The Bible refers to meditation many times, yet today it is a word more associated with Eastern religions. So what does Christian meditation look like, and can it help us deepen our relationship with God?
It was something of a surprise to watch an atheist having a profound spiritual encounter with Jesus on prime-time TV. But that’s what happened on The Big Silence, a BBC programme following five British people on a silent Jesuit retreat that aired last year.
The programme demonstrated the ancient traditions of Christian meditation, and their potential to bring us closer to God by escaping from the busy, cluttered Western lifestyles that we tend to lead. All five people had spiritual experiences of some kind, although not all of them came to Jesus as a result. The series showed them struggling with staying silent for a week, and yet finding God in the silence. Meditation is a word more identified today with Eastern religions and the New Age, which has meant that evangelical Christians have often avoided the subject. And some liberal Christians do use Buddhist-inspired meditative practices, which many believers would want to avoid.
Yet there is a strong meditative tradition within Christianity. It has very different aims to Buddhism and other Eastern religions, and its history is solely within the Christian faith, particularly within monasticism. Its advocates say it helps Christians to deepen their faith and to hear God speaking to them – and it has even led to healings of incurable conditions. ‘It’s a historical spiritual treasure in the Church,’ says Liz Babbs, author of Into God’s Presence (Zondervan). ‘It came through the monastic tradition, but it comes straight from Jesus.’ The Psalms have many references to meditation on God’s word, on God’s love, on what God has done. Jesus takes himself away from crowds and noise to pray, and faces his time of temptation in the desert. And the famous verse in Psalm 46 that directs, ‘Be still, and know that I am God’ has long been used to help Christians quietly wait on God’s presence. Jesus also explicitly advises quiet prayer, or prayer with few words, in Matthew 6.
‘When [evangelicals] think of meditation, the only thing they can connect the word with is Eastern meditation, so it makes them nervous,’ says Mark Virkler, author of Dialogue with God (Bridge Logos Foundation). ‘They need to be taught that meditation is a biblical word. It is used about 20 times in the Bible. Then they become comfortable with it as a biblical word.’
Those who practise Christian meditation say there is a fundamental difference between what they do and Eastern practices: they are seeking to encounter the living God through Jesus, rather than emptying the mind for the sake of it. ‘The focus is not stillness… the focus is a divine encounter and receiving the Father’s initiatives as John did in Revelation 1:10–11,’ says Virkler.
‘Stillness is on the path to divine encounter, but it is not the goal. It is an important distinction, because what you focus on you hit. If you focus on stillness, you hit that. If you fix your eyes on Jesus, you come to him. There are big differences between Christianity and other forms of mysticism.’
Surrender and spiritual growth
Meditation can also lead to greater surrender to Jesus and losing ‘self’, replacing it with God’s love and will for us. ‘It’s about letting go into God, it’s about surrender,’ says Babbs. ‘And that’s scary for some. But the more you abandon yourself, the deeper you can go into God. You get to know more of God’s love, his presence, and over time you do have that 24/7 presence of God being with you. I know he’s always there.’ Most Christian meditation draws on the experience of the ‘desert fathers’, a group of monks and hermits who lived in the Egyptian desert in the third century, who steeped themselves in scripture and sought to follow Jesus’ teachings. They formed communities that were precedents to monasteries in this early period of Christian history, and daily meditated in silence and on scripture.
The early monks tried to live out lives of poverty and love for their brothers and used meditation to seek God and follow his teachings. Today, it can also help to shift long-held behaviour patterns and lead to spiritual growth. ‘The outcome of touching the indwelling of Christ is the fruits of the Spirit,’ says Kim Nataraja, international coordinator for the World Community for Christian Meditation. ‘People find that slowly over time people tell them, “My goodness, you are so much more patient!”, and other people tell them they have changed. ‘All types of deep prayer have this transformative effect in your life because you touch love at its centre, so that touches you and changes your behaviour.
When you understand there is Christ within me but also within other people, your whole way of dealing with people becomes more caring and more understanding.’ Virkler uses meditation to hear God’s voice and receive guidance in his daily life. When he started, he was challenged to change his behaviour towards the people around him, when Jesus told him 50 times to love his wife more. ‘Patti says our marriage improved because I started to honour her and accept her the way she was,’ he says. ‘All of my inner personal relationships improved… Because I received wonderful counsel from the wonderful counsellor.’
