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Reclaiming the Christian Meditation Tradition

 

Christianity has a long history of meditation that for many has been lost. All too often our faith is a series of bible stories and Sunday services and a notion of God taken for granted. Or we find we approach faith as an argument in which we pit ancient wisdom against post-enlightenment philosophy that insists that only things that are verifiably true have value.

I came to a place where I over intellectualized the Word, and it began to cost me my faith. I demanded answers and I wanted all that I read in scripture to make sense. Yet when religion takes on science on the field of fact in a battle of what can be proven, religion will always lose. But there is so much that science alone cannot explain. What this purely rational approach to Christ’s Word got me was doubt and a trend toward disbelief. I wanted to believe. I wanted to reinforce, not pick apart, my faith.

The answer, of course, was prayer.

I find no prayer more effective at bringing my entire being into line with the holy than silent prayer, or meditation. Practiced by the desert fathers and the Christian mystics as well as centering prayer groups who meet today, meditation offers an opportunity to experience grace and God’s word without picking every pronouncement of scripture apart by emphasizing theology over experience. Meditation offers the promise of pure experience.

It should have been obvious to me. I’m trained in teaching mindfulness meditation and have led countless students to sit, focus on the breath, and notice what is happening in the body and in the mind. But something was missing from this practice. The mindfulness industry places so much emphasis on stress relief and positive, calming experience, yet meditation is not always a positive experience. It only offers up what is in the body, mind and soul right now. That’s not always pleasant. Consider for a moment St John of the Cross’ dark night of the soul.

There is also an unbending focus on the self during most mindfulness instruction, and little sense of community or compassion, let alone charity and sacrifice, in mindfulness practice the way it is sold by too many teachers. Corporations offer mindfulness training to their employees not for their spiritual development, but to make them better employees. Meditation presented as a purely individual practice is devoid of the community of practitioners who undertake the same journey and need each other’s support to truly grow.

I sought a deeper, more spiritual focus. My earliest experience with meditation was in the Benedictine tradition. After a detour through Zen and secular mindfulness I’ve returned to this rich rule of practice. The practice that most centers me while reinforcing my faith and joining me with a larger community is the practice of Lectio Divina.

In Lectio Divina one reads a passage from the bible or a piece of sacred writing and repeats it several times. The chosen piece can be one that speaks deeply to the meditator, or one chosen at random. While repeating the text it is likely that a short phrase will jump out and resonate with the practitioner. They then repeat this phrase a few times, with deep focus, and then enter silence, focusing on the words of scripture, listening for thoughts that rise up in the mind and feeling the sensations in the body.

It’s likely that in this practice a special text will yield new inspiration or meaning. The period of deep focus may also present previously unconsidered questions or even grave doubts. This is fertile material to contemplate. Try to complete this contemplation without forcing thoughts or beginning a conversation with yourself. Just let the voice inside of you speak and take what comes. There will be time to expand on these thoughts and work things out when the period of Lectio Divina is over.

I do believe that doubt is healthy and inevitable to one who contemplates the bible. Reason is not, by nature, set against faith, but it will challenge faith, especially in areas of ambiguity. As we live with all of the knowledge of the world at our fingertips it’s easy to reach for the obvious answer to doubt, and that obvious answer is usually either an oversimplification of the way God acts in our lives or a rejection of the foundation of belief.

In our present world which demands and rewards a limited attention span we risk rejecting true contemplation, and with it complex answers. Yet, in the face of doubt, the answers found during contemplation will be very complex indeed. We need to make time to focus on ideas that challenge and ideas that reinforce our faith. We need to create space to listen to the Word, to truly hear, in order to grow into our faith.

Lectio Divina can provide that space.

When the contemplation on the passage of text is exhausted, sit still and breath for a few moments and end this period of practice, or return to the text and repeat. Something new will surely present itself for you to work with. When you believe the silence is ripe and you have heard all that your inner voice will tell you, contemplate what comes up during this practice and consider how it impacts you and your faith. You may even want to journal your thoughts to better organize them and to refer back to them in order to review your spiritual development.

Try this practice for 30 minutes a day.

The practice of Lectio Divina will spark life into your faith and firmly join you to the church. If the practice, or the message received during the practice, challenges you there exists the profound possibility to dissect, possibly even reconsider, your faith. The answers you find and the decisions you make will make you a better Christian. When you experience the Word in this practice, doubts can be assuaged and a new, deeper faith can be developed.

Meditation is the deepest form of prayer, yet it is accessible to every believer, or to everyone who doubts and wants to revisit the scripture they feel estranged from. True growth is not possible without periods of silence and contemplation. Christian meditation provides a path and a way to meet the demands of spiritual growth.

George Hofmann created Practicing Mental Illness to teach people with affective disorders that there is more to getting well than medicine and therapy. Drawing on his own experience, training with leaders in mindfulness and meditation, and consultation with medical professionals, he developed a program to help people manage and overcome episodes of depression, mania and anxiety. His workshops have been presented to support groups, families and friends of those with mental illness, healthcare professionals, medical students, church groups and corporations. George also maintains the website and writes the blog Practicing Mental Illness. It promotes the therapies of meditation, movement and meaningful work. George Hofmann’s new book Resilience: Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis is available wherever books are sold.

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