an overview of some ways of Christian meditation
a living christian tradition
To many, the word “meditation” often brings to mind Eastern religions. But from the earliest days of the Church, Christians have used meditation as an essential part of prayer along with offering intercessions, supplications, and praise. From a Christian perspective, meditation might be thought of as quiet prayer, a prayer without petition, since “he already knows your needs.” (Mt. 6.8) The prayer of quiet brings the soul into quiet rest, as well as the body. Many meditative practices have become perfected over centuries by countless believers, especially those in religious communities.
I’m no expert on meditative techniques, and there are undoubtedly many which I’ve missed, but this list might be good for a start. I’ve arranged these meditation techniques from what seem to me to be simpler ways to more complex ways. I’ve also arranged them into three main categories, those which use music, those which use imagination, and those which are more traditional meditation methods. That said, there is a very great amount of overlapping, especially among the specific methods listed later in each group. I regret that I don’t have time or room to describe any of them in detail. I’ve limited this list to only those approaches which have a significant Christian history. However, there are any number of meditation methods from other traditions which are well-suited for quiet prayer, such as tai chi, qi gong, vipassana (insight) meditation, walking meditation, zazen, Self-inquiry and a host of others.
some words on guidance and practice
The serious pursuit of meditation as a spiritual discipline can be difficult, indeed. There are numerous distractions in the world, and even more within our minds. Simply developing the habit of meditation can be a significant challenge. For these reasons, a spiritual director can be essential. Spiritual directors are persons who are already well-traveled on the path of experiencing God, who know and understand meditation and other spiritual disciplines, as well as the workings of the Presence of God upon the soul. Spiritual direction usually takes the form of regular meetings, often about once a month. For the last four years, I’ve benefited immensely from the insight, objectivity, and encouragement of my director, a wonderful nun in my church. I cannot recommend having a good spiritual director highly enough. Seek a director who is compatible with you, but who also challenges you. You may have to “try out” a number of directors before you find one who is right for you. For example, St. Teresa of Ávila suffered for a while from having a spiritual director who taught her to ignore her visions as distractions from the devil. When St. John of the Cross became her director, he encouraged her to explore them as the profound ways in which God was communicating with her.
Meditation is always about Presence, and we have acquired many ways to not be present. As soon as you begin trying to simply be present to God and yourself, you will find yourself thinking about when you need to do the laundry, feed the cat, or any one of a thousand other thoughts which take you from Presence into the future or the past. The key is to come back gently. Do not in any way chastise yourself. Simply shrug off the distraction with an inner smile and return. You may have to do this a hundred times in a single sitting; no matter. In so doing, over time, not only will your ability to stay present in meditation increase, but the gentleness you’ve cultivated in dealing with yourself will carry over to a sustained gentleness in how you relate to all people, and your determination to be present will carry over, into greater focus and presence in the rest of your life. Similarly, it is also important to not to judge a sitting. It is not good nor bad, although some will seem to be easy or “successful,” and (many) other sittings may seem be frustrating because of the difficulty of staying present. But it is in doing the work that you grow, and the frustrating sitting may have been much more beneficial for your growth than the easy one in which resting in Presence seemed effortless.
a survey of christian meditation methods
|Preparation:||Relaxing / Centering methods (Recollection)|
|Entering into Presence:||Listening||Visualization||Repetition|
|Singing in the Spirit||Kything||Mindfulness|
Relaxation / Centering methods—These have been called recollection in Christian religious life. With recollection, you “re-collect” yourself to be fully present. These are the primary means of “centering down” to prepare for more deliberate meditation, and yet, they are effective meditative methods in their own right.
- Relax in a tranquil environment: Choose your spot, and savor the setting. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a waterfall or another natural setting, a park, watching a sunset, taking in a work of great art in a museum, quieting your soul in a church, or any other kind tranquil environment. Take time to savor peaceful sights, sounds, smells.
- Body scan: I feel…. my head feels…my chest feels… etc. Move throughout your body, simply noting your physical sensations
- Progressive relaxation: (progressively tensing then relaxing muscle groups, etc.)
- Focus on the breath Feel the breath going in and coming out of out the nostrils. Or on the rise and fall of the abdomen or chest in conjunction with your breathing. (If it’s extremely quiet, you may be able to focus on your pulse.)
