Prayer and Meditation II
Meditation is a thoroughly biblical practice. A classic text is Joshua 1:8: “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.” Usually the focus of meditation is on God’s word, as in Psalm 1:2: “but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.” Meditation is also a relational, prayerful practice, as seen in Psalm 63:5-6, where the psalmist remembers God and meditates on him:
My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food,
and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips,
when I remember you upon my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night.
In this way, prayer and meditation are overlapping and interrelated practices.
What does “meditate” even mean? In his excellent book on Bible reading, Eat This Book, Eugene Peterson observes that the Hebrew word translated “meditate” is the same word used to describe a dog “growling” over a bone (see Isaiah 31:4). It conjures up images of chewing slowly, savoring, and relishing, as opposed to gobbling up the morning kibble in 3 gulps. Hence Peterson’s title, Eat This Book, which is also taken from the episodes of Ezekiel and John eating scrolls of prophecy (Ezekiel 3:1-2 and Revelation 10:9-10). The emphasis is on digesting God’s word, internalizing it, allowing “the word of Christ to dwell in you richly” (Colossians 3:16).
But many contemporary mindfulness practices are far removed from this biblical, God-centered meditation. The sole focus is on bodily and mental awareness and attention. Because we associate meditation with truth, Christians are rightly suspicious of the thought-emptying, body-limited practice of Eastern meditation. Still, while maintaining truth as central to mindful meditation, there is much to gain from considering more embodied forms of meditation, especially when viewed in light of the physical imagery contained in biblical meditation.
Although not as ancient as other forms of Christian spiritual disciplines and means of grace, Christian practice of mindful breathing is actually much older than the past 70 years. The idea of combining breath awareness with meditative prayer goes as far back as the 7th century in the Orthodox tradition of the Jesus Prayer (Ware, 1992). The Jesus Prayer is an ancient practice of communing with God through slowly repeating “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me” (Ware, 2015). John Klimakos, in the 7th century, gave this general instruction: “Let mindfulness of Jesus be united to your breathing, and then you will know the blessings of stillness” (quoted by Gregory of Sinai, Philokalia vol. 4, p. 265). Later in the 14th century this “physical technique”, as it became termed, was developed by Orthodox monastics into a more formal practice (Ware, 1995). Some instructed that one should use slow, controlled breathing in preparation for prayer (e.g. Nikiphoros and pseudo-Symeon; Ware, 1992). Others, such as Gregory of Sinai “directly combined…breathing-control…with the actual invocation [of the Jesus Prayer]” (Ware, 1992). This linking of the breath with prayer was recommended in particular to those new to contemplation as an aid to strengthening attention. It was also seen as help in living out Paul’s admonition to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17): “The rhythm of the prayer and the rhythm of the respiration are to be somehow merged and harmonized, so that the natural and instinctive action of breathing enhances our remembrance of God and renders it unceasing” (Ware, 1992).
In citing these ancient guides to meditative prayer, it is important to note that their aim in prayer and meditation was not mere symptom reduction. Rather, the goal was to guard the heart (Prov. 4:23), known in the Orthodox tradition as hesychasm (Greek for “stillness”). Nikiphoros (13th century) recognized many synonyms for this practice: attentiveness, guarding the intellect, custody of the heart, watchfulness, noetic stillness (Philokalia, vol. 4, p. 204). To get a glimpse of the deeper intent, here is a lengthier quote from Nikiphoros:
“Attentiveness is the sign of true repentance. It is the soul’s restoration, hatred of the world, and return to God. It is rejection of sin and recovery of virtue. It is the unreserved assurance that our sins are forgiven. It is the beginning of contemplation or, rather, its presupposition, for through it God, descrying its presence in us reveals Himself to the intellect. It is serenity of intellect or, rather, the repose bestowed on the soul through God’s mercy. It is the subjection of our thoughts, the palace of the mindfulness of God, the stronghold that enables us patiently to accept all that befalls. It is the ground of faith, hope and love.” (Philokalia, vol. 4, p. 204).
Prayer and meditation are means of relating to God, seeking closeness to him, allowing ourselves to be transformed by him. Transformation is not the only goal of prayer, but it is nevertheless central. Indeed, “To pray is to change. Prayer is the central avenue God uses to transform us” (Foster, 1998, p. 33). In seeking transformation through prayer, the experience and wisdom of Christian pray-ers throughout history show us many different methods used for prayer and meditation. Some methods may seem similar to Eastern, Buddhist practices, but “When comparing hesychasm, then, with yoga and with dhikr, we are never to forget that the fundamental point about any tradition of praying is not outer technique but inner content — not how we pray but to whom” (Ware, 1992). Within this God-centered foundation, we are free to recognize and embrace the physical and psychological benefits of prayerful meditation.
As Ware explains (1992), “There is…a close correlation between the psychic and physical: every alteration in our physical state affects our psychic activity, and conversely each change in our psychic state has repercussions on the bodily and physical level. When we are angry or emotionally excited, the rhythm of our breathing accelerates, and when we are engaged in deep reflection, it becomes slower. If, then, we can learn to control and regulate physical processes such as our breathing, this can be used to enhance our concentration in prayer.”
Much more could be said in defense of mindfulness practices from a Christian worldview. At a later date I will add some helpful resources for further reading. But in my next post, we will get practical with some simple explanations of various contemplative prayer exercises.
Foster, Richard J. (1998). Celebration of discipline: The path to spiritual growth. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Nicodemus, ., Makarios, ., Palmer, G. E. H., Sherrard, P., & Ware, K. (1983). The Philokalia: The complete text. London: Faber and Faber.
Ware, Timothy (2015). The Orthodox Church: An introduction to Eastern Christianity. Penguin Books.
Ware, Kallistos (1992). Praying with the body: the hesychast method and non-Christian parallels. Sobornost incorporating Eastern Churches Review 14:2, pp. 6-35.
Ware, Kallistos (1995). A fourteenth-century manual of hesychast prayer: The century of St. Kallistos and St. Ignatios Xanthopoulos. Toronto: Canadian Institute of Balkan Studies.