Meditating upon God’s Word
Prelude to Prayer and Action
by Peter Toon
Darton, Longman and Todd, 1988
Scripture texts used in this work are taken from the New American Bible.
Introduction: Mary and Martha
PART ONE: Practice and Content
1. A Joyous Duty
2. United to Jesus
3. With al my Soul
4. Finding a Method
PART TWO: Theory and Theology
5. Jesus Receiver of Revelation
6. Confidence in Scripture
7. Meditation as Prayer
Appendix A: The Jesus Prayer and Meditation
Appendix B: The Puritan Style of Meditation
For centuries the Psalter has been the primary Prayer Book of God’s people, Christians and Jews alike. The first psalm, which introduces the whole collection, describes the godly person as meditating upon God’s Law by day and night. Clearly, meditation upon God’s Law (that is, Revelation of himself, his will and purposes) is of the utmost importance for those who desire to know, love and serve him.
This book is my attempt to encourage fellow Christians to join me in meditating upon the contents and themes of Scriptures, recognizing that all these lead to Jesus Christ, the ‘Word made flesh’, who is ‘the same yesterday, today and forever’. I have tried to do at a popular level what the Swiss Jesuit, Hans Urs von Balthasar, has done at a more demanding level in his most helpful book Das Betrachtende Gebet (1957) – translated into English under the title On Prayer (London 1973) – but meaning ‘the kind of prayer that takes a long, slow look at God.’
I need to explain that it is not my first book on the general theme of meditation. In Longing for the Heavenly Realm (London 1986) I sought to show that fundamental to piety is the longing to be with Christ above and that this longing is both enriched and enlarged through meditation upon the exalted Lord Jesus Christ. Then in From Mind to Heart (Grand Rapids, Michigan 1987), I aimed to provide for American theological students an introduction to the subject of meditation upon the Bible. I did this by providing a study of the way Jesus and Paul actually meditated and encouraged others to do so, together with a comparison of Protestant and Roman Catholic (traditional) methods of meditation.
This book may be seen as complementary to the two earlier ones. It does not repeat their contents but attempts to help the person who wants to meditate upon Scripture actually to get started. I have written it in such a way that it will help Catholics and Protestants, and both those who have been immersed in modern biblical studies in college or university and those who only feel the force of such studies through their parish priest or minister.
My aim – in one sentence – is this: I want to encourage people to encounter the Lord Jesus Christ in vital, spiritual communion through meditation upon the sacred Scriptures which point to him.
I am grateful to many people for their help, but in particular I would like to mention the Right Revd John Dennis (Lord Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich), His Honour the Revd Brian Watling QC, and the Revd Canon David Pitcher.
It is a joy to dedicate this book to Simon and Myrna Chan of Singapore, who have widened my appreciation of the path of meditation.
Introduction: Mary and Martha
It is not uncommon to hear a person say, ‘I'm into meditation’, or ‘I belong to a meditation group’. As used by most people in western society today, meditation means a method of discovering inner stillness, peace, harmony and mystical consciousness. The purpose of this journey into oneself is described either in religious terms (be they Buddhist, Hindu or Christian) or in essentially secular terms (for example, the transcendental meditation of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi); and it is pursued either as a form of spiritual training or to improve physical and mental health, or both.
I must confess (and maybe I shall be judged too much of a traditionalist for saying so) that I find it regrettable that popular books on meditation, (for example Teach Yourself Meditation by James Hewitt in the prestigious ‘Teach Yourself’ series), do not offer a description or an explanation of that other form of meditation which has been of great importance within Christian spirituality from the earliest days of the Church up to the present day. I refer, of course, to the practice of reflecting upon and musing over the written record of God’s self-revelation as that is found in the books of the Bible, and the contents of the Creeds and the Liturgy.
LIGHT FROM CHRISTIAN TRADITION
The verb ‘to meditate’ has long been used in English (as The Oxford English Dictionary indicates) to describe a private devotional exercise, which consists of the continuous application of the mind to the contemplation of some Christian truth in order that the soul may increase in love of God and holiness of life. It was once commonplace for Christian theologians and leaders to publish Meditations – written accounts of their private meditations, offered as a guide to others in the content and value of meditation. However, the lists of modern religious publishers advertise few books containing meditations. There are, of course, reprints of classics (for example, the Meditations of Anselm of Canterbury and the Private Prayers of Lancelot Andrews) and the occasional book for Lenten or Advent reading which bears the title ‘Meditations’. One exception to the rule that modern bishops and theologians do not any longer produce written meditations is the Hungarian bishop, the late Ottokar Prohaszka, whose three-volume Meditations on the Gospels appeared in paperback in 1979.
A meditation normally takes the form of a conversation between the meditator and the Lord, or with himself or another (for example, a biblical writer). It arises directly from pondering the contents of the biblical text. The conversation may be unspoken or spoken (depending on circumstances and habit). Addressing God is normally conditioned by the contents of the text being read and the state of the meditator’s heart. It could, for example, be an admittance of inability fully to understand or an act of faith, or hope, or love towards God. Speaking to oneself is usually on much the same lines as the method of the psalmists who, as the Psalter reveals, often addressed their own souls – ‘Why are you so downhearted, O my soul ...’ or ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul ...’ – in order to raise their spirits and draw nearer to God. And conversing with, say, the apostle Paul, is a way of getting into the meaning of what he wrote, especially where it seems deep or profound or hard to understand.
When those who actually meditate upon Scripture meet together to compare notes they usually agree that their meditation includes an attempt (a) to understand a given word of the Lord (for example, in John 3:16, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son ...’), (b) to find reasons from Scripture for drawing nearer to God in faith, or hope, or love, and (c) to make the effort of will to seek to act towards God in true faith or genuine hope or in sincere love.
The key verb which has long been used to describe the essential content of meditation upon the Bible is ‘to consider’. In fact, the noun consideratio (consideration) was used very much from the Middle Ages up to the eighteenth century to describe the spiritual exercise of mind in which Christians examine and reflect upon their lives in this age and on this earth in the light of heavenly truths (the truths of divine Revelation); this is because Jesus, the Saviour, is raised from the dead and seated at the right hand of the Majesty on high. Therefore, meditation is the mental activity – the mental prayer, if you like – of attempting to see ourselves in the light of God’s revealed will and truth, as that is recorded in the sacred Scriptures and summed up and contained in the ‘Word made flesh’, the exalted Lord Jesus Christ.
Perhaps a short extract from a meditation of Anselm of Canterbury, written about AD 1100, will help to clarify the character of meditation. He wrote:
O Christian soul, soul raised from the grievous death, soul redeemed and freed by the blood of God from wretched bondage: arouse your mind, remember your resurrection, contemplate your redemption and liberation. Consider anew where and what the strength of your salvation is, spend time in meditating upon this strength, delight in reflecting upon it. Shake off your disinclination, constrain yourself, strive with your mind towards this end. Taste the goodness of your Redeemer, be aflame with love for your Saviour, chew his words as a honeycomb, suck out their flavour, which is sweeter than honey, swallow their health-giving sweetness. Chew by thinking, suck by understanding, swallow by loving and rejoicing. Rejoice in chewing, be glad in sucking, delight in swallowing.*
* Anselm of Canterbury, vol.. 1, eds. J. Hopkins and H. Richardson (1974), p. 137.
This extract from `A Meditation upon Human Redemption' shows how Anselm addressed himself in what perhaps to us are `vulgar' or crude images, as he viewed the reception of the words of God in his soul, heart and mind.
Lest we think that this discipline of considering God’s revealed truth was merely a medieval monastic activity, may I hasten to point out that the Genevan Protestant Reformer, John Calvin, included in his magisterial and very influential book, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Geneva 1559), a chapter on the duty of all Christians to meditate upon Christ who is in the heavenly realm. The purpose is to gain a right attitude towards, and perspective upon, life – its blessings and duties – as pilgrims on earth. And, for Calvin, to meditate upon the exalted Lord Jesus meant to meditate upon the climax of all that God had revealed; for the Lord Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets and in him is contained all truth, love and holiness.
Even perhaps more surprising to all those of us who tend to use the word ‘Puritan’ in a negative and pejorative way is that it was the English (and early American) Puritans of the seventeeth century who, insisting upon the universal duty of meditation upon sacred Scriptures for all Christians, actually produced more books on basic methods of meditation and examples of actual meditations than any other group in the history of the Church. John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is the most well-known of many written meditations upon the Christian life and pilgrimage based upon biblical categories and the spiritual experience of many Protestants. (See further, Appendix B.)
A meditation, whether written or not, need not be in prose. The Psalter and the Prophets of the Old Testament provide examples of meditation upon God’s works and words in Hebrew poetry. Then, in the English language, we have the beautiful meditative poetry of the Anglican poets John Donne (1573–1631), George Herbert (1593–1633) and Henry Vaughan (1621–1695). This spiritual art is well described by Louis Martz in his The Poetry of Meditation (1954).
Finally, we may ask what is the difference between meditation and normal, everyday thinking? Here we may quote Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh who has helped so many people in the path to prayer. He writes:
The main distinction between meditation and our usual haphazard thinking is coherence; it should be an ascetical exercise of intellectual sobriety. Theophane the Recluse, speaking of the way in which people usually think, says that thoughts buzz around in our heads like a swarm of mosquitoes, in all directions, monotonously, without order and without particular result. * Living Prayer (1966), p. 49.
Meditation, he goes on to explain, is meant to be a piece of straight thinking under God’s guidance and Godwards and should lead us to make conclusions about how to live and pray.
THE CONTEMPLATIVE LIFE
Of course, meditatio, with its essential element of consideratio, has never been presented by good teachers as an end in itself. It has always been seen as a door into prayer and communion with God as well as an inspirational guide to the practical outworking of Christian faith day by day. In fact, from the earliest times meditation was seen as one important ingredient or aspect of what has been called the contemplative life (in contrast to the active life). It will be to our advantage to remind ourselves of the content and relationship of the contemplative and active aspects/dimensions of Christian life before we proceed further to examine one part of the contemplative; meditation.
I recognize that sometimes these terms are used to describe two different kinds of Roman Catholic religious orders and communities, the active ones (for example, Jesuits) and the enclosed/contemplative ones (for example, Carthusians). However, we need to recall that these terms were used in the early centuries to describe the whole Christian life seen under, or from, two aspects. We shall stay with this usage.
From the third century onwards these two terms were personalized through the use of Martha and Mary as symbols of the two aspects of the Christian life, be that life lived inside or outside a religious community. Mary is the symbol of the contemplative and Martha of the active life. The classic biblical statements are these:
(i) Then Martha, as soon as she heard that Jesus was coming, went and met him: but Mary sat still in the house (Jn 11:20, KJV).
(ii) Jesus entered a village where a woman named Martha welcomed him to her home. She had a sister named Mary, who seated herself at the Lord’s feet and listened to his words. Martha, who was busy with all the details of hospitality, came to him and said, ‘Lord, are you not concerned that my sister has left me to do the household tasks all alone? Tell her to help me.’ The Lord in reply said to her: ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and upset about many things; one thing only is required. Mary has chosen the better portion and she shall not be deprived of it’ (Lk 10:38–42).
Here, of course, the picture of Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet lends itself quite naturally to highlighting the priority of the contemplative over the active life. Not that the active is unimportant but that it is dependent upon the contemplative. It is interesting to observe that modern translations (influenced by the activism of our culture?) do not say of Mary in John 11:20 that she sat (and kept on sitting) in the house as Martha went outside: rather, they say that she ‘stayed at home’ (which can mean many things).
However, whatever the merits of one or another translation of John 11:20 and of the symbolism of Martha and Mary, it remains true that over the centuries thoughtful Christians have often reflected upon the relation of the active and contemplative dimensions/aspects/sides of our Christian lives. Reasons for this are not difficult to find. At the practical level of daily existence, reflection upon our efforts to live authentically as Christians raises the question of the relationship of cultivating our union with the Lord Jesus and living meaningfully in a secular society: we want to make space and time to increase our spirituality as we also engage in the common round and the daily task.
Then (and this is very important) the Church has taught over the years that the goal of the Christian life is the beatific vision – the blessedness of contemplating the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ in the peace and joy of heaven. St Augustine, in the final paragraph of The City of God, expressed this everlasting, happy, contemplative experience in this way: ‘We shall rest and we shall see; we shall see and we shall love; we shall love and we shall praise. Behold what shall be in the end shall never end.’ The Church has also taught that we are to begin this contemplative life now in this world. Therefore, the question arises as to how this is possible and what relation such contemplation bears to fulfilling our duties in home, church and society.
Probably no one has thought more deeply about the relation of the contemplative and active dimensions of our lives than Augustine, Bishop of Hippo. His mature thoughts are found in Book 19 of his classic, The City of God, written about AD 420. Here he describes three kinds of life: ‘one which, not lazily, but in the contemplation and examination of the Truth, is leisured; another, which is busied in carrying on human affairs; and a third which combines both of these’. His own calling to be a bishop ensured that his life fell into the third category, even though he longed for the first and also believed that in heaven he would give himself wholly to the contemplation of Truth (that is, God himself). He recognized that only a few people here on earth were able to give themselves virtually wholly to contemplation, that the majority busied themselves in daily affairs with little or no time for meditation/prayer, and that wise and faithful Christians sought to combine the contemplative and active aspects of life. In this combination Augustine held that the activity ‘must be undertaken because of the obligation of charity: but even so, we must not wholly abandon the delight in Truth, lest that sweetness be withdrawn from us and the obligations we have undertaken overwhelm us.’ Therefore, the priority must always be given to contemplation so that out of it our activity is informed and empowered by the love of God.
Perhaps no one has expressed the relationship of the contemplative and active lives more beautifully than Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux, in the eighty-six homilies of his Sermons on the Song of Songs, preached around AD 1150. Though he was in charge of a large monastery, Bernard was also a man ‘of the world’, travelling widely, involved in many ‘worldly activities’ and keeping up a massive correspondence. Yet he insisted that if the active life did not flow from the contemplative, then the former would be lacking in spiritual and moral direction. In the last sermon, he made full use of the image of marital love and child-bearing to make the point that union with Christ is the cause of both contemplation and activity, but that the former has a natural priority.
Indeed a mother has joy in her offspring, but a bride has greater joy in the embraces of her spouse. Dear are children, the pledges of affection, but kisses give great joy. It is a great work to save many souls, but to be transported and to be with the Word [Christ], that is far more delightful.
It is a tremendous thrill for the Christian pastor to have ‘spiritual children’ (personal converts) and the activity in winning them and then caring for them is important and necessary. However, to have sweet and intimate communion with Christ and to draw near to God in contemplation is greater. The symbol of Mary has priority over that of Martha.
What was taught by the spiritual leaders of the early and medieval Church was also taught by the spiritual leaders of the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, even though they rejected the service of God in the celibate life of the monastery and convent. For such as Martin Luther, John Calvin and Thomas Cranmer the cultivation of the relationship with God in and through Christ in meditation, prayer and contemplation was primary: out of this basic spirituality flowed one’s vocation in life to be a barber or a pastor, a farmer or a shopkeeper, a mother or a father.
However, in popular sermons and books, spiritual leaders have to address people as and where they are. Therefore, we find many calls from such pastors as Luther and Calvin to their people calling them to make sufficient space and time for daily meditation and prayer. An excellent example of this is the letter entitled A Simple Way to Pray for a Good Friend (1535). Luther wrote this to his own barber, Peter Beskendorf, when he had been asked how to meditate and pray. Thus, it could appear that the Protestant leaders thought of the active life as primary and the contemplative life as fitting into it. However, the truth is that they believed (with Augustine and Bernard) that out of the union with Christ (created by spiritual, internal regeneration) flowed both contemplation (meditation, prayer and worship) and activity (serving God by loving one’s neighbour and fulfilling duties in society); yet, they held that the former must be given priority over the latter in order to maintain our consciousness of that holy, spiritual union.
In his moving book, Love Alone: the Way of Revelation (1968), Hans Urs von Balthasar discussed the relation of the active and contemplative aspects of Christian living and writes:
Prayer ... comes before action. It is not primarily a source of psychological strength, an opportunity for ‘refuelling’, as it were. It is an act in perfect harmony with love, an act of worship and glorification in which the person loved [by God] attempts to make a complete and selfless answer, in order to show that he has understood the divine message.
Therefore prayer, meditation upon God’s word and contemplation of his glory are a response to the agapē, the great and wonderful love of God. Further,
The Old and New Testaments, the life of Christ, the theology of St Paul and St John, all testify to this precedence, and it is as ridiculous as it is pathetic to see contemporary Christians ignoring the fact and thinking that they only encounter Christ in their neighbour, or worse still imagining that their only task is to work in the (technological) world. No one who does not know God in contemplation can recognize him in action, not even when he sees God reflected in ‘the oppressed and humiliated’. Op. cit., p. 89.
We neglect this advice at our peril, for it is in God’s light (as the psalmist tells) that we see light (Ps 36:10).
Archbishop William Temple gave similar advice: ‘The right relation between prayer and conduct is not that conduct is supremely important and prayer may help it, but that prayer is supremely important and conduct tests it.’ Christus Veritas (1924), p. 45.
Meditation upon God’s words and deeds, and especially upon his self-unveiling in Jesus, Incarnate Son, must be, then, a necessary part of the contemplative aspect of Christian living. It is certainly not the only part for it exists alongside prayer and worship, confession of sins, hearing the Word preached and receiving the Sacraments. However, it is a part not to be forgotten or neglected but rather to be encouraged and cultivated as a spiritual discipline.
Regrettably, there has been a tendency in some recent teaching on spirituality to refer in a patronizing or critical manner to the traditional methods of meditation, especially the consideratio (humble consideration) of the themes of Scripture. Unfortunately, also, the ‘complex’ method of mental prayer has been unfavourably compared with the ‘simple’ method of what is often called ‘contemplative prayer’ in which little or no use is made of the intellect, while being still and silent before God has a high premium. Now, it may well be that the methods of meditation developed and explained by the leaders of the Catholic Counter-Reformation of the sixteenth century (for example, Ignatius Loyola, Luis of Granada and Peter of Alcantara) are too involved and demanding for modern Christians. So also may be similar ones commended by English Anglicans and Puritans in the seventeenth century (for example, Joseph Hall, The Art of Divine Meditation, 1606). I must refer my reader to my book, From Mind to Heart for more discussion of these methods.
We must remember, however, that if we are to engage in true contemplation of God, with all the powers of our soul fixed upon his glorious Majesty in holy silence, then our souls need to be stimulated, fed and directed by the content and dynamic of God’s Revelation, written in Scripture. Meditation upon the sacred text is one important way of releasing that food for our souls. Thus we shall now turn to the study of what is involved in the practice of meditation.
PART ONE: Practice and Content
1. A Joyous Duty
Our task in this chapter is to try to establish the differences between study of, and meditation upon, the Scriptures. I shall introduce the subject by recounting an incident which took place recently in a British theological college.
The external examiner required all students who were taking a unit in pastoral studies to write for him a meditation on one of several topics based on the life and teaching of our Lord, and using passages from the Gospels. When he collected all the papers and read them he was very surprised! Apparently none of the students had offered to him a meditation. Instead they had provided what may be called exegetical and homiletical comments, treating the Bible either as an ancient document to be studied or as a source for sermonic material. They had failed to realize that meditation belongs to the category of prayer and that a written meditation is meant to be a record of an encounter with the Lord on the basis of having read his Word.
I think it is probably true to say that the external examiner would have got similar results in other British theological colleges, as well as in the average American theological seminary. Many students and ministers find it easier to use the Bible either academically or as a source on which to hang their sermonic material rather than as the originator of an encounter with God in prayer. And these attitudes seep through into the way in which members of Christian congregations come to view and use the sacred Scriptures. We shall now think about this state of affairs in order to seek to clarify what is meant by meditation.
WHAT KIND OF STUDY?
Today, as we look on the shelves of a theological bookshop we see a great variety and abundance of aids to assist in the reading and basic study of the Bible. Not only are there five or six different translations of the Bible but also there are illustrated dictionaries, encyclopedias, lexicons, handbooks, guidebooks, and commentaries of varying shape and size.
Therefore, for those who are willing to make the effort to read the Bible, using one or more of these aids, it is possible over a period of time to gain an informed knowledge of the contents of the Scriptures. The extent and depth of knowledge and understanding will of course vary from person to person according to ability and how much time is given to this basic study. And the knowledge gained can be extremely useful in providing us with a general framework of understanding so that we better appreciate the Creeds, the Liturgy, and contents of sermons and hymns, as well as the official church pronouncements on doctrinal and moral concerns. It can, also, be most useful in helping us to work out our Christian duty in home, church and society.
Personal study with the help of technical aid may also be extended by the use of the Bible-reading notes (which usually operate on a daily basis) and by participation in group Bible study. These forms of basic study usually seek to combine the study with some application to the present day and with suggestions for prayer. In fact, some churches have Bible-study groups which engage in a time of prayer after their studies. Not a few people have ‘discovered’ vital Christianity through such groups, for the warmth of the fellowship gives an extra dimension to the reading and hearing of the written words of Scripture and thus helps to open the heart and mind to the love of God.
What is true at the basic or popular level of Bible study is also true at the higher levels – in the professional study of the sacred text. There is a vast amount of literature – greatly extended if you can read German – on the background to, purpose and contents of the books of the Bible. Those who are studying theology for a degree or diploma have access to all kinds of reference books, commentaries and specialized articles in journals and symposiums. The general purpose of all these publications is to help the scholarly reader of the Bible appreciate what the original author/editor of the book was seeking to communicate to the people of his day and time. It is, therefore, a ‘scientific’ enterprise in search of the ‘literal’ sense of the books which make up the Hebrew and Greek canons of Scripture.
Of course, the further you actually move away from the basic level of ordinary Bible reading/study, the more difficult it becomes to keep the study within a devotional, prayerful atmosphere and ethos. This is because Biblical Studies as an area of study in the modern university operate according to academic principles. Thus as a subject it absorbs and reflects the general ethos which is found in similar subjects. This state of affairs is often very confusing for a young person from a conservative Christian background (catholic or evangelical) as she/he begins a university career: it seems, at first, as though the whole purpose of Bible study in the university is to take away one’s ‘simple’ faith. And some do lose their faith and study the Bible merely and only academically. Others learn to read the Bible in a critical and scientific manner and then find it hard to use it in a prayerful and devotional way. Caring lecturers, professors and chaplains usually spend a lot of time with each new batch of students answering questions arising from the purpose and relevance of the critical method.
I know from personal experience as well as from the candid admissions of friends who teach theology in our universities that the problem faced by new students is, in varying degrees, a problem that remains for all scholars who want to be committed orthodox Christians as well as being experts in modern biblical studies. Even as a medical doctor can become so fascinated with the disease and its cure that he forgets the patient is a person with feelings, so a biblical scholar can be so absorbed by the study of text that he forgets the living God, to whose self-revelation the text bears faithful witness. The separation of the scholarly pursuit from the devotional use of the Bible is not inevitable but it is common. And because Christian professors and lecturers have not been able to work out a right or satisfactory resolution in their own lives they find it difficult to give sound advice to their students. My own feeling is that, if there is a resolution of the problem it will only come when the devotional use of the Bible – in prayer, meditation and contemplation – has priority in personal experience and thus establishes some kind of pervasive ethos in which to fit the different ethos generated by the study in the secular university. But there is much scope for further thinking here and I shall return to this topic in Part Two, chapter 6.
I am sometimes asked what kind of study Jesus had in mind when, as reported in the Gospel of St John, he told the Jewish leaders: ‘Search [study] the Scriptures in which you think you have eternal life’ (5:39). Since he was talking to rabbis and leaders in the synagogues he certainly was not thinking of low-level Bible study but ‘professional’ study. In fact the verb he uses is eraunān (to study), a technical verb for serious study. What Jesus was telling his hearers was that he was all in favour of serious, scholarly study of the Hebrew text as long as such study was not an end in itself but was a means to an end – the end of entering into a right relationship with the living God and his Messiah, to whom the contents of Scripture point. Regrettably, rabbinical teaching equated knowledge of the actual text with knowledge of God. What Jesus was saying was that we are to study the text in order to know (in the sense of know in a personal relationship) the living God. There is an obvious difference between what can be known through written documents and what can be known through a personal encounter. Jesus urged that the former lead into the latter. And the apostle Paul, who knew from personal experience how the study of the actual text (‘the letter’) could be a substitute for the living encounter with God (‘the Spirit’) often warned of this danger: see Romans 7:10, Galatians 3:21 and 2 Corinthians 3:6.
This temptation which Saul, the Pharisee, fell into before Christ encountered him, is one which still is felt today by those who study the Bible at any level, especially the professional level as students or professors. Study can become an end in itself. Therefore, in all our studies, we must never forget what is made abundantly clear both in the Gospel of St John and in the Epistles of St Paul: the real purpose of the Scriptures is to testify on behalf of Jesus, the Messiah and Lord and to lead us into a personal relationship with him: see John 5:38–40; 20:30–31; Romans 9:1–5; 2 Timothy 3:14–17. If we lose this priority in our thinking and study then we risk distorting our spiritual and moral insights and duties. (For further discussion of this very important theme, see chapter 6.)
These reflections and comments lead me on to make two claims, one negative and one positive. The first is that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ does not expect or require all his children to study (in the academic sense) the Bible: the second is that he does expect all his children to meditate upon his Revelation. This means that all Christians need to gain knowledge of (and preferably to memorize the basic themes and contents of) the Scriptures, for it is in them that the unique record of God’s Revelation is to be found. To gain such knowledge means either reading or hearing the Scriptures, and it may well be that such reading/hearing is best done wherever possible (by modern western Christians) as a kind of low-level study using a dictionary/encyclopedia/commentary. However, we must insist that meditation, of itself, does not of necessity have to proceed from Bible study. It can (and over the centuries has often done) arise from recalling the contents of the Bible or by reading or hearing the Bible alone. But whether it follows low-level study or is upon the Scripture learned by heart its purpose is to be a channel or means whereby we fulfill Paul’s directive: ‘Let the word of Christ, rich as it is, dwell in you’ (Col 3:16).
In ancient Israel, before or after the exile of Babylon in the sixth century BC, there were no reference books. Indeed, not everyone could read. True enough there was a strong oral tradition and Israelites/Jews were required to learn the contents of the Torah (the five books of Moses) off by heart. Further, they heard the contents read or recited in the home, Temple and synagogue and were given instruction in their meaning by rabbis, priests and elders.
The longest of the Psalms, number 119, is a celebration of God’s written word in the Torah. ‘Happy are they whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD’ (v. 1). Several verbs point to prayerful reflection upon the contents of the record of God’s Revelation – to meditate, to consider, to remember, to ponder, and to hope. Examples are: ‘I will meditate on your precepts and consider your ways’ (v. 15); ‘Open my eyes, that I may consider the wonders of your law’ (v. 18); ‘By night I remember your name, O LORD’ (v. 55), and ‘My soul pines for your salvation; I hope in your word’ (v. 81). Perhaps at this stage my reader will leave this page and spend time in reading through Psalm 119, noting how important is both the inward digesting and the outward keeping of God’s Law.
In contrast to Psalm 119, the first psalm is brief. It provides an excellent indication of why meditation is a compulsory discipline for all God’s people who are called to holiness and godliness in imitation of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Here it is:
Happy the man who follows not
the counsel of the wicked
Nor walks in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the company of the insolent,
But delights in the law of the LORD
and meditates on his law day and night.
He is like a tree
planted near running water,
That yields its fruit in due season,
and whose leaves never fade.
[Whatever he does, prospers.]
Not so the wicked, not so;
they are like chaff which the wind drives away.
Therefore in judgment the wicked shall not stand,
nor shall sinners, in the assembly of the just.
For the LORD watches over the way of the just,
but the way of the wicked vanishes.
In order to highlight the differences between study and meditation I shall use this psalm in two ways. First I shall study it in order to notice what it says about meditation, happiness and holiness. Then, secondly, I shall meditate upon it to notice how it can be the origin of prayer from heart and mind in the believer.
PSALM 1 – A STUDY
This brief poem was composed as an introduction to the whole Psalter. Its contents probably reflect the situation within Judaism in what is known as the Greek period, that is when Palestine was part of the Greek kingdom of Syria (the Seleucid kingdom/dynasty) about a century and a half before Christ. The insensitivity of the Greeks towards the Jews came to a climax when Antiochus placed an altar to Zeus Olympios in the Temple; this ‘abomination of desolation’ led to the Maccabean revolt and the eventual re-dedication of the Temple. Within Judaism there was a division between those who were seeking to be faithful to the Law as received from their forefathers and those who felt the best way was to accommodate their religious practice to be acceptable to the Greek overlords. The writer of the psalm belongs to those who want to be faithful to their God, his Covenant and his Law.
Thus the structural basis of the psalm is a contrast between the righteous and unrighteous (wicked) man. The description of the righteous man in verses 1–3 begins with an exclamation: ‘Happy the man’. The poet has in mind the ideal scribe, a man such as Ezra, who devotes his whole time to the study of the Law, and this picture has the effect of causing him to utter this exclamation. Then the righteous man is described in three ways, each one becoming more pronounced and intense. He does not walk with ... he does not cease to walk and stand with ... and he does not then sit down with those who reject, compromise, mock or scorn God’s wisdom as it is found in the Law. No! He actually delights in the Law of the LORD (the entire contents of the Torah, the five books of Moses). In fact, he reads it over and over again in the low, murmuring tone of one reading to himself in the effort to impress it deeply on mind and heart and to commit it to memory. And this studious reading continues in the night as well as the day.
The description of the unrighteous or wicked man is in verses 4–5. This begins with an exclamation: ‘Not so with the wicked’! This is because the wicked are like chaff, not solid grain. (The threshing of corn was done on a flat surface on a hilltop where there was a good breeze. Ears of grain were thrown into the air where the light chaff was caught by the wind and the heavy grain fell to the ground.) Those who reject or forsake the Torah are like the chaff in the wind, at the mercy of unpredictable forces. Having rejected the counsel of the wise, the wicked cannot expect to be counted or seen in the assembly of those whom God will raise from the dead to be the people of his new Kingdom of the age to come (cf. Is 26:14–19).
In verse 6 the contrast is emphasized. The righteous have the Lord caring for them now and in the future while the wicked, relying on mere mortal strength, find that ends in everlasting ruin.
We now return to verse 3. The genuine happiness of the righteous man is presented through the picture (simile) of a tree which is removed from its original position and transplanted in a fertile garden, irrigated by channels of water. Probably the writer is recalling Jeremiah 17:8 where the man who trusts in the LORD is said to be ‘like a tree planted beside the waters, that stretches out its roots to the stream’ and whose leaves stay green in the heatwave and which bears fruit even in a drought. He may also have had Ezekiel 47:12 in mind for this is a description of the future paradise for God’s people: it is a place where trees bear fruit monthly and whose leaves are always green and serve as medicine. Therefore the righteous man is happy now – happy in the knowledge that he is pleasing God – and he looks forward to greater happiness in the future in God’s new Kingdom and paradise. His knowledge of God is that which he gains by reading, study, meditation upon God’s written Word, the record of his Revelation.
PSALM 1 – A MEDITATION
O Lord, my God, I am so grateful that you have revealed and made known your identity, character, will and purpose through Moses, the Prophets and in Jesus Christ, your Son. I thank you for having caused the Scriptures to be both written by holy men of old and now translated into English so that I can read what you have said. How marvellous it is to have your word to mankind so accessible! How wonderful it is to be able to open the Bible and read of your Revelation to Israel and through Jesus, my Lord! When I consider all the valuable books that are in print I can think of none that I would want to have in preference to the Bible. May its contents truly guide my life.
There are so many things in the civilized world around me in which I have delighted and could delight. When I consider them I see that many of them are fine and worthy of admiration. But, O my God, when I consider your Word I see that, in comparison, they are not so fine and admirable. Please give me such a clear view of your words of heavenly wisdom and such a desire to read and receive them that I shall delight in them above all other things. Lord, I want to know how to have joy in all the good things you have given me; but, chiefly, I want to delight in you through knowing what you have said and are saying to me through your Law and Revelation. I want to be able to read it and so take it into my soul that it becomes my obligatory and special spiritual milk and meat.
I see in my mind’s eye the tree of which the psalmist writes: it has fine green leaves and excellent fruit. I realize, O my God, that you want me to produce through the guidance of your Spirit, moral and spiritual fruit in my life and also that my life will be adorned with (enleafed by) the graces and virtues of Jesus Christ, my Saviour. Yet a tree needs food to produce good leaves and fruit: I need food in my soul to produce spiritual leaves and fruit. May I constantly meditate upon your Word. May I often read or recall its content and allow its truths to refresh and renew my mind and heart.
It is such a comfort and encouragement to know that you actually watch over your children as they walk in your way. Lord, save me from myself – from selfish choice and determination and from asserting my autonomy and engaging in self-justification. Lord, also save me from imitating the thinking, lifestyle and habits of those around me who have not time to meditate upon your Word. Lord, help me to see what is, and where is, true happiness – true blessedness. May I always desire your type of blessedness, that of which Jesus spoke in the Beatitudes. Create in my heart, O my Saviour, such a desire to please and glorify you that temptations to follow the advice and copy the style of my friends and neighbours will have little or no power over me. Help me, rather to witness to the power and purity of your Word by the kind of life I live.
Lord, I want to be happy; happy in receiving and obeying your Word. I resolve to meditate upon it by day and night in order to know the Word made flesh, your Son Incarnate, our Lord Jesus Christ.
2. United to Jesus
We have seen that meditation upon Scripture is not academic study. It is an attempt to draw near to God because he has already drawn near to us. Our attempt to respond to God’s gracious invitation to seek and find him, will, I believe, be greatly helped if we recall now (and before we begin each act of meditation) our true identity before God, our Creator, Judge and Father.
Remembering and recalling who I am before God – that is, as he sees me in and through his Incarnate Son, the Lord Jesus Christ – helps me to direct (as it were) the antennae of my soul so that they are picking up God’s messages. I need to be on his wavelength, and recognizing my identity is one way of turning to that wavelength.
We all recognize that students learn more if they have the right, humble attitude towards their teachers and also know their place in the education system. We also accept that a soldier’s life in the army is more fulfilling and contented if he never forgets his rank, especially when dealing with both superiors and subordinates. Having the right attitude through recognizing and accepting my identity certainly ensures the possibility of fruitful meditation and prayer. And the right attitude of humility, sincerity, openness and expectancy will come more easily if I am aware, truly aware, that I am always a forgiven sinner, an adopted child, an unworthy servant, a disciple who has much to learn and a pilgrim who has a long way to go.
Jesus told the parable of the two men who went up to the Temple to pray in order to show how an attitude flows from self-knowledge and into praying. The Pharisee believed himself to be in the right with God and like a son who had earned the respect of the Father; his prayers reflected this attitude of smug superiority and insolent pride. In contrast the tax collector knew himself to be totally unworthy and sinful in the sight of the all-seeing holy God and his prayer reflected his evaluation of himself. ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner’ was his prayer (Lk 18:13). It was the latter approach that Jesus commended for it is the approach based on what God has revealed concerning human beings: we are sinful and always need God’s mercy and forgiveness.
Those who follow Jesus are always sinners, while on this earth; but they are sinners whom God truly pardons and whom he sees as released from the guilt and power of their sin because of Jesus Christ. In fact, he treats them according to what they will be in the future age rather than what they are now. Thus St Peter could tell the Christians to whom he wrote that, ‘You ... are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people he claims for his own to proclaim the glorious works” of the One who called you from darkness into his marvellous light. Once you were no people, but now you are God’s people; once there was no mercy for you, but now you have found mercy’ (1 Pt 2:9–10). Our attitude must always be informed by this knowledge that we are what we are only and solely by the grace of God.
So we shall now attempt to set out our true identity as we recall God’s presence in and with us and begin an act of meditation upon his Word.
I meditate upon Scripture and pray to God as a baptized, believing Christian. As the resurrected and vindicated Lord, Jesus commissioned his apostles, sending them out to make disciples of all the nations and to baptize these believers in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (Mt 28:18–20). Baptism is the effective sign given by God that he loves me, has forgiven my sin, has united me to the Lord Jesus Christ and made me an adopted child in his new, heavenly family. From my side, it is my confession that I do truly believe and trust in God as Father and intend to follow Jesus Christ as his disciple. In other words, to be baptized means to belong specifically and specially to God, the Triune LORD, and to his family which he is creating to be the redeemed people of the future new heaven and earth of the glorious age to come.
Therefore, when I read the Bible and consider what I have read, I do not do so as a neutral observer. A child whose father is away in some foreign land reads a letter from him with great interest and expectancy. A junior officer is intended to read the despatch from his commanding officer with great care and submissiveness. A lover reads the letter from the beloved with deep feeling and delight.
A baptized Christian, ever grateful for the mercy and grace of God, reads the Bible eagerly as a collection of messages sent to him by this very God who in Christ has poured out his love upon him and forgiven his sins. As a member of the new covenant sealed by the precious blood of Jesus, he reads it to know how to think and live as a member of this covenant in which he is reconciled to God. As a soldier in the army of Christ he reads it looking for orders from his Commanding Officer. And as a servant in God’s service, he reads it to learn his daily duties as set out by his Master.
I meditate upon Scripture and pray to God as one who is united in and by the Holy Spirit to the exalted Lord Jesus. The inward action of God which precedes or accompanies (or maybe follows) baptism is spiritual regeneration; it is being begotten by God (Jn 1:12–13; 3:1–8). By coming to dwell in the soul of a converted, baptized believer, the Holy Spirit (who is called by St Paul ‘the Spirit of Christ’) unites that believer with the Lord Jesus. Therefore a spiritual union is created in the Holy Spirit between the new disciple and her Master, the new servant and his Lord. This spiritual, supernatural union is possible because Jesus, resurrected and the exalted Lord now in heaven, has retained his human nature: and thus he still shares with us what is distinctively ours – our humanity. And we are, as it were, included in him. It is a union which is even more intimate than the union of Jesus and his disciples during his three-year ministry in Galilee and Judea.
The Gospel of St John contains many descriptions of this intimate, spiritual union and fellowship between Jesus and his disciples. Look, for example, at two of the seven ‘I am’ sayings. After his miraculous feeding of the five thousand, Jesus faced questions from certain Jews who were critical of him and wanted to know his real identity and purpose. To them he said: ‘God's bread comes down from heaven and gives life to the world ... I myself am the bread of life. No one who comes to me shall ever be hungry, no one who believes in me shall ever thirst’ (6:33, 35). Jesus was telling them that the Lord God who had made a covenant with their ancestors through Moses was now offering them, the Jewish people, a new covenant, centred upon himself. He is the One in and by whom God is providing for their true and lasting need of salvation. He is the One who is the only source of that true meat and drink, which gives eternal life.
