CHRISTIAN MEDITATION: A BASIC GUIDE - Part 2: More Reasons Why Christian Meditation is Different
In Part-Two of this series, we will look at how the focus and goal of Christian meditation is quite different than Eastern non-Christian meditation.
Interest in meditation has been growing for some time, as a form of relaxation, a spiritual practice, a mental health prescription, or as a tool to help manage chronic pain.
Meditation can indeed be beneficial for our overall health. But are all forms of meditation equal? Can meditation be harmful? What is Christian meditation? How does it differ from other popular forms of meditation? This three-part series will attempt to answer these questions, and summarize and simplify the Vatican, Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation. This document, written by Pope Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, provides a good outline of Church teaching on the matter. Note: From now on I will refer to this document using the acronym, OSACM.
In Part-One, we looked at some of the ways Christian meditation differs from other forms of eastern non-Christian meditation (we will now refer to it as ENC). We looked at how ENC meditation techniques focus on the self, while Christian meditation is Christ-centered. We also touched on the fact that the goal of ENC meditation is union with or immersion into the divine (within oneself), and how this differs from how we as Christians seek union with the will of our Trinitarian God.
ENC forms of meditation usually focus on emptying the mind, with the goal of reaching mystical states and on escape from suffering. The ultimate goal is to eventually achieve enlightenment or Nirvana, and/or to be freed from reincarnation (ie. cyclical suffering). In Part-Two of this series, we will look at how the focus and goal of Christian meditation is quite different.
“Ok,” you might be saying to yourself, “but what can be wrong with emptying the mind, with trying to reach mystical or alternate states of consciousness, or with seeking escape from suffering? Are these ideas really out of sync with Christianity?” Well, while we again use similar language in that, as Christians, we seek to “empty ourselves,” this is not the same as emptying our minds. As Christians, we meditate not to leave ourselves empty, but to fill ourselves with Christ. We do not actually want to empty our minds and focus on the self during meditation. Scripture warns us against doing this (see Matthew 12:43-45)¹. Instead, what we can to do is quiet or calm our minds so that we can contemplate the things of God. The Christian understanding of “emptying” involves ridding ourselves of our selfish and unhealthy desires, so that we can more fully focus on Christ. We seek to give ourselves completely to God, so that He may fill us with His Spirit.
In the case of seeking alternate states of consciousness or mystical experiences, as Christians, we understand that there are no methods to follow that will guarantee mystical graces, but that these are always an unmerited gift from God, to those He has chosen, for the good of His Church. “The Christian who prays can, if God so wishes, come to a particular experience of union. The Sacraments, especially Baptism and the Eucharist, are the objective beginning of the union of the Christian with God. Upon this foundation, the person who prays can be called, by a special grace of the Spirit, to that specific type of union with God, which in Christian terms is called mystical.”²
So contemplation is in its essence a gift from God, a gift of intimate knowledge of our Father, God, through Jesus Christ. It is a deepening of our relationship with Christ…it draws us closer to Him and reveals to our souls the depths of His Truth. However, “Genuine Christian mysticism has nothing to do with technique: it is always a gift of God, and the one who benefits from it knows himself to be unworthy.”
Obviously, the concept of reincarnation is not compatible with Christian revelation, as we believe in heaven and hell, and in the Resurrection. However, let’s address the escape from suffering. Christians acknowledge the inevitability of suffering, as do the eastern religions. No one enjoys suffering, but escape from suffering is contrary to Christ’s instruction to take up our cross and follow in His footsteps (Matthew 10:38, 3 Matthew 16:24, 4 Mark 8:34, 5 Luke 9:23, 6 Luke 14:27 7). As Christians, we accept our cross, our suffering, and we unite it with the cross of Christ for the good of His Church. We believe our suffering has meaning and that Christ accompanies us in our times of trouble. Our suffering can actually bring us closer to Christ and advance our spiritual lives. Therefore, we should not run from suffering. Instead, we can remain faithful, bearing our cross as Christ did for us, and trust in Him and in the Resurrection.
Alright, at this point you might be thinking, “So should we reject something, just because it is not Christian?” The answer is no. As the document, OSACM, stipulates. “The majority of the great religions which have sought union with God in prayer have also pointed out ways to achieve it. Just as ‘the Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions,’ neither should these ways be rejected out of hand simply because they are not Christian. On the contrary, one can take from them what is useful so long as the Christian conception of prayer, its logic and requirements are never obscured.”²
It is not harmful to us use natural breathing to quiet (not empty) our minds and relax our bodies. This is not Christian meditation, as simply breathing does not necessitate prayer. However, we can use this relaxation technique to help us better focus on God during the practice of Christian meditation, as Saint Teresa of Avila recommends in what she terms, “The Prayer of Recollection.”
So, we can acknowledge what is good and true in other religions, but we need to be careful not to injure our relationship with Christ with false forms of prayer and worship. The document, OSACM, specifies that, “even in the first centuries of the Church some incorrect forms of prayer crept in. Some New Testament texts (cf. 1 Jn 4:3; 1 Tim 1:3-7 and 4:3-4) already give hints of their existence.”²
According to the document, OSACM, these “incorrect forms” generally fall into two categories and tempt us in our pride to “try and overcome the distance separating creature from Creator, as though there ought not to be such a distance; to consider the way of Christ on earth, by which he wishes to lead us to the Father, as something now surpassed; to bring down to the level of natural psychology what has been regarded as pure grace, considering it instead as ‘superior knowledge’ or as ‘experience’.”²
The document continues saying, “such erroneous forms, having reappeared in history from time to time on the fringes of the Church's prayer, seem once more to impress many Christians, appealing to them as a kind of remedy, be it psychological or spiritual, or as a quick way of finding God.”²
Unfortunately, these “erroneous forms” of meditation are not neutral and can also cause harm. This is acknowledged in books on Eastern medicine that address “meditation disorders.” Likewise, often linked to eastern meditation are unnatural breath practices aimed at producing mystical experiences. Some of these breathing techniques have been shown to cause harm to the nervous system. There are no concerning side effects to Christian meditation.
Now that we have a good understanding of the differences between Christian meditation and other forms of meditation, perhaps a basic guide on how to practice Christian meditation would be helpful, so that we can avoid these errors and the possible concerning side effects. This is what we will do in Part-Three of this summary of the Vatican, Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation. Until then…
Your sister in Christ,
Foundation 1 Pietra Fitness Instructor
Christian Meditation: A Basic Guide Part 1
Christian Meditation: A Basic Guide Part 3
Jocelyne DeGroot is a Canadian homeschooling mom, member of the Order of Secular Discalced Carmelites, and co-founder of freetruth.ca, where she shares free and faithful Catholic online resources. Jocelyne’s favorite pastimes include writing, kayaking, camping, and curling up with a good book. She is also the first Certified Pietra Fitness Instructor in Canada!
1 “And when an unclean spirit is gone out of a man he walketh through dry places seeking rest, and findeth none.  Then he saith: I will return into my house from whence I came out. And coming he findeth it empty, swept, and garnished.  Then he goeth, and taketh with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is made worse than the first. So shall it be also to this wicked generation.” (RHE)
2 Ratzinger, Joseph. Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation. http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19891015_meditazione-cristiana_en.html. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Rome. [online] 1989.
3 “And he that taketh not up his cross, and followeth me, is not worthy of me.” (RHE)
4 “Then Jesus said to his disciples: If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” (RHE)
5 “And calling the multitude together with his disciples, he said to them: If any man will follow me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” (RHE)
6 “And he said to all: If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.” (RHE)
7 “And whosoever doth not carry his cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple.” (RHE)