'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)
Many people find that at some point in their prayer life, spoken or written prayers seem to lose their attraction. What once moved and lifted us 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 - a sense of longing captured in the psalms -
'O God, you are my God, for you I long; 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
Must 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 Spirit is forever present in our hearts -
'We do not even know how to pray, but the Spirit prays within us, deeper than words...'
We can participate in this, like a small tributary flowing into a broad river of prayer on its way to the sea.
So what is meditation?
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 this mysterious indwelling presence, 'in whom we live, and move, and have our being' (Acts 17:28).
Inspired by the example of Jesus when faced with the distractions of temptation in the desert, we take one short line from Scripture, perhaps even just one word, and silently repeat it, allowing the 'surface' 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 realise that we are more than just our thoughts, that there is a steady, quiet 'I' that exists independently of the workings of the ordinary mind. It is only this deep level of awareness that can experience the indwelling Spirit.
How to meditate
There are various different schools of meditation within the Christian tradition, but one of the best known was started by John Main OSB. Here are his 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
See the links below for a short video explanation of Christian Meditation by Laurence Freeman OSB; more information about meditation and the World Community for Christian Meditation, and a reflection on the Labyrinth of the Cathedral of Chartres and the experience of meditation: