Mini-Course on Prayer
Part 11 – Introducing Christian Meditation
Editor’s Note: In Part 10, David Torkington concluded the first section of his prayer series by summarizing the “OUR FATHER” mnemonic, or memory jog, for daily prayer. Today, he begins the second section of his prayer series as an introduction to Christian meditation.
Authentic Christian Meditation
The whole point of authentic Christian meditation is not just to come to know and love the most divine and loveable of human beings who once walked on this earth. The truth is far more profound, for the very same Christ whom we are coming to know and love in our meditation on his life in the past, is alive and present to us here and now. He is not only near us now but, as St Augustine put it, he is ‘as close to us as we are to ourselves’. This is the meaning of the Resurrection. Love of its very nature wants union; it wants to be united with the one who it comes to love. It is not possible to be united with someone who once lived, but only with someone who is alive now. That is why, as meditation enables a person to come to know and love Jesus, as he once was, it gradually leads us into contemplation where we can be united with him as he is now, Risen and glorified. Then, in with and through him, we can be united with the Father who is our final destiny.
Nevertheless, at the beginning when we first begin to meditate on the Christ of history it may seem that we who have not known him face to face are at a disadvantage. Although that cannot be denied, we are nonetheless greatly advantaged in another way. The continual and intimate personal relationship, day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute that was not possible even to his closest disciples two thousand years ago, is open to us here and now. Getting to know Jesus while he was on earth inevitably involved coming and going, meeting and departing. Not even his nearest and dearest could be with him all the time. However, after the Resurrection all that changed. Now, raised outside the limitations of space and time, he can be with everyone at one and the same time, and furthermore he can be with us all the time, because he can be with us from the inside through love.
Wisdom from William of Saint-Thierry
The Resurrection did not mean that Jesus became transformed into some sort of disembodied spirit, other than the man who walked the highways and byways of Palestine, as he was at pains to make clear. That is why he showed the marks of his suffering to his disciples, made those who doubted touch him and shared food with them. Whatever else happened to him at his glorification, his human nature was still fully intact, as was his divine nature. If he was not exactly the same person as before, it was not because he was less of, but more of a man, because his glorification meant that all his human qualities were brought to perfection through the love that totally penetrated him through his divine nature. These qualities were refined, distilled, and transformed by the love of God who raised him from the dead. Now he can continue his work on earth through those who are prepared to receive him. William of Saint-Thierry, a Benedictine monk and a good friend of St Bernard who was his mentor, once said, “You will never love someone unless you know them, but you will never really know them unless you love them.” If you wish to go deeper into the spiritual life therefore, you have to learn first of all how to come to know and love Jesus Christ. The more you come to know him, then the more you will come to love him. The question is, how do we come to know this adorable human being now so that we can come to love him over two thousand years after he lived on earth? How do we communicate with him every day of our lives?
The Spaces between People are Bridged by Words
There is nothing mysterious about human communication. How does anyone come to know anyone else except by using words? The spaces between people are bridged by words. They enable us to find out more about them, to draw closer to them and, if they are loveable, to love them. This is why Christians have always regarded the Gospels with such reverence because they enable us to come to know and love the man who was the perfect human embodiment of God’s infinite loving. When we learn to listen to his words, we learn to listen to God. When we learn to love him, we learn to love God. When we meditate on the Gospels we enable the Christ of history not just to come alive in our imaginations and in our memories, but in every moment of our daily lives now in the twenty-first century. This is the very essence of our faith. The Christ of ancient times has now become the Christ of all times. His new transformed and transfigured body means that he can, not only be close to us every day of our lives but actually enter into us just as it enabled him to enter into the Upper Room after his Resurrection despite solid walls and bolted doors. No physical barrier can prevent him doing what he came to do, what he wishes to do more than anything else. And what is that? It is for him to enter into us now, and for us to enter into him, as he promised at the Last Supper. Please read slowly and prayerfully the whole of chapter 14 of St John’s Gospel to read about, not just what Christ wanted to do in the past, but what he wishes to do now in the present.
A Spiritual Marriage
Long before we were married to another human being we were married to Christ when his life flooded into our lives at Baptism. When Christ said that the Kingdom of God, which for us begins at baptism, is like a wedding feast, that is precisely what he meant. He does not mean that we are like the guests who will all be having a good time, but like the bride who will experience the joy of being united with him, the bridegroom. It is for this reason that the Fathers of the Church use the analogy of one of the most beautiful love poems ever to have been written, ‘The Song of Songs’ or ‘The Song of Solomon’. However, just as married life becomes a sham if the married couples stop loving one another after the marriage ceremony, the same is true of our marriage to Christ. Any happily married couple greet each other with love the moment they wake in the morning, and the love that binds them together supports and sustains them both throughout their daily life until that love is sealed with a loving kiss at the end of that day. One way or another they are continually in each other’s hearts and minds even when they are not in each other’s arms. The same must be true of our marriage with Christ and that is why, after greeting him at the beginning of our day, the morning offering can enable us to be with him and he with us at every moment of the forthcoming day, in all we say and do.
What cannot be true of our relationship with our husband and wife can be true of our relationship with Christ, because he is not only with us, but in us, and we are in him at every moment of our lives as St Paul discovered on the road to Damascus. If, although we claim to be Christians, day after day passes by without us speaking to Christ, our spiritual marriage will soon become a sham and then a scandal. Our neighbours will soon begin to think, if not to say, “If this is what Christianity does for its believers then I’ll manage very well without it.” For practising Christians the love generated in their spiritual marriage with Christ overflows into their physical marriage with their husband or wife and it overflows onto their children too. The reason why Catholic marriages have traditionally been seen as the ideal, is not so much because the couples believe in the same teachings of the Church, but that they have been brought up to practise selfless giving. This will have been learnt as they freely give their time to express their love of God in Church and in private prayer and in trying to love their neighbours, especially those in need. This selfless giving will have firstly been learnt at home through trying to love their parents and their brothers and sisters. In short, the selflessness practised for twenty years or more before their marriage to another human being is the best guarantee of a successful marriage that depends on a habit of selflessness more than on anything else. It is this that will enable the couple to generate a supernatural quality of love, not just for themselves, but for their future family too and those who will be inspired by that family.
It was this quality of love that astounded the ancient pagan world into which Christianity was born and was responsible more than anything else for the conversion of a pagan world into a Christian world in such a short time. This same quality of love can do exactly the same for the near pagan world that we live in today. All we have to do is to enable Christ to reach out to that world through us. If we only radically open ourselves to receive him then he will do the rest.
These ideas are developed further in my two major works on prayer – Wisdom from the Western Isles and Wisdom from the Christian Mystics, and Wisdom from Franciscan Italy that shows how deep contemplative prayer grows to perfection in the Life of St Francis of Assisi.
Editor’s Note: In Part 12, David Torkington will discuss going from meditation to contemplation.
Art for this post introducing Christian meditation: Im Gebet (In Prayer), F. Schurig, 1889, PD-US published before January 1, 1923; The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine of Alexandria and Saint Catherine of Siena, Ambrogio Bergognone, circa 1490, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less; both Wikimedia Commons.