Inner Life

Meditation, mindfulness and Christian faith

MeditationChristianity’s meditative traditions have much to teach a world and church crying out for stillness, depth and serenity about the riches of simply being in the presence of God. Dorothy Lee reflects.

By Dorothy Lee

September 6 2015Meditation is an increasingly popular practice in secular society. Due to the stresses and strains of modern living — if not the epidemic nature of anxiety itself — people are turning more and more to Eastern religions to learn various techniques of meditation, involving disciplined periods of silence, stillness and bodily relaxation.

Most popular of all is the technique of mindfulness, in which meditators learn gently and consistently to distance themselves from the jumble of thoughts, feelings, sensations and planning which revolves inside their heads, causing anxiety, stress, tension and difficulties in relaxing or sleeping. In mindfulness practice, the meditator learns to observe these thoughts and emotions from a safe distance, in a non-critical and non-judgemental way, in order to find freedom from the tangle and inner turmoil. Mindfulness, in particular, is usually associated with Buddhism and Buddhist forms of meditation.

Studies in psychology have confirmed the usefulness of meditation and mindfulness in lowering stress. These studies have demonstrated, not only the assistance of a meditation practice in dealing with worry, but also that parts of the brain are changed for the better by such practice. Clinical trials, for example, have scanned the brains of people before and after mindfulness training, and noted the significant reduction in anxiety in certain parts of the brain.

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Christian faith has its own long and venerable tradition of meditation and silence. The Christian focus on awareness is very similar to mindfulness but is an explicit form of prayer, not a conversation with the self, based on the conviction that salvation comes from God and not from ourselves. Christian mindfulness, by definition, is entry into the saving presence of the God, the holy Trinity. It does not deny the dynamic speaking of God, particularly in and through Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. Instead, the aim is to silence our endless, chattering speech, not God’s. It identifies our need to learn to listen more and speak less: how to “be still and know that I am God” (Ps 46:10).

The Christian meditative tradition is often overlooked by those who want an experience of meditation, not only to reduce levels of stress in their lives, but also to gain a sense of connection to a spiritual and transcendent reality. Only Eastern religions are seen as capable of responding to these deep needs, a view based partly on ignorance of the Christian meditative tradition and partly in response to the sheer verbiage of so much Christian worship and prayer.

Christian meditative practice, however, is significantly diverse, and cannot be equated with any one form or technique. The forms of Christian meditation, coming from the Church in both East and West, represent a rather different approach from Buddhist inspired models. There is, for example, the “apophatic” tradition, which is concerned to move, literally, “away from words”, attempting to transcend thoughts and language. In the contemplative form of prayer Christians seek to move beyond the concerns of the ego into the redolent silence of God. It is, in one sense, a Christian form of mindfulness, and is perhaps the closest to Buddhist practice – in technique, though not content.

The contemplative tradition often advocates the use of a mantra, a sacred word or phrase from the Bible or the tradition, such as “Maranatha” (“Lord, come”) or “The Lord is my Shepherd” or simply the name, “Jesus”. Here the focus is on a slow and gentle repetition of the chosen mantra, whenever thoughts and feelings arise. The purpose of contemplation is not explicitly for relaxation or even the reduction of stress. Its aim is rather to enter into the presence of God in the fullness and richness of the present moment. Though it may seem unproductive and empty in the short-term, those who practise it claim that it is transformative for the whole of life, drawing Christians into the plenitude of God and away from their own egos. Instead their purpose is to find rest in the transfiguring grace of God: allowing God to be God and to change them in God’s own time and God’s own way.

A second form of Christian meditation is the “kataphatic”, which means literally, moving downwards “into words”. This model of prayer, which is similarly based in stillness and silence, uses images and imagination to strengthen the sense of connection with God and the perception of Christ’s nearness. It is not an intellectual exercise but rather encourages Christians, under the inspiration of the Spirit, to engage the heart in the deepest places. Narrative, and in particular, biblical narrative, is intrinsic to this style of prayer. Christians can enter imaginatively into the story and engage at a deep level with the Christ who comes to them in the narratives with comfort, healing and forgiveness.

Another form of meditation is that of “sacred reading” (lectio divina) which involves the slow, prayerful and meditative reading of Scripture. It is not the prelude to prayer but rather the prayer itself. In this style of meditation, Christians endeavour to allow themselves to become recipients of the divine presence speaking through the sacred text. Their role is to become listeners for the Word-within-the-words, and to allow the Bible to speak in the silence of the heart. This practice puts no limits on the reading itself: in any one session, Christians may read a whole chapter of Scripture or a verse or even a single word, dwelling on it and allowing the Spirit to speak through it.

These styles of meditation, and their variants, employ something very similar to mindfulness in their understanding of prayer: the distancing of the ego through gentle but disciplined self-awareness. The basic theological understanding, however, which distinguishes Christian mindfulness from its Buddhist-inspired equivalent, is that mindfulness is primarily the prerogative and work of God. It is God who, first and foremost, is mindful of us and graciously self-revealing to us in our meditation. It is God’s mindfulness of us that makes the difference in our lives.

These forms of Christian meditation are ways of learning to trust the God who is present in all things and to all things. They are not a substitute for intercessory prayer (which can often arise from meditation), nor are they an immediate cure for stress and tension – still less, a quick fix. But they are effective in the long term for deepening our trust in God, surrendering our whole lives to God, the self-emptying of our egos, and the discovery of Christ’s own peace which is not “as the world gives” (Jn 14:27). Christian meditation engages us in non-judging self-awareness leading to an ever-deepening sense of God’s restful love and life-giving presence. To meditate, to contemplate, to listen, to imagine, to sit in stillness and silence, to practise mindfulness: these, for Christians, are all ways of simply being in the blessed presence of God, without thought for what we may or may not gain from it.

To a world and a church crying out for stillness, depth and serenity, Christian meditative practices are sanctifying, peace-making and, in the truest sense, evangelical.

The Revd Canon Professor Dorothy A Lee is Frank Woods Professor in New Testament, and Dean of the Theological School, Trinity College, University of Divinity.

To find out more about Christian meditation see www.wccm.org, www.christianmeditationaustralia.org, www.contemplativeoutreach.org. For information on Lectio Divina, click here. For information on prayer and the imagination, click here