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Traditional and Modern Methods of Meditation

Isaías A. Rodríguez

Meditation is a centuries-old custom and deeply rooted in Christian spirituality. Above all, it has remained alive and flourishing in religious orders; and some of them, like the Discalced Carmelite Order, have greatly promoted this way of praying. Today its practice is flourishing worldwide due to the influence of eastern techniques, promoted by Buddhist and Hindu religions.

A traditional method.
The best known method of meditation is based on the traditional Lectio Divina. The practice was first established by St. Benedict of Nursia in the 6th century and was then formalized as four-step process by the Carthusian monk Guigo II (1188-1193) in a work called Monastic Ladder or Paradise Ladder [Scala claustralium o Scala paradisi]. It deals with the four degrees of spiritual exercise: spiritual reading, meditation, prayer and contemplation. St. John of the Cross (1542-1591) formulate these parts in this way: "Seek in reading and you will find in meditation; knock in prayer and it will be opened to you in contemplation" (The Sayings of Light and Love, 158).

I am presenting the exercise of meditation as it has been practiced for centuries.
Preparation. It should only take a few minutes, and consists in placing oneself in the presence of God, abandoning, during the time dedicated to meditation, any other concern. In James we read: "Come near to God and he will come near to you" (James 4:8).
Reading and considerations. A theme for meditation is chosen. For this we normally use a book that could be the Bible or any other book of a pious nature that invites us to reflections aimed at improving our lives. A passage of the selected book is read slowly, and for some time we analyze what has been read from all points of view, always with the ultimate goal of achieving something practical for our lives. The goal pursued is not to elucidate a theological or philosophical issue, nor is it a matter of establishing comparisons between what we have read in the book and the opinions that any author might have on the subject. Our reflection must be simple, calm and focused on the issue that we hope will help us improve our behavior.

If we read something from the Bible we do not do it in order to learn that passage from memory. Nor should we entertain ourselves in professional biblical analysis. Sometimes, a single word, and other times a single phrase, may be enough to close the Bible and focus on what we have read and has touched our sensitivity.

Once we have reflected on the subject sufficiently, we must apply it to our lives. If we have thought of any passage in the life of Jesus Christ, how do we act in comparison to the conduct of Christ? What can I do to approach the model of Christ? If we have meditated on any virtue, charity, faith or hope, do we live what these virtues imply, or do we constantly fail? What can we do to strengthen our faith, consolidate our hope, and mature in love?

Up to this moment the whole exercise has been mental, and it is not the most important thing in prayer, but is an introductory step.

Prayer or affections. The last steps of the reflexive exercise brought us closer to this part, which is the most important. The last considerations must have touched us in our heart. From that moment, we leave the work of the intellect so that the will is fully dedicated to creating emotions, feelings and affections, caused by the reflection. In general we have to come to feelings conducive to avoiding sin and strengthening our spiritual life, our character. Over time a great improvement in life must be noticed in us. Moreover, with an intensive and uninterrupted practice, over the years, our soul is predisposing itself to the next level, much more sublime, called contemplation.

Petitions. This is an important moment of the meditation. Probably in our affective considerations we have concluded that we are very far from perfection. Probably, in our fervor, we would like to change radically in a few moments. Our goal might be very high. That is why we need divine help. We must ask for protection to persevere in our objective. We can also include other requests, for the church, our family, friends, etc.

Resolution. If we have been sincere and consistent so far, we certainly want to formulate some purpose. Maybe we would like to change our life in an instant. We have to avoid making general purposes. A very specific one is the best. And we must strive to comply it.

Conclusion. In a few seconds we thank God for the graces obtained during the time dedicated to meditation, and forgiveness is requested for any fault we may have.

I have not said anything about contemplation because this is the final state that is reached after much meditation. Contemplation is a grace granted by God to few people that God wants to lead to higher summits of the spiritual life. According to St. John of the Cross, God gives it only to those people who are willing to endure and face all the spiritual and psychological sufferings that contemplative purification implies. Those who receive such a gift, there comes a time when they achieve - always with divine help - total union or transformation in God on this earth. This is a sublime moment reserved for very few.

Today, most the times, the word contemplation is used in a very broad sense, without implying the superior state of grace granted by God that will lead to the state of mystical elevation. Thus it is how we speak of contemplative prayer in a generic sense, since contemplation in the strict sense is enjoyed by very few people. Let´s listen to John of the Cross, "God does not bring to contemplation all those who purposely exercise themselves in the way of the spirit nor even half. Why? He best knows." (Dark Night 1, 9, 9.)