- Environment scan: I hear this, I see this, I smell this, I feel this, etc.
- Focus on a fixed object or sound. Concentrate on something outside of you: for instance, a flower, painting, candle, crucifix, icon, or the sound of water, wind, or traffic.
Musical approaches : These usually aren’t thought of as as meditative techniques, but music can be a powerful way of making a meditative connection to God’s Presence.
Listening to meditative music—There’s really no need to explain this one—its about as simple as it gets. Stop worrying, put down your work, sit down or lie down, and listen—really listen—to relaxing music. It can be a wonderful preparation for entering deeper into divine Presence.
Chant—The earliest Jewish Christians worshipped God with chanted prayers in the synagogue. The gentle, exultant, undulating sounds of different styles of chant have been part of Christian worship ever since. A few forms:
- Ambrosian chant
- Gregorian chant
- Hildegardian chant
- Byzantine chant
- Russian and Greek Orthodox chant.
Most recently, Jacques Berthier of the ecumenical Taizé community in France has been developing a gorgeous modern style of chant which has enriched worship in Christian churches and communities throughout the world.
Singing in the Spirit—In some Pentecostal and Charismatic congregations, “the Spirit flows” and people begin singing spontaneous praises, either in tongues or in their own language. When it’s done slowly and softly, it can be a profound meditative experience.
These techniques combine elements of the focusing techniques described above, as a starting point, but they intend to give the meditator an experience of something of God—for instance, a direct experience of His love, a message from Him, the experience of touching another in the communion of saints, bringing the Word to life, etc., through using the imagination as a portal to the sacred.
Visualization—(This is an ingredient in most of the things that follow. Infinite variations are possible.)
This is using the imagination to aid in a spiritual experience. All of the following methods use visualization as a key ingredient. Possible visualizations are virtually inexhaustible. Here a just a few possibilities:
- Imagine yourself in a peaceful scene.
- Put yourself in a scene from the Gospels.
- Visualize yourself sharing another’s suffering.
- Imagine yourself as a pebble, dropping into a lake, representing God.
- Imagine yourself with God.
- See God within you [perhaps as a fire, a pool of water, or a golden light]. Or “picture” God within your heart, your blood, your breath, etc.
Guided meditation—This is similar to the above, but with someone or something guiding you through it, helping you visualize. Guided meditations are often dynamic, as opposed to the previous meditation methods. For instance, in a guided meditation, you might progress from one place to another, or ask a question and listen for an answer. You might “meet” a person who is there to show you something, or face something which directs you to make a choice. Guided meditations often have a purpose in mind, such as inner healing, physical healing, or seeking God’s will, etc.
Kything—this is lovingly experiencing your spiritual connection with the Lord, or with nature, saints, friends, etc. Often even mental dialoging or conversation is possible. In their excellent book on the subject, Kything: The Art of Spiritual Presence, Drs. Berne and Savary outline three simple steps:
1. Center yourself in God.
2. Lovingly focus on God or the person or thing you want to kythe with, and
3. Make contact through visualization.
This is an extremely powerful way of sensing your connections to the Lord and to what is known as the “communion of saints,” the fellowship of all creatures in God. Once contact is established, you might dialogue with the other. For instance, if you’re kything with a holy person or with Christ, “talk” with him and listen to his responses. Remember that although imagination is the vehicle, it does not in any way mean that the contact is not “real.”
Traditional Meditation techniques:
Repetitive techniques—Repetitive methods have the advantage of being relatively easy. The calm repetition of a word, phrase, or short petition calms the mind, and allows one to begin entering the sacred Presence of God.
- Breath prayers—Many possibilities, silent or softly spoken. I breathe in Your peace, and breathe out my worry, for example. These can often be done with physical exercise, such as walking, yoga, or tai chi.
- Mantra—A prayer that quietly, slowly, mindfully repeats a prayer phrase or word, like “Maranatha,” (Fr. John Main) or “My God and my All” (St. Francis). Many mantras are also breath prayers, silently spoken with the rhythm of the breath.
