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.