Penelope Wilcock is an author of Christian books who attends Quaker meetings to practise silence, but holds orthodox Christian beliefs. ‘In seeking silence and solitude, I am seeking to nurture and protect the word of God’s spirit in my heart,’ she says. ‘It is very important to me as a Christian writer to offer people the heart of the gospel, which is about hope and integrity and gentleness. Those things are chased out by too much busyness.’
When Babbs started to use Christian meditation techniques from Christian counsellor and author Joyce Huggett, she heard God telling her she was going to be healed of the debilitating fatigue illness that she suffered from. ‘It was how I was healed from ME,’ she says. ‘I didn’t understand what [meditation] was. But I tried it, and I started to hear this still small voice – I thought I was going mad at first. When I started to hear God’s voice for the first time, he told me he was going to heal me from ME.’
It also led to a deeper relationship with Jesus – and guidance into a new career. ‘It led to a radical transformation of my prayer life,’ she says. ‘It led to me becoming an author. The deeper we can get into God through prayer, the more likely we are to do what is God-led rather than led by ourselves. ‘It totally transformed my prayer life and relationship with God; it revitalised it. It has given me so much love and passion for God that however boring a church service I go to, it doesn’t diminish my relationship with God.’
While it is beneficial for Christians who already have faith, it was interesting that meditation and silence also had a profound effect on people who did not, in The Big Silence. One participant used basic spiritual practices given to them by the Jesuits and found something deeper when he experienced Jesus walking with him, and talking with him. ‘He had no time for religion,’ says Brendan Callaghan, a psychologist and Jesuit spiritual director, who featured on The Big Silence.
‘He was quite surprised to find himself going for a walk with Jesus and talking conversationally in this way. He found maybe he believed things he didn’t know he believed. I think he thought he knew what the retreat was going to be like, but God surprised him.’ A Christian on the programme found she made progress in dealing with her grief, while another lapsed Christian found herself going back to church. In workshops on Christian meditation, Babbs has also found that it can be an effective evangelism tool, particularly for people who are spiritually seeking. ‘There are people searching out there,’ she says. ‘Some of the most receptive…are not Christians, and some [non- Christians] have encountered Christ.’
Meditating on scripture
Meditation can be used to engage more deeply with scripture. Professor of theology, Martin Laird, in his book Into the Silent Land (Darton, Longman Todd), advocates using Bible verses that are relevant for any difficulty we are facing. For example, if we are struggling with anger, focus on Genesis 45:24, or if we are feeling sad, focus on 2 Corinthians 5:17. One ancient practice – lectio divina – uses meditation to gain a deeper understanding of scripture and explore how it is relevant to individual lives.
‘Lectio divina is not only about learning to read prayerfully, but to do so with our minds and hearts open to God, as if he were reading his words to us,’ says David Foster in his book, Reading with God (Continuum). Lectio divina involves deeply meditating on a verse in scripture, but this is different to a ‘mantra’, according to Foster. He argues that a mantra would be incidental, but when using scripture in meditation we are seeking to connect with its meaning, what God is saying to us – which can lead us into wonder and awe at the word, and to a place of further surrender to God.
Some advocates of Christian meditation do mix Buddhist or Yogic practices and belief into their spirituality, while others have a Catholic heritage. Those of a Catholic persuasion are unlikely to use Eastern practices as the Pope has spoken against this.
But in any situation, for example while on a retreat, Virkler says the way we can ensure we are being doctrinally sound is to ensure there is a biblical pattern for what is being taught. He took his meditative methods from the prophet’s description of encountering God in Habakkuk 2: being open to God’s voice, being still and quieting your mind (through visualising Jesus) and then writing down what happens. He also warns that if we hear God’s voice through meditation, we must check what we hear with other mature Christians and also in the light of scripture, and reject it if it deviates from biblical teaching in any way.
‘Asking two or three spiritual directors keeps it from getting wacky or crazy,’ he says. And while some Christian organisations, such as the WCCM, seem warmer towards Eastern practices, they do distinguish themselves from those religions. ‘Christian meditation appears similar [to Buddhism] but it is completely different,’ says Nataraja. ‘What makes it Christian is our faith that the kingdom of God is within us and that God is love. ‘The whole idea is that when we get into deep contemplative prayer, it is the risen Christ that is within us. It transforms our lives, because we touch the indwelling Christ, and God is love.’