'The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, 'Here it is,' or 'There it is,' because the kingdom of God is within you.' (Luke 17, 20-21)
We saw in the section on 'prayer' that monastic prayer involves a deep, slow contemplative reading of scripture. As we move from reading to thinking, and from thinking to prayer, we become open to God's presence.
We sometimes find that we have entered into a kind of reverie, in which we are no longer aware of passing time, or where we have to be next. Instead we are in a deep state of awareness of the scripture reading, or rather what is being said to us through it. We have started to 'listen with the ear of the heart', as the opening words of St Benedict's Rule have it.
However many people find that at some point in their prayer life, spoken or written prayers seem to lose their attraction. What once moved us and lifted our spirit seems dry and lifeless. What has changed? Were we wrong to trust the words in the first place?
No - what we have come to is an important realisation. Ultimately God lies beyond all of our words and images, including the finest 'religious' ones. Even the best poets, who know more than anyone how to use words to transcend the limits of language, know that their subject lies beyond words. All of our efforts end in bittersweet failure - a sense of longing captured in the psalms -
'O God, you are my God, for you I Iong; for you my soul is thirsting. My body pines for you like a dry, weary land without water.' - Psalm 62
'Too wonderful for me, this knowledge; too high, beyond my reach.' - Psalm 138
Is that it, then? Will prayer always be like walking into a room that someone has just left?
Way back in the 4th century St Augustine wrestled with this feeling of isolation. He sought God outside himself, seeking him in all the beautiful things of the world, and failed to find him. Then in his 30's he came to a sudden moment of realisation - that the God he had been seeking was within him all along, the one place he had not looked.
"You were there before my eyes, but I had deserted you in my own self, and I did not find the God of my own heart." (Confessions 5.2)
Augustine came to realise that even the most beautiful prayers directed 'out there' and 'up there' towards God are not, on their own, enough. 'God speaks to us in the great silence of the heart,' he said, and it is the inspiration of Augustine's actual experience of the indwelling God that draws us to find God in the silence of meditative prayer.
St Paul came to know that the real essence of prayer is going on within us at all times, as the Spirit of the indwelling Son prays a constant hymn of silent love and thanksgiving to the Father. Our 'prayer' is really just a participation in Christ's prayer, a small tributary flowing into a broad river of prayer on its way to the source. 'We do not even know how to pray', St Paul tells us, 'but the Spirit prays within us, deeper than words...'
So what is meditation, exactly?
Meditation is a form of silent prayer which quietens the ordinary thinking mind, allowing a deeper, steadier awareness to be revealed in the silence of the heart. This is where we can come to experience (although perhaps only dimly, as St Paul reminds us) the indwelling God, 'in whom we live, and move, and have our being' (Acts 17:28).
Does sitting in silence lead easily to a state of peace, and resting in the presence of God? Hardly - as soon as we attempt to be silent, we realise just how noisy our distracted minds are. We suddenly become aware of our unceasing thought trails, and feel tempted to give up. However that would be like going to see the doctor, discovering that you are suffering from an unexpected and serious illness, only to respond by resolving not to go and see the doctor again.
Instead, inspired by the example of Jesus when faced with the distractions of temptation in the desert, we take one short line from Scripture, or perhaps even just one word, and silently repeat it, allowing the ordinary mind to concentrate on this instead. Whenever we realise that we have lapsed into distracting thoughts, we gently, and without frustration and self-criticism, return to our word. Over time this quietens our mind, and we come to the realisation that we are more than just our thoughts, that there is a steady, quiet 'me' that exists independently of the workings of the ordinary mind. It is only this deep level of awareness that is capable of recognising the indwelling Christ.
Now, it is true that meditation is not the only way of coming to this level of awareness. It can come unbidden at any time, through grace. But as St Theresa of Avila said, the miraculous metamorphosis of a silk worm into a silk moth cannot occur unless the silk worm first labours to produce a cocoon of silk, within which the transformation can safely occur. Just so with meditation - by bringing ourselves to a state of stillness, we are more receptive to the presence of God within, quietly calling us. To use another metaphor, a gardener does not grow plants - they grow by their very nature - but he must engage in months of hard labour to create the conditions in which the plants will successfully grow.
How to meditate
Although our experience of dealing with the distracted mind is not an easy one, the actual practice of meditation is simplicity itself. There are various different schools of meditation within the Christian tradition, but one of the best known was started by John Main OSB, now continued by Laurence Freeman OSB, via the World Community for Christian Meditation. Here are John Main's instructions for meditation:
“Sit down. Sit still and upright. Close your eyes lightly. Sit relaxed but alert. Silently, interiorly begin to say a single word. We recommend the prayer-phrase maranatha. Recite it as four syllables of equal length. Listen to it as you say it, gently but continuously. Do not think or imagine anything – spiritual or otherwise. If thoughts or images come, these are distractions at the time of meditation, so keep returning to simply saying the word. Meditate each morning and evening for between twenty and thirty minutes.” – John Main OSB
For a short video explanation of Christian Meditation by Laurence Freeman, click here:
For more information about meditation and the World Community for Christian Meditation, visit the website of the WCCM -
For a reflection by Mackenzie Robinson Obl.OSB on the Labyrinth of the Cathedral of Chartres and the experience of meditation, click here -