What meditation involves
The fact that meditation is not widely used often leads people to assume that it is difficult, beyond the capacity of ordinary mortals, and suitable for only a small elite. Sadly it's practitioners sometimes appear to share that view! Certainly it comes more naturally to some people than others, but there is no intrinsic difficulty about it. It can be used by anyone who has sufficient desire. The only difficulty lies precisely there; to have sufficient desire. For although not difficult, it is demanding. Unlike prayers of thanksgiving or petition which can be offered as swift 'arrow' prayers, meditation requires time, quiet and concentration, and, in the early stages at least, some guidance, either from books or preferably, from someone who has already experience of it.
Cranmer wrote that we should 'read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest' and digestion cannot be hurried. Ten minutes is the absolute minimum; thirty is better, and an hour better still. And although it is possible to meditate in a crowded noisy place, most of us need to find a quiet spot where we can be free from interruption - a hillside, as Jesus did, or a bedroom, or even a church, if there is one we can visit on the way to the shops or in the office lunch hour. But, if we truly want to learn to meditate, the only thing to do is somehow to begin, despite the practical difficulties. If we wait until we are 'ready', or until it is convenient, we may wait forever. The poet Ravindranath Tagore wrote:
'The song that I came to sing remains unsung until this day,
I have spent my days in stringing and
unstringing my instrument.'
We can all recognise ourselves here!
Having found the time and place, we need to 'center down' as the Americans would say, and find a relaxed position, so that we will not be interrupted by the discomfort of our bodies. Often they will become calm more easily if we concentrate for a while on the quiet rhythm of our breathing. Then we can take a passage of scripture, or a psalm, hymn, poem or prayer, or even a single word or phrase, and repeat it slowly to ourselves with close attention. The object is not to see how much ground we can cover, but how deep we can go: Dietrich Bonhoeffer recommended spending a whole week on a single text. Then we can begin our meditation by using our intellect, focussing on the meaning of the passage, and, if necessary, looking up any difficult words or allusions in any reference book we have.
The next step is to allow our memory and imagination to bring into our minds other linked events, or experiences or associations. Suppose we have chosen a verse from Psalm 18, 'Thou also shall light my candle: the Lord, my God shall make my darkness to be light'. We might actually light a candle, and as we watch it's flame receive a clear childhood memory of singing 'Jesus bids me shine with a clear, pure light'. Or we might think of the fourth gospel, 'The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it': or of Bishop Appleton's prayer 'Give me a candle of the spirit. O God, as I go down into the deep of my own being'. In this way, by unhurriedly using all the powers of our mind, we allow the passage to disclose to us its full, deep meaning, and we reflect on what it is telling us about God, and about our own nature and our own lives. Can I accept with joy that God will light my candle? What darkness in my life, now, do I want Christ to dispel?
Finally, we make an offering of all our thoughts - and this is where meditation becomes prayer - and ask that they may be a means of grace for us, to give us clearer insights and draw us closer to God. We need then, to wait quietly in his presence, not struggling after any particular result, but simply placing ourselves in his hands. Sometimes we may know at once that something of importance has been shown to us - not necessarily something joyful: often it is something we do not much want to see, but we recognise it as truth. More often there is a feeling that we have been fed and nourished, although we cannot say precisely how. But, as with all our prayer, we are not responsible for the outcome. It is rare for us to be fully conscious of the activity of the Holy Spirit within us. But the experience of those who regularly pray in this way is that they grow in understanding of themselves and others, become less anxious and erratic in their behaviour, more trusting, a little wiser, in fact.
Reproduced with kind permission from:
Preaching on prayer