” or “Thy will be done,” or an inspiring image, such as an icon of Christ or the sanctuary of your church. Quiet your mind and your surroundings as best you can and focus your awareness on the anchor. Every time a distracting thought arises, pray the anchor.
You will quickly discover that this isn’t as easy as it may sound – and that 15 minutes can feel like a very long time. Like everything else, achieving inner silence gets easier with practice. It’s within this inner silence that we pray for the Spirit to move. And please note that this practice is not meant to replace standard prayer. Think of it as an enrichment, quite possibly a deepening.
A more structured approach to Christian meditation is lectio divina (Latin, divine reading), an ancient approach to scripture not simply as information, but as a living word. Lectio originated with the theologian Origen of Alexandria in the third century, became a standard of monastic practice with St. Benedict of Nursia in the sixth, and was systematized by the French monk Guigo II in the 12th century. If all of this is sounding uncomfortably Roman Catholic to Episcopalian readers, it should be noted that Lectio was advocated by no less than John Calvin (16th century) and also by Puritan theologian Richard Baxter (17th century).
Lectio divina has four steps:
1. Lectio (reading) — reading a scripture passage
2. Meditatio (meditation) — reflecting upon the passage
3. Oratio (prayer) — praying about the reflection
4. Contemplatio (contemplation) — holding the entire experience within the prayerful heart
This process has been vividly described by Gervase Holdaway as taking a bite (reading), chewing on the bite (meditating), savoring the bite (praying), and digesting the bite (contemplating). Another model is the four Rs: read, reflect, respond, rest.
Anyone can do this straightforward practice. It’s best pursued by following the classic Anglican virtue of moderation. Commit to doing it daily, just for Lent. There will be time enough after Lent to consider whether the practice is enriching our spiritual life and whether we want to continue it. Keep the discipline to 15 minutes or so. Resist performance anxiety. This isn’t about succeeding at a task — it’s about putting ourselves in the presence of God and finding rest there. We talk to God in prayer. We listen for God in meditation. Even the silence that we encounter may have much to teach us.
As we pray in The Book of Common Prayer: O God of peace, who has taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and confidence shall be our strength: By the might of your Spirit lift us, we pray, to your presence, where we may be still and know that you are God; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.