Saturday, July 28, 2007

Meditation, Contemplation and Prayer

I was having a long conversation with a friend earlier today, about the nature of different sorts of prayer. What, he wanted to know, was the difference between contemplation and meditation, and how could we know whether we are doing anything useful by engaging in these things, or should we be concentrating on more 'useful' kinds of prayer?

I was very taken by his questions, somehow. He seemed to be speaking not only for himself but for so many Christians these days, who are puzzled by the relationship between the more widely known kinds of petition and intercession, and these strange new worlds of prayer.

I don't know if this is the place to go into this whole question in great depth, but the answers I tried to give my friend might be worth outlining here.

The Wikipedia article, Christian Meditation, is introduced with the following words, 'Christian meditation is meditation in a Christian context. The word meditation has come to have two different meanings: (1) continued, intent, focused thought; and (2) a state of quiet, intentionally unfocused, "contentless" awareness. This double meaning has contributed to misunderstanding and disagreement about the nature, role, and even the appropriateness of Christian meditation. Traditionally, the word meditation (meditatio) had the first meaning, and another word, contemplation (contemplatio) was used for the second. (These words, however, have nearly the reverse meanings in Eastern spiritual traditions, contributing to the confusion.)'

Meditation, then, in Christian practice, is concerned generally with discursive thought; contemplation, on the other hand, is concerned with its avoidance! I would personally take issue with the word 'contentless' in referring to Christian contemplation. Michael Ramsey, for instance said this, 'Contemplation is for all Christians... [It] means essentially our being with God, putting ourselves in his presence, being hungry and thirsty for him, wanting him, letting heart and mind move towards him; with the needs of the world on our heart.' (Canterbury Pilgrim) It is, however, in itself wordless, as Paul explains in Romans 8.26-27: 'Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.'

The line blurs, of course, with prayers of repetition, whether the very simple, often single word, style taught by John Main, and employed as a fall-back (when pure contemplation falters) by the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, or the more complex and definitely not contentless Jesus Prayer, 'Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.' Here the words are used as a way into contemplation, a springboard as it were. Robert Llewlyn, in A Doorway to Silence (DLT, 1986), has the picture of a large, old pheasant crossing a wide lawn, where it ran along the grass, rising up to fly a few yards, then, tired, returning to earth to run a few more paces, and then repeating the performance. He points out that just as the pheasant had the good, solid earth to return to, we have the good, solid words of our prayer.

Llewlyn is referring in this book to the Rosary, which is another crossroads prayer. As prayed in its traditional form, involves prayers of repetition (the Hail Mary, the Lord's Prayer, the Gloria) underpinning discursive meditation on the 'Mysteries,' key events in the life of Jesus, and of his Mother. Many people who pray the Rosary find that, usually after long use, it can lead directly into contemplation, which process is the whole subject of A Doorway to Silence (DLT, 1986), whose subtitle is 'The Contemplative Use of the Rosary.'

So is contemplation a waste of time, pointless navel-gazing, or worse, opening the back door of our minds to whatever spiritual entity might decide to come strolling in?

Of course if you keep in mind Michael Ramsey's definition above, you will begin to see that contemplation is anything but selfish introspection, and if you consider Paul's account of the role of the Spirit in the passage I quoted from Romans, you will see that the mind is very far from being left undefended.

As I said in an earlier post today, 'Contemplation brings us continually closer to God, and so we get all tangled up in his love and his mercy.' One of the great early teachers of contemplation, St Isaac of Nineveh, the 7th Century anchorite and unwilling Bishop, said:

'An elder was once asked, "What is a merciful heart?" He replied:

"It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons, and for all that exists. By the recollection of them the eyes of a merciful person pour forth tears in abundance. By the strong and vehement mercy that grips such a person’s heart, and by such great compassion, the heart is humbled and one cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in any in creation.

For this reason, such a person offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm her or him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner such a person prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns with without measure in a heart that is in the likeness of God."'

A final word from one of the great contemplatives of the Middle Ages, Catherine of Siena:

'The secret of Christian contemplation is that it faces us with Jesus Christ toward our suffering world in loving service and just action...'


Kelly Joyce Neff said...

Thank you for this, Mike. The subject of contemplation (and the contemplative life) are very much at the fore of my thoughts and life these days.

Unknown said...

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