Sunday, March 12, 2006

Meditation: The Forms of Meditation

Christians throughout the centuries have spoken of a variety of ways of listening to God, of communing with the Creator of heaven and earth, of experiencing the eternal Lover of the world. The accumulated wisdom of their experience can be immensely helpful as we, like them, seek intimacy with God and faithfulness to God.

For all the devotional masters the meditatio Scripturarum, the meditation upon Scripture, is the central reference point by which all other forms of meditation are kept in proper perspective. Whereas the study of Scripture centers on exegesis, the meditation of Scripture centers on internalizing and personalizing the passage. The written Word becomes a living word addressed to you. This is not a time for technical studies, or analysis, or even the gathering of material to share with others. Set aside all tendencies toward arrogance and with a humble heart receive the word addressed to you. Often I find kneeling especially appropriate for this particular time. Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, “…just as you do not analyze the words of someone you love, but accept them as they are said to you, accept the Word of Scripture and ponder it in your heart, as Mary did. That is all. That is meditation.”23 When Bonhoeffer founded the seminary at Finkenwalde, a one-half hour silent meditation upon Scripture was practiced by everyone. is important to resist the temptation to pass over many passages superficially. Our rushing reflects our internal state and our internal state is what needs to be transformed. Bonhoeffer recommended spending a whole week on a single text! Therefore, my suggestion is that you take a single event, or a parable, or a few verses, or even a single word and allow it to take root in you. Seek to live the experience, remembering the encouragement of Ignatius of Loyola to apply all our senses to our task. Smell the sea. Hear the lap of water along the shore. See the crowd. Feel the sun on your head and the hunger in your stomach. Taste the salt in the air. Touch the hem of his garment. In this regard Alexander Whyte counsels us, “…the truly Christian imagination never lets Jesus Christ out of her sight…. You open your New Testament…. And, by your imagination, that moment you are one of Christ’s disciples on the spot, and are at His feet.”24

Suppose we want to meditate on Jesus’ staggering statement, “My peace I give to you” (John 14:27). Our task is not so much to study the passage as it is to be initiated into the reality of which the passage speaks. We brood on the truth that he is now filling us with his peace. The heart, the mind, and the spirit are awakened to his inflowing peace. We sense all motions of fear stilled and overcome by “power and love and self-control” (2 Tim. 1:7). Rather than dissecting peace we are entering into it. We are enveloped, absorbed, gathered into his peace. And the wonderful thing about such an experience is that the self is quite forgotten. We are no longer worried about how we can make ourselves more at peace, for we are attending to the impartation of peace within our hearts. No longer do we laboriously think up ways to act peacefully, for acts of peace spring spontaneously from within.

Always remember that we enter the story not as passive observers, but as active participants. Also remember that Christ is truly with us to teach us, to heal us, to forgive us. Alexander Whyte declares, “with your imagination anointed with holy oil, you again open your New Testament. At one time, you are the publican: at another time, you are the prodigal…at another time, you are Mary Magdalene: at another time, Peter in the porch…. Till your whole New Testament is all over autobiographic of you.”25

Another form of meditation is what the contemplatives of the Middle Ages called “re-collection,” and what the Quakers have often called “centering down.” It is a time to become still, to enter into the recreating silence, to allow the fragmentation of our minds to become centered.

The following is a brief exercise to aid you in “re-collection” that is simply called “palms down, palms up.” Begin by placing your palms down as a symbolic indication of your desire to turn over any concerns you may have to God. Inwardly you may pray, “Lord, I give to you my anger toward John. I release my fear of my dentist appointment this morning. I surrender my anxiety over not having enough money to pay the bills this month. I release my frustration over trying to find a baby-sitter for tonight.” Whatever it is that weighs on your mind or is a concern to you, just say, “palms down.” Release it. You may even feel a certain sense of release in your hands. After several moments of surrender, turn your palms up as a symbol of your desire to receive from the Lord. Perhaps you will pray silently: “Lord, I would like to receive your divine love for John, your peace about the dentist appointment, your patience, your joy.” Whatever you need, you say, “palms up.” Having centered down, spend the remaining moments in complete silence. Do not ask for anything. Allow the Lord to commune with you, to love you. If impressions or directions come, fine; if not, fine.


A third kind of contemplative prayer is meditation upon the creation. Now, this is no infantile pantheism, but a majestic monotheism in which the great Creator of the universe shows us something of his glory through his creation. The heavens do indeed declare the glory of God and the firmament does show forth his handiwork (Ps. 19:1). Evelyn Underhill recommends, “…begin with that first form of contemplation which the old mystics sometimes called ‘the discovery of God in his creatures!’”26

So give your attention to the created order. Look at the trees, really look at them. Take a flower and allow its beauty and symmetry to sink deep into your mind and heart. Listen to the birds—they are the messengers of God. Watch the little creatures that creep upon the earth. These are humble acts, to be sure, but sometimes God reaches us profoundly in these simple ways if we will quiet ourselves to listen.

There is a fourth form of meditation that is in some ways quite the opposite of the one just given. It is to meditate upon the events of our time and to seek to perceive their significance. We have a spiritual obligation to penetrate the inner meaning of events, not to gain power but to gain prophetic perspective. Thomas Merton writes that the person “…who has meditated on the Passion of Christ but has not meditated on the extermination camps of Dachau and Auschwitz has not yet fully entered into the experience of Christianity in our time.”27

This form of meditation is best accomplished with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other! You must not, however, be controlled by the absurd political clichés and propaganda fed us today. Actually, newspapers are generally far too shallow and slanted to be of much help. We would do well to hold the events of our time before God and ask for prophetic insight to discern where these things lead. Further, we should ask for guidance for anything we personally should be doing to be salt and light in our decaying and dark world.

You must not be discouraged if in the beginning your meditations have little meaning to you. There is a progression in the spiritual life, and it is wise to have some experience with lesser peaks before trying to tackle the Mt. Everest of the soul. So be patient with yourself. Besides, you are learning a discipline for which you have received no training. Nor does our culture encourage you to develop these skills. You will be going against the tide, but take heart; your task is of immense worth.

There are many other aspects of the Discipline of meditation that could be profitably considered.* However, meditation is not a single act, nor can it be completed the way one completes the building of a chair. It is a way of life. You will be constantly learning and growing as you plumb the inner depths.

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