Over the centuries the Church has interpreted this teaching of Jesus as having special (but not sole) reference to the Eucharist, the service in which there is a sacramental feeding on Christ in order to deepen our union and relationship with him. This deepening relationship is highlighted by further words of Jesus: ‘He who feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has life eternal’ (6:54). In, through and by the Holy Spirit, who comes from the exalted Lord Jesus to his people on earth, the Lord Jesus is made spiritually present so that he dwells in our hearts by faith and makes them more like his own.
Meditation upon the contents of John 6 certainly is a good way to prepare for Holy Communion; however, it is also true that meditation itself as a discipline is enhanced if it is pursued in the spirit of looking to Jesus as the true and living Source of our spiritual food and drink. From Jesus we receive sustenance to grow like him and to do the Father's will.
The second ‘I am’ saying is found in chapter 10 of John. The sight of the shepherd leading his flock through the valley and over the hill, protecting the sheep from wild animals and robbers and constantly caring for them, was a familiar sight in Palestine. So it is not surprising that Jesus said: ‘I am the good shepherd. I know my sheep and my sheep know me ... for these sheep I will give my life’ (10:14–15). Christians are to live daily in the humble confidence that Jesus is their Shepherd, leading, providing for, guiding, protecting them. He knows (that is, has chosen, loves and personally appreciates) each of us and we are to know (that is, be committed to and have a personal relationship with) him.
Again, we may observe that while meditation upon John 10 is an excellent way to prepare to face difficult situations in life, it is also important to recognize that the truths to which the portrayal of Christ the Good Shepherd point, enhance our meditation if they are firmly and humbly established in our minds and hearts.
Another way to enter into the appreciation of the union between the exalted Lord Jesus and his people on earth is to consider Paul’s constant use of the phrase en Christo (in Christ). He taught that Christ, as the new and second Adam (that is, Representative Man) lived, died, rose from the dead, ascended into heaven and sat at the right hand of the Father not merely for his own sake but also for ours. Thus he declares that those who repent and believe the Gospel of God concerning Jesus are united by the Spirit to the Lord Jesus. And in that union they are viewed by God as having experienced precisely what Christ had experienced. They died with him on the cross; they were buried with him in the sepulchre; they were raised with him to new life; they ascended with him into heaven and they sat down with him at the right hand of the Father.
Paul then uses this theological truth as the basis for his teaching, advice and exhortation. For example, he writes this in Colossians 2:7: ‘Be rooted in [Christ] and built up in him, growing ever stronger in faith, as you were taught, and overflowing with gratitude.’ Then, a little later in the Epistle, he writes: ‘Since you have been raised up in company with Christ, set your heart on what pertains to higher realms where Christ is seated at God's right hand. Be intent on things above rather than on things of earth. After all, you have died! Your life is hidden now with Christ in God’ (3:1– 3). And, a few verses later, he writes: ‘Whatever you do, whether in speech or action, do it in the name of the Lord Jesus. Give thanks to God the Father through him’ (3:17).
Here we are not left in any doubt. To be accounted and judged by God to be en Christo is not a theoretical abstraction but is, rather, the basis for salvation – for meditation and action, prayer and speech. Our union with Christ – which is from beginning to end the result of God’s grace and mercy – is certainly to inform and vivify my soul as I read his holy Word and call upon his holy Name.
I meditate upon Scripture and pray as a member of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of God. In baptism God made me a member of his Church. Over the centuries this Church has grown and expanded, faced persecution and the persecuted, been involved in controversy, experienced schism and division, as well as having produced important doctrinal statements about the essential teaching of the sacred Scriptures. The most important of these are what we call the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds; one or both of these are used by most of the old and new denominations in either their services or their written Confessions of Faith. My own Church, the Church of England, uses the Apostles’ Creed in the daily services of Morning and Evening Prayer and the Nicene Creed in the service of Holy Communion. Further, the Apostles’ Creed is used as the baptismal creed in the service of Holy Baptism.
A great value of these Creeds is that they provide us with both the essential facts of the Christian faith (for example, Jesus died and rose from death) and the interpretation of them (for example, that he died and rose for our salvation) which has been worked out (even hammered out) by major Councils in the first four centuries of the Church. So with their contents firmly in our minds as that which is the basic belief of the Christian Church, you or I can read the Scriptures with a reliable framework of understanding. This framework (or structured understanding) functions in two basic ways when I study and meditate. It serves as a kind of key to unlock for me the meaning of the text and, secondly, it becomes as a sturdy frame/skeleton on which I can hang (or into which I can bind or fix) the insights I gain in meditation.
There is really no such thing as ‘an open mind’. If my mind is not inlaid with the doctrine of the Creeds then it will be inlaid with something else, whatever that may be. It is surely best to make sure it is inlaid with what the Church has universally believed to be true.
Being a member of the universal Church of God through membership of the local church also puts before us the possibility and desirability of reading and meditating upon the Bible according to the pattern of readings in the lectionary used by our church. It is perhaps helpful to think of the community worship of God’s people on the Lord’s Day as like the fountain whose healing waters flow into the everyday lives of the participants during the next six days and then return to their source the following Sunday, coloured by their varied experiences.
The continual reading of the Bible from Monday to Saturday is part of the flow of healing water through the channel provided by the lectionary with its set daily readings for each day. From these, or from the themes of the Church Year (Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, etc.), which are reflected in the readings, daily meditation can begin. We may observe that such a procedure and discipline not only positively affirms our fellowship with other Christians but also ensures a good variety in the content of meditation.
I meditate and pray as one who has been brought out of darkness into God’s marvellous light in order that I may live to his praise and glory in the service of my fellow human beings as I travel through God’s world towards the new Jerusalem, the City of God (see 1 Pt 2:9–10 and Rv 21:1–2). Jesus told his disciples that they were the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Mt 5:13–16). Because the Lord Jesus is our Master and because his Spirit dwells in our hearts, we are to function as salt and light. Salt is used to enhance the taste of food as well as to preserve it from decay; it is essentially different from that into which it is placed. Christian people are both to enhance the quality of human life and also to preserve it from moral and spiritual decay. Light dispels darkness and enables us to see where we are going and what we are doing; a light can be seen from a long distance away on a dark night. Jesus Christ dispels the darkness of sin. Christian people have a Gospel to share and a Saviour to commend in word and to exhibit in their loving actions. Of course, these are generalities: they are to be given practical expression in our daily lives, according to the situations and opportunities which God in his providence leads us into.
As we are called to love God with all our heart, soul and strength so we are called to love our neighbours as we love ourselves. To help us envision what loving one’s neighbour means, Jesus told the story of the helpful and considerate Samaritan (Lk 10:25ff.). Loving God and loving our fellow human beings as Jesus loves us may be seen as the two sides of the one divine coin: thus in God’s will for us they are inseparable. This means that when I meditate I do so as a person with duties which belong to my privilege and calling as an adopted child of God. I have duties towards my fellow members of the household of faith and further duties towards my fellow human beings. A result of my meditation may well be that I learn to see these duties more clearly and desire to fulfill them more lovingly and readily.
PREPARATION FOR MEDITATION
Most of the older books on meditation rightly urge us not to begin our act of meditation hurriedly but to engage first of all in suitable preparation. As the athlete warms up before the race and as we have the appetizer before dinner, so we need to prepare to enter into the activity of mental prayer. Physical and mental preparation are both important. We need to find the right place, time and bodily posture (see further, chapter 4).
In his Introduction to the Devout Life Francis de Sales tells us that we need to put ourselves into the presence of God and to invoke his assistance. Then he suggests four basic ways by which we can put ourselves into the divine presence, or, rather, in which we can make ourselves aware of the divine presence. The first is ‘a lively and attentive apprehension of the omnipresence of God’; that is, a full recognition that God is in all things and all places and that there is nothing or nowhere in this world where he cannot be found. Thus to begin mental prayer we must say to ourselves, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place’ (Gn 28:16).
In the second place, we recall that not only is God in this place where we are beginning to meditate but also that he is in our hearts; the Spirit of God and of Jesus Christ dwells in our souls for he has made us part of his new creation and come to dwell within us as his temple. Thus truly in God we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).
The third way is to think of our Saviour in heaven looking down upon us and taking a special interest in us as we engage in prayer to commune with him. There he is truly God but also truly Man, wholly concerned about our welfare and longing to receive our prayer and praise, for we are his Body united to him through his glorified and sacred humanity.
Finally, the fourth method consists in using our imagination to represent to ourselves our Lord Jesus, in his glorified humanity, alongside us, sitting or standing, and saying words of blessing and encouragement to us.
Francis de Sales advised that these methods be used in turn, briefly and simply. I would make no criticism of this manner of preparation, for it has been helpful to thousands over the centuries. What I would do is to comment upon it. To recall that I am baptized into Christ and united to him as my heavenly Lord is (in terms of spiritual benefit) much the same as recalling that the Lord Jesus looks down on me from heaven in love and that his Spirit graciously dwells in my heart. So, practically, it does not really matter whether I use the approach of the former bishop of Geneva or the one outlined above.
However, the reason for recalling my baptism (or my privileged state of being baptized), my actual and real membership of the Church, and my calling to love my neighbour, is to be found in the social and religious context in which we now live. There is within our western culture a very strong emphasis on the individual and his/her rights; further, within the Churches there is a great concern that we seek to fulfill our social obligations in a world of ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. Therefore, it is appropriate that on some occasions, if not every time, we include in our preparation for meditation the reminder that we are members of a universal fellowship, the Church of God, and that, as we journey towards the City of God, we are to shine as God’s light and be channels of his love in this world.
We do not want to spend so much time preparing to meditate that we have no time to meditate. However, right preparation usually leads to effective meditation. Experience will teach us how to prepare if we experiment with both the advice given above and that supplied by Francis de Sales and other writers on mental prayer.
To close the chapter, I offer a brief meditation upon Paul’s prayer for the church in Ephesus. It is a prayer that all pastors need to pray for their flock.
A MEDITATION ON EPHESIANS 1:17–18
May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, grant you a spirit of wisdom and insight to know him clearly. May he enlighten your innermost vision that you may know the great hope to which he has called you, the wealth of his glorious heritage to be distributed among members of the church.
O heavenly Father, the God of the apostle Paul and my God, I find this prayer of his deeply moving. He had such a great longing to know you and to enjoy the most intimate fellowship with our Lord Jesus Christ. I recall that he expressed his desire to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings when he wrote to the church in Philippi. Obviously, to know and serve the Lord Jesus was the great passion and aim of his life.
So he really knew what he was talking about when he prayed for the church of Ephesus. He prayed that the Christians there would be internally moved by the Holy Spirit so as to be given a supernatural insight into, and taste of, true and deep communion with God through Jesus Christ. Certainly he wanted the Christians to mature in their faith and be drawn nearer to God through Jesus Christ. And he recognized that all the teaching which he, or another apostle could give, was of little use unless the Holy Spirit, the very Spirit of Christ himself, actually illuminated the depths of their souls, hearts and minds.
Centuries have gone by since Paul’s Letter was written. Times have changed and history has marched onwards. But you, O God my Father, you have not changed; you are still the very fountain of holy love and perfect majesty. And you, O Lord Jesus Christ, you are the same today as you were yesterday and will be tomorrow; you remain perfect in your deity and perfect in your manhood.
So I believe, O Lord my God that Paul’s prayer uttered so long ago is a suitable prayer to offer for Christians today. Indeed, I believe it is a suitable prayer to be offered for me. Certainly I need the gracious presence within my soul of your Holy Spirit, the Spirit who brings heavenly wisdom and supernatural revelation. O my God, I truly desire that your Spirit enlighten my mind, warm my heart and motivate my will with those spiritual treasures which he brings to me from the Lord Jesus, who is exalted in heaven.
O my Father in heaven, I do really want to glimpse into what you have in store for your children in the glorious Kingdom which shall soon dawn; I look forward to being given my new and immortal resurrection body and sharing in the life of that Kingdom at the Second Coming to earth of the Lord Jesus; I believe that the riches of this world are as dung in comparison with the riches of your glory which will be poured out upon and surround your people in that Kingdom; and I know that it will be your great power, the power that raised our Lord Jesus from the dead, which will bring that Kingdom into being and sustain its perfection and glory for evermore.
So, my Lord God, I pray this prayer for myself as I also pray it for my fellow believers with whom I worship each Lord’s Day. I pray that each of us individually and all of us together will grow deeper in our communion of love with you through our Lord Jesus Christ. As I wait upon you in silence, send your Spirit to my soul: let him come to me directly from the Lord Jesus so that I will increase in wisdom and knowledge and in love of your name. Thanks and praise be to you, O Lord my God. O Bless the Lord, O my soul, and let all that is within me bless your holy name, the name Yahweh, LORD.
3. With all my Soul
We have seen that meditation is a form of prayer and that it will be more productive if we approach it and engage in it having the right attitude – through a right assessment of our position before Almighty God. We now move on to consider how it works practically and offer what could be called a psychology of meditation.
Those who have written books on meditation upon the contents and themes of Scripture have firmly agreed in this – that whatever method is used to digest, inwardly and spiritually, the content and meaning of God’s Revelation, it must have the effect of raising our affections (for example, desire, joy, hope, love, trust) towards the living God. The reason for this insistence is straightforward; unless our normally ‘cold’ hearts are warmed we are unlikely to offer (a) genuine prayer to God from the depths of our beings, and (b) make sincere resolutions to go forth to do God’s will in his world.
But how are the affections raised? By the careful consideration of a part or theme of the sacred text making full use of the intellect, and imagination and memory. We may claim that meditation is a God-ordained channel by which truth from God, written in the Scriptures, enters our minds, passes into our hearts and causes us to adore and love God and desire to serve him the more. Thus, it has been a basic belief of Christians over the centuries that vital Christianity is not possible without serious, prayerful meditation. We are aware that there have been those who have so emphasized right doctrine and correct thinking patterns that they have appeared to make Christianity merely a cerebral commitment to a Christian system of truths. And, there have also been those who have so emphasized right feelings and experiences that they have appeared to make Christianity into merely a religion of feeling. Meditation upon God’s Revelation makes use of the mind, heart and will and ought to lead to wholeminded, wholehearted and wholewilled Christianity.
Each of us is a unity, one being and one person. There is a vital link not only between body and soul but also between the various aspects or faculties of the soul. I can analyse my soul and say that I have intellect, memory, imagination, affections and will. I can even attempt to describe how each one works. But, though each can be subjected to careful scrutiny and presented as logically distinct from the others, we know from experience that there is never an occasion when only my intellect or only my imagination is working. What we mean when we identify the intellect, memory or imagination at work is that what is primary in our experience is one or the other. For example, if I am seeking to solve a mathematical problem it would appear that only my intellect is operating; or that when I am trying to remember the date when I first met a special person that only my memory is operating. Yet in each case imagination or memory or feelings comes into the experience, even if only minimally.
It has been the tradition since the sixteenth century, at least, to describe the practical progress of meditation through the use of what have been called the faculties of the soul, and to see each faculty in turn as particularly prominent in the discipline. Thus a specific order of the prominence of intellect, heart (affections) and will is common. But it would be wrong to think of this (or any other) order as being necessary stages through which we must pass in order successfully to meditate. Bearing this in mind, it is probably better not to think of the exercise of each of the faculties upon the Word of God as following specific stages but rather as being elements or strands in that which as a whole is truly meditation. We must not insist that we use the faculties of our souls in a strict order; rather, we must insist that we use them all, so that the Word of God permeates and abides in the whole of our souls.
A further point of clarification needs to be made before we move on to indicate how the intellect, memory, imagination, heart (affections) and will usually operate. The terminology we are using of the faculties of the soul is from a Greek philosophical tradition. The way in which the writers of the Old and New Testaments describe the various aspects of the human heart/mind/soul is much more fluid and less precise. For example, the ‘heart’ is often taken in the Bible to be the very centre of personal being, including within it reason, feelings, desire and decisions of will.
The great commandment first found in Deuteronomy 6:5, ‘You shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength’, obviously intends by the use of ‘heart’, ‘soul’ and ‘strength’ to cover the whole person in his/her relationship to God. If strength points to outer activity then the whole inner life is covered by heart and soul. Interestingly, in the citation of this verse in Mark 12 the command is made clearer for Greek-speaking Christians by the addition of ‘mind’: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength’ (v. 30).
To be absolutely precise about the meanings of ‘heart’ and ‘soul’ and ‘mind’ in either the Old Testament or the New is not possible. This is because ‘soul’ and ‘heart’ often appear as synonyms. Take, for example, this parallelism (a common feature of Hebrew poetry) in Psalm 84:3:
My soul yearns and pines for the courts of the LORD.
My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.
Then Paul in the New Testament apparently used ‘heart’ and ‘mind’ as synonyms or, at least, as overlapping aspects of personhood. ‘Dismiss all anxiety from your minds ...’, he told the Philippians, ‘then God’s own peace, which is beyond all understanding, will stand guard over your hearts and minds, in Christ Jesus’ (4:6–7). We need to bear this fluidity of expression in mind when reading the Bible.
In recognition that no faculty of the soul, be it intellect or memory, operates in total isolation in meditation, we shall now examine the faculties and notice their apparently separate tasks and how the Scriptures provide advice and instruction. We shall look at mind (meaning intellect, memory and imagination), heart and will (meaning the affections, desires, resolutions and intentions) as they are exercised in meditation upon Christian truth.
All of us have intelligence even though some of us are more intellectual than others. We use our intelligence as we think about this and that during each day. Meditation does not call for special or specialized intellect, but rather for the focusing of the intellect upon God’s Word and truth in order to consider it carefully, sincerely and prayerfully.
A tendency in most of us is to use our intellect less effectively in religious experience than we do in our chosen professions. It is hard work thinking seriously and deeply about any subject. So it is not surprising that there are many exhortations in the New Testament urging disciples of Jesus to think carefully and profoundly about the truths concerning God’s Kingdom and salvation. Though Jesus was not trained in an academic sense he was, nevertheless, a Man who used his intellect and sought to get others to do so in the service of God. He told parables with the intention not of spoonfeeding his hearers with easy illustrations but as intellectual teasers, making them think out what he was talking about. In the Sermon on the Mount he invited his hearers not only to think seriously about God’s Revelation in nature (‘Look at the birds ...’ and ‘See how the lilies grow ...’) but also about his Revelation through the Law and the Prophets (‘You have heard ... but I say unto you ...’).
A careful reading of the Epistles of St Paul will show that the apostle placed great emphasis upon the renewal of the mind by the special action of the Spirit in and upon it – as the mind considered, reflected upon and took into itself the truths of the Gospel of God concerning the Lord Jesus Christ. Here are some of his statements:
Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, so that you may judge what is God’s will, what is good, pleasing and perfect (Rom 12:2).
What you have done is put aside your old self with its past deeds and put on a new man, one who grows in knowledge as he is formed anew in the image of his Creator (Col 3:9–10).
You must lay aside your former way of life and the old self which deteriorates through illusion and desire, and acquire a fresh, spiritual way of thinking.
You must put on that new man created in God’s image, whose justice and holiness are born of truth (Eph 4:22–24).
