Sunday, July 19, 2020
What is Christian Meditation?
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What is Christian Meditation? How can a Catholic practice meditation? Is it allowed or encouraged? What exactly is it?

In the recent newsletter for St. Michael's Priory in Africa, Fr. Peter Scott wrote a very insightful article on meditation and how we must practice meditation - even as regularly lay people who are not priests or consecrated religious. The following is quoted from that newsletter:


MENTAL PRAYER

If there is one devotional practice that Catholics fear most, it is meditation, also called mental prayer. They come up with a multitude of reasons why they consider that it is not for them. Some say that they do not even know what it is, let alone how to do it; others that they have distractions when they try; others that it is for religious and not for regular lay people; others that they are too busy to have time for it; others that they do not need mental prayer, for vocal prayers, such as morning and night prayers and assistance at Holy Mass suffice.

Yet, St. Alphonsus dares speak of the “moral necessity of mental prayer” for salvation, which, he affirms, flows from the absolute necessity of the prayer of petition for salvation. By this he means that we cannot go to heaven unless we ask for God’s forgiveness, grace and perseverance. Now, it is true that the prayers of the traditional Mass constantly petition God for forgiveness, grace and perseverance. However, does everyone pray the Mass as he ought? The patron saint of moral theologians goes on to explain that without mental prayer a person will not know what he needs to ask for. He will not be aware of his sins nor of what graces he needs, and of his desperate need for them. “He who neglects meditation will not know his spiritual wants, the dangers to which his salvation is exposed, the means which he must adopt to conquer temptations, or even the necessity of the prayer of petition for all men; thus he will give up the practice of prayer, and by neglecting to ask God’s graces he will certainly be lost.” (The Great Means of Salvation, p. 233). There must, therefore, be answers to the common objections against meditation.

WHAT IS MEDITATION? 

Meditation is prayer that takes place wholly within the soul, and not with the lips, as opposed to vocal prayer, in which the spoken words are an expression of the sentiments in the depth of the soul. Deep down, it is nothing more or less than a conversation with God, with our Divine Saviour, with the Blessed Virgin and the saints. However, it is not just any conversation which is a true mental prayer. If a person talks to God to complain about his lot in life, or to talk about his friends and relatives, or to tell stories of some kind, he is not meditating. In order to lift the soul up and unite it to Almighty God, it must be a conversation founded on and filled with the consideration of the eternal truths that God has revealed to us, such as the Incarnation, the Passion, the Redemption and the four last things. It is precisely here that it is the exact opposite of the fake naturalistic meditations of eastern religions such as Buddhism and Yoga, which have as their absurd goal to empty the mind of everything and to discover nothingness.

Moreover, true mental prayer is what brings us into relation with Almighty God. It is not just an intellectual consideration and consequently, since we are all sinners, it must necessarily contain a profound awareness of our sins and contrition for them. It must consider our duties to God and how negligent we have been, and from this flows the petition that is a necessary part of meditation. When we meditate we repeatedly and constantly beg for the graces of which we are in need in order to accomplish God’s holy will. Moreover, meditation worthy of the name must draw us to grow in the love of God. Hence, it necessarily entails making resolutions, which we offer to the Good Lord, to express our homage and our determination to promote His glory, and to embrace our crosses. Meditation is consequently a conversation based upon a strong Faith, personal convictions, and the acknowledgment of our entire dependence on the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

HOW DOES ONE MEDITATE? 

The big objection that is made to meditation is that people say they do not know what to do or what to say. My answer is: Do you not know what to say to someone you love, especially if you have hurt him? We must first of all place ourselves in the presence of God, whom we love, and with whom we long to communicate. We can do this by reminding ourselves that God is everywhere, and especially in our souls, or we can picture to ourselves the sacred humanity of Christ. Then we continue by begging for God’s grace, for without it we cannot profitably consider divine truths. Then we rivet our attention on the chosen subject, seeking the enlightenment and understanding that will move our wills. Then we come to the acts of affection in our will, such as as the love of God, compunction for sin, compassion for our Divine Saviour, forgiveness of others and charity towards our neighbour. From these flow our resolutions, in the form of petitions, begging for the grace to be faithful to them.

