From the introduction to the “Living the Basics of Mindfulness” meditation class, at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Enid, Okla.
Why should we meditate? And how does it fit into our Christian walk? In this season of Lent, I’d liken meditation to a way for us to walk with Christ into the desert — into the quietness, the solitude and the connection to God he found in his 40 days of fasting, in which he strengthened himself for temptation, and for ministry.
The term “meditate” carries some loaded connotations in certain Christian circles, but it is important for us to understand meditation has been an essential tool not just for Eastern religions, but also for the faithful of the Old and New Testaments, for the early Mothers and Fathers of the Church, and for Jesus himself.
Various translations of the word “meditate” occur at least 23 times in the Bible: 19 in the Psalms, and 20 specifically referring to meditating on the Lord. Many other instances do not use the term meditation, but refer implicitly to seeking out that quiet, inner place where we hear God’s voice.
Perhaps the earliest reference to meditation in Scripture comes from Abraham’s son Isaac. On the evening he’s introduced to his wife Rebekah, we’re told “He went out to the field one evening to meditate, and as he looked up, he saw camels approaching.”
Isaac prayed, to ask of God. Isaac acted, to do the will of God. And in between, Isaac meditated, to hear the will of God. As has been said elsewhere, prayer is talking to God; meditation is listening to God. The Bible doesn’t mention Abraham meditating, but Isaac had to learn that practice somewhere, and it’s likely he learned it from his father — at the root of our faith.
Later, Joshua tells us “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night.” (Joshua 1:8)
In Jeremiah 33, God tells the prophet “‘Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.’” Great and unsearchable things — these are what we seek when we go into the quiet space of meditation.
David, who had plenty of alone time on his hands as a shepherd and in his fleeing from Saul, mentions meditation more than any other source in Scripture, usually in the form of meditating on God’s works: “Therefore my spirit is overwhelmed within me; my heart is appalled within me. I remember the days of old; I meditate [hagah] on all Your doings; I muse on the work of Your hands.” (Psalm 143:4-5)
But, what of Jesus? We don’t see explicit use of the word “meditate” with Jesus, like we do with Isaac, David and others in the Old Testament. But, when Jesus tells us how to pray, it sounds a lot like meditation: “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:6)
Many say the reward we get is the Word of God, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, that we hear and discern in that still, quiet space.
And we see Jesus practicing this still, quiet form of prayer repeatedly in the Gospels:
Matthew 14:23 After He had sent the crowds away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray; and when it was evening, He was there alone.
Mark 6:46 After bidding them farewell, He left for the mountain to pray.
Luke 6:12 It was at this time that He went off to the mountain to pray, and He spent the whole night in prayer to God.
Mark 1:35 In the early morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house, and went away to a secluded place, and was praying there.
Luke 5:16 But Jesus Himself would often slip away to the wilderness and pray.
And, perhaps the greatest example, comes at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, immediately after his Baptism, when he heads into the desert to fast and pray, in solitude and silence.
If we’ll follow him there, into that still, quiet space, he promises we will hear: “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” John 14:26
The early Desert Fathers and Mothers, ascetic monks, began to literally follow Jesus into the desert in the third century. They wanted that quiet solitude to pray, and to listen. They sought God in the quiet of the desert, and ultimately, in the quiet of their hearts.
Not many of us can disappear into the desert for weeks or years on end. But, we can slip into the quiet space of our inner being — that quiet place where Christ tells us the Kingdom of Heaven already resides. And Christians, today, do this through many methods.
Lectio divina, the old form of focused meditation on Scripture, has been practiced since the fourth century. Catholics and some Anglicans use the Rosary as a means to quiet the mind and hear within. Orthodox Christians meditate in the quietness they find behind the words of the Jesus Prayer — “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
But, it’s not just Catholic, Orthodox and other liturgical traditions. Rick Warren, a Southern Baptist pastor and author of “The Purpose Driven Life,” describes meditation this way: “Meditation is focused thinking. It takes serious effort. You select a verse and reflect on it over and over in your mind…if you know how to worry, you already know how to meditate.”
“No other habit can do more to transform your life and make you more like Jesus than daily reflection on Scripture,” Warren writes. “If you look up all the times God speaks about meditation in the Bible, you will amazed at the benefits He has promised to those who take the time to reflect on His Word throughout the day.”
Dr. Bruce Demarest, an Evangelical author and seminary professor writes, “A quieted heart is our best preparation for all this work of God…Meditation refocuses us from ourselves and from the world so that we reflect on God’s Word, His nature, His abilities, and His works…So we prayerfully ponder, muse, and ‘chew’ the words of Scripture….The goal is simply to permit the Holy Spirit to activate the life-giving Word of God.”
Will a Catholic, an Orthodox Christian, a Baptist, a Presbyterian, a Buddhist, a Muslim and an atheist all approach meditation in the same way? Or practice it in the same way? Probably not. But they all — we all — can benefit from finding a meditation practice that takes us into that still, quiet space within — into our spiritual desert. And, for those of us who approach this as a faith exercise, it is there we draw closer to God.