Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Meditation and God's Word

I have been encouraged by a friend to write down what I have learned about how to meditate. Much of what I know about and practice with meditation is Ignatian, or a style of meditation developed and formulated by St. Ignatius of Loyola. Though I have not done too much reading about lectio divina, I think the style of meditation I describe is also very much like that, too. Exactly where what I write here, Ignatian meditation, and lectio divina overlap, I couldn't tell. But, here it is.

[Pope Benedict XVI expressed rich teaching on lectio divina in paragraphs 86-87 of his Apostolic Exhortation on the Word of the Lord, Verbum Domini.  In addition, he touched on related subjects in his Wednesday general audiences on prayer: on Free Time and Reading the Bible on August 3, 2011, and on the Prayer of Meditation on August 17, 2011.]

Meditation begins in prayer: asking the Spirit of God to guide your mind and heart so that what you perceive in meditation is exactly what God wills. I find the following prayer extremely helpful in beginning meditation:

V. Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful.
R. And enkindle in them the fire of your love.
V. Send forth your Spirit, and they shall be created.
R. And you will renew the face of the earth.
Let us pray.  O God, who have taught the hearts of the faithful
by the light of the Holy Spirit
grant that in the same Spirit we may be truly wise
and ever rejoice in his consolation.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Though not absolutely necessary, meditation is aided by the written word, most especially by God's own word - Holy Scripture - whose essence is the Divine Word Himself, our Lord Jesus Christ. Another phrase I sometimes use for meditation is to "prayerfully read" a passage from scripture or other spiritual work. By prayerfully reading it is meant that not only do we expose our intellect to the face-value content of what we are reading, but that we also come to open our hearts and souls to the idea - or "word" - which the Holy Spirit wills to speak to us through the spiritual reading. Finely tuning and utilizing our mental and spiritual faculties to listen to and incorporate into our spiritual lives what the Holy Spirit means to tell us is for the most part what meditation is.

The first point I would explore here involves the individual's developing a sensitivity to identifying when the Holy Spirit means to point out an idea, or "word", out to us as we are spiritually reading. I can describe what I do sense and know about this experience which is comparable to when a certain word or phrase "jumps out" at you when your are spiritually reading, most likely with Scripture.

A brief note: related to phenomenon of an individual's detection of an idea or message coming from without, is the Ignatian concept of discernment, whereby the individual puts to the test as it were the idea, in order to determine whether this idea is from God, oneself, or the evil one. I will attempt with my amateur ability to elaborate a bit further on this concept of discernment in a later post.

The essence of sensing when the Holy Spirit means to point out a certain word or phrase to me can be a combination of two things.

First, I would describe it as an intuition that there is more to be had from the meaning of the word, phrase, or passage I just read; this is to mean that though I know I have a firm enough intellectual grasp of the literal or general idea behind what is read, that somehow I "missed something". And, the Holy Spirit is drawing me back toward this "something" I missed in order for me to get more out of it. The idea or "word" to which I then retrace my steps and intend to delve more deeply into would be what's called in Ignatian meditation a "point" of one's meditation. However, beside being an idea which the Holy Spirit points out, a point can also be an idea the individual predetermines and brings with him or her to meditation. Examples of such points of mediation are:

1) A thelogical mystery which one wishes to understand better or simply gaze upon with the mind's eye in adoration.

2) A truth of the faith which one wishes to intellectually grasp more fully. (One does well to complement such mediation by reading Church teaching on the point.)

3) An attribute of God or our Lord Jesus with which and individual better familiarizes oneself in order to know, and thus love, our Lord better.

4) A virtue or characteristic of the spiritual life which one is inspired to learn more about in order to emulate it better.

Returning to the phenomenon of an idea "jumping out" at the individual in meditation, I would second describe the essence of this experience as an intuition that God intends to speak to me personally about the idea. With or without my knowing, this word is something I need to come to know better and incorporate into my life in order to grow. Upon reading, for example, a verse from Scripture, its message carries with it the impetus of God's voice speaking intimately to my soul. In addition, my personal sensitivity to the importance for me to internalize whatever point was just conveyed to me is all the keener when it lays bare an area of my spiritual life in which I know in my heart of hearts I need to grow. This idea from Scripture awakens a dormant area of my conscience which in turn bears me witness an area in which I need to even more fully conform how I perceive and live out my relationship with Christ to the truth of word he is speaking to me.

How one develops this sensitivity to identifying the Holy Spirit's indication of a "word" upon which he intends us to reflect comes about mainly through prayer and practice. This sensitivity for me personally is stimulated within the mind as I use the mind's faculties to delve more deeply into a point of meditation. The utilization of these faculties for me is as a movement of the mind's eye as it attempts to perceive more clearly and profoundly the meaning of the point.

I would describe this utilization of the faculties of the mind as combination of three elements:

1) - exercise of the intellect which analyzes the theological point in the attempt to articulate its meaning back to the intellect in a fashion which clarifies the point for the individual, thus making him or her more familiar with the point in question; the individual's intellect and the point of meditation become better friends.

Sometimes simple clarification of the meaning of a theological mystery is virtually impossible in light of the fact that such mysteries of the faith are infinite in their scope and identity. That being said, one can become more familiar with the mystery by attempting to intellectually analyze and learn more about it. Even as the individual comes away from meditation staggered by the understanding that he or she can barely drink a drop in the ocean of the mystery's meaning, it can be said that he or she is then paradoxically more familiar with and has a better grasp of the sublimity of the nature of theological mystery.

