In 1989, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith sent a letter to the bishops of the world on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation. In that letter, the congregation criticized some approaches to prayer which might seem to provide a shortcut to God.
It said that while forms of meditation which have grown out of Eastern religions should not be rejected out of hand, these methods must be "subjected to a thoroughgoing examination." The congregation emphasized the central place of Jesus in prayer, that one should be skeptical of forms of meditation which ignore Jesus or treat Jesus as just one of many ways to reach God.
And it emphasized "Genuine Christian mysticism has nothing to do with technique: It is always a gift of God" (no. 23). Prayer should not presume that there is no distance between God and the human person. God is infinitely greater than humanity and the only way to bridge that gap is by action on the part of God, not by anything that people can do.
So what then is meditation and why should one meditate? The Catechism of the Catholic Church says one should meditate "to adhere and respond to what the Lord is asking" (no. 2705). That is, the person meditating seeks to know God's will for him or herself.
Meditation involves an intellectual process, a process of coming to know something which was previously unknown. It is not a matter of losing oneself in a formless void. One comes to this discovery by engaging "thought, imagination, emotion and desire" (no. 2708).
Meditation is not introspection. It is motivated by the love of God and aspires to increase that love by knowing and resolving to do what God wills.
Meditation has content. Its content may be some episode from the life of Jesus or the saints, a psalm, a spiritual book or the liturgy.
Generally speaking, it begins with a period of quiet and with reading, then often employs the imagination on a matter raised in the reading, then reflects on the personal significance of this, engages in a conversation with God and then makes some practical resolution. Usually meditation will end with some vocal prayer such as the Our Father or a spontaneous outpouring of thanks.
Many types of material can provide the content for the meditation. One very good source is the mysteries of the rosary. The rosary is sometimes put down by those who don't understand it. But serious mediation on these 15 mysteries will lead one to overcome sentimental Christianity.
Take the so-called joyful mysteries, for example. These mysteries say much to the life of the devout Christian and are joyful in a different way than that understood by the secular world.
The cornerstone of the joyful mysteries, if not the whole rosary, is the first mystery _ the Annunciation. Mary hears God's will for her from the angel and unreservedly accepts it. "Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word" (Luke 1:38). This willingness to have one's life directed by the Lord is the key to any Christian life.
The first fruit of Mary's acceptance is seen in the second mystery _ the Visitation. Mary's spirit is greatly consoled, she is experiencing the first fervor of faith. And she is acclaimed by her cousin Elizabeth, "Blessed are you among women."
This motif continues in the third mystery _ the Nativity. Again, Mary experiences great consolation. But a new element emerges _ poverty. The great king is born, not amidst wealth, but in a stable. And he is adored first, not by the media and celebrities of the day, but by the lowest of the low, the shepherds. Worldly comforts will not be part of this kingdom; hardship will be one of its characteristics.
The fourth mystery _ the Presentation _ again presents this seemingly mixed message. Two holy people acclaim this baby as Israel's redeemer. But Simeon says it will not be easy for the child and warns Mary, "a sword will pierce your own soul too" (Luke 2:35).
The fifth mystery _ the Finding of Jesus in the Temple _ again points to the pain experienced by Jesus' followers. His father and mother are distraught as Jesus disappears and they are unable to find him for days.
In these joyful mysteries, we see the path of our own faith _ consolation and joy, yes, but also poverty, suffering and even the inability to find the very person for whom one is making these sacrifices. One might well ask with Mary, "Child, why have you treated us like this?" (Luke 2:48).
The Christian meditation one does in the rosary is thus very different from say the bliss consciousness of eastern religions. Indeed, if one follows the Christian path through to the end, the suffering and sense of abandonment only increase. Only after death does one find lasting consolation. It is no wonder then that many are abandoning Christianity and that some are taking up Eastern forms of meditation. The Christian way speaks of hardship in this life.
But there are two reasons one should follow the way of Jesus. The first is that it tells us the truth about life. Only Christianity is able to penetrate the great mystery of suffering. Suffering and death are the wages of sin. But they are overcome by Christ's passion and death and it is only by dying with Christ that a person will overcome suffering.
The second reason is that by faithfully taking up one's cross, a person will eventually receive eternal life _ something far better than the passing consolations of non-Christian meditation.
Jesus tells us the way: "Enter the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it" (Matthew 7:13-14).
Christian meditation must always keep in mind the difficulty of Jesus' way. One must persevere even when meditation reveals that God's will for one is quite different than what one desires.
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