The tradition and practice of Christian Meditation - 3
Laurence Freeman continues: “The great theological minds and spiritual teachers of the modern era – Rahner, Balthasar, Lonergan, Merton, Main, Griffiths
– have taken a decidedly mystical approach to the crisis of Christianity in a secular world. Successive popes - during and since the Council - have placed the recovery of a contemplative dimension of the faith at the heart of their pastoral agenda.
Contemplation had come to be regarded as a specialized vocation in the church. It was seen as a special call of God to a small elite and was usually lived out in a cloister – although great luminaries like Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Siena or the Beguines of Northern Europe declined to be conventional monastics and lived out their mystical vision close to the people and in daily contact with the world.
Today we are at a culminating point in the recovery of this contemplative tradition of Christian faith and one that is restoring it to its proper place in the Christian vocation – the universal call to holiness as the Council called it that touches monastic, lay and secular states equally. In the teaching of Christian meditation to children we see a beautiful and logical development of this process as well as a sign of radical hope for the church of the future.
I would like to offer an overview of this tradition and describe a particular simple practice of contemplative prayer, rooted in the tradition, which embodies it in a way that proves how universal it is.
It is not irrelevant that meditation is as old as recorded humanity. The first references to it come from India about 2500 BC. It is central to the teaching of the Buddha. Judaism had its tradition of mystical prayer. It characterizes the spiritual revolution of the axial Age – the era of Confucius, Lao Tsu, Buddha, the Hebrew prophets. Jesus emerges as the culmination of this breakthrough in the evolution of human consciousness. But let us begin where the Christian tradition begins with the teaching of Jesus. What he says about prayer shows what kind of teacher he was.
Jesus was clearly a teacher of contemplation. He was a deeply religious man and yet drew attention to the difference between man-made rules and the law of God. He summarized morality in the commandment of love and he spoke of prayer in terms of interiority and presence. He placed this contemplative teaching beside the injunction to love one’s enemies – moral and spiritual, the mystical and political are thus united in his teaching.
Every developed culture has produced some form of monastic life. The emergence of the Christian monastic movement happened early but became prominent in the near East – in Egypt and Syria from the 4th century. The sayings of the desert fathers, their distilled spiritual wisdom, still provide a radical basis for an applied spirituality of great contemporary appeal to the young especially. They eschewed clericalism and intellectualism and those model for us a church that gives due significance to laity and contemplation. The influence of the Christian desert was funnelled into the western church through the Conferences of John Cassian in the 5th century. They are one of the foundations of Christian spirituality and Aquinas kept them on his desk while he wrote the Summa. Benedict had them read daily in the monastery at meals.
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