2) - an openness of the "mind's eye" and the "ear of the heart" to whatever the Holy Spirit would tell the individual about the meaning to be had from a point in meditation. This attempt at listening with the "ear of the heart" I would describe as an exercise of simultaneously listening for and listening to the Holy Spirit. In listening for the Holy Spirit, one does well to silence or slow down the constant movement of the mind from jumping around from one thought to another. Physical silence is also essential for this. The Holy Spirit speaks the the soul in varied ways: with images within the imagination; thoughts from without; and inclinations of the emotion which console or convict the individual in movements to guide him or her into an experience of God's loving care, or toward better acknowledgment of an area of the spiritual life needing improvement. Listening for such movements of the mind and heart require attentiveness in meditation. The exercise itself of taming one's mind into silence can even be an act of meditation - of preparing "good soil" in which God may implant His word (cf. Mk 4:20, Jas 1:21).

This second element of using the faculties of the mind relates to the first in that it is the Holy Spirit himself who clarifies or reveals to the intellect the deeper meaning to be had from a point of meditation. So, the effort to intellectually understand better a point is aided by simultaneously listening to the Spirit of God.

3) - use of the imagination. St. Ignatius of Loyala encouraged this method. He explained that one can meditate by simply imagining oneself in the presence of the Lord in one event or another recorded in the gospels. Here are three such events I can offer in which it may be fruitful for one to imagine oneself taking part:

a) Sitting at the feet of the Lord Jesus, as did the sister Mary (Luke 10:39), simply taking in all he has to speak to you.

b) To "stay with" Jesus, like the disciples in John 1:38-39, internalizing the experience of simply being with him. With regard to the idea of simply "being with" our Lord, I am reminded of something St. John Vianney said when asked what he did while spending so much time in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament: "I look at Him; and he looks at me."

c) Lying close to the breat of Jesus, as did the disciple John in John 13:23,25, enjoying the closeness to the heart of our Lord, the source of divine love.

The source of the point which the Holy Spirit leads an individual to meditate upon can vary; it may consist of an idea behind a single word, a phrase, a verse or two from Scripture, or even the overarching idea behind a whole passage of several verses. Especially when one reads a whole passage of scripture and captures the main concept behind it to serve as a context or support when then going back over and more slowly delving into more specific ideas in the passage, then this practice would more closely come to reflect an element of lectio divina. That being said, it is not necessary to identify a "point" of meditation from Holy Scripture or other reading material. One may approach meditation with a predetermined point on which to meditate, for example, on God's goodness or mercy. If such desired points meditation are too broad so as to make one feel he or she doesn't know where to start in beginning to meditate a on point, then he or she may go about finding material on their desired point of meditation. For this reason, I have many other postings on this blog about virtues or attributes of God, each post providing various Scripture passages which illustrate each specific virtue or attribute.

Furthermore, it is not guaranteed when coming to prayer with a scripture passage upon which one wishes to reflect that anything will necessarily "jump out" at the individual. One may even consider this experience as a sort of consolation in prayer. Sometimes God does not provide us with consolation in prayer to avail us of the opportunity to make the act of faith in Him as, with the help of seemingly unbeknown grace, we convict ourselves of His presence and love without needing to depend on the occurrence of consolation. Such an act of faith also trains us to direct our faith toward God, and not toward ourselves in the effort of seeking out consolations in prayer which God may or may not allow us to experience. It has been said, "We must seek the God of consolations, rather than the consolations of God."

So, in the event that one does not have any particular idea from Scripture strike one personally, or for that matter sense God speak to one a certain word in prayer, it is important to remember that God sees the effort one makes to commune with and listen to Him in prayer. Even the most seemingly dry meditation or prayer experience to the individual can give glory to God given the time and effort God sees the individual devote to Him in love. In addition, when one is meditating upon Scripture, it is also important to remember that the very words one is reading are God's. Having one particular verse or word from Scripture "jump out" at the individual may not be necessary when one could simply benefit from spending time reading and understanding a passage from Scripture. A crucial step to God's word bearing fruit in one's life is that one understands it. "As for what was sown on good soil, this is he who hears the word and understands it; he indeed bears fruit." (Mt 13:23) If one attempts to meditate upon a passage from Scripture and does not expreience any consolation of the sense of God pointing out one verse or another, the time for meditation may simply be an opportunity God is giving to lead the individual to read and understand His word. Sitting back and opening the mind and heart to recognizing the experience of reading God's word, as one of God speaking to the soul with the very words from Scripture, bears much import indeed for the spiritual life. The word of God may take root and sprout within the soul, even without the individual's knowing it (cf. Mk 4:26-27), leavening the very depths of his or her being (cf. Mt 13:33). By taking in and retaining God's word, one internalizes the Divine Word himself, Jesus Christ, who said, "If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him." (John 14:23)

If one is unsure from where in Scripture to begin drawing the content of his or her spiritual reading, I would recommend one of the four gospels as a good starting point. The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls the gospels "the heart of all the Scriptures" (125).

As the time devoted to God in meditation begins in prayer, so it ends. The individual responds to whatever idea or word was conveyed by God by talking to Him about it, for example, by thanking him for the word, and asking him to help in the individual's effort to understand or live it out better in his or her own life.

I hope these thoughts about meditation help you in any way possible. God bless.


Anonymous said...

Thank you Richard for the great lesson on meditation. You are a good writer. Clear and thorough and with depth that will bring me back for more. I really have missed your family at Five Wounds. I am also going to Our Lady. Fathers Mallow, Jeff, and Joseph have all touched my heart the past couple weeks. I hope to see you soon.

-May God continue to bless you, Fernanda, and Joseph. With my love, Blaine

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this excellent blog. It's really the best resource on the rosary I've found. Best wishes to you and continued success.

Richard said...

You're welcome.

angel said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Richard said...

Thanks. I'm glad you liked it.