Friday, August 27, 2010

Is It Dangerous To Meditate?

Twice in the last month I had to defend my practice of contemplative prayer to well meaning Christians who looked at me like I had two heads and asked "isn't that dangerous?" No matter how much I argued to the contrary, they weren’t buying into the historically well supported benefits and basis for this type of prayer. It is so unfortunate that so many Christians are suspicious and make claims against meditation and contemplative prayer because it keeps people from participating in these transformative practices.

There are two paths that God will lead us on that help to transform our lives and make us more Godly; prayer, and suffering. One could argue that there is a third path as well, which is loving, unselfish service. The point is: by demonizing meditation, especially Christian meditation and contemplative prayer, we are keeping people from a deeper relationship with God and to a way of life that He may be calling them too.

It helps to realize that Christian meditation and contemplation differ from Eastern religious forms of meditation. In Christian meditation we take a scripture verse, poem, or attribute of God and ask God to help us understand it in a deeper way and apply it to our lives. We may do this by repeating it, or reading it several times, and mining it for deeper meaning and application with God's help (it’s “all gift!”). When practicing Christian contemplation we open ourselves up to God's presence. By faith we sit still and rest both our minds and our bodies. We don't stop thinking (which is nearly an impossible thing to do anyway), but we do let our thoughts pass as we gently return our gaze and attention to the presence of God. As Jackie Pullinger, the well known missionary to Hong Kong's gangs and drug addicts explains her practice of prayer, we "Son bathe." Again, contemplative prayer is a gift from God.

Eastern meditation doesn't necessarily differentiate between contemplation and meditation, and of course it isn't based on a relationship with God that is entered into through faith in Jesus Christ. They lump contemplation and meditation all together under the heading of “meditation.” I'm not going to go into Eastern practices of meditation, but I do want to make the point that prayer and meditation have been practiced by Jews and Christians for thousands of years. The Jewish and Christian practice of prayer is as old as Abraham, and has been practiced by the church in all sorts of ways since the death and resurrection of Jesus to the present day. There may be Christians practicing Eastern forms of meditation, but that’s not what I am talking about here. When we practice Christian meditation and contemplation, as it has been passed down to us by our Christian forefathers and mothers for a couple thousand years, we are not copying Eastern religions.

The Jesus Prayer for example can be traced back to when the early Egyptian contemplatives made the observation that Jesus didn't get into a big argument with the Devil during his temptation in the desert, but simply quoted scripture (Mt. 4:1-11). Out of that came repeating scripture, and eventually the Jesus prayer, which was to be repeated in times of prayer and when one experiences temptation or afflictive thoughts and emotions. "Jesus, Son of the living God, have mercy on me a sinner." Could there be a more spiritually healthy practice than this? From a Christian perspective, this is the root, or the foundation of Christian meditation and contemplation. In the words of one ancient Saint “’No one’ it is written, ‘can say “Lord Jesus” except the Holy Spirit.”* (1Cor 12:3)

As we follow God down the path of Christian meditation and contemplation, over many months and years, we will be transformed and we will begin to see spiritual fruit. We will we have a greater desire to serve others, and we will become more patient, and loving. We will become less anxious, and gradually, our identity will come from a loving God and not our egos, or who anyone else says we are. This fruit will almost inexplicably come from “inside the cup.” (Luke 11.39)

Are there dangers to these Christian practices of prayer? Sure there are, just as there are dangers to almost any Christian practice that is entered into outside of Christian community and to excess. Personally, I wouldn't practice this type of prayer alone, and I wouldn’t practice it unless you have a sense that God is leading you down this path of prayer to deepen your relationship with Him. I would find a Christian who understands the process of Christian transformation and has gone through it in a deep way themselves. By its very nature Godly transformation is going to require that we deal with our character flaws and the abuse we have experienced in our lives, or done to others. As we practice Christian contemplative prayer these issues are undoubtedly going to surface as we open ourselves up to God without our normal distractions, religious or otherwise, so ask God to help you find support if you don’t have any.

If you believe God is leading you down the path to a life of prayer, please don't let the fears and claims of other Christians, no matter how well intentioned they might be, keep you from the gift of prayer and these wonderful, life giving, cross bearing, practices.

*”Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation” by Martin Laird, page 51.

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