Following our conversion and baptism, the Christian life may be described, says Paul, as a putting on of a new identity (a new man), a process that could not proceed without the renewal of the mind and the adopting of a fresh, spiritual way of thinking. Here, then, is a call not to less thinking but to new, spiritual thinking so that the mind is filled with the knowledge of God. As Paul wrote: ‘Your thoughts should be wholly directed to all that is true, all that deserves respect, all that is honest, pure, admirable, decent, virtuous, or worthy of praise’ (Phil 4:8).
A key verb in both the Old and New Testaments is ‘to remember’. We use our memory throughout each day and from its resources we dream by night. In meditation we remember what we have learned concerning God’s character, words and deeds, especially as these are reflected in our Lord Jesus Christ. Not that we remember on each occasion everything we have been taught and learned; but, rather, we recall that which is specially applicable to the subject on which we are meditating.
The Israelites/Jews were often commanded and urged to remember the great saving deeds and the revelatory words of the Lord God who by his divine election had made them his people. In the Book of Deuteronomy, for example, there is this oft-repeated command from God to his covenant people: ‘Remember that you, too, were once slaves in Egypt, and the LORD, your God, brought you from there with his strong hand and outstretched arm. That is why the LORD, your God, has commanded you to observe the sabbath day’ (5:15; 15:15; 16:12; 24:18; 24:22). And the psalmist often confesses to God that,
I remember the deeds of the LORD;
yes, I remember your wonders of old (Ps 77:12).
Indeed, at night as he mused upon God’s grace, he said to himself, ‘By night I remember your name’ (119:55).
At the centre of the annual Passover celebration was the reading of, reflection upon and remembering of the great saving deed of God we call the Exodus. Also at the very centre of the Lord’s Supper/Eucharist, the central act of worship of the Church over the centuries, is the remembrance of the mighty act of God in the new Exodus, the great deliverance wrought by God in Christ at Calvary’s cross and in resurrection from the power of death. Theologians have written many pages on what is special (or even unique) in this particular eucharistic remembrance. All we need to do here is insist that there cannot be any right and full participation in a Eucharist celebration which does not include reflecting upon and considering what is remembered by the Church (through Scripture) concerning the atoning death and glorious resurrection of the Lord Jesus.
Finally, let us note that in the last chapter of the Bible the verb ‘to remember’ in the indicative occurs twice: ‘Remember,’ says the Lord Jesus from heaven, ‘I am coming soon!’ (Rv 22:7, 12). In other words, we are constantly to bring to mind – and especially in meditation and prayer – the promise of the Lord that he will return to earth (that is, he will come to judge the living and the dead).
By this power of the mind we can have an image in the mind of some external thing when that thing is not present in reality. All that we perceive by our five external senses (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and feeling) are external things but we can have an image of them when they are not actually there. Further, we can create images of what does not exist by fusing images of what we have perceived through our senses. For example, I can imagine a six-legged cow and a four-eyed bird. It is a powerful faculty which can be used for good or bad purposes. Regrettably, we may think, the first use of the word in the Bible (Gn 6:5; 8:21, Heb ysr) is in the context where it relates to the creative activity of the imagination to plan or envision evil: thus it is condemned.
However, it has been given to us by God for his glory (even if it is the easiest faculty of the mind for the devil to enter quickly and quietly) and there are many examples within Scripture of the creatively good use of the imagination. No prophet, for example, could have presented us with pictures of the glory of the Kingdom of God of the future age without using his imagination (see Is 65:17ff. and Rv 21;22). Further, much of the teaching of our Lord as recorded in the Gospels flows from his imaginative representation of the sovereign yet gracious saving reign of God entering into this sinful age and world. The kingly reign of the Kingdom is like a mighty, invading army at the city gates (‘at hand’, Mk 1:15); it is also like a pearl of great price and a fisherman’s dragnet (Mt 13:44, 47). To benefit from listening to Jesus, his hearers had to use their imagination to think, for example, of grapes on thornbushes, figs on prickly plants and good fruit on a rotten tree (Mt 7:12f ).
The apostle Paul also used his imagination in presenting his interpretation of the Gospel of God concerning Jesus Christ. And he invited his readers also to use theirs. Take, for example, his use of the dress of the Roman soldier in Ephesians 6 in order to present that spiritual armour and weapons of the soldier in the army of Christ; or take his frequent use of the picture of the human body with its many members (parts) in order to highlight the interrelationships and interdependency of the Church as the Body of Christ (Rom 12:3ff.).
The imagination is difficult to control and sometimes it seems to work of its own accord without our wishing it to do so. Obviously it has to be trained and given the opportunity through meditation upon the contents of God’s Revelation to be purified by the constant making of images from that which is contained within the Bible. It is important that meditation never begins with the exercise of the imagination: long experience has taught us that while imagination can certainly raise the affections it can also raise the wrong ones for the wrong reasons. Meditation must begin with the thinking and recalling mind rather than the imaginative mind.
Perhaps a simple illustration will make this point. Suppose that our meditation is upon the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem upon a colt (Mk 11:1ff.). If I begin with the imagination, I may picture Jesus entering the narrow streets of the ancient city with people spreading their cloaks and palm branches on the road. What a marvellous thing to do, I may say, and feel I ought to imitate his action. Did he not say, ‘Follow me!’? Obviously such a procedure will end with problems! No, I must first consider such questions as: Who is this Jesus who enters in this manner? What were the people suggesting by their actions? Why did he allow the people to greet him in this way? And doing so, I can use my imagination to picture the scene, keeping that picture as illustrative of my serious consideration.
The imagination is not to be feared: it is to be welcomed and used, but used in service of the intellect and memory, not as their master.
HEART AND WILL
It is possible to have excellent thoughts about God, to admire the sacred Scriptures as a unique collection of holy books, and to enjoy the Liturgy of the Church without being either a committed or a nominal Christian. This is because true Christian religion exists not only in the mind but also in the heart and affections. Being a Christian means being in a relationship of faith and love with the living God through Jesus Christ. Unless there is love of God, faith in him and his promises, and faithfulness to him in daily living, there is no genuine Christianity. At its centre Christianity is all about trusting, believing, hoping, desiring, loving, serving and obeying the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In other words, genuine Christianity is to a large extent the arousal and movement of the affections towards God our Father through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. We use the word affections for it is a stronger word than inclination, feeling or tendency and it suggests a vigorous and deep-seated feeling and attitude of the heart. In meditation the authority, power and purity of the Word of God from our Lord Jesus Christ is intended to have the effect of arousing those affections which draw us closer to God and turn us away from sin. Here are some examples of such affections.
A basic attitude aroused by meditation is fear; that is, reverence for God in his holiness and dread of his judgement on sin. ‘Fear me and keep all my commandments’ is a constant refrain in the Book of Deuteronomy (for example, 5:29). It is repeated by Paul, who told the Corinthians to purify themselves and ‘in the fear of God to strive to fulfill [your] consecration perfectly’ (2 Cor 7:1). Fear as reverence is the appropriate feeling when we truly know something of the majesty and holiness of God and of our human sinfulness and utter dependence upon divine grace.
Another affection which is basic to Christian living is hope. ‘Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose hope is in the LORD’ (17:7) insisted the prophet Jeremiah. And the apostle Peter uttered this prayer: ‘Praised be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, he who in his great mercy gave us new birth; a birth unto hope which draws its life from the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead’ (1 Pt 1:3). Without hope of a new world, with Christ at its centre, Christianity is reduced to a this-worldly activism. Meditation upon the resurrection of Christ and his exaltation into heaven has the effect of increasing both our trust and hope in God and his purposes for us and all creation. We cannot live without hope! And as Psalm 147 puts it: ‘The LORD is pleased with those who fear him, with those who hope for his kindness’ (v. 11).
Then, indisputably, there is love, the love of God with heart, soul and strength. ‘Beloved,’ wrote John, ‘let us love one another because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten of God and has knowledge of God’ (1 Jn 4:7). Where there is love of God in our hearts then there is hatred of evil and of sin: ‘I hate every false way,’ said the psalmist (119:104, 128). From a vigorous, affectionate and fervent love of God will arise other positive affections such as hope and trust, joy and gratitude, as well as such negative ones as hatred of and grief for sin. Meditation upon God’s Word has the supreme effect over a long period of increasing our love for God.
In fact, it is often difficult to separate the affections. Take, for example, the desire for God as this may be expressed in the language of hungering and thirsting for him:
As the hind longs for the running waters,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
Athirst is my soul for God, the living God.
When shall I go and behold the face of God?
Here love is expressed in fervent desire for God: only one who loves deeply actually longs for and desires the beloved with such fervour.
And take also joy. There is a marvellous statement in 1 Peter 1:8–9 which brings together joy, faith and love and expresses perfectly the results of good meditation: ‘Although you have never seen him, you love him, and without seeing you now believe in him, and rejoice with inexpressible joy touched with glory because you are achieving faith’s goal, your salvation.’ Only deep love can rejoice so profoundly.
Of course, we love God because we believe and know him to be exceedingly lovable. Our intellects have been persuaded of this supreme truth; and, delighted by his mercy and holiness, our hearts have been set aflame by the power and purity of the divine love. And our love is nourished and extended the more we actually learn about God’s character and grace and the more we reflect upon the experience of his love in our lives.
Many Roman Catholic authors have distinguished between mental and affective prayer in the discipline of meditation. Now we can see why. The mind is nourished, delighted and filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord and is thereby engaging in mental prayer: as the affections are raised and there is love for God, reverence for his majesty, hope in his promises and trust in his Word then the prayer is truly affective, for it arises from the affections of the heart.
The affections cannot be separated from the will. If I sufficiently desire something, then I will do something about it. If I feel an intense desire to adore and please the LORD and do his bidding, then my will is already turned towards prayer and obedience; and if I feel hatred for sin and grief for sins committed against the living God, then my will is already turned away from the habitual practice of sinning against God. Of course, the will needs to be energized and strengthened by the Holy Spirit and for this we must constantly pray. For when we arise from our time of meditation we do encounter sooner or later the power of the world, the flesh and the devil and they often conspire together to distract us from our known duty to God and our neighbours.
It is possible by reference to a part of this long psalm to show how meditation upon God’s Revelation involves the whole soul. We shall use verses 97 to 112 which are sections Mem and Nun in the Hebrew.
Meditation involves the intellect and understanding. As he addresses the LORD, the psalmist exclaims:
How I love your law, O LORD!
It is my meditation all the day.
Your command has made me wiser than my enemies,
for it is ever with me.
I have more understanding than all my teachers,
when your decrees are my meditation (vv. 97–99).
Here meditation is clearly associated with wisdom and understanding.
Meditation utilizes the memory. He can only claim to love the Law of the LORD (v. 97) because he knows it and its contents are embedded in his memory. However, he also tells his God:
Though constantly I take my life in my hands,
yet I forget not your law (v. 109).
Though the wicked persecute the psalmist and his life is constantly threatened, he takes comfort in his knowledge (in memory) of God’s promises and precepts.
Meditation warms the heart and raises the affections. He certainly feels the power of God’s Word as he exclaims:
How sweet to my palate are your promises,
sweeter than honey to my mouth! (v. 103)
Your decrees are my inheritance forever;
the joy of my heart they are (v. 111) .
Delight in the mind means also joy in the heart.
Meditation energizes and directs the will. He knew that the test of his relationship to God was his obedience:
Through your precepts I gain discernment;
therefore I hate every false way.
A lamp to my feet is your word,
a light to my path.
I resolve and swear
to keep your just ordinances (vv. 104–106).
Here is determination, resolution and commitment in the name of the LORD.
Meditation employs the imagination. In order to claim, for example, that he had more understanding than all his teachers, and more discernment than the elders, he had to picture them in his mind’s eye in order to make such a comparison (vv. 99–100).
It is of interest to note that Psalm 119 does not appear to offer any set method of meditation. That the psalmist is meditating with his whole soul is very clear, but, he describes one or another aspect of that meditation without any apparent logical order. But he was an experienced meditator! We may well need to keep to a simple method, at least in the early stages (see further, chapter 4 below).
1 CORINTHIANS 13
What the apostle Paul wrote in verses 1b to 13 of this well-known and much-loved chapter on agapē, the love which is from God, is truly a profound meditation. It is nothing less than consideration and celebration of the nature and quality of agapē as superior to all other virtues. (Please look at it before continuing your reading of this chapter.)
Paul uses his intellect to reflect upon agapē. This is apparent throughout the chapter, from his use of the conditional clauses (If I speak ... if I have ... if I give) in verses 1–3, through his careful analysis of the quality of agapē in verses 4–7, to the comparison of faith, hope and love in verse 13.
Paul uses his memory. He recalls the use of spiritual gifts by himself and in the churches (vv. 1–2); he remembers the words of Jesus concerning the faith which moves mountains (v. 2, cf. Mk 11:23) and he thinks about his childhood behaviour (v. 11).
Paul uses his imagination . He speaks of clanging cymbals (v. 1), of moving mountains (v. 2), of being burned alive (v. 3), of being a child (v. 11), and of looking into a mirror (v. 12).
Paul’s heart was aflame, his affections raised and his will ready to act in love. Warmth and deep feeling come through every line of the text. So it is not surprising that on his completing the meditation his first words are: ‘Seek eagerly after love ...’ (14:1).
We observe that there is a basic development of thought in this meditation, moving from the use of the discursive intellect (in the act of comparison of verses 1–3) to the resolution and commitment of verse 13 (‘the greatest of these is love’). Paul had a logical mind (as the contents of his Epistle reveal) and all his meditations tend to follow a basic logic (see, for example, Phil 2:5–11; Eph 1:3–14; and Rom 8:28–39).
4. Finding a Method
Having looked at the nature, purpose and psychology of biblical meditation, we move on now to make practical suggestions concerning methods of beginning (or of starting afresh) this art and discipline of considering God’s Word with a view to loving and serving him. It is important from the beginning that we recognize that there is no single method of meditation or mental prayer which everyone ought to follow. Each of us must work out his or her own approach based on experience, advice and the experience of others: the latter will include not only the writers of textbooks on meditation and collections of meditation, but also the biblical writers themselves, especially the psalmists. We must recognize that God has not made us identical: different personalities, backgrounds, ages and contexts lead to different (but equally valuable) methods.
There are no short-cuts to proficiency in meditation, as the faithful everywhere testify. God gives us grace as we persevere and stick to our schedule! Further, we must not expect every daily meditation to be especially uplifting or moving: Jacob was not given a vision of a ladder between earth and heaven every day and Paul was not lifted up into heaven in a vision each time he meditated. We must remember that the cumulative effects and benefits of regular daily meditation are as important in the long run as the occasional intense moments of deep spiritual delight in God’s grace and presence. Like the writers of the Psalms we must be prepared to meditate upon God’s Revelation whatever be our mood, circumstances and context.
A SIX-DAY CYCLE
Earlier we suggested that the ideal content for daily meditation is the appointed scriptural readings from the Lectionary of our church. However, to begin immediately with this method may be like jumping into the deep end of the swimming pool when we can hardly swim. It is better for beginners to begin in the shallow end, and, when they have confidence, to swim in deeper water. So I have set out below four series of six-day cycles of reading and meditation. Why six? Because Sunday, the Lord’s Day, provides an opportunity to meditate upon one of the readings we hear in corporate worship, and thus to benefit the more from this experience.
These four sets of readings will cover a month and could actually be repeated, if that was felt desirable, before adopting another procedure for choosing the content of meditation. The four topics are (1) the life of Jesus; (2) the teaching of Jesus; (3) themes from the Psalter; and (4) Paul’s Letter to the church in Philippi.
My suggestion is that the whole passage be read and then a part of it, which will be indicated, be used for meditation. As meditation is a discipline as well as a divine channel of grace, it is probably best to stick to the suggestions and not be tempted (at least in the first month) to be attracted by other possibilities.
1 The life of Jesus – according to Luke
Monday His birth Read 2:1–20 Meditate upon 2:10–12
Tuesday His baptism Read 3:1–22 Meditate upon 3:16–17
Wednesday His transfiguration Read 9:28–36 Meditate upon 9:28–31
Thursday His death Read 23:26–49 Meditate upon 23:44–46
Friday His resurrection Read 24:13–35 Meditate upon 24:30–32
Saturday His ascension Read 24:50–53 Meditate upon 24:51–52
and Acts 1:1–11
2 The teaching of Jesus – according to Luke
Monday Sowing seed Read 8:4–15 Meditate upon 8:11–15
Tuesday The Christ Read 9:18–27 Meditate upon 9:20–22
Wednesday Prayer Read 11:1–13 Meditate upon 11:2–4
Thursday No worry Read 12:22–34 Meditate upon 12:27–31
Friday Leaving all Read 18:18–30 Meditate upon 18:24–25
Saturday The End Read 21:5–36 Meditate upon 21:25–28
3 The Psalter – a selection
Monday God and man Read Psalm 8 Meditate upon verses 3–5
Tuesday Ascending Zion’s hill Read Psalm 24 Meditate upon verses 3–6
Wednesday Resting in God Read Psalm 62 Meditate upon verses 5–7
Thursday God’s presence Read Psalm 84 Meditate upon verses 1–2
Friday Extolling the Lord Read Psalm 111 Meditate upon verse 10
Saturday God’s protection Read Psalm 121 Meditate upon verses 7–8
4 Paul’s Letter to the church in Philippi
Monday Paul’s prayer Read 1:1–11 Meditate upon 1:9–11
Tuesday Paul’s imprisonment Read 1:12–30 Meditate upon 1:21–26
Wednesday Jesus the Lord Read 2:1–11 Meditate upon 2:5–11
Thursday Shining as stars Read 2:12–30 Meditate upon 2:12–13
Friday No confidence in Read 3:1–11 Meditate upon 3:8–11
Saturday Towards the goal Read 3:12–4:1 Meditate upon 3:20–21
Note on commentaries
There are helpful commentaries by George B. Caird (1964), E. Earle Ellis (1974), Joseph A. Fitzmeyer (1981), A. Robert C. Leaney (1967) and Leon Morris (1974) on Luke; by Arnold A. Anderson (1972), Derek Kidner (1973), Alexander F. Kirkpatrick (1910), John J. S. Perown (1890) and Arthur Weiser (1962) on the Psalter; and by Francis W. Beare (1973), Jean-François Collange (1979), John L. Houlden (1970) and Ralph P. Martin (1976) on Philippians.
Perhaps I ought to add that in giving the above advice on a cycle of readings I have not followed the traditional pattern recommended to beginners in the older Catholic books on meditation and prayer. This is not because I reject that pattern but because people today do not find it easy to get started in the older method. Like all good things from the past, this pattern is well thought out: it is based in fact upon the concept of the Christian way to God through Christ being composed of three interlocking ways – the purgative, the illuminative and the unitive ways. The three ways are not to be thought of as three steps but rather as the three storeys of one ‘mobile’ house which you occupy all the time; however, you must go via the first floor to the second and the second to the third.
Beginning in the purgative way, you meditate first of all on such subjects as sin, death, hell, heaven, judgement and God’s holy Law in order to gain a desire to forsake sin, to repent and to believe the Gospel with all your heart, mind and will. Then the next set of meditations are on the life, ministry, passion, death and resurrection of our Lord in order to enter into the way of illumination by the Gospel and to allow such virtues as humility, patience and love to be created in one's heart. These meditations will then lead you into the unitive way, as your soul enters into deeper union with God, as you commit yourself wholly to him and in singleness of heart, mind and will contemplate his majesty and glory.
