Think of the first picture that comes to mind when you hear the word ‘meditation’. Many see a robed figure sitting cross-legged with upturned hands, closed eyes, humming or singing a simple, resonating chant. For westerners, meditation often is associated with eastern forms of spiritual practices. With the introduction of eastern meditation into American mainstream culture in the last century, the practice of meditation is often associated with sitting on a mat in a specific posture breathing and emptying the mind to relax and become calm. Yoga has offered millions of Americans a particular pattern for meditation, but it is one pattern among many. In today’s multi-cultural world, the marketplace of global spirituality offers a wide variety of forms of meditation, including the ancient Christian meditation.
What does the Bible teach regarding meditation? Is there such a thing as Christian meditation? Where can a person learn about meditation as a Christian pattern of prayer? In my quest to understand ancient Christian meditation, I’ve discovered Biblical approaches to meditation that vary dramatically from eastern forms of meditation described above. The heart of Christian meditation involves filling our minds rather than emptying them. The focus of Christian meditation is God rather than self. The practice of Christian meditation centers upon Scripture rather than posture or breathing. Sacred musing upon Scripture offers quite different understanding of meditation than eastern forms of meditation. Eastern meditation calls us to lay aside words, images and all mental activity, and to become like a blank white page. Ancient Christian meditation focuses our mental activity upon a specific text of Scripture, going over the text again and again until it is known by heart, word for word.
Ancient Christian meditation involves sacred musing upon a passage of Scripture. We learn to meditate by verbal repetition of Scripture until we have the passage in our memory. The goal is maturity and wholeness in God. Christian meditation calls us to become “perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). As we write passages of the Bible upon our mind, we see a marvel taking place within our inner life. God’s Word is living and active, shaping the way we think, the attitude of our heart, the motives of our will. Memorized passages of Scripture feed us from within, internalizing the truths and spiritual radiance of God’s Word. Then we discover we are beginning to live according to those passages in the daily habits of living, including daily work and prayer.
We are told over and over in the Scriptures to meditate upon God’s Word. The psalmist encourages us to take our delight in God’s Word, and meditate upon Scripture day and night. “His delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night (Psalm 1:2).” Many other classic example of Biblical meditation may be seen in Scripture. Here are a few selections from Psalm 119: “I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways. I lift up my hands to your commands, which I love, and I meditate on your decrees. Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long. I have more insight than all my teachers, for I meditate on your statutes. My eyes stay open through the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promises (Psalm 119:15, 97, 99, 148).”
Early Church teachers encouraged people to memorize long passages of the Bible through the practice of ancient Christian meditation. For example, in the early sixth century, Benedict told his monks to spend two to three hours every day reciting passage of Scripture, using an approach to meditation called Lectio Divina, or sacred reading of Scripture. In this ancient approach to meditation, we repeat passages of Scripture over and over on our lips until we have the text memorized. Visit any Benedictine monastery today, and you will find an architectural feature to assist monks in this basic habit of spiritual growth, the cloister walk. A covered walkway, often lined with beautiful archways looking in upon a peaceful garden, lies at the heart of the Benedictine abbey, allowing monks space to quietly memorize Scripture while walking. In essence, ancient Christian meditation is memorizing, studying and learning Scripture by heart. Here’s what Benedictine scholar, Timothy Fry has to say about this pattern:
For the ancients, the term ‘meditatio’ meant something different from what it does for us today. I was not a purely interior activity (“reflecting upon”), but involved the repetition of a text aloud. Associated with reading (which was done aloud), it meant that the reader repeated passages over and over again in order to learn them by heart. Once learned, these texts could then be repeated from memory without a book. This latter activity, which could be carried on during work or other activities, was also called ‘meditatio’. The meditation or ‘rumination’ of scriptural passages while performing other tasks required extensive memorization of Scripture (Timothy Fry, O.S.B. RB1980, 446).
While in Morocco a few years ago, I saw a white haired man in his 80’s, dressed in a brown long woolen robe with a white knit hat, pacing back and forth in a cafe area, quietly mouthing the words, reciting texts of the Qur’an over and over for memory. Our Muslim host mentioned that this activity is very common among the devout Muslims, especially the elderly. Many faithful Muslims make it a lifelong goal to memorize the entire Qur’an, something akin to memorizing the New Testament. Muslim and Christian meditation then are cousins, with both approaches to meditation focusing upon writings which are methodically memorized by vocal recitation, over and over, until they are learned “by heart”.
Most people I’ve talked with associate rote memorization with boring school assignments. Certainly, there is something mundane about memory work. Christian meditation is not sexy. It doesn’t offer mass-media appeal. Celebrities seldom talk about this way of spiritual growth. Few people look back to their school days and think fondly of memorizing word lists, math formulas or historical dates. The act of memorization is hard mental work. When I encourage people to memorize, they often look at me as though I just suggested they sprout wings and fly to the moon. For centuries though, millions of Christians have focused their brain power upon rote memorization of long passages of the Bible, learning the text of Scripture, word for word, word by word. Hear what Benedictine scholar, Aquinata Bockman, has to say about this ancient approach to Scripture as practiced by Benedict fifteen hundred years ago:
Meditating is mentioned in “The Rule of St. Benedict” as the first activity of the novices, even before eating and sleeping . . . . The subject of ‘meditation’ is above all, Scripture, and it is furthermore connected with reading. In old texts, ‘meditare’ means to read, learn, repeat, learn by heart, explain, study, to acquire knowledge; and translating what one has read into actual living is also part of such ‘meditating’. The center of all this effort is Sacred Scripture (Aquinata Bockmann, Expanding our Hearts in Christ: Perspectives on the Rule of Saint Benedict, 117).
How might someone in the 21st century practice this ancient form of Christian meditation? Here are five steps for learning the ancient way of Christian meditation.
1.Choose a passage of Scripture. If you do not currently have a habit of Bible reading, choose a short passage from one of the Gospels, from Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. Consider writing the passage on 3×5 cards and carry them with you through the day.
2.Read the passage slowly. Connect your eyes and ears in this passage by reading the passage aloud, in a quiet, slow manner, allowing the words to fall both upon your eyes and ears, and thus penetrate into your mind, word by word, phrase by phrase. Repeat. When you get to the end of the passage, go back to the beginning and start over, slowly reciting the whole passage aloud, quietly, allowing the words to be spoken upon your lips, while your eyes rest upon the passage, word by word, phrase by phrase.
3.Get up and walk around your house or through a neighborhood park, reading the passage aloud as you walk. As you read the passage again, slowly reciting the words again, pondering their meaning, reflecting upon the passage. Read the familiar words and ponder the unfamiliar meanings behind the words. Walk slowly, step by step, reading word by word through the passage several more times.
4.Recite the passage for memory as you walk slowly. As you become familiar with the words and sentences, recall the passage from your memory, getting each word in its proper place, reciting the Scripture passage “word perfect”. Check back in the Bible or on the hand-written cards for accuracy. Memorize the passage so that you can say it without looking at the written words.
5.At the close of a time of meditation, offer a prayer of thanks to God for hiding Scripture in your heart, and ask God to reshape your thoughts, attitudes and inner life by the living and active Word of truth. Seek practical ways to live according to the truths you’ve discovered in God’s Word through sacred musing.