As I begin this, the words of St. Paul in his letter to the Christians in Philippi come to mind.
There in chapter three, he lays out his bona fides to the Philippian Church, to wit, “…circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law a Pharisee…” Here, Paul is trying to make the point that he’s the last guy in the world who ought to be making an argument against legalism, which is of course precisely what he is doing. In the same way, I feel the need to give you my bona fides, so that you will know that I am the very last guy in the world to pen an essay entitled, “Confessions of a Christian Meditator.” For like St. Paul, I’m the real deal, at least in this one regard.
Raised an evangelical Episcopalian, schooled in C. S. Lewis as a child, I wrote Billy Graham a letter when I was nine years old. He sent me a copy of Halley’s Bible Handbook, which I still own. Baptized as an infant, as is our tradition, I was also baptized in a swimming pool in Dixie Garden in Shreveport, when I was 17…I came up out of the water speaking in tongues. When I was in high school, I accepted Jesus as my personal savior so often, that I lost count. Looking back, I like to think of this as my “aisle walking period,” during which time I never met an aisle I didn’t like!
I was one of two founding members of the Christian Fellowship Club at C. E. Byrd High School, and in 1973 I could be seen on the Byrd campus carrying a Bible big enough to choke a mule, and sporting a medallion that read, “Jesus Saves.” When I was 18 years old, I spent four hours getting demons cast out of me, and at one prayer meeting, while in college, I had one of my legs miraculously lengthened, though for the life of me I can’t remember why. Also in college I hung out with Pentecostals and Baptists, sang in a Methodist choir, and in the summers worked in Christian camping. You might say that I was a true believer.
Shortly after college, I was accepted to, and subsequently attended one of the oldest and most prestigious theological seminaries in the country, The Protestant Episcopal Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia. In 1983, I received my Masters Degree in Divinity, and in 1984 was ordained an Episcopal Priest. Indeed I have just celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of my ordination. Now, pushing sixty, it occurs to me that I have spent my entire life proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and seeking to be filled more and more with his Spirit in both my personal and vocational life.
Now, given all of that, you wouldn’t think that there was much new that I could be taught about Christianity, but in fact, about ten years ago, I began to hear about a thing called “Christian meditation.” Other names include “contemplative prayer,” and “centering prayer,” or perhaps “mystical prayer,” but by whatever name, my discovery of it and subsequent eight year practice of it has changed everything.
Now this is extraordinary for two reasons. First, as an evangelical Christian I was always taught that any kind of “meditation” was absolutely forbidden, as it was all too likely to “give the devil an opening,” in one’s life. I know that this may seem a strange thing to say in the postmodern, global world of today, but believe me in 1970, it was pretty much “gospel” in the evangelical church, and I suspect in some places still is today.
But there is another reason why my practice of Christian meditation is extraordinary, and I’m almost embarrassed to write this. But I had simply never heard of it! A Christian all my life, formally trained and educated, a pastor, I’d been an ordained priest for at least twenty years before I even heard the term!
They hadn’t taught us about it in Seminary. I hadn’t learned about it in continuing education, or from a colleague, or a bishop. Indeed, I learned about it, and have subsequently educated myself about it, through the tutelage of Roman Catholic priests and monks, who are on the cutting edge of its renaissance in the Church today, chiefest among them being Fr. Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk and priest.
These brave and faithful men and women of God, perhaps beginning with Fr. Thomas Merton in the 1950′s and 60′s, have salvaged this kind of praying from Christian antiquity; from the Desert Fathers of the first several Christian centuries, and from the Christian mystics of the Middle Ages.
The theology is sound. But here it’s not the theology that is most important, rather it is the practice:
the actual practice of experiencing God first hand, presumably in the very same way that Jesus did.
The basic premise is this: God’s primary language is silence…the still small voice that came to Elijah in 1 Kings 19:11-13. In the practice of Christian meditation, we make a decision to listen to God for a change, to stop our incessant attempts to get God to “change God’s mind” about various things, that which we call petitionary or intercessory prayer—though they continue to have their place—and close our mouths and simply listen for the voice of God.
For twenty or thirty minutes a day, we find a “lonely place” (Luke 5:16) and we sit, and we listen to the silence.
And we do it every day, or most days, week in week out, year in year out.
And as we rest in the arms of God, with our eyes closed and our minds empty of the “many things” that Jesus warned Martha about, (Luke 10:41) what we begin to learn, to our great surprise, is that we’d never really experienced God before, not really, certainly not at this depth. We thought we had through our various emotional highs, but that was mainly us, not God. This is different.
And I believe it is the most important thing a Christian can do. Not because it assures our eternal salvation, only God’s grace can do that, but because it is the simplest, most basic, most vulnerable response to God that we can make…to just “be” in God’s presence, to simply be held securely in the arms of God and say, “This is enough.” And, of course, it is enough.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed this or not, but the Christian Church is in serious trouble in the West. Falling attendance, empty churches. The secularization of America is occurring far more rapidly than anyone could have predicted thirty years ago. The Mainline Denominations are today merely a shadow of what they once were, and even the Baptist tradition has experienced recent declines. And though I am not claiming that contemplative prayer is a magic bullet for the ills of the Church, surely it is a sensible and obvious response to the church’s failure in our day. To simply listen to God for a change…what a great idea!