If you wish to follow up this approach, you can do no better than follow the meditations recommended either by St Peter of Alcantara in his Tratado de la oración y meditación (1556) available in translation as A Golden Treatise of Mental Prayer (1940), or by St Francis de Sales in his Introduction to the Devout Life (1606) available in a variety of modern editions; or go on a traditional (not modern!) Ignatian retreat.
Now a short comment addressed to some of my fellow Protestants. For many evangelical Christians the daily ‘Quiet Time’ is sacred. I would not wish to remove it, only to give it more spiritual content. Usually it includes reading a short passage of Scripture followed by reading the Notes (supplied in a booklet) and then engaging in prayer asking for God’s guidance for the day and praying for specific people. The Notes, usually brief, are a mixture of exegetical comment and devotional thoughts. They can lead on to genuine meditation; but, they can also prevent meditation by giving (as it were) already-digested food to the reader. I would like to see such Notes designed both to supply a list of daily Bible readings and also for each one to offer suggestions for personal meditation. This would mean that the writers had a general method of meditation in which to set their suggestions. Hopefully, by encouraging genuine, personal meditation, the quality of the ‘Quiet Time’ as a spiritual discipline would improve.
METHODS OF MEDITATION
The disciples asked their Master, ‘Lord, teach us how to pray?’ and he gave them what we call the Lord’s Prayer (or the Pater Noster) as a model prayer. Though we do look to the Holy Spirit to guide and help us in both prayer and meditation we do still need a method, even if it is a very simple one, in order to get started and use this as a basis for experimentation and/or development.
I shall set out below two simple methods, one for those who like to try to keep a relationship between study, meditation and prayer, and one for those who, out of necessity or preference, desire to have before them only the open pages of the Bible. One further comment: these methods are best used on their own and so I would suggest that if you are using Bible-reading Notes you put these aside for the month, or, if you prefer, use them at the other end of the day of this discipline of meditation. I say this because the usual Bible-reading Notes do not appear to be intended to foster meditation in the way we are looking at it in this book.
1. A method for those who want to make use of biblical commentaries
Before setting out this method I need to warn that biblical commentaries come in a variety of types and the ones which are useful in meditation are those which are primarily exegetical: that is, they offer a full explanation of the meaning of the text according to the intention of the writer. Speculative, idiosyncratic and controversial publications are not recommended!
(a) Sit in a comfortable chair with sound support for your back, or sit on the floor with your back against the wall.
Recall God’s presence in the world and in and with you: remember that you are what you are by the grace of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Pray God to help you in this meditation to draw near to him and to receive help, inspiration and insight from his great provision.
(b) Read the passage of Scripture carefully: and then read slowly and with great concentration the shorter section to be used for meditation.
(c) Read the appropriate section of the Commentary in order to ascertain what was the original meaning of the author when he wrote for his intended readers. If time permits, it will be advantageous to have read the Commentary on the whole passage before the actual meditation begins. Do not let the mind stray into interesting academic points: stick to the basic, central meaning. If the passage lends itself, then picture the scene in your mind’s eye.
(d) In the presence of God and with desire to please him, consider one or more of the important truths about God (his character and will, his grace and glory) or about the Lord Jesus, or about human beings as the creation of God. To help in this consideration recall what you know or have been taught concerning this aspect of God’s Revelation.
(e) Engage in conversation with God as you consider his Revelation; tell him what you see and understand, what you cannot as yet understand, how you feel, what you desire for the Church and yourself; do not be afraid to let your considerations become your part of a conversation with the Lord God in heaven; but, do stop from time to time so that in silence of mind and heart the Lord Jesus through the Spirit may whisper a word in your soul.
(f) As you bring your meditation to a close, thank God for his Word, his love for you and his call to you to draw near to him. Choose a theme or sentence which has been impressed upon your heart and take it with you to repeat to yourself throughout the day. Further, make a resolve to put into practice what you have clearly seen to be God’s will for you.
2. A method using only the Bible
Perhaps it is necessary to state here that this method will reap best results if the important points made in chapter 2 concerning our membership of the Church of God are taken seriously. To prevent the possibility of being led astray by a keen imagination, an adventurous mind and a restless heart, we need to be aware of who we are and to Whom we belong as we read and consider God’s Word.
(a) Sit in a comfortable chair with sound support for your back, or sit on the floor with your back against the wall.
Recall God’s presence in the world and in and with you; remember that you are what you are by the grace of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. Especially recall that you are baptized into Christ and his Church and that you have received basic teaching about God and his Gospel concerning our Lord Jesus Christ.
Pray God to help you in this meditation to draw near to him and to receive help, inspiration and insight from his great provision.
(b) Read the passage of Scripture carefully, using your imagination to picture the scene (where applicable) that is being described.
(c) Read the shorter section chosen for meditation slowly and aloud, using your imagination both to picture the scene and to see the resurrected Lord Jesus alongside you, listening to you as you read. Read it again, pausing after every phrase in order to receive its full meaning and flavour.
(d) Engage in conversation with God, responding to what you have understood and seen in this passage. Tell him what you believe you see and what you find difficult to understand; share with him the feelings and intentions that arise in your heart; ask him to help you see more, trust, obey and love him more.
(e) Conclude (i) by thanking him for his Word and his grace, (ii) by taking a theme or phrase or sentence from your meditation as a word to hold on to throughout the day, and (iii) make resolutions to put into practice what you have come to see is God’s will for your life.
Many other things could be said about meditation. Many of us, for example, may find that we really need the help of a ‘spiritual director’ to get us started and to overcome teething problems which seem at the time insurmountable. Face-to-face, spoken explanations often succeed where carefully written ones fail.
Then there is the perennial problem of wandering thoughts which seem to enter the mind from nowhere when we are engaged in meditation. To understand and overcome distraction in our meditation and prayer, we need to distinguish between involuntary and voluntary distraction. Without wishing or willing to do so, we all experience involuntary distraction; we find ourselves thinking of this or that and imagining something quite removed from the theme of the meditation. Usually there is a direct connection between this activity of our minds and our recent experience. The moment we recognize that this is happening we must gently, by an act of will, return to the content of the meditation – maybe with an ‘arrow prayer’, such as ‘Lord, help me’. What we must not do is to pursue the thoughts or imaginations which have distracted us. To do so is voluntary distraction and becomes a route out of mental prayer back to the disordered state of our normal thinking and feeling. If we find ourselves taking this route, then we must confess our failure to God, surrender our wayward thoughts to him, and attempt to return to the meditation. Practice, as we say, makes perfect.
Perhaps also we need to recognize two further points. The first is that wandering thoughts arise because of our disordered lives. So the more our daily lives are centred on God and his will – as we learn to love him with heart, mind and strength – the less will distraction be a real problem in meditation and prayer. The second applies more to contemplative than mental prayer. We need to be aware that involuntary thoughts and feelings may be the area of our inner lives which the Holy Spirit is wanting to cleanse. He may be wishing to lead us to dispel a fear, resolve a doubt, heal a memory, weaken or remove a prejudice, scatter a vanity or deepen a relationship. In this case we are to surrender ourselves to the Lord for his cleansing and gently but firmly return to our prayer or our consideration of Scripture.
I must mention also the importance for spiritual progress of actually beginning immediately to put into practice any resolution we make in meditation. It is no good our making resolutions if we are not going to try our best, God helping us, to fulfill them in daily living. We recall that meditation is intended to be the means of receiving divine grace and illumination in order to pray to and serve God the better. There will, however, be a certain delight experienced by the mind and joy felt in the heart which is not directly transferable into practical good works or godliness. Again, we remember that the general effect of sound meditation is to improve our spiritual tone and thus make us more receptive both to our need of God and other people’s need of our help.
We have discussed topics and methods, but what about places and times for meditation? If my home is always noisy, and if my local church is usually locked for fear of vandalism, then where can I meditate? In summer I may find a quiet corner or vacant seat in the local park, but where can I go in winter?
To people who lived in one- or two-roomed houses Jesus said: ‘Whenever you pray, go to your room, close your door, and pray to your Father in private’ (Mt 6:6). ObviouslyJesus was not suggesting that his disciples enter their non-existent bedrooms or studies or drawing-rooms. He was speaking metaphorically and recommending privacy for prayer. Such could have been found on the flat roof, in the field, in the synagogue, along the path or seated on the fence. To follow this advice today may mean – in extreme cases – purchasing earplugs of the kind used by people who work nights and sleep days, and then meditating in a noisy house. We have to try to find a place; and if there is no quiet place available we have to make ourselves quiet in the midst of noise and bustle.
There is no absolutely right time for meditation. The early morning, soon after rising, has been found to be most beneficial by many: on the other hand, those who work in offices can sometimes find a quiet spot during their lunch breaks. It is best not to attempt to meditate when tired; therefore, late at night is not recommended. We have to make both the space and the time (say, twenty minutes) according to our own circumstances, and it will be easier for some than for others.
Let us give the last word to Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh:
Parallel with mental discipline, we must learn to acquire a peaceful body. Whatever our psychological activity, our body reacts to it; and our bodily state determines to a certain degree the type or quality of our psychological activity. Theophane the Recluse, in his advice to anyone wishing to attempt the spiritual life, says that one of the conditions indispensable to success is never to permit bodily slackness; ‘Be like a violin string, tuned to a precise note, without slackness or supertension, the body erect, shoulders back, carriage of the head easy, the tension of all muscles orientated towards the heart.’ A great deal has been written and said about the ways in which one can make use of the body to increase one’s ability to be attentive, but on a level accessible to many, Theophane’s advice seems to be simple, precise and practical. We must learn to relax and be alert at the same time. We must master our body so that it should not intrude but make collectedness easier for us. Living Prayer (1966), p. 55.
This is basic, simple advice, based on experience, and thus worthy to be followed. (See further, Appendix A on the Jesus Prayer and meditation.)
It will, I hope, be appropriate to end the first part of this book, and this particular chapter, with a meditation. I shall seek to keep to the methods outlined above, beginning from section (e) of the first method and section (d) of the second.
The theme is the Ascension of the Lord Jesus and is allotted in the four-week cycle to the last day of the first week:
O God, my Father in heaven, I truly believe that you raised Jesus from death and the grave and that you exalted him to your right hand on high in his resurrected, immortal and glorified body. I picture him in heaven in your presence and glory as the King of kings, the Priest over your household, the Prophet who speaks your words and the one Mediator between yourself and the human race. I see him glorious in deity and perfect in manhood and I hear the choirs of angels singing that he is truly worthy to receive praise and honour, glory and dominion, for ever and ever. I praise and magnify his name for he is truly the Lord.
I see our Lord Jesus Christ not only resting in glory in your holy presence but also doing for us – for even me – what we cannot do for ourselves. I think of him as the Second Adam, the New Man, the unique High Priest: I see him offering on behalf of all of us a perfect sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, adoration and worship: I hear him praying for all of us, for his brothers and sisters on earth, that we shall all receive your salvation and seek to love and serve you all our days.
In fact, I see all your faithful people contained in his humanity offering in, through and with him the praise that is due to you and the prayers and intercessions you are glad to receive. This thought brings me great joy and peace of mind. O bless the Lord, O my soul, and let all that is within me bless his holy name. What a wonderful truth it is that we can come to you, worship you, bring our petitions and intercession, lay our burdens and problems before you, in, through and with our Lord Jesus Christ, your beloved Son and our Saviour and Brother.
I recall that the apostle Paul urges us to set our hearts and to fix our minds upon the heavenly realm where the Lord Jesus is seated at your right hand. He tells us that being in Christ, who is the New Adam, we have died to sin and risen to eternal life and are exalted into heaven itself. This I find difficult, O my God, to take in; but, I see that however imperfectly I actually understand it, it is a truth which has to be lived out. I have to be heavenly-minded to be of great earthly use for your sake and your glory. I have to work hard for the Lord Jesus as I await his return to earth from heaven to judge the living and the dead.
Thanks be to you, O Lord my God, for what you have done, are doing and will do for me and for us through Lord Jesus Christ. I offer myself afresh to you as your adopted child and servant. By your help and guidance I resolve to make a more definite attempt to see and live my life here on earth in the light of the exalted Lord Jesus who is at your right hand.
PART TWO: Theory and Theology
5. Jesus, Receiver of Revelation
Many faithful Christians who successfully and fruitfully meditate upon sacred Scripture have not worked out what may be called a theory of biblical meditation. It works, and so they do it! This attitude is not surprising when we recall that in many human activities we actually get on with the job without understanding the process involved. For example, many drivers of cars know little of how the engine, gearbox and ‘electrics’ work. Yet they are good drivers.
It is a legitimate comment, however, that having a basic knowledge of the working of a car could be, at times, a real advantage – for instance, when having to make minor or urgent repairs. Further, it is surely a good thing to be both a good driver and to know how the petrol engine works. Likewise it cannot be a bad thing to have a general idea as to what may be called the spiritual dynamics of meditation.
We have looked at the ‘how’: now we look at the ‘why’ of meditation upon the Bible. We have examined the practice and discipline: now we look at the theory and rationale.
To gain insight into why meditation actually works as a way of sustaining an interpersonal relationship with God, we need to recall, first of all, at least part of what we know to be true about human communication. I mean the transfer from one mind to another of an act of understanding, be that communication through a written or a spoken medium. The reason for this requirement is that meditation involves communication between God and ourselves which arises from reading a written text, known in the Church as God’s Word.
I shall take a simple example. Suppose that I have been invited to a special party by a close friend and I know that I cannot go because of a prior, important engagement. To send a note will be one way of communicating my sincere apologies for non-attendance. To make a phone call will be another way; but, since this party is so special to her, the best way will be for me to go in person and to show her by my attitude, facial expression and tone of voice that I am really and truly sorry that I cannot go.
Here is a more complicated example. I am given a fascinating letter written to a friend by a young man named Max. It contains information about a particular tribe, its history, customs and culture, which is of great interest to me. However, I find that much of the letter seems to be in a code language and it is difficult to see precisely what he is suggesting. After much research and effort I still find that I have not truly understood what is written. Then, seemingly by chance, I meet the professor who taught Max and who gave him the code language which he used in the letter. Thus, from what the professor explains to me, I am able to read the letter again and see things there I could not previously see. Its mysteries have been opened to me and I am grateful.
Obviously in biblical meditation we do not have a face-to-face encounter with Moses or David or Solomon or Isaiah or Malachi and we cannot interview Luke or John or Paul or James. So meditation is not like ordinary human conversation. It is more like reading a letter from a person we do not know, but doing so with the help of someone who both inspired and knows the writer. In meditation we have before us a text (in translation from Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek). Since we share with the writer the same basic feelings and faith in the Lord God and long (as he did) for the fullness of God’s salvation, we can, by the use of our God-given, natural abilities gain a general idea as to what the writer intended to communicate. And if we have access to commentaries and dictionaries we can quickly add to our general understanding of that meaning the author was seeking to convey. So far, so good. What we have been describing is basic Bible-study using scholarly aids.
Meditation may include this two-part process but it is certainly more. It is (to recall the illustration) the hearing from the professor what was (and remains) in his mind when he taught and inspired his student, Max. Meditation is listening to, and hearing from, the Lord Jesus Christ, to whom Moses and Elijah (representing the Law and the Prophets) paid full allegiance and whom the apostles followed and worshipped. It begins with reading what God’s servant (be he Moses or Isaiah or Paul) wrote and then moves on expecting, if God wills, to hear a word from Jesus, the Messiah, who fulfilled the Law and the Prophets.
When we prayerfully consider and ponder sentences from sacred Scripture we do so in the belief that Jesus, our Lord, will speak through them to us today. The words of the hymn by William Cowper express this hope:
The Spirit breathes upon the word,
And brings the truth to sight;
Precepts and promises afford,
A sanctifying light.
He is the Spirit whom the apostle Paul calls the ‘Spirit of Christ’. This conviction is also expressed in the Liturgy. For example, after the reading of both the Old Testament and New Testament lessons it is common practice for the reader to say, ‘This is the word of the Lord’: to which everyone responds, ‘Thanks be to God’. Further, before the preacher begins to expound and apply Scripture to the needs of the congregation in his sermon he will usually pray that God’s Spirit will make the words he speaks into words from heaven.
So the question arises: what kind of theological account can we give to explain how the consideration of a written text becomes an encounter with God through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit? An attempt can be made to give an account taking special care to set out the role of our Lord Jesus Christ through, in and with whom alone we draw near to God and God draws near to us.
First of all, however, we need to answer a preliminary question. It is this: why bother with theology? I offer an answer given by Hans Urs von Balthasar who speaks of the relationship of dogma and contemplation (meditation and prayer) in this manner:
Contemplative prayer is the reception of revealed truth by one who believes and therefore desires to apply it to all his powers of reason, will and sense. Consequently, the form of the truth itself must always determine and prescribe the mode of reception. Knowledge of the basic truths of theology helps contemplation, for theology, by formulating precisely what the contemplative experiences personally, enables him to avoid being led into false or devious paths. Conversely, anyone practised in prayer will welcome all the central insights he gains from theology as a means of enriching his own prayer. On Prayer (London 1973), pp. 242–3.
The best theology is itself theological meditation!
JESUS, REVEALER OF GOD AND RECIPIENT OF REVELATION
Christians believe, teach and confess that Jesus is the unique and final Revelation of God. ‘No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, ever at the Father’s side, who has revealed him’ (Jn 1:18). Jesus of Nazareth, as the Son of God Incarnate and Word made flesh, revealed God to mankind by his words and deeds, particularly his passion, death and resurrection. Thus to affirm that Jesus is the true and full Revelation of God to mankind is to emphasize basic Christianity.
There is, however, another important truth concerning Jesus; we may call this the other side of the coin of divine truth. It is that Jesus, who is truly and genuinely Man, fully received (and continues to receive in heaven) God’s Revelation in his own soul – in mind, heart and will. Jesus our Lord is truly God and truly Man in one Person – as the Creeds declare. As God he is Revealer of deity and as Man he is the Receiver of divine Revelation. We shall concentrate on this latter truth for it holds the key to fruitful consideration of the role of Jesus in the meditation of his disciples.
As truly human, Jesus not only matured physically as did other boys (see Lk 1:80; 2:52) but he also received God’s Revelation according to the developing capacity of his human sphere of consciousness. Living in humble trust in his heavenly Father (Lk 2:49), Jesus gained growing insight into the Father’s will by his reading of, learning by heart, and meditating upon the Hebrew Scriptures, which told of God’s choice of his own ancestors and of his making a covenant with them through Moses. Like his namesake Joshua (Jesus is the Greek form of Joshua) he followed this command of the LORD, the God of this covenant:
Above all, be firm and steadfast, taking care to observe the entire law which my servant Moses enjoined on you. Do not swerve from it either to the right or to the left, that you may succeed wherever you go. Keep this book of the law on your lips. Recite it by day and by night, that you may observe carefully all that is written in it; then you will successfully attain your goal (Jos 1:7–8).
‘Recite it’ means to recall it from memory and consider its meaning. Jesus meditated upon what we call the Old Testament and, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (whom Luke tells us filled his human nature and rested upon him – 4:1; 10:21, etc.), he spiritually digested its meaning. He took into his soul the living, saving word of God to Israel and the world.
Also, arising from this meditation and through his prayerful fellowship and communion with the Father in heaven (which the Gospel of John particularly emphasizes), he saw and received deeper insight into that full meaning that the LORD wished to communicate to mankind. He had first personally to receive this filling-up (fulfillment) of the Law and the Prophets before he could express it in his own proclamation and teaching of the Kingdom of God. He had first to know God’s mind as Man before he could explain this Revelation to other men and women. It was necessary for him to work out his own role as Messiah before he could actually take upon himself that calling. We must not think of him receiving blueprints from heaven but rather of his growing and deepening appreciation first of all of what God had fully intended in his Revelation to Moses and the Prophets and, secondly, of what God was adding to that Revelation in and through his own ministry.