Although great freedom is to be followed, out of fidelity to the inspirations of divine grace, there are nevertheless several methods of meditation that can help to give a more definite structure to our meditations, and make them easier. The oldest is that of meditative reading, the Benedictine method. A text, such as Sacred Scripture, is read very slowly, and during long pauses, the meaning and consequences are reflected upon, from which resolutions are drawn. The well known method of St. Ignatius is much more intricate. After the imagination is captivated by a familiar scene, the grace sought after is to be determined precisely.

Then memory, understanding and will are applied to each of the three points that make up the main body of the meditation. From these come the resolutions, which are expressed in the heart-to-heart colloquy with God the Father or our Divine Saviour.

St. Alphonsus points out the importance of repeated petitions in meditation. “In mental prayer it is very profitable, and perhaps more useful than any other act, to repeat petitions to God, asking, with humility and confidence, His graces; that is, his light, resignation, perseverance, and the like; but above all the gift of His holy love.” (Ib. p. 257). St. Francis de Sales gives special emphasis on resolutions, pointing out that these resolutions to be effective, must not be too general. He gives the example of the desire to pardon our enemies and to love them, but adds that it is of little consequence, unless a special resolution is added, such as: “I shall no longer be disturbed by that disagreeable word which my neighbour always says, or by the scorn directed to me by this or that person.” He then instructs us to conclude our meditation by offering God the good sentiments and resolutions inspired by God’s grace, together with the example of the virtues of Christ Our Lord, and finally by the petition that God might bless our resolutions and make us faithful to them. (Introduction to the Devout Life, II, Ch 6 & 7).

Meditation, therefore, requires a certain solitude, so that the soul can express itself and listen to the inspirations of grace. The fast-moving, hyperactive and materialistic modern life style, with its emphasis on success and production, engenders superficiality and makes mental prayer very difficult. A person must slow his mind down from all its exterior preoccupations, and then he can meditate. Our Divine Saviour speaks of this solitude when he says: “When thou shalt pray, enter into thy chamber, and having shut the door, pray to the Father in secret” (Mt 6:6). This solitude can also be found in a Catholic church, which is often the preferred place, because of the Real Presence and the silence that reigns.

DISTRACTIONS 

Discouragement is one of the frequent reasons why many do not keep up their meditations. Overwhelmed by distractions, and sometimes even by desolation, they tell themselves that meditating is too difficult for them. It is certainly true that the real effort that it takes to stay focussed on the subject of our meditation is a real test of our love of God. Worldly imaginations, useless thoughts, emotional attachments continually creep in, even when they are not willed. The difficulty is in the weakness of our fallen nature. It struggles to lift itself up to spiritual realities. A method has to be applied to overcome these distractions. Firstly, there must be control of the imagination. The mental picture used for the meditation helps, but a conscious effort must also be applied to expel other imaginations. Whenever a soul realizes that he is distracted, he must firmly but gently rise above such thoughts and return to the subject of the meditation. A good way of passing this test of generosity is to repeatedly offer up requests and petitions to God for the graces that one desires. However, it is also necessary to make sure that the subject of the meditation is sufficiently prepared (the best is to do it the night before), and that the soul is recollected, that is in sufficient interior and exterior silence, and not too tired.

Desolation, or spiritual emptiness or dryness, often accompanies distractions, and makes a person think that he is wasting his time to attempt to meditate. This desolation can be a punishment for someone who is not making the correct effort, but most frequently it is a trial to test whether we are praying to the God of all consolation, or for the consolations of God. Desolation is a universal experience, and this is what St. Alphonsus has to say about it: “The time of dryness is the time for gaining the greatest rewards; and when we find ourselves apparently without fervour, without good desires, and, as it were, unable to do a good act, let us humble ourselves and resign ourselves, for this very meditation will be more fruitful than others” (Ib. p. 244). We must see such difficulties as a test of our love, and not at all a reason for us to abandon meditation.

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