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column: what works

Practical tools for your personal spiritual life from Phil Fox Rose.

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February 16th, 2010

What Works: Why to meditate

A closer look at the benefits of meditation for Christians



In a famous exchange, Dan Rather asked Mother Teresa of Calcutta what she says in prayer and she replied, “I don’t say anything. I listen.” Rather asked, “Well, then when you pray, what does God say?” She said, “He doesn’t say anything either. He listens.”

I often describe meditation in this way: Imagine you and a loved one on the couch, each sitting quietly, not talking, just being in each other’s presence. Not thinking, simply loving. You don’t need to talk.

Meditation in the Christian tradition is sitting in the presence of God — not expecting answers, just being. And like sitting with a loved one, this simple act is heartening and strengthening.

Many people see meditation simply as quiet time — a refuge from their hectic lives. They know they’re spinning out of control a bit and they want some relief or some help. It is relief and it will help, but that’s not really what meditation is about. When I last wrote about meditation almost a year ago — which remains my most popular What Works column — I focused on how to do it. So, I want to expand on why it’s so useful. In particular, I want to speak to why it’s so useful for Christians, because there’s a lot of fear-based misinformation out there. You can see it in the comment thread after that earlier column; I hear it from parishioners and friends. And most of the criticism starts with basic misunderstandings that meditation is “Eastern” and self-centered.

Anyone who makes even a cursory survey of the literature on Centering Prayer will discover that its purpose is to cultivate one’s communion with God. While other forms of sitting meditation may not be as direct in this focus on God’s presence, almost all serve to help you become more awake and aware, and more accepting of reality just as it is, which in Christian terminology means accepting God’s Will as it unfolds, rather than fighting against it.

Obediently accepting

In meditation, we bask in the Love of God, but we also practice and deepen our experience of obedience and nonattachment. The Kenosis hymn found in Philippians 2 — one of the most ancient Christian hymns, chanted still by Catholic monks as part of their Vespers service — contains the best description of this obedience:

“Though He was in the form of God,
Jesus did not deem equality with God
something to be grasped at.
Rather, he emptied himself,
and took the form of a slave,
being born in the likeness of men.
He was known to be of human estate,
and it was thus that he humbled himself,
obediently accepting even death”
(from The Liturgy of the Hours)

The Liturgy of the Hours and the NRSV and New American bibles use the term “slave,” but many translations say “servant.” Slave is better — slaves cannot quit their jobs. To be human means to be a slave to reality, a slave to the laws of the material realm, including death. We must “obediently accept” our powerlessness in the face of this reality if we are to be at peace, with ourselves and with God. Even Jesus, as a human, was obedient to this truth.

The Original Sin of the Garden of Eden was that Adam and Eve grasped at equality with God. It is in trying to play God — trying to defy God’s Will and not accept reality the way it is — that we create suffering for others and ourselves. Jesus’ example, for us to model, is to not grasp at equality with God, but to obediently accept God’s Will and the laws of the physical realm, “even death.” This does not mean that the laws can’t be overruled — but rather that if this happens it is through grace, not through our applying our willpower to the situation.

“Of God Himself can no man think”

Perhaps the best explanation of why kenosis, or self-emptying, through meditation helps us to have this attitude modeled by Jesus — and thus why it is just as relevant for Christians as for anyone else — is in The Cloud of Unknowing. The method of Centering Prayer is taken from this 14th Century Catholic source. While its Middle English is challenging, this mystical classic, written by a cloistered English monk, offers the patient reader rich guidance — the reasons to meditate, the pitfalls to watch out for, and techniques to aid in its effectiveness.

Here’s how it explains the reason for a Christian to practice silent meditation:

“For of all other creatures and their works, yea, and of the works of God’s self, may a man through grace have fullhead of knowing, and well he can think of them; but of God Himself can no man think. And therefore I would leave all that thing that I can think, and choose to my love that thing that I cannot think. For why: He may well be loved, but not thought. And therefore, although it be good sometimes to think of the kindness and the worthiness of God in special, and although it be a light and a part of contemplation: nevertheless yet in this work it shall be cast down and covered with a cloud of forgetting.”

In other words, you can know God only through loving God. Thinking about things of the world is fine; thinking about God can even “be a light and a part of contemplation,” but to fully open yourself to loving God, you must set thinking aside and just sit in loving contemplation.

The real benefits of meditation

So much focus in our culture is placed on problem-solving, fixing things, looking for answers and explanations. But just as with holistic medicine, often the focus of spiritual work should be not on attacking problems, but instead on cultivating wellbeing. I find in working with people that breaking this expectation of quick answers or relief and shifting toward a daily practice of spiritual maintenance is difficult but immensely rewarding. Central to this is daily prayer and meditation. While spending time in the presence of God, often anxieties, fears, anger and old hurts simply dissolve in the Light. (Of course, if there’s a chemical psychiatric issue, by all means address it.)

If your happiness is dependent on things being a certain way, you will be unhappy a lot of the time. This is a basic spiritual truth found in most mystical traditions. The key benefit of regular meditation is that we become less controlling — a remapping (rebirth) of response patterns towards radical acceptance and non-attachment. We become less desirous of playing God, of trying to bend the world to our will. We become less “grasping.” Detachment isn’t passivity and weakness; we take actions, but we surrender our expectations, we let go of demands. We let go.