Further, we note that Jesus prayerfully meditated upon God’s Word, and upon his own calling and role, right to the moment of his expiring on the cross of Calvary. In the Garden of Gethsemane, his meditation upon what he had to do and be as the Suffering Servant of God (Is 52:13–53:12) caused him to perspire in no ordinary manner (Lk 22:44). And, later, hanging upon the cross, he was still reflecting upon Scripture, as his use of Psalm 22 – ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ – shows (Mt 27:46).
What is clear, even though it is difficult to express accurately in words, is that, considered as Man, Jesus received the height and depth, breadth and length of God’s Revelation of holy love during both the agony of his passion and crucifixion and in the glorious resurrection from the dead and vindication over sin and evil. No wonder John calls this the glorification of Jesus (17:1). Further, (and this is very important for us to grasp), as the exalted Man in heaven, at the Father’s right hand as the New and Second Adam and High Priest, he continues to receive in his human sphere of consciousness within his glorified human nature/body the fullness of God’s Revelation. In fact, his reception and appropriation of Revelation is constantly being replenished within the perfection and glory which is heaven. The high point reached in his exaltation to the right hand of the Majesty on high is everlastingly maintained as he sits there as our Lord, the Son of God Incarnate.
Therefore we ought to believe, teach and confess not only that Jesus as the Incarnate Son (the God-Man) is the perfect Revealer of God; but, also, that as the Second Adam (Man-God) he is the perfect Receiver and Recipient (for our sakes) of Revelation. Of course, at the centre of this double confession is Mystery, deep Mystery, since it involves the intercommunion in the Incarnate Son of his two natures, human and divine. At this point we cease to try to explain: we simply bow in worship and praise!
JESUS AND THE SPIRIT
All very interesting (or, perhaps, all very difficult), we might think! But what is the connection between Jesus as the Revealer and Recipient and our daily meditation upon the text of sacred Scripture? The answer begins with the special role of the Holy Spirit after the exaltation of the Lord Jesus to the right hand of the Father on high.
This is how Jesus described the role of the Spirit, whom he called the Paraclete (that is, Advocate, Counsellor). In the Gospel of John we read:
I will ask the Father and he will give you another Paraclete – to be with you always: the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, since it neither sees him nor recognizes him; but you can recognize him because he remains with you and will be within you (14:16–17).
The Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will instruct you in everything, and remind you of all that I told you (14:26).
When the Paraclete comes, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father – and whom I myself will send from the Father – he will bear witness on my behalf (15:26).
When he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin, about justice ... about condemnation.... (16:8–11).
When he comes, however, being the Spirit of truth he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own but will speak only what he hears, and will announce to you the things to come. In doing this he will give glory to me, because he will have received from me what he will announce to you. All that the Father has belongs to me. That is why I said that what he will announce to you he will have from me (16:13–15).
These significant statements testify not only to an intimate relationship between the glorified Jesus as Incarnate Son with the Holy Spirit, his Paraclete, but also to an intimate relationship between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In fact, this latter relationship is the biblical basis for the church doctrine of the Holy Trinity. These texts also indicate how apostles and disciples are to be united to Jesus Christ and thus to be the living Source of the continuing Revelation of God to his people on earth. Not that God is adding to his Revelation; but, that they would receive the Revelation in order (a) to create the Church and provide it with right teaching, worship, and order, and (b) explain it in what we now call the New Testament. At the Feast of Pentecost some fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus, the apostles and disciples experienced the extraordinary descent and arrival of the Paraclete (Acts 2) thereby fulfilling the ancient prophecy of Joel (3:1–5). His presence was experienced through wind and fire with the apostles speaking of the wonderful works of God in languages which they had never learned.
True enough, the Spirit, as Paraclete, did not achieve on that one day all that Jesus promised he would be and do. However, he did begin his work of being in and with the people of the new covenant as the Representative of the risen Lord Jesus. The totality of his work as Paraclete will only be finished at the end of the age when the Lord Jesus returns to earth to judge the living and the dead. But the important point for us to see and rejoice in today is that he is present in the Church and in our hearts now in order to complete the work of God within and without us. As the Spirit of Truth one of his tasks is to share with us, that is, to impart to our souls, that Revelation which our Lord Jesus as Man holds within his human sphere of consciousness.
Therefore, what God intends to happen in prayerful meditation upon the contents and themes of Scripture is something like this. The Lord Jesus, through the Paraclete who comes to us and acts in his name as the Spirit of Christ, pours into our minds that meaning (that is, the reception of Revelation) which he himself has seen and sees, has digested and digests, has received and is receiving. For most of the time it is a slow sharing with us, but, from time to time, the process is accelerated and we enjoy moments of great insight, uplifting and unspeakable joy.
In the case of the Old Testament it is that meaning he gained in meditation and which was both the basis of his own life and ministry and that which he shared with his apostles (see Lk 24:27). In the case of the New Testament it is that meaning which he shared with his apostles and which they expressed in their own style in the books of the New Testament. We must be clear that knowing God as Personal (Father and Saviour) today is dependent upon the Lord Jesus sharing with us in and through the Spirit that Revelation from God which is constantly and fully always present within his own human sphere of consciousness. He shares with us to the extent that we are submitted to him as Lord and in loving fellowship with him. And the sharing is that of Spirit with spirit.
This insight and knowledge to which we are referring is spiritual and moral meaning, felt in our hearts as conviction or desire, joy or peace. It is felt to be true beyond question and is to be believed, accepted and acted upon. It causes us to love God and desire to serve him the better. In the words of St Paul, it is nothing less than God’s wisdom – ‘a mysterious, hidden wisdom’ which ‘none of the rulers of this age’ know. In the words of Isaiah 64:3, quoted by Paul,
Eye has not seen, ear has not heard,
nor has it so much as dawned on man
what God has prepared for those who love him.
Yet God has revealed this heavenly wisdom to his people through the Spirit. ‘The natural man does not accept what is taught by the Spirit of God. For him, that is absurdity. He cannot come to know such teaching because it must be appraised in a spiritual way. The spiritual man, on the other hand, can appraise everything, though he himself can be appraised by no one. For, “Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ’ (1 Cor 2:14–16; but see vv. 6–16).
The conditions for receiving Revelation (wisdom) from the human side are that we are born from above (spiritually regenerate) and truly desire to be in communion with the Lord Jesus and do his will on earth. True Revelation from God to us occurs in the context of interpersonal communion and is enriched as we enter more deeply into the knowledge of what God has said and done for us (as recorded in Scripture). However, this Revelation has come and will come to many who could never offer a ‘scientific’ exegesis of the scriptural passage. The impartation of wisdom from above and the sharing with us of his mind by the Lord Jesus are related not to our proficiency in modern theology or biblical studies but to the depths of our genuine commitment to the Lord our God in trust, love and obedience. If this were not so, then thousands of faithful believers would have lived in vain!
An illustration may help to clarify what happens in meditation. In the evening you look at a flower and see its beauty. Yet there is much beauty within it that is hidden from you. So you return the next morning when the bright sun shines upon the flower. The result is amazing. The flower opens up to the sun and then you see its true beauty and marvel at the handiwork of the Creator.
Reading the text of Scripture can be like looking at a flower when the sun is not shining. Meditating upon the same text as one is in spiritual communion with the living God can be like seeing the same flower when the sun shines upon it. The Spirit of the Lord Jesus shines both into our souls and onto the sacred page, so that sharing his mind we see the text as he wants us to see it and thereby he imparts spiritual and heavenly wisdom to our minds and hearts.
This Revelation occurs only when we approach Scripture in humble confidence that in and through it by the grace of God we shall meet the true Word, the Word made flesh, even our Lord Jesus Christ. I shall say more on this theme in the next chapter. Here may I commend Theology of Revelation (1973) by Gabriel Moran to any who want to develop the theme of this chapter.
6. Confidence in Scripture
If we are to meditate upon the text of Scripture, we need to have confidence that (to say the least) this special collection of books can become for us a definite means whereby the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ speaks to us – as a Father to his children and as a King to his subjects and servants. Such confidence is most important.
When on holiday – say, in Switzerland – we study a railway timetable because we have confidence in the information it supplies about the availability, departure and arrival of trains. We also look at a route map for the roads because we believe that, if followed, it will guide us to our destination via the best of several possible ways, saving us both time and frustration. Meditation upon Scripture presupposes the supreme value of its contents. It proceeds on the assumption that they are much more important than those of the daily newspaper, the classic novel, the academic journal or the weekly magazine. It assumes that they are nothing less than messages from heaven in the words of earth and that they are basically about God’s provision of salvation for his creation. And this salvation affects not only our whole beings but also the whole of the created order in which God, by becoming incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth, has totally and redeemingly involved himself. Meditation is one of the ways appointed by God for me to hear with my inward ear this word of salvation as it particularly concerns me in my need of God’s mercy, grace and blessing.
Let us look more closely into this humble confidence required of those who will meditate fruitfully upon God’s Revelation.
We need to have confidence that God is calling us now to turn to him; and that to respond to his call is the most important response and activity of our lives. Genuine conversion has a beginning but no ending in this life, for it is the continual turning away from sin and love of the imperfect to holiness and the love of God, who is perfect in the excellency of his Majesty. Such turning occurs because we believe and know that we truly need, and God alone supplies, salvation. Eventually we shall come to love God for his own sake but our turning to him in this life is because in him alone is the answer to our prayers, hopes, longings and needs. To whom else can we turn? He has the words and the gift of eternal life.
He has created us in such a way that we cannot be truly inwardly content until we are in loving communion with him:
As the hind longs for the running waters,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
Athirst is my soul for God, the living God.
When shall I go and behold the face of God? (Ps 42:1–3).
We cannot meditate unless we have an inner conviction that we ought to turn to God; and we cannot truly pray unless we have confidence that God calls us into the enjoyment of his eternal provision of salvation.
We need to have confidence that our Lord Jesus Christ is alive for evermore and that we are to turn and come to God in, through and with him. Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life: he is God incarnate, the Word made flesh. Thus we look for no other way, no other life and no other truth. We encounter God as the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and perceive the glory of God revealed in the face of Jesus. We turn to God through Jesus, because he is the one Mediator between God and humanity. By his sacrificial death and glorious resurrection he has brought reconciliation. We come to God in Jesus for he is the Second Adam, the Representative of the new humanity; in union with him, God reckons us as united to him in life, death, resurrection, ascension and heavenly session at his right hand in glory. We approach God with Jesus for he is our Brother, flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone.
In meditation (as in worship and intercession) we address the Lord our God through, in and with our Lord Jesus Christ so that we may truly, by the Spirit, share in his perfect meditation upon God's Revelation.
We need to have confidence in the Scriptures as trustworthy, inspired and authoritative. In other words we need to recover the traditional estimate within the Church of the God of the Bible. In the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (1965), the Second Vatican Council affirmed:
Since the Scriptures are inspired by God and committed to writing once and for all time, they present God’s own Word in an unalterable form, and they make the voice of the Holy Spirit sound again and again in the words of the prophets and apostles. It follows that all the preaching of the Church, as indeed the entire Christian religion, should be nourished and ruled by sacred Scripture. In the sacred books the Father who is in heaven comes lovingly to meet his children, and talks with them. And such is the force and power of the Word of God that it can serve the Church as her support and vigour, and the children of the Church as strength for their faith, food for the soul, and a pure and lasting fount of spiritual life. Scripture verifies in the most perfect way the words: ‘The Word of God is living and active’ (Heb 4:12), and ‘is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified’ (Acts 20:32; cf. 1 Thes 2:13). Ch. 6, sect. 21.
As we have confidence in the Scriptures we must hold and believe that the saving and healing truth revealed by God will be released to us through regular meditation upon the sacred text.
INSPIRATION FROM YESTERDAY
Sometimes I sit down and imagine the life of a medieval monastery. In particular I see with my mind’s eye the monks engaged both in the reading/hearing of the Bible and in meditating on what they have read/heard/memorized. Their ideal is that of Psalm 1 where the ideal programme for the righteous person is described as ‘delighting in the law [Revelation] of the LORD’ and ‘meditating on it by night and day’.
Today we read both for pleasure and to gain information. The monks read Scripture in order to memorize it and learn it by heart (not by rote), to ‘chew’ and ‘masticate’ its contents in their minds, so as to provide fuel for the heart to pray and the will to do God’s will in the common round and daily task. The public reading of the Word of God was known as the lectio divina and the purpose was to supply the mind with heavenly material on which they could meditate and reflect as they worked in the garden or refectory, wash-house or library.
Meditation of this kind (sometimes helped by the public reading of such books as Augustine’s Expositions of the Psalms or Bernard of Clairvaux’s Sermons on the Song of Songs) was possible because there was an implicit confidence in the Scriptures as God’s written Word for his Church and world. And this confidence was not a naive or superficial one: it was based both on a carefully worked out theory of the function of Holy Scripture within the Church of God and centuries of experience of using the Bible in a devotional and prayerful way.
It was held that the Holy Spirit had guided each writer faithfully to set down what God wanted to be recorded. The meaning of the text, therefore, could not be a simple meaning, since the Holy Spirit had a meaning in mind (for future generations to appreciate) which the author could not have understood or himself intended. Thus beneath the literal (that is, the commonsense, historical, straightforward) meaning were further ‘layers’ of meaning, available only to those of a prayerful, trusting and obedient spirit.
Thus parts of the Old Testament only became fully meaningful when read in the light of the New, and some teaching in both the Old Testament and the New only made sense to those who had walked some way in holiness towards God in faith and love. It was these deeper layers of meaning that the monks (and nuns) sought to reach in their daily meditation, prayer and contemplation. It was held that as you grow deeper into the love of God your inward eyes are gradually opened, your mind is spiritually enlightened, and your will is directed by the Lord Jesus present in and by the Holy Spirit.
I am not suggesting that we return uncritically to the view of Scripture held in the ancient and medieval Church. Yet I am saying that the medieval monks had the right instinct in expecting the sacred Scriptures to become for them the means whereby the living God actually nourished their souls. In fact, we are beginning to appreciate these older approaches to Scripture rather more than was possible (for many) several decades ago. Sandra M. Schneiders has written:
In the late twentieth century, with the discovery of the serious limitations of scientific method in the humanistic sphere, the rediscovery of the power of symbolism and the ubiquity of metaphorical thinking and language, the development of a more adequate understanding of the constitutive function of imagination, and the raising of questions of language and interpretation in every field of investigation, a new appreciation of ancient biblical exegesis is also emerging. ‘Scripture and Spirituality’ in Christian Sþirituality: Origins to the Twelfth Century, eds. Bernard McGinn and John Meyendorff (1985), p. 19.
Her carefully chosen words are worth pondering and remind us of the spiritual poverty of much recent modern biblical interpretation because it has merely sought to be ‘scientific’ and ‘critical’. Without accepting the patristic and medieval theories of biblical inspiration and interpretation, we need to recover their profound appreciation of the unique quality of the sacred Scriptures because they witness to the living God.
CHALLENGE FOR TODAY
While there are still thousands of Christians who approach Scripture in the same spirit of reverence and expectancy as faithful nuns and monks of the medieval Church (or as the Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century did), there also now exist thousands who are not sure whether or not they ought to have confidence in Scripture as the Word of God. Their experience – at first or second hand – of scientific or critical biblical studies has left them rather puzzled, or cold, or confused, as to what attitude to adopt. I find this to be true of many being trained as clergy or as teachers of religious education. They find it difficult to think of the possibility of meditating upon a collection of books whose authority and inspiration they cannot fully affirm.
This state of affairs (which also affects the quality and content of preaching and teaching within the Western churches) goes some way to explain the attraction of ‘Eastern’ methods of meditation, which can bypass all the ‘problems’ of scientific and critical biblical studies. Others, who accept the ethos and conclusions of scientific biblical studies, still manage to meditate in the western way by taking a theme from the Creeds or the Liturgy or the Bible (such as the example of Jesus) and using that as a way into prayer.
We must recognize why the approach to the Bible normally followed in western universities (and thus by many within the Church) is called ‘critical’ and ‘scientific’. It is because it is not devotional but, rather, uses essentially the same methods employed by scholars who may be working on other ancient literature – for example, Egyptian, Roman, or Greek. The Bible is treated as a collection of ancient books, written over several centuries in different places and for varying religious purposes. The basic task is to ascertain what the original authors (or editors) were trying to say and what this meant in terms of their own situation and context. Thus a variety of scholarly disciplines are used to help discover what the original text meant – for instance, archaeology, anthropology, literary criticism, textual criticism and form criticism.
Take the Psalter, for example. Here the concern of modern scholarship is not to help us use the psalms as sources for daily prayer and meditations (perhaps as part of the daily offices) but rather to classify them and suggest in what circumstances they were originally used. One common way of dividing them into types is to speak of psalms that are hymns (33, 145–150), laments of the community (44, 74, 79), royal psalms (2, 18, 20, 21, 45), laments of the individual Israelite (30, 32, 138), pilgrimage songs (84, 122), thanksgivings of the community (67, 124), wisdom poems (1, 37, 73, 112) and liturgies (15, 24, 60, 75). However, it is recognized that in the last analysis each psalm defies attempts to put it too lightly into any one classification.
Take, secondly, the Gospel according to Matthew. It is now generally held that the apostle Matthew is not the author, but that the author (whoever he actually was) made use of the Gospel of Mark as well as various collections of information about Jesus and his teaching. One of these (which contained the Matthean birth stories and other material found only in this Gospel) may have originated with Matthew. It is further held that it was written for Jewish Christians and for use in the Jewish Christian Church. Jesus is presented as the second and greater Moses, the interpreter and giver of the Law of God. This doctrine lies behind the five sections of teaching (chapters 5–7, 10, 13, 18, 24–25) which correspond to the five books of Moses (Genesis to Deuteronomy). Matthew’s Gospel also places great emphasis upon the fulfillment of the prophecies of the Old Testament by Jesus, so as to convince the Jewish reader that Jesus is truly the Messiah.
Thus the scholarly interest in Matthew is taken up with the pursuit of such matters as its relationship to Mark, its literary sources, the nature of its Jewishness, the church from which the author probably came, its theology (that is, what view of Christ and of his mission and purpose is presented) and how the teaching of Jesus, presented in this Gospel, has developed, moulded and adapted in its transmission by word of mouth before being written down by the author (whoever he be). The latter inquiry (coming in the areas of form and redaction criticism) is probably most influential in causing students to lose confidence in the authority and reliability of Scripture. This is because it raises the simple but awkward question: can we really believe that Jesus did indeed say any of the things he is actually recorded to have said?
A WAY FORWARD
The best way to face problems caused by being introduced to, and immersed in, modern critical study is, in fact, to make a gallant effort to begin meditation upon Scripture, as if we did not have these problems! Of course, we could (as a few actually do) make a thorough study of the whole development of modern biblical studies in order to see its essentially secular presuppositions, but this method is not assured as a way to make us desire to meditate. It may only have the effect of raising a whole set of new questions to solve. Meanwhile we have a soul to save by bringing it into living contact with the One who is the Source of eternal life. Thus the quickest way to gain confidence in the Scriptures as God’s written Word is to use them in meditation as if they were what the Church has always confessed that they are, the inspired, faithful records of his Revelation.
