While Thomas Merton may have been the first in our time to open up to a wider audience the ancient tradition of Christian meditation, it was John Main who recovered and simplified the practice for ordinary women and men. Prior to that it was to be found mainly in contemplative monasteries.
The practice of meditation by lay men and women grew as a result of John Main’s work and led to the foundation of the World Community for Christian Meditation, led today by Laurence Freeman.
Throughout Ireland there are Christian meditation groups which, before the pandemic, met weekly in homes, parishes, hospitals, schools, and prisons, to meditate together, while, typically, those who attend such groups meditate twice each day in their own homes. Throughout the pandemic many continue to meditate in groups online through Zoom.
John Main wrote a simple prayer which is recited before the start of meditation and which reads as follows: “Heavenly Father, open our hearts to the silent presence of the Spirit of your Son. Lead us into that mysterious silence where Your love is revealed to all who call.” Over the next few articles I’d like to reflect on the depth of meaning in this simple prayer, beginning today with the opening words ‘Heavenly Father’.
The first thing to say is that the prayer as a whole is centred on the Trinity. The prayer appeals to God to reveal to us the Spirit of God’s Son who dwells within each one of us. John Main believed that when we entered the silence of meditation, we entered the flow of love between the Father and Son which he saw as the Spirit.
The initial words of the prayer, ‘Heavenly Father’, remind us that our intention in meditation is to be still in the presence of God, our Creator and acknowledges our understanding that we are God’s children. It is fundamental to our Christian understanding that we are children of God and are called into personal relationship with God. Meditation deepens that understanding and that relationship. Of course, for many people nowadays, who may never have experienced a loving father in their lives, attaching a gender to God may be unhelpful. But the Bible also speaks of “the God who gave you birth” so we may equally think of God as a loving mother. Or, simply, as love.
Referring to God as ‘Heavenly’ reminds us that God’s nature is not like ours. God is the ground of all being yet we somehow, mysteriously, participate in God’s being. And John Main believed that it is in meditation that we come to experience that reality most deeply. So those opening words ‘Heavenly Father’ serve to clarify and remind us of our intention in meditation. And intention is a distinguishing and important feature of different kinds of meditation. Intention differentiates meditation as a faith-based practice from the secular practice of meditation in mindfulness.
What makes Christian meditation distinctive is that it is Christ-centred and recognises the deep connectivity between the human spirit and the Holy Spirit. In the Christian tradition meditation is understood a form of prayer, silent, imageless, wordless prayer. We tend to think of prayer as a mental activity – hence the expression saying our prayers but prayer is “the raising of the mind and the heart to God”.
However, it is widely recognised that the Christian tradition has over-emphasised prayer as an activity of the mind rather than the heart.
But when we recite the John Main prayer at the start of meditation, we ask God to open our hearts, not our minds. So whatever we experience in meditation, it is heart-felt rather than mind-based. It moves us beyond rational thinking. It is not irrational but trans-rational, beyond the rational. It is a movement beyond mental activity about one’s relationship with the Divine, to a communion with the Divine, which Christians believe is mediated through Christ.
The important point here is that meditation is not what you think, it is about letting go of thought and allowing our hearts to be opened by God. So while it is our intention, it is God’s work – meditation is about allowing ourselves to be transformed in the silence. Meditation is more than just a practice, it is essentially about relationship. Not alone does meditation change our relationship with our thoughts, it also changes our understanding of who we are at the deepest level of our being. That new perspective changes how we see all of reality and hence our relationship with ourselves, with the Divine, with others and all of creation.
The fact that meditation is a prayer of the heart rather than the mind was captured beautifully by Alex, a twelve-year-old girl, when she said to her teacher: “When I hear the chimes at the start of meditation, I imagine it is God ringing my doorbell and I open my heart to let Him in.” I invite you now to spend some time in the stillness and silence of meditation where you can begin to experience that truth for yourself.