- the Jesus Prayer—Perhaps the most time-honored Christian mantra prayer, practiced in the Eastern Churches for about 1600 years. There are many variations, ranging from: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner,” to simply the name of Jesus. Traditionally, one progresses in this discipline in three stages: praying it out loud, praying it silently with the breath, and praying it in the heart.
- Rosary prayer—the most popular rosary (the Dominican rosary) reflects on fifteen scenes from the life of Christ, with repetitions of several prayers. It’s probably best done with visualization. There are other rosaries as well, such as the Dalriadian rosary, the Fiat rosary, the Divine Mercy Chaplet and the Franciscan Crown, the Anglican rosary, and Eastern Orthodox prayer beads. Even Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims use prayer beads for the meditative repetition of mantras, or the names of God.
Contemplative techniques— These usually require a quiet place. “Contemplation” in Christian meditation traditions has a meaning quite different from its everyday meaning of “mulling things over.” Contemplation literally means “time together” and time together with God is the beginning and the end of contemplation.
- Slow prayer—St. Teresa of Ávila recommended this technique to another nun: Pray the Lord’s Prayer, but take an hour to pray it. Spend a few minutes entering into each individual phrase, until it becomes truly the prayer of your heart, and you become the prayer.
- Contemplative Prayer, or Contemplation—just quietly, lovingly being completely with God. This is probably the hardest kind of meditative prayer, because you’re not seeking any experience, thought, word, or feeling for yourself, just Him alone. The idea in contemplation is to just be, and just love, without “meditating” per se, or even thinking. And in just being with and loving God, you will spend “quality time” with God, the source of your being. The source par excellence on the subject is the spiritual classic, The Cloud of Unknowing.
- Awareness of Being—this is the method suggested by the outstanding sequel to the Cloud, The Book of Privy Counseling. Begin with simple awareness that you are, that you exist, here and now. Sense your own being, and rest in it. The second stage is this: as you become fully aware of your being, realize that God is your being, and rest in awareness of his being, your shared being. (This is one of my favorite methods.)
- Centering Prayer—Popular in many Catholic circles—it’s a specific technique of contemplative prayer which uses a short “prayer word” such as “God,” “love,” “Spirit,” or “Jesus” to quiet the mind when distracting thoughts intrude. Another technique is to use a mental image as the “prayer word.”
- Lectio Divina—(pronounced lekt-see-o di-vee-na) “Spiritual reading” of the scriptures or any other spiritual writings. This is a combination method which has been practiced for centuries by Benedictine and Trappist monks and nuns. The four steps of lectio divina tie together Scripture reading, prayer, visualization and contemplation. Usually a very short passage is recommended, a sentence at most, and perhaps only a word.
- Reading (lectio)—slowly until you reach a verse, or perhaps even just a word that speaks to you.
- Praying (oratio)—repeating it prayerfully, slowing, invoking God’s help and presence in “entering in.”
- Meditation (meditatio)—This can be many different things, from “slow prayer” to visualization. If the passage is a scene from the Gospels, for instance, you might picture yourself talking with Christ or other figures in the scene. If the passage is a simple word, slow prayer and merging with the word might be your meditatio.
- Contemplation (contemplatio)—resting quietly and lovingly in God. See contemplation, above.
Mindfulness techniques—Mindfulness is moving meditation to the next level, taking the awareness beyond the meditation seat and into your whole life. The goal of mindfulness is living life deliberately in the Presence of God, and not “sleepwalking” throughout the day. God is always with us, but we can’t be aware of His Presence with us in this moment without awareness—mindfulness—in this moment. Mindfulness makes all time sacred time.
- Being in the present moment. Be aware of where you are, what you’re doing, who you’re with. Focus on the here and the now.
- Every act is a rite. As much as possible, keep a sense of holiness throughout even the most mundane tasks. You might even tell yourself, “Here I take the sacred shower,” or “now I quiet my holy screaming little ‘gift from God!'”
- Every act is a prayer. Lifting up the “Holy Sparks” of God for everyone n everything that you do. Dedicate ordinary actions like running, walking, cleaning a room, as prayer to help a friend, promote peace, etc. If you’re experiencing pain, you might offer it as a personal sacrifice to God, or as a prayer for another.
- Practicing the Presence of God—Keeping a mindful awareness of God, around and within you throughout the day.