In other words, we must suspend (not abandon) our scientific and critical approach, and tell ourselves that to meditate is prayerfully to open the door into the presence of God through Jesus Christ by way of the sacred text. We must come to God holding the Scriptures in our hands not as students of theology or modern biblical exegetes; but, rather, as sinners needing divine pardon, orphans looking for a heavenly Father, disciples wanting their Teacher, sheep in search of their Shepherd, as the thirsty wanting water and as the hungry wanting food, as seekers after the Truth, as pilgrims finding the Way and as the dying wishing to have eternal life.
Having suspended our critical method and adopted the devotional method, we find that much of what we have learned in the critical method actually becomes helpful as we follow the steps into meditation suggested earlier, in chapter 4. For example, the use of the imagination in picturing the scene described on the printed page is certainly enhanced through the basic knowledge gained about the customs, culture, history and geography of those times. And the use of the intellect in the actual consideration of the teaching of the text is often assisted by information recalled from the critical study of it earlier in the classroom. For example, in meditating upon the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5–7) it helps consideration to know that Matthew’s Gospel was written for Jewish Christians, that this block of teaching is the first of five such blocks which are parallel, as it were, to the five books of Moses, and that Jesus did not deliver all this teaching in one homily/sermon. Our spiritual receptivity is not such as to be able to take in all the riches of that ‘sermon’ in one hearing or one reading of it! So we are content to take a little at a time.
With respect to the particular problem raised by critical study concerning whether or not Jesus actually said most of the sentences attributed to him by the writers of the Gospels, we may claim that meditation quickly solves it. This happens because the mind that is meditating ‘sees’ and knows that if Jesus did not actually say these words while on earth he is saying these words now from heaven. That is, if the original words he said have been developed and adapted through the guidance of the Holy Spirit within the apostolic teaching, then they are still his words. For it is he who taught that the Spirit of Truth, the Paraclete, would guide the apostles into Truth, as they received from him what he wanted them to hear and know.
So, for example, it is possible that much of the stated teaching of Jesus in the Gospel of John is not exactly what Jesus said while teaching in Galilee and Judea but represents, rather, his further development of what he said given by him to the apostles either in the period of the forty days (Acts 1:3) or directly through the Holy Spirit as they served as his ambassadors and spokesmen in the days and years after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Acts 21). This consideration would apply to his deep teaching about the relationship with the Father and what he is to, and provides for, those who believe on his name. Examples of this come in virtually every chapter of John’s Gospel – for instance, 3:11–21; 5:19ff; 6:44ff; 17:1ff.
Many people are bothered by the use of the psalms both in worship and in private prayer. And they are not helped by the practice of placing square brackets around verses unacceptable for public use by modern Christians! The best brief account that I have read of the resolution of the problem is by André Louf in his Teach us to Pray (1976), where there is a chapter entitled ‘The Psalm as Response’. Having faced up to the problems raised by modern scholarship and contemporary theology concerning the psalms, he feels entirely happy in using them daily – as a monk – in the offices. He sees and uses them as that which God puts into our mouths as a response to his revealed Word to us. Thus, in the language of poetry and prayer we have in the Psalter a range of response to God who has spoken to us and speaks still.
Yet we do not pray them and meditate upon their contents as if we were Israelites of two thousand years ago. Louf explains:
The Spirit in which Jesus prayed and re-created the psalms is poured out on every baptized person, who in the same Spirit can now, like Jesus, make the psalm his own and pray it anew. For him, too, its ancient words will come alive and be fulfilled in him. All the time the Word is acquiring new dimensions. In the Spirit it is deepened in every aspect and direction, so that every tone and undertone of this Word vibrates in harmony. That is why it is of necessity a poetic word, although the ultimate dimensions of the Word far transcend the potentialities of all created poetry. For it is measured and gauged not just by the pneuma, by the vital breath of a puny and limited human being, but by the Pneuma of God himself, which creates and impels all life, and is everywhere bringing the process of salvation to its completion. Op. cit., p. 55.
The truth is that a psalm can only be a psalm (as distinct from merely an ancient document) to the degree that it is prayed anew in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.
Therefore, gradually, by sincerely practising the art of biblical meditation, we actually begin to gain a more positive, wholesome attitude to Scripture. We come to see that, as Christians of earlier generations instinctively knew, the Scripture has (as it were) layers of meaning. While one layer – the literal sense – is only fully opened for us today by the use of the scientific, critical method, other layers (relating to our communion with God and love of his name) are opened by the presence of the Spirit sharing with us the mind of Christ as we humbly and lovingly look to God through Jesus Christ.
The truth of the matter is this – and it will not go away, despite all the scientific, biblical studies – that the LORD God has decided he will speak to his people in and through the pages of sacred Scripture. And, at the personal level, the way to hear him speak his words of grace and salvation, is in meditation upon the sacred text (balanced and complemented by the hearing of the preached Word in church). There is no substitute for prayerful consideration of the words of the Bible.
7. Meditation as Prayer
In some parts of God’s Church we have become so used to talking of Bible-study and prayer that it may seem odd there to think of meditation as part of prayer, and not part of Bible-study. Certainly it is appropriate to see meditation as linking Bible-reading and prayer as long as we accept that meditation belongs more to the sphere of prayer than to study or reading. As we have seen, meditation is considering God’s written Word and opening mind, heart and will to him in order to receive what he is saying to us so that we may effectively respond. It is interpersonal communion.
In the old Catholic textbooks on prayer, meditation/mental prayer was presented as the beginnings of true prayer, the first steps of Jacob’s ladder (Gn 28:12) and the entry into the outer apartment or suite of the interior castle (St Teresa). As the first step or suite it leads into affective prayer, that is, sincere prayer from the heart made up of various strands – thanksgiving and petition, praise and intercession, confession of sins and self-offering to God. The next stage, but not without mortification of sin and self, is contemplation: this is like entering the inner part of the interior castle or climbing high up Jacob’s ladder or penetrating the cloud which covers the holy mountain (Ex 19:9).
Because these textbooks were primarily designed for clergy, nuns and monks who were required to attend the daily offices and to hear the Scriptures read, their contents urged readers not to linger in meditation and mental prayer if they felt that their hearts were stirred towards affective and contemplative prayer. This, I believe, was sensible advice to people who had opportunities to be fed by, and to learn by heart, the contents of the sacred Scriptures.
However, for those of us who do not live in religious communities, and who have to make a deliberate effort to give ourselves space and time both to hear and read the Word of God, the traditional advice has to be interpreted to meet our condition.
It is important that biblical meditation as the entry into prayerful communion with God be not in any way devalued or made to appear inferior to what has been called affective and contemplative prayer. For the quality of the prayer of the heart and the possibility of true contemplation of God are dependent in some degree upon the way in which we seek to enter into the presence of God. The way which God has appointed for all normal people and circumstances is the way of meditation upon his Word and works. Alongside the teaching and preaching ministry of the Church, this practice and discipline is the means by which our souls are fed with heavenly manna and directed Godwards in love and praise. No saint is too advanced in holiness as to be able to bypass the process of being fed and nurtured by the revealed Word of God.
Perhaps it will not be out of place here for me to express a real concern that I have. I fear that too many people today are being encouraged both on retreats and in popular teaching to begin to be silent before God before first being encouraged to allow consideration of the written Word of God to become the means of opening up the windows of their souls to heaven’s sunshine. I am not saying that people who bypass biblical meditation do not actually pray to God; and I am not against being still and quiet before God. What I am saying is that they are taking a short-cut and it will not always work; and, further, when it does work it may not work so well as it could do. My criticism is, of course, somewhat but not wholly negated in the cases where people are richly fed on Sundays and at midweek from the Bible by the ministry of the church to which they belong.
The fact is that God has chosen to reveal himself in the Word made flesh and to cause the account of this Word to become written words of Scripture. So to know God and to grow in that knowledge and relationship must include the receiving and digestion in our souls of the Revelation God has graciously given us. God will more likely speak to use from the Word made flesh by way of the Holy Spirit and through the written Word than in any other way. The meditator simply accepts this truth and waits upon God, with Bible in hand and mind. God’s Word in mind and heart moves around in the way that garments go from side to side, top to bottom in the tumble-dryer, giving its power and message to the believer, who (to change the metaphor and recall a medieval one) also ‘chews’ the Word as a cow chews the cud, extracting all its meaning and flavour. Further, the Word is like a seed of life waiting to germinate and take root in our souls and it is also like a glowing coal purifying and warming the soul.
There is another way of thinking about the entry of the Word of God through meditation into our souls, to live in mind, heart and will. It is to think of its entry and inner life within us in terms of motherhood – even the unique motherhood of Mary, mother of Jesus, who prayed, ‘Be it unto me according to thy word’ (Lk 1:38, KJV). Margaret Magdalen csмv writes:
If we compare our experience to that of motherhood, first comes the conceiving of the word. We nurture it within us, as a mother-to-be nurtures the new life within her womb. We mother it, protect it, foster and feed it, allowing it growing space. We listen to its heartbeat and its movements within, to what it is saying to us – indeed demanding of us and our obedience. And as we grow with it, changes take place in us. We find a new purpose in being, for we carry the word within. But that is not all, of course. Like Mary, at the appointed time, we bring it forth to the world, holding out the word of life that has power to save. Jesus – Man of Prayer (1987), p. 98.
We all need to pray, ‘Be it unto me according to thy word.’ Bearing in mind what I have just said, I hope I will not be misunderstood when I say that it is not wise to read (and seek to put into practice) the ways of prayer described in such books as the anonymous The Cloud of Unknowing, The Dark Night of the Soul by St John of the Cross and The Interior Castle by St Teresa of Avila until one is well into the habit and discipline of meditation upon the Scriptures. These were all written primarily for monks and nuns and do not begin where most of us actually are. We need to climb a step or two up Jacob’s ladder or get into the holy cloud (Shekinah) or cross the bridge into the interior castle before we read too much about (and, more so, begin to practise) the ascending and deepening degrees of contemplation. In fact, the beginnings of truly affective and contemplative prayer will arise naturally within disciplined and regular meditation for those who sincerely desire to commune with their God and love and praise him.
It is not wise to be too theoretical about prayer, since it is a part of an interpersonal relationship. It is both an addressing of God our Father and a listening to the Word he speaks to us in and through the Lord Jesus by the Holy Spirit. Prayer follows the general pattern of a conversation between a subject and his/her king or of a child and his/her father. Meditation is like both the careful consideration of a proclamation or statute of the king and the loving study of a moving letter from a caring father. It includes a variety of thoughts and feelings as well as types of prayer (for example, thanksgiving, confession, petition), and is intended to lead on to deeper worship and adoration, praise and thanksgiving, petition and intercession, communion and fellowship.
MEDITATING UPON THE LORD JESUS
Of course, meditation can begin from any part of Scripture and any aspect of God’s Revelation. The seventeenth-century English Anglican and Puritan writers on spirituality believed that the most important theme for meditation is upon the exalted Lord Jesus. So we find that not only is this urged (for instance, by Richard Baxter in his The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, which has often been reprinted) but also exemplified (for instance, by Dr John Owen in his Meditations upon the Glory of Christ). The tradition is, of course, much older and is found, for example, in the last book of Augustine’s City of God and is a common theme in the published Meditations of St Anselm of Canterbury. Further, the first English textbook on The Art of Meditation (1606) by Bishop Joseph Hall is really all about meditating upon the Lord Jesus Christ as he is now in heaven as our exalted King, Priest and Prophet.
The reason for this insistence (which is also found in such earlier Roman Catholic writers on meditation as Francis de Sales, Peter of Alcantara and Luis of Granada) is that Christ in glory represents the high point of God’s Revelation to mankind. Thus to fix the mind and heart upon him is to open ourselves to the greatest possibility of being addressed by God our Father in words of grace and glory. I tried to commend this approach in my Longing for the Heavenly Realm (1986), but I fear that my aim was not clearly appreciated by all my reviewers. This was, I think, partly because we have been brainwashed by the thought that if we are heavenly-minded we are no earthly use. And priority is given these days to working for ‘peace and justice’. In fact, true heavenly-mindedness is, according to the best Christian tradition, the only way to be (in God’s estimation) truly useful on earth! For it means that what we do on earth is guided by the right perspective, inspired by the love of God and is for the purpose of his everlasting Kingdom, which will one day be revealed in its fullness.
CONTEMPLATIVE AND ACTIVE
These reflections on heavenly-mindedness bring us back to think again of the relationship of a meditation/prayer/contemplation to the activity and demands of daily life. In the Introduction to this book we recalled the use of Mary and Martha in Christian tradition as symbols of the contemplative and active dimensions of the Christian life. We insisted that the active must flow from the contemplative. However, there are right and wrong ways of achieving this. Not for us is the way of the Middle Ages! There the active life was seen as so dependent upon the contemplative that the Kingdom of God on earth was viewed merely as the transitory image of the abiding, eternal Kingdom, itself the true object of contemplation. The great cathedrals were the visible expression of such contemplation and could, therefore, only be understood by those prepared to devote themselves to the contemplation of the things of heaven.
We can, however, learn much from the way St Paul reconciled the two. Writing from prison to the Christian congregation in Philippi, he told them:
I have full confidence that now as always Christ will be exalted through me, whether I live or die. For, to me, ‘life’ means Christ; hence dying is so much gain. If, on the other hand, I am to go on living in the flesh, that means productive toil for me – and I do not know which to prefer. I am strongly attracted by both: I long to be freed from this life and to be with Christ, for that is the far better thing; yet it is more urgent that I remain alive for your sakes. This fills me with confidence that I will stay with you, and persevere with you all, for your joy and your progress in the faith (1:20–25).
Here the contrast is between the fullness of contemplation of Christ in heaven and joyful service on earth (not ‘the daily distress that will one day cease’ – as portrayed in some older sermons and teaching on the active life!).
We need to look upon action (all that is involved in Christian daily living) as sharing in the spirit and value of meditation/prayer/contemplation; we need to be convinced that our ordinary lives – in the home, at business, in politics, or at leisure – contribute to the building-up of that spiritual and eternal cathedral, the heavenly Jerusalem. We must ensure that the burning desire for heaven and to be with Christ there which we feel as the result of meditation and prayer kindles our actions each day with the holy fire of eternal and divine love.
Two extremes need to be avoided. One (which is rare today) is to see meditation/prayer/contemplation as an end in itself and thus for it to have no particular relationship to daily living. The other (which is too common today) is to see meditation/prayer/contemplation as the charging of the batteries, as it were, to prepare for action: it is to feel that each exercise in meditation and prayer must have specific and direct application to particular circumstances.
Their true relation may be conveyed by the symbol of the coin, with two sides; but one side having preference because it contains the sovereign's head. And for a biblical portrayal of their relation we may turn to the sixth chapter of the Book of Isaiah. Here we find the description of the call of God to Isaiah to be his prophet to a people who would pay little attention to what he had to say. As Isaiah is caught up in contemplation of the LORD, who is adored as thrice holy, he hears the question, ‘Whom shall I send?’ and he replies, ‘Here I am, send me’ (Is 6). This experience sets the pattern of prayer realized in action, of meditation leading to service and contemplation, including suffering for the sake of righteousness.
Many people find that (as we suggested above, in chapter 3) the contemplative life has its source in the corporate experience of eucharistic worship each Sunday. Here, with brothers and sisters, we meet our Lord as he comes to us as the ascended Lord, who was crucified for us, through the signs of bread and wine. We ascend the mount of Transfiguration (Mk 9:1–9) to see Jesus in his glory and to be assured by him that we are his and he is ours and that we are to work with him and for him until we join him in the heavenly realms. And we walk with him along the road to Emmaus in order to hear him unfold to us his true identity and love for us, to watch him break bread for us and feel our hearts strangely warmed with his love (Lk 24).
Meditation is by its very nature an individual experience; but, this does not mean that it cannot be given extra and deeper dimensions by our participation in the fellowship of those who, like ourselves, are seeking to love and serve God for the sake of Jesus Christ. Food always seems to taste better when eaten in the company of people whom we care for: so also with heavenly manna. It tastes better when we digest it as those who regularly feast at Christ’s banquet on the Lord’s Day in eucharistic celebration.
The thought that we ought to see our daily meditation as intimately associated with our corporate worship on the Lord’s Day leads me on to suggest that some people will find the best way to get started on meditation is by being members of a group which is seeking to learn together. Here we must be careful because most of the existing meditation-groups or groups for contemplative prayer do not understand meditation as we have understood it in this book. There are, however, existing Bible-study groups or prayer groups which could quite easily (with general consent) become Bible-meditation groups. That is, they could read a portion of the Scriptures together, hear or discuss its basic meaning, and then either in a guided meditation or individually in silence follow the general approach outlined above in chapter 4. And the whole exercise could end with prayers of intercession, thanksgiving and self-offering. For many of us a weekly attendance in such a group (along with the inspiration of Sunday worship) will give us that extra help and determination to work hard at making our daily meditation upon Scripture a success. Further, doing it alongside others will provide opportunities for sharing both our problems and our joys.
The Focolare experience, enjoyed by many young people of different backgrounds, is to study the same Word: and then to share not only what is heard from it (that is, from the Lord) but also how it has been lived, day by day. This is a wise approach.
We may summarize what we have been saying, in this manner. The Church as the people of God and the Body of Christ is to be dedicated to contemplation and zealous in action so that within its fellowship the human is directed towards and subordinated to the divine, the visible to the invisible and action to contemplation. In this way God will be glorified and his Kingdom extended.
And we, as individual members of the one Church of God, are to engage in meditation upon God’s Word as a prelude to prayer and action. That prayer will be confession or petition or intercession or thanksgiving or praise (or a mixture of several of these). Hopefully, it will sometimes become adoration, the prayer of silence. This happens when all the faculties of the soul (as we have called mind, heart and will) are completely at peace and focused upon the Lord God through Jesus Christ, the Mediator. They are perfectly alert but not agitated in any way. This state of pure delight in God, resting in his peace, is best described through simple illustrations.
Think of the water of a pond around which are several trees. As long as there are ripples on the water the reflection of the trees in the water is vague and imprecise; but, when the water is still and the sun shines, then the reflection of the trees is perfectly clear. When the soul is still, the light of God pours into us through the Holy Spirit and we see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, and adore. Think again of the pond; but, this time, see it being disturbed by children who cause the mud at the bottom of it to rise. The result is that the water is muddy and no longer transparent. If we wait a while, the mud settles and the water is clear again. Likewise with our souls: only when they are still, cleansed from sin and open to God through having received his Word, are they clear and transparent, able and desirous of adoring the Lord.
Metropolitan Anthony writes: ‘As long as the soul is not still there can be no vision, but when stillness has brought us into the presence of God, then another sort of silence, much more absolute, intervenes: the silence of a soul that is not only still and recollected but which is overawed in an act of worship; a silence in which, as Julian of Norwich puts it, “Prayer oneth the soul to God”.’ Living Prayer, p. 109.
A FINAL MEDITATION
We close this book by offering a meditation upon one of the sublimest confessions of faith to be found anywhere in the Bible. It is contained in the Book of Isaiah and has been of great comfort and inspiration to many people over the centuries:
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary,
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.
Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint (40:28–31, KJV).
The discipline of meditation is included in the ‘waiting for the LORD’. Here is the meditation:
I have certainly known and I have truly heard that the Lord God is the Creator of the universe, having abundant life and infinite wisdom. This message has reached me in various forms since childhood. Yet there is a knowing which is neutral and inactive as well as a knowing that is positive and dynamic; further, there is a hearing with complacency and a hearing with an attentive ear.
