7. Contemplative Meditation Prayer
Around the middle of the first millennium, before the major historic divisions in the church occurred, St. Benedict of Nursia wrote a short "Rule" or guide for those who wished to join his "school of prayer" as he called his first community. He based this rule firmly on the teaching of the Bible and in particular the Gospels. The life he thereby regulated featured two great pillars: "ora" (prayer) and "labora" (work). Ever since, the Order of St Benedict has made prayer, and the work of teaching prayer, two of its major activities. We acknowledge Christianity's debt to this great religious movement which still continues to serve God in this way in our contemporary world.
Purpose of this Article
This article outlines the approach we have developed and are offering to our readers as either a starting point or a source of information for the practice of meditation and prayer. What follows is a form of the ancient "Lectio Divina", i.e. divine or holy reading which leads us into prayerful communion. The contents can be adapted as considered appropriate or downloaded and copied in the original form. However if this material is used we request an acknowledgement of the source (our website name and address).
THE SEVEN R's
1. Reverence 2. Recollect 3. Read
4. Reflect 5. Respond 6. Remember 7. Rest.
We use these seven words above to summarise our approach to meditation, rather than the traditional terms. This is not a gimmick. We find them the best words for beginners to convey what occurs in the process of meditation, and to avoid an element of confusion which some other terms can give rise to, particularly today when they are so often misused.
1. Reverencing God and all creation
Although this is not strictly a phase, so to speak, of meditation, it is an essential frame of mind. It corresponds to what might be more formally called the "remote preparation" for prayer. If we wish to enter into full communion with God we are advised to maintain an attitude of humble reverence towards God, and respect towards humanity and all creation. This includes respecting our own human needs in terms of body, mind, and soul, as well as the needs of others.
We offer here some thoughts taken from the work of the late Professor Dietrich von Hildebrand whom we consider one of the greatest Christian philosophers and spiritual writers of modern times.
Reverence can be called, "the mother of all virtues". Reverence is, in fact, of capital importance to all the fundamental domains of man's life. By reverence is meant a holy awe of, and respectful esteem for, God.
There is an intimate link between reverence and sacredness: reverence permits us to experience the sacred, to rise above the profane; irreverence blinds us to the entire world of the sacred.
Reverence including awe, indeed fear and trembling, is the specific response to the sacred:
In any discussion of "reverence" it will be worth recalling that our epoch is pervaded by a spirit of irreverence. It is seen in a distorted notion of freedom that demands rights while refusing obligations, that exalts self-indulgence, that counsels "let yourself go". The ancient Christian concept of dwelling in the presence of God, which presupposes reverence, is considered today to be unnatural, pompous, or servile. Much modern Christian worship has taken on this worldly notion, and is considered more natural, relevant and self-fulfilling when it reflects this distorted spirit. Even those practising Lectio Divina often approach it with a corresponding shallowness and casualness. We advise great care and reverence for Lectio Divina as it has been handed down to us! In fact we recommend attention be given to ensuring we honour all the spirital treasures which have been handed down to us by former generations; fideilty to our ancestors and their works. This secondary aspect of reverence will impact on our primary reverence. The tradition of Lectio Divina therefore should be held in great esteem and carried out with respect and integrity due to this great Christian path towards the contemplation of God and his supreme goodness.
2. Recollecting oneself in the presence of God
To recollect (literally, to gather again) is to recall, to remember, and especially to bring together what has become scattered. In the spiritual domain, if we are seeking communion with God through meditation, we have to recall and remember that we are in God's presence. We also need to bring the focus of our mind onto the presence of God and not just leave it rambling on about anything currently before it. Each person develops their own way of doing this and there is nothing prescribed. If we are anxious or unsetlled, this may be a little harder. A short prayer can help. Sometime suitable art-works can help us. We will soon find what works for us if we are in earnest.
Often one of the most difficult tasks when wanting to commence meditation, is to be still and silent, and allow ourselves to relax.
Meditation by its very nature tends to relax us. However, we find it wise, sometimes, to spend a short time (or as long as it takes) allowing ourselves to calm down and feel ready to concentrate on what we are doing: being present to God. This may take only ten seconds but it may need much longer depending on circumstances. It is always worth the time.
3. Reading the word
We take a short passage from one of the Gospels, and stay with this for a whole week. Almost always this is the Gospel reading appointed for the following Sunday in the international three year lectionary. Over a period of three years the four gospels are covered with readings arranged to suit the liturgical seasons.
At group meetings we read the passage from the Word of God aloud, as well as in silence, and then spend a moment quietly pondering one or two items which have attracted our attention.
If done in private, it can be helpful to read silently, as well as by vocalising (whether aloud or in a whisper). It is important that the Word be read slowly and carefully. In private we can stop and allow the impact of the reading to take hold of us.
Rather than marking a Bible, a copy of the text (e.g. a computer printout) can be given to each member who should feel free to underline, highlight, or add personal notes. This text can be carried about easily during the week or placed somewhere handy at home, so that it can be referred to frequently. In our Gospel reflections, we aim at focusing on the teaching of the Lord, his interaction with people, and his practice of solitude and prayer. In this way we learn to listen to the Word, the Word behind the words, the Word within the words.