If you don’t already have a regular meditation practice, I encourage you to try it. Meditate for 20 minutes every day for the next 40 days and see for yourself. If you are reading this column when it comes out, I encourage you to make daily meditation part of Lent this year. If you’re not sure where to start, look at the sidebar on the right for some ideas. If you have experience with the spiritual benefits of meditation or questions about the Christian view of meditation, please comment below or email me at phil AT bustedhalo DOT com.

And one note about comments. I welcome disagreement, but so much of the criticism of meditation and other mystical practices is nothing but shallow swipes against things “Eastern” or mystical. In the Catholic world, this often is accompanied by a scolding remark that you should read the Vatican’s statements on Christian meditation or the dangers of New Age. On the latter, meditation has nothing to do with New Age. On the former, Cardinal Ratzinger’s 1989 “Letter To The Bishops Of The Catholic Church On Some Aspects Of Christian Meditation” is not a condemnation of meditation at all. If someone thinks it is, they probably haven’t read it. I find it an enriching study and encourage anyone interested to explore it. It offers well-researched helpful experience from the history of the Church on what can lead meditative practices astray. In both documents, the future Pope Benedict cautioned especially against spiritual narcissism, saying again and again that the purpose of contemplative practices is communion. I couldn’t agree more.

The Author : Phil Fox Rose
Phil Fox Rose is content manager of Busted Halo. He's a writer, editor and content lead based in New York and writes the On the Way blog at patheos.com. He is coordinator for the New York City chapter of Contemplative Outreach, helping promote centering prayer, which has been his contemplative practice for nearly 20 years. Phil has also been a political party leader, videographer, tech journalist, punk roadie, software designer, sheepherder, stockbroker and downtempo radio DJ. A common thread is the process of learning about stuff, figuring it out and then sharing that understanding with others. Follow Phil on Facebook here. Or on Twitter here. philfoxrose.com.
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  • Peter Byl

    Hi Phil. Thanks for the article.My question is : If you have to use the sacred word because of an intrusive thought,then how do you let go of the sacred word without that being a thought also? After all, is it not true that choosing to let go of the thought also a thought? Please help as I am confused on this point.

  • Bruce Clark

    Hi Phil
    Thanks for your article on centering prayer. I have been doing it for about a year and it has been a real help in my relationship with God and love for Him. I have just started a small group here in scarborough UK and we are going through father Thomas Keating’s ‘Open mind open Heart’. I also am on the two Centering Prayer yahoo Groups entitled ‘Centering Prayer’ and ‘Spritus’ each going through a couple of FTK’s books and also great fellowship with those who have been practising CP for years. I love Cynthia Bourgeault’s books as well and find them very inspiring and spiritually informative. I have started blogging on my prayer times on http://urbanmystik.blogspot.com/
    (no-one looks at it:o/) although have gone slightly off the beaten track on occasions! I struggle with the concept of ‘non-duality’ (as can be noted on my recent blog on Ken Wilber)… at the moment it seems to me a contradictory statement .. I mean if it is ‘non’ something it must be dualistic! Am toying with ideas of absolute dualism which is equal and opposite and relative dualism which would be opposite but not equal which is where a biblical view kicks in .. a non-absolute relative dualism where hatred and love clash in a dualistic way but love wins! Hatred is swallowed up in love as ‘death is swallowed up in victory’ …
    Thanks also for your mention about the other posts/references that seem opposed to CP. I followed the links and they quite disturbed me. They do at least help me to remember the purpose of centering prayer and also the objectivity of Gods presence. it is good probably to engage in other forms of discursive prayer to keep the balance … anyway thanks again I will keep watching out for more of your posts
    God bless
    Bruce (Scarborough UK)

  • V

    I’m still pretty early on the path of making the chatter STOP, but I have some exercises that show promise.

    First, I pray that God guide me in my meditative journey, and use the Evening Prayer and the Prayer to Michael the Archangel.

    Then I find a sort but pithy Gospel or New Testament verse, usually one to three sentences long. I read it over, and over and over again, let it soak into the pores of my being.

    The Book of John is really good for this, ditto Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

    Then I close the bible and settle into the words, going beyond the words. I usually find my way into a silence with a certain texture and mood appropriate to the reading.

    If you are still dealing with chatter, I recommend lighting a candle, playing Gregorian chant (preferably turned down somewhat so you can’t understand the words), or burning some incense. All of these things have been done in churches and monasteries since the First Century, so I don’t see anything particularly un-Catholic about that. :)

    I then end with a prayer, one of the prayers to the Holy Spirit, and usually re-iterate the evening prayer. I’m supposed to do it for half an hour, but I find that it usually winds up being longer, like an hour. It has done me a great deal of good in a short period of time.

  • Mark

    thanks for the article Phil. A succinct and engaging read. So often prayer becomes little more than a magnification of the myriad chattering deceptions which fill our minds,psychic noise thrown outwards. The emphasis upon kenosis is central. Emptying, silence, humility, each so to be able to commune and be receptive.

    I liked too how you addressed the problem of our neurotic need to solve everything, more noise. meditation is being at ease with incompletion and brokenness.

  • Daniel

    Interesting article, Phil. Thanks for writing this. I’ve been looking for some lenten practice to do these next 40 days. Keep up the great work. God bless you and everyone at BustedHalo.com.

  • mairie

    Thanks Phil for bringing meditation into the Lenten pryer practice again. Why anyone would doubt it’s rightness within Chrsitianity is beyond me. As Julian of Norwich says – it pleases God that we rest in Him.

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