What is contemplation according to St. John of the Cross?
(Quotes from the Dark Night):
Is nothing else than a secret and peaceful and loving inflow of God, which, if not hampered fires the soul in the spirit of love (1, 10, 6).
Is loving wisdom of God [that] produces two principal effects in the soul: by both purging and illumining, this contemplation prepares the soul for union with God through love (2, 5, 1).
This contemplation infuses both love and wisdom in each soul according to its capacity and necessity (2, 12, 2).
Because dark contemplation brings the soul closer to God, it has all these characteristics; it safeguards and cares for the soul. […] The spiritual light is so bright and so transcendent that it blinds and darkens the natural intellect as this latter approaches it (2, 16, 11).
Is the language of God to the soul, of Pure Spirit to pure spirit (2, 17, 4). Pure contemplation is indescribable (2, 17, 5, and 3). Hides the soul within itself (2, 17, 6). Engulfs the soul in its secret abyss (2, 17, 6) [Leads souls] into the heart of the science of love (2, 17, 6). Is the way that guides de soul to the perfections of union with God (2, 17, 7). Is a science of love (2, 18, 5).
In this state of contemplation until one arrives at the quiet state: The soul never remains in on state, but everything is ascent and descent (2, 18, 3)

Some considerations and other methods
The crisis of meditation that has occurred in some Christian circles comes from the type of civilization in which we live (accelerated and secularized) and the preponderance given to the liturgy or public worship. However, the primacy of the liturgy in the church should not supplant individual and private prayer and meditation, but instead place it in its proper place. The modern being, in addition to liturgy or public worship, feels an urgency for private prayer that fills an inner emptiness.

The primacy of the liturgy or public worship as a source of spiritual life does not refer to the external rites in themselves, but to the mystery of salvation that is carried out in it, including all the biblical readings, collections, hymns, etc., which are a source of spiritual enrichment. Luke tells us that "Mary kept all these things, and meditated in her heart" (Luke 2:19). And the psalmist assures that he meditated on the law of the Lord "all day" (Psalm 117:97) and "day and night" (Psalm 1:2).

A method proposed by Benedictine monk John Main, and of eastern inspiration, consists of sitting in a comfortable way, with our back straight, our eyes closed, and continuously reciting a word or mantra. You should not think about its content, but simply listen to what it says. When distractions arise, you return, always effortlessly, to the phrase. The intent is constantly staying in a passive listening attitude and allowing God to be present until our heart is filled, transforming our whole being. This receptive attitude was already highly recommended by Saint Teresa to her daughters: "I only ask you to listen to Him" and "I only ask you to let yourself be looked at by Him." We must, therefore, keep ourselves constantly in an existential situation of openness to the Sublime, Transcendent. We are clothed by that inscrutable Mystery and we don't realize it.

Another widespread method in the United States is the one proposed by the Cistercian monk Thomas Keating and known by the name of "centering prayer." The name was suggested by a group of provincials of religious orders of both sexes who attended a retreat given by the Cistercian Basil Pennington. Originally, the name seems to come directly from Thomas Merton, who used it in one of his writings. According to Keating: "The method is based primarily on the work of the fourteenth century The Cloud of Unknowing, and on the doctrine of St. John of the Cross, of going to the center of ourselves, and is a further effort to present the teaching of the early days in an updated format and giving to it certain order and regularity." In essence it is a mixture of Lectio divina and what is proposed by John Main. Lectio divina, as Keating very well indicates, is not so much about reading in a run and reflecting on the biblical reading but in slowly reading it and internalizing it, always accepting the divine presence and its action in us.

According to this, there is no exact or mathematical method that gives equally excellent results to everyone. St. Paul exhorts the Romans to offer their bodies as a living sacrifice, dedicated and acceptable to God (Romans 12:1). All our living must be a liturgical act of prayer and meditation. I cannot but think here of the famous French Discalced Carmelite Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection (1614-1691) who reached the peak of mystical life practicing the exercise of God's presence. He believed that this was the best method to reach God. He tells us that he began to live as if only God and he lived in the world, naturally always projecting that divine experience towards others.

Therefore, human beings in order to reach to God must remain unconditionally open to the word of God and forget about their selfish tendencies; they must maintain a loving dialogue with God; they have to go themselves searching for God, to be in communion with him/her.