4. Reflecting on the Word
A leader facilitates group reflection on the passage, adapting the style to meet the needs of the group, and the content of the Gospel passage. (A separate article is available entitled "Guidelines for Leaders") This is not a Bible study as such. Comparisons are not made with similar passages in other Gospel accounts. Nor are quotes from other parts of the Old or New Testaments encouraged. We remain focussed primarliy on this passage alone.
If an Old Testament reference is especially important to what Our Lord was teaching (certainly if he was quoting it) then we often include it at this time. We do this to ensure our reflection is fully bedded into the unfolding revelation of God's message throughout the whole of the Bible.
Similarly there are occasions when it is appropriate to make reference to other parts of the New Testament. However, when we do so, this should always be to enhance our understanding of the main core of the Gospel passage we are dealing with, and not to present us with new material to digest.
All members are encouraged to help "unpack" the passage whether by comment or question. The facilitator offers background information or assistance from sources of scholarship where this is appropriate or essential to avoid missing some valuable insight.
Section III of our website offers material for anyone to lead the group reflection. We make no pretentious claims about those notes but hope they help some to understand the main teaching of the passage.
5. Responding to the Word
After our facilitator brings the Reflection to a close we spend a few minutes in silence dealing with matters arising from the reflection which attracted our attention or concern.
This is a time of private prayer when we take on board the issues that have impacted on us. It is a time of loving response to the indwelling of the Word within us. Gradually we let these matters settle so that we are ready to enter into silence and inner stillness.
When in a group, we usually bring this phase to a close by reciting or singing a psalm or a New Testament canticle or a few verses of one, according to the situation.
6. Remembering the Word
It is now time to move into what is commonly referred to as silent meditation. At least once a week in a group, we try to include sections 3, 4, and 5 in sequence. Some times, however, we are alone, and may wish to move through them briefly to rekindle the spiritual nourishment from the Divine Word. Alternatively, one could move straight to Sections 6 + 7.
We may play a short piece of music depending on circumstances.
We then enter into a time of silent remembering of a chosen prayer word, phrase, sentence or scriptural thought. To remember is to hold in the memory to behold not by straining to keep the mind focused but by allowing one's whole self to be in the presence of the Word.
Sometimes this can be a simple recalling of your chosen word, sentence or thought. At other times you may wish to recite slowly a word once or twice and let it echo within. On other occasions you may simply wish to reflect on something in order to share it with the Lord.
We recommend you read our Affirmation Prayer if you would like help identifying and preparing a chosen prayer word.
In some circumstances it may be helpful, or necessary, to repeat your word, from time to time, or rhythmically throughout the meditation period. This may be the only way to cope when there are great distractions of noise or troublesome worries at least to start with.
We remain in a state of listening to the word as we remember allowing it to lead us to the Word behind the words, the Word within the words.
Our section above is not to be interpreted as suggesting our chosen Scripture word, phrase, sentence or passage be repeated or recited as a so-called mantra. We respect those Asian religious traditions which employ such techniques but wish to establish very clearly that the Christian tradition of meditation is something quite different.
We remember (which may entail repeating or reciting) a Scripture as a word from the mouth of God in order to behold and to listen; to be nurtured and to be restored by God. It is then we are enabled to respond to God from the depths of our heart and place ourselves totally in his loving care. Repetition as part of the rhythm of life is perfectly human and natural, and there is no reason why it should not feature in our meditation if it helps us. It should not be used as a method we think will induce God's presence within us, or as a system of "taking us to the centre of our being" as though that were the only place we feel confident we could 'find' God (when God is equally beyond).
Jesus Christ is the Word of God. Everything he spoke was part of God's message to call humanity to share his life. When we remember his spoken word, we are strengthened in our union with Jesus, the Word behind the words, the Word within the words.
7. Resting in The Word
We remember our "word" throughout the whole time of our meditation according to the means which suits our personal circumstances. As has been noted already, by 'word' we mean one word, thought, phrase, sentence, passage or idea from Scripture. This was a common practice among early Christians who took very seriously Christ's instruction recorded in Chapter 4 of St. Matthew's Gospel:
During this time our word brings us into Communion with the Word. We have come as the Lord invited us to do. It is now that he gives us his rest.
This is a time of profound rest in Christ the Word.
This is our Sabbath time which we share with our Creator who renews in us the breath of life we need to sustain us. This spiritual refreshment will continue to support us in all aspects of life.
Despite the allurement of distractions we try to ignore them and not let them entertain us. When we discover that we have been distracted without fuss we simply return to remembering our word.
To conclude our group meditation time we listen to some music or recite the Lord's Prayer in a low voice. Our Leader reads a blessing or the group recites a benediction. We then slowly disperse and resume our normal routines and activities.
You may find helpful our article "What Happens To Us in Meditation".
Meditation: Simple But Not Easy!
It has often been said that "meditation is simple but not easy." In presenting our approach we try to keep it simple and not complicate what should remain simple. We hope it helps encourage you to persevere in the practice. If you find you lose interest at times, or are "getting nothing out of it", or think "I'm worse off than before I started", then remember you are in good company. These are common experiences and, fortunately, are passing phases for those who don't give up. We wish you well.
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