O Lord my God, my knowing and hearing have not been as positive and attentive as they ought to have been. I have merely placed knowledge of your identity alongside other bits of knowledge instead of at the head and beginning of all knowledge. So I must consider again these great truths which Isaiah presents.
You are eternal, without beginning or ending.
You are the maker and sustainer of the vast universe.
You are the origin and source of all life and energy.
You are the origin and source of all wisdom.
My concept of you, O LORD, has been too small; my thoughts of you have been too shallow; my admiration and love of you have been too weak. I have not perceived the true dimension of your strength and I have not recognized the infinity of your understanding. And, what is more, my abject failure is compounded because (unlike Isaiah) I have the knowledge of Jesus Christ, the Lord, the Word made flesh, in whom is all life and wisdom. Open my mind and heart, O my God, so that I both want to, and can, know you.
I must confess that I find Isaiah’s picture of the young men becoming exhausted and the others being renewed in strength rather amazing. There are the young, strong and healthy young men growing weary and collapsing on their journey; and there are the rest – a mixed crowd – who, when they become weary, are renewed in strength and so continue their journey without exhaustion or collapsing. The strong and the stalwart fall and the faint and the weary are strengthened and continue their journey!
Wherein lies the secret of the strength of the weak and the power of the faint? They wait for you, O LORD! They do not wait for help and succour from their fellow travelers who are unable to offer it; they do not gain hope and strength from belief that their journey is not real and what they see and feel is but a mirage. No! They wait for and upon you as if they were at the bottom of a pit and needed a lifeline, or in a lake and needed to be pulled out of the icy water. They look unto you, not unto anything that you have made.
And how, I ask, do they wait? They do so by remembering who you are, what you have promised to your believing, covenant people, how you have often come to your people as their Redeemer and Deliverer, and what you have done for those in need who have looked unto you. They believe your Word as true and look to you to fulfill it for your glory’s sake.
I realize how easy it is to wait for this and that and only pretend to wait for you, O LORD. We wait for the next holiday, a pay rise, a new house, and for many other things: sometimes our lives are built around such hoping. But, I need to wait for you, O heavenly Father, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. I must respond to your many gracious invitations to come to you by meditating upon your words and deeds and opening my heart and mind to you in prayer. Help me, O God, to put all the waiting for this and that which characterizes ‘normal’ life into a sure second place behind waiting for you. For in you is all strength – physical and moral – and in you is all wisdom. And I need strength and wisdom.
I look forward, O LORD, to the experience of being strengthened by you when I am weary and faint; even perhaps to being so filled with your Spirit that I rise like an eagle to soar over the problems and difficulties that face me. Most of all I look forward to being able to walk daily and not to faint. The life of faith is a daily walk and I pray for strength to walk in faith, hope and love each day of my life here on earth.
Appendix A: The Jesus Prayer and Meditation
‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.’ This prayer is now used by many, not only in the Orthodox Church but also in the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches as a daily form of speaking to the Lord Jesus. Its origins are to be traced back to its use by monks of the Orthodox Church (in Egypt and Greece) in the fifth century. Its popularity in the West is, however, related to the publication of a book, The Way of a Pilgrim, the story of an anonymous Russian layman of the nineteenth century who used this prayer profusely and profoundly. I have used this prayer both in a Greek monastery (in the chapel, in the company of monks) and privately (as a way of meditation): I commend it to you.
There are many occasions during the day when we need to pray or ought to pray. When we have a few spare moments between jobs or waiting for transport the Jesus Prayer can be said sincerely and slowly. Or, in a crisis or when facing a problem, we can utter it as a cry to heaven for help. In this manner we are beginning to take seriously the command of the apostle Paul that we ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thes 5:17).
The recital of the prayer in quiet and concentration (sitting, standing, or prostrate on the ground) for ten or more minutes is the use that both naturally lends itself to meditation and functions (if God please) as the path into the deeper form of prayer which is contemplative and nondiscursive. This ‘pure’ prayer which dispenses with the imagination and discursive reason is called hesychia by the Greek Orthodox Church.
It is important that we realize that the Jesus Prayer is not a Christian mantra; it is not a rhythmic incantation where the words are not important. In saying it we do not aim to suspend all thought (as in the ‘Eastern’ use of mantras) but rather to encounter a Person, even our Lord Jesus Christ. The prayer is addressed to him and embodies a confession of faith within the context of a personal (covenant) relationship.
Writers from the Orthodox tradition explain that the Jesus Prayer functions at three levels. It is a prayer of the lips, recited aloud but not chanted. Beginners are urged to say the words slowly and faithfully, taking care over each word. In the second place it is a prayer of the mind, when the words are not recited aloud but are pronounced in the quiet of the intellect. Finally, it is a prayer of the mind in the heart, that is, of the whole person focused upon God through Jesus Christ. In this stage repetition has slowed down, for the heart is bound in a union of love and contemplation to the LORD in and through Jesus.
We can see now that the Jesus Prayer is mental prayer/meditation in both stages one and two. Further, since the right use of this prayer involves the mind concentrating upon the meaning of the words, the more we know of Christ (as he is presented in the New Testament) the better we shall be able to use the Jesus Prayer. Recalling from memory the portrait of Jesus in the four Gospels and the theology of him in the Epistles we shall be able not only to see him imaginatively with the mind’s eye but also fill his name (‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God’) with spiritual content. Also we shall be able to put content into have mercy and on me, a sinner from Christ’s teaching and that of his apostles. In this way, as we recite the Jesus Prayer our affections of gratitude, love, faith and desire will be aroused and we shall go on to pray with our minds in our hearts.
Thousands of Christians have found that they never grow out of the use of the Jesus Prayer. And the reason why they do not is, I think, obvious. The more we read and absorb the sacred Scriptures the deeper meaning we are able to put into (and ‘see’) in this prayer. Of course, if we do not nourish our souls in private reading and corporate worship (through Word and Sacrament) then we shall find that the frequent recitation of this prayer is not as spiritually productive as when we do feed our minds with God’s Truth.
Bishop Theophane the Recluse (1815–94) of the Russian Orthodox Church accurately summed up Orthodox teaching on prayer when he wrote: ‘The principal thing is to stand before God with the intellect in the heart, and to go on standing before him unceasingly day and night, until the end of life.’ Standing before God suggests a personal relationship – of child and heavenly Father, of sinner and Saviour, and of servant and Master. Standing before him in the heart suggests an attitude of sincere openness in the very centre of our being, the place where Love creates love; further, the placing of the intellect (mind) in the heart means that there is no opposition between head and heart, for both are open to, and submitted to, the Lord God. Finally, standing unceasingly suggests that prayer and relationship with God are not for the odd moment but for every moment.
Again, as we consider this definition we see that it includes mental prayer/meditation. The intellect/mind has descended into the heart, taking with it that appreciation of God’s Word and ways gained through careful consideration of, and reflection upon, the sacred Scripture.
If we decide to use the Jesus Prayer regularly in our daily times of prayer, we shall find that it can be used quite naturally after meditation upon one or another aspect of the life, character, mission, teaching, death, resurrection and exaltation of the Lord Jesus, as that is met either in the Gospels, the Epistles or the Creeds. Further, if we find that we have left our Bibles behind, or for some reason are unable to read, then this prayer is especially useful, for from our memory we can recall the content of what the Lord Jesus means to the Church and ourselves. The important point, I think, is that we fit this prayer as naturally as possible into a general method of devotions.
Perhaps this point about fitting it into a general method will gain more force if we recall the framework of spiritual development and insight into which this prayer fits in Orthodox spirituality. The path towards contemplation of, and spiritual union with, God (hesychia) is seen as having three basic strands or elements. They are not to be thought of as three steps but, rather, three essential ingredients.
First of all there is praktikē (the practical, active life). This is the practical duty of turning to God in repentance and faith through Jesus. This has a beginning (initial conversion) but no ending in this life for we are all called by God to turn afresh to him daily. We are to redirect our thoughts, desires, attitudes and actions so that they become acceptable in his sight.
In the second place, there is physikē (natural contemplation). This is to see God in all things and all things in God. It is to develop an awareness of the omnipresence and the providence of God and confess that God works in all things for our good. Further, it is to be able to read the Scriptures in such a way that their spiritual and inner meaning is grasped so that they become to us the living words of God. The Russian writer, Paul Evdokimov, put it like this: ‘The hour through which you are at present passing, the person whom you meet here and now, the task on which you are engaged at this very moment – these are always the most important in your whole life.’ Another way of describing this strand is to call it the sacrament of the present moment.
Thirdly, there is theoria (the contemplation of God). This is gazing upon God in the face of Jesus Christ in quiet and stillness, knowing that God is Mystery beyond words and images. It is to rise above concepts, words, images and discursive thinking and to be united to the LORD in love and worship, adoration and purity. This experience is a gift of God and occurs as the Christian pursues praktikē and physikē.
It hardly needs adding here that meditation upon Scripture is an important part of both praktikē and physikē. Only as the Christian knows the will of God, that which God loves and that which he hates, is he able to repent of sin and turn to the heavenly Father; and only in meditation (in contrast to academic study) does one discover the inner or spiritual meaning of the Word of God.
Finally, we may observe that the threefold way of Orthodoxy has parallels in both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Roman Catholics have traditionally spoken of the threefold way of purgation, illumination and union (following the scheme of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite [c. AD 500]), while Protestants have spoken of justification and sanctification (following the lead of Philip Melanchthon [1497–1560], the colleague of Martin Luther), or of mortification and vivification (in Calvinist/Reformed Dogmatics).
Appendix B: The Puritan Style of Meditation
As a renewal movement in the Church of the sixteenth century, Protestantism is generally perceived as possessing a tendency towards a direct sort of spirituality. The tendency is, in fact, implicit in Luther’s teaching that a sinner is accounted righteous (that is, justified) in God’s heavenly court by faith and even more so in the teaching of Calvin that the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit with the believer’s spirit makes him sure of his salvation.
Not surprisingly, the spirituality of the Puritans (those Protestants of the Church of England who believed that its reformation of doctrine and worship and polity had not gone far enough) has often been understood as the practical outworking of the basic Reformation model. So such phenomena as a dramatic conversion experience and a sudden apprehension of the truth ‘by faith’ through the direct operation of the Spirit upon the soul are seen as the key to understanding their spiritual life.1
There is, however, a growing appreciation of another side of Puritanism which does not quite fit this stereotyped portrait. It involves, among other things, the recognition that the spiritual programme of the Puritans was more concerned with the renewal of the existing order than turning the world upside down.2 The pastors who promoted it (and, let us be clear, they were the majority) can only be described as traditional: their spiritual roots went beyond the Reformation to the heart-throb of the best medieval piety.3
For mainline Puritans both in Old and New England, the Christian life was seen as progressing gradually and, it could even be said, predictably. Spiritual advancement was explained as invariably involving the patient, scrupulous and regular observance of the ‘means of grace’. And, from this observance, the devout soul would sometimes attain the higher reaches of religious experience which are characterized by an intense joy and rapture. It is to such people that the term ‘asceticism’ is applied; and it is of their spirituality that I would like briefly to delineate one of the central features.
Central to Puritan ascetical piety is the doctrine of the means of grace. According to this teaching, God does not usually work directly in the world but chooses to operate at the natural and human level. Thus, if he regenerates a soul, it is by a rational process involving the various faculties of the soul, beginning at the level of the understanding where the truth is first clearly perceived. It then proceeds to stir up the affections which in turn move the will to resolve to put the truth into practice. Since God works via the means, it is important to know what they are and how to use them. In the scores of Puritan spiritual directories (which are not unlike their contemporary Catholic counterparts) produced in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the means are carefully enumerated and enjoined as standing duties for the devout. The means are usually in two categories: the ‘private means’ including prayer, reading, meditation and conference (the private discussion of the sermon among family members), and the ‘public means’ which are hearing the Word, the Sacraments and public prayer.4 These spiritual guidebooks, furthermore, give very precise ‘daily directions’, often spelling out in great detail how each duty should be undertaken. What is most striking, however, is the sense of balance with which their robust asceticism is enjoined. While one must use the means ‘diligently’ and ‘with assiduity and constancy’ one most not depend upon them as if they possess an inherent virtue of their own. In so doing, the Puritans try to avoid two extremes represented by the ‘superstitious Papists’ on the one hand and the ‘frantic heretics’ on the other. The first relies too much on the means; the other dispenses with it altogether. Each of these ‘means’ merits careful study in itself, but space permits only a brief consideration of one of them, namely, meditation.
Contrary to popular belief, Puritan meditation does not just consist of some generalized ‘good thoughts’, nor is it solely preoccupied with introspection. To be sure, self-examination represents one kind of meditation, but the heart is only one of three ‘books’ Puritans meditate on. There are also the books of Scripture and the creatures. Meditation on the Scriptures takes on many forms. One is the direct reflection on a passage, using a number of leading questions which seek to apply its meaning to oneself, such as, Do I do it? Is it so with me? Do I believe it?5 But a more common form of meditation centres on a biblical theme or doctrine such as the glory of heaven or the love of God. Here, various intricate methods are used for informing the mind, raising the affections and resolving the will. One method which many Puritan preachers recommend was introduced by Bishop Joseph Hall in The Art of Divine Meditation in 1606. Hall’s method, however, is rather complicated and was eventually superseded by more simplified schemes such as the ‘heavenly meditation’ enjoined by Richard Baxter in his famous book, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest. Baxter makes much use of ‘consideration’ for affecting the heart deeply with the subject of meditation. For example, in order to develop a more ‘lively’ interest in heavenly things or, in Baxter’s term, to be ‘heavenly-minded’, the meditator could use some such meditation as imagining what it would be like to live his last day on earth, to sleep his last sleep, to hear his last sermon, and so on.6 For constructing the meditation, the basic rhetorical device is the soliloquy which Baxter calls ‘a preaching to oneself’. Just as in preaching one needs to have forceful applications and not merely bare exposition, so in meditation one needs to ‘enter into a serious debate with’ one’s heart, pleading with it ‘in the most moving and affecting language’ and urging it ‘with the most weighty and powerful arguments’.7
The third kind of meditation is on the creatures, which is also called occasional meditation. Since meditation is a basic means for the increase of grace and godliness, it should not be restricted to the times of the day when set religious exercises are undertaken. Rather, one must learn to reflect on various aspects of God’s creation and draw spiritual lessons therefrom in the ordinary course of life. The sight of a soaring bird, the sound of church bells, the daily routine of rising and sleeping – all these, and countless other incidents, provide rich and varied occasions for spiritual reflection. Besides the meditation on the creatures, many Puritan preachers offer collections of short, pithy sayings, each of which serves as a ‘portable meditation’ for the devout throughout the day. These aphoristic meditations are often distillations of longer ones and are functionally similar to the ‘nosegay’ of Francis de Sales. This consists of a poignant truth which the devout soul carries from his or her set meditation ‘to smell the rest of the day’.8
It is apparent from the spiritual directories that meditation is not merely one of the means of grace but the means par excellence, a means on which all others are dependent. Prayer, reading, hearing, and the Lord’s Supper, for instance, are effective only when joined with meditation. The Puritans’ ascetical piety therefore is most clearly revealed in their meditative tradition. The godly person is, above all, a meditative person, one who is ‘heavenly-minded’.
Heavenly meditation represents devotion of a higher order. It brings the meditator to the realm of spiritual experience which bears close affinity to the mysticism of St Bernard.9 Long before Baxter wrote his Saints’ Everlasting Rest we read the following from another Puritan, Robert Bolton, who speaks of the effects of meditating on the love of God:
I appeal to the conscience of the true Christian ... whether we have not sometimes, as it were, a sea of comfort rain upon his heart, in a sweet shower from heaven, and such a sensible taste of the everlasting pleasures; by the glorious presence of inward joy and peace, as if he had one foot in heaven already and with the one hand laid upon the crown of life.10
The ascetical nature of Puritan devotional life which I have only very briefly delineated contains much that is instructive, especially for those who are more exclusively inclined towards a spirituality of a more direct kind. The fact that the Puritans have shown by precept and example that traditional piety is a viable option for Protestants is itself a healthy counterpoise to all such one-sided spiritualities. More specifically, their doctrine of the means of grace may be one answer to the self-confessed lack of ‘sacramental integrity’ in much of modern evangelical Protestantism.11 Furthermore, the systematic cultivation of a life of godliness by means of a rule of life (regula vitae) offers a needed corrective to a type of super-religiosity seen in certain Charismatic circles today in which spiritual life, at best, progresses by fits and starts through sporadic ‘fillings of the Spirit’; through sudden ‘release’ and instant ‘victory’ that come by way of the ‘deliverance’ ministry; through the mindless activism of ‘being led by the Spirit’ or else the cold passivity of ‘waiting on the Lord’.
However we conceive an ideal spirituality to be – and there is certainly no one model that can satisfy everyone – it must at least have two basic qualities: coherence and comprehensiveness. The focus on Puritan asceticism may perhaps help to highlight a neglected aspect of the Protestant spiritual tradition and thereby increase the possibility of developing a more comprehensive spirituality.
NOTES TO APPENDIX B
1 For example, Geoffrey F. Nuttall, The Holy Spirit in Puritan Faith and Experience (Oxford 1946) and Richard L. Greaves, ‘The Nature of the Puritan Tradition’ in Reformation, Conformity and Dissent, edited by John Buick Knox (London 1977), pp. 255–73.
2 See Patrick Collinson, The Religion of Protestants: The Church in English Society, 1559–1625 (Oxford 1982), pp. 179, 250–51.
3 The medieval roots of Puritan spirituality have been pointed out by Gordon Rupp in ‘A Devotion of Rapture in English Puritanism’, Reformation, Conformity and Dissent, pp. 119, 126, while the ascetical nature of their piety is the subject of Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe’s book The Practice of Piety: Puritan Devotional Disciplines in Seventeenth-Century New England (Williamsburg, Virginia 1982).
4 An example of a Catholic spiritual directory is that of Luis de Granada, On Prayer and Meditation, which was popular with English Catholics in the seventeenth century. The earliest Puritan directory is Richard Roger’s Seven Treatises (1603), but the most popular is by Lewis Bayly entitled The Practice of Piety, published around 1613.
5 This is one of the methods recommended by Thomas White in his tract entitled A Method and Instructions for the Art of Divine Meditation (London 1655); pp. 132–5.
6 Richard Baxter, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest (London 1650), p. 371.
7 Ibid., pp. 749–51.
8 An Introduction to a Devout Life (ET 1613), Part ii, p. 147.
9 Bernard’s mysticism can be seen, for example, in his sermons On the Song of Songs, 4 vols., Cistercian series (Kalamazoo, Michigan 1971– ). See esp. Sermon vii, 3.
10 Robert Bolton, A Discourse Concerning the State of True Happiness, 3rd edn. (London 1614), p. 140.
11 This is one of the observations in the ‘Chicago Call’ made in a gathering of evangelical leaders in May 1977. See Richard Coleman, Issues of Theological Conflict (Grand Rapids, Michigan 1972), p. 263.
[This Appendix has been written primarily by Dr Simon Chan, assisted by Peter Toon. Dr Chan, an Assemblies of God Minister, is the author of a Ph.D thesis on Puritan Meditation completed for Cambridge University in 1986. This book is dedicated to him and his wife, Myrna.]
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