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What is Christian Meditation? How to Pray – Part II

February 24, 2016 by  
Filed under Connie Rossini, Meditation, Prayer

What is Christian Meditation?
How to Pray – Part II

Before we dig into how to pray, we need to clarify what we mean by “meditate.” Many people are surprised to hear the saints and the Church talk about meditation. To them, the word “meditation” evokes images of Buddha or TM (Transcendental Meditation) practitioners.

Ironically, most people in the West are now more familiar with the concept of Eastern meditation than they are with the tradition of Christian prayer. They hear the term “Christian meditation” and they think that Christians have a tradition of seeking an altered state of consciousness. Then they start seeking God using a method of meditation that was designed by those who did not believe in Him. At the same time, they remain ignorant of the teachings of those who lived in intimate union with God — the saints.

We do best to immerse ourselves in our own traditions, rather than looking to practice the traditions of others that we don’t really understand. Sadly, knowledge of our tradition is lacking.

In the West:

Christian meditation is “reflective prayer: the form of mental prayer in which the mind, in God’s presence, thinks about God and divine things” (from the glossary of Navigating the Interior Life by Dan Burke).

In other words, Christian meditation is “meditation on” something. Most especially, Christians meditate on the Gospels. We can also meditate on the lives of the saints or the truths of the faith. Such meditation brings the faith very near to us. It helps us know God so that we can love Him and serve Him.

So, in the West, we connect the word “meditate” with “on.” The psalmists often speak of meditating on God’s word, as we read HasekuraPrayer3in this passage:

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
(Psalm 1:1-2)

When Christians meditate, we also especially follow the example of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who “kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Christian meditation uses the mind and heart to draw near to God.

We do not find any practice akin to mantra meditation in traditional Western Christianity. In Eastern Christianity, we find the practice of hesychasm, which has some surface similarities with non-Christian meditation techniques, the Jesus Prayer being the best-known form of hesychasm in the West. But, any similarities between hesychasm and non-Christian meditation are superficial. Hesychasm in its essence is more akin to the teaching of the Carmelite saints than to that of any meditation “gurus”.

In the East:

We must make a vital distinction when we speak of meditation. Although practitioners of Buddhism and Hinduism use the same term as Catholics, they use it with a vastly different meaning.

Eastern (non-Christian) meditation does not meditate “on” anything. Instead of pondering, it seeks radical detachment through an altered state of consciousness. Christian meditation relies on using thoughts and feelings. Eastern meditation rejects them. Thus the same word is used by different religions in a nearly opposite manner.

The term “Christian meditation” has been misappropriated by Fr. John Main, Fr. Laurence Freeman, and others to promote Eastern mantra meditation with a few Christian elements thrown in. Using a Christian word as a mantra does not turn Eastern meditation into Christian prayer. It remains an essentially non-Christian technique for reaching an altered state of consciousness.

What’s the Bottom Line?

The purpose of Christian meditation–and all Christian prayer–is to lead us to a closer union with God through Christ. The Triune God should be the focus of our prayer. We seek Him alone. In meditation, we seek to understand His character better, to understand what He requires of us. Then we express our desire for union with Him through thoughts, words, feelings, and even groans (see Romans 8:26). And, yes, sometimes with brief moments of silence.

Next time we’ll begin exploring some legitimate methods of Christian meditation.


Editor’s Note: Click here to read part one of this series by Connie Rossini.


Art: Partial restoration of Hasekura in Prayer following his conversion in Madrid, 1615, author unknown, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less, Wikipedia Commons.

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About Connie Rossini

Connie Rossini gives whole families practical help to grow in holiness. She is the author of several books, including "Trusting God with St. Thérèse". Besides her blog Contemplative Homeschool, she has started a new site discussing errors concerning prayer, named after her book Is Centering Prayer Catholic? She has written a spirituality column for the diocesan press for nearly ten years.

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  • Frederick Schmieder

    Connie, thank you for the clarification on meditation. Just curious about your thoughts on a meditation practice called: Loving Kindness. Sounds like it comes from an Eastern, non Christian tradition in which the practioner meditates on love and kidness towards self and others. How does this fit into the meditation definitions? Thanks for your insights.

    • Connie Rossini

      Frederick, as I understand it, Loving Kindness Meditation is meant to help rid oneself of negative feelings, especially towards others. As such, it is similar to Buddhism and I believe it is meant to help people who find trouble with Eastern meditation still be able to let go of their negativity. It’s kind of a baby step for westerners. (I am not at all an expert on this practice, mind you.) So, yes, it is non-Christian. Though it may sound like it’s meant to make you more virtuous, and therefore like Christian meditation, it is not focused on God, and is based on getting rid of bad thoughts and feelings, rather than learning more about God so that we can love Him better. It does not ponder, but rejects.

  • LizEst

    Mary — Connie is an expert in this. So, she knows what she is writing about here.

  • Connie Rossini

    Mary, thanks for your comment. Fr. John Main learned mantra meditation from a Hindu guru, not from reading the writings of the saints. He incorporated the practice into his prayer method. Later when he entered religious life, his superior instructed him not to use a mantra for prayer. He followed this directive for a time, but later returned to using a mantra. If you look at the history of prayer in the Church, you will not find anything close to a mantra being recommended by saints, Church Fathers, or the Church Herself. Sometimes people misread the saints, when they talk about saying a word now and then to sustain acquired recollection as being the same as a mantra. Meditation in the Christian tradition, up until Fr. Main, always meant pondering the truths of the faith, never using methods to control one’s thoughts or reach a deeper level of consciousness. The goal of Christian prayer is not silence. The goal is, rather, communion with God. Silence is only a means, and it should not be forced through techniques. As Dan Burke has said elsewhere, if we want to get rid of distracting thoughts in prayer, we should think about God. Thoughts about God push other thoughts aside. We do not try to get rid of all thoughts in order to achieve silence, or repeat a word–even a Christian word–in order to concentrate more. Sometimes in prayer we will find that we naturally feel drawn to say the name of Jesus over and over, for example, as a spontaneous expression of love for Him. But that is very different from a mantra.

  • Cynthia Dagnal-Myron

    I’m going to agree here. I have found this form or meditation very useful in giving God room to speak after I’ve cleared my mind of distractions. It calms me, quiets me, and a “dialog” soon begins. While I practice other forms of Christian meditation as well, this is the one that allows me to feel that I am in communion with God most profoundly.

    • Connie Rossini

      Hi, Cynthia. Have you read the CDF document, Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation? This document says that practices like this can be helpful for preparation for prayer, a sort of transition from our busy, nosiy life, to prayer. But repeating a word to calm your mind is not itself prayer. Most people who are practicing John Main’s meditation are not moving from this mantra to a dialog, but staying with the mantra, as they are instructed to do. Repeating a mantra is not prayer. Having a conversation with God is. Also, be careful of going by your feelings of being in communion with God. Sometimes in prayer we’ll feel close to God, other times we will feel far. Neither one is necessarily true or false–we have to look at other evidence than our feelings.

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