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Christian meditation and prayer

Lynne Baab • Tuesday August 15 2023

Christian meditation and prayer

I’m in my late 30s, and I’m talking with a Christian man I know slightly. He’s telling me about his pattern of meditation. He says he begins by emptying his mind of all his concerns so he can focus on a sacred word or verse from the Bible. I argue with him a little. I tell him I can’t empty my mind just like that. Instead, when I try to engage in Christian meditation, I try to identify the things on my mind and give them over to God, perhaps by using some imagery like putting them in Jesus’s hands or laying them at the feet of the cross. He doesn’t like my pattern because he thinks it puts too much focus on those distracting thoughts and worries. I don’t like his pattern because it seemed completely impossible for me to do. Plus, how can it ever be wrong to turn to God with the things on our minds?

Back in my early 20s, I remember being taught that Hindu and Buddhist meditation involves emptying the mind, while Christian meditation involves deliberately focusing our attention on God. As Adele Ahlberg Calhoun describes it, “Meditation is a long, ardent gaze at God, his work and his Word. Slowing down and giving one’s undivided attention to God lies at the core of Christian meditation.” [1] I love her use of the word “ardent,” which implies to me some degree of passion. Christian meditation isn’t about impassive emptying the mind, but instead involves a passionate and loving focus on the God who calls us “Beloved.”

I want to make four points about the connections between prayer and Christian meditation. See if one these points might be helpful for you.

1. I love the word “ponder.” Perhaps meditating on God sounds too intimidating, but hey, we ponder so many practical things about our lives. Why not spend some time pondering God, God’s work, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, stories in the Bible, or God’s handiwork in nature? Maybe pondering God and the things of God happens for a minute or two here and there, and we can become more conscious of the value of such pondering, and later it can grow into a longer period of time. Or maybe our moments of pondering God are always brief. My next three points show how intimately connected prayer and meditation are, so I want to affirm that any kind of pondering God can help us pray more easily.

2. Prayer can take many forms in Christian meditation. We might start with prayer, as I do when I dump my concerns and worries into Jesus’s care. We might end with prayer, as we receive an insight about God and turn to God with a smile, a word of thanks or praise. We might bring a concern to God that we know God can take care of because we saw God’s faithfulness and love as we pondered God’s character. We might move back and forth between prayer and pondering something about God. Prayers before, during, or after meditation can be any kind of prayer: praise, thanks, confession, intercession, or lament. If we engage in intercessory prayer, we might pray for ourselves or others. If we experience meditation in a group, we might alone pray while meditating or afterwards with the group.

As I have said elsewhere in this blog, I view prayer as direct address to God, listening to God speak to us, or resting in God’s presence. Thinking about God, to me, isn’t prayer, even though it is a wonderful thing. That brings me to my third point.

3. God can speak to us in a variety of ways during Christian meditation. When we are pondering a passage of the Bible or simply thinking about the triune God and God’s characteristics and actions, the Holy Spirit might whisper in our ears something about God that is new or that we haven’t thought about for a while. If listening to God is a form of prayer, and if the Holy Spirit speaks to us off and on during meditation, then there may be many moments of listening prayer during a time of meditation.

Calhoun recommends meditating on nature as well as the Bible. She suggests opening ourselves to the beauty of nature so we can perceive more about the God of beauty who created the physical world and our bodies and souls. She writes, “Let the Spirit move you to praise. Meditation on creation is meant to lead us into the arms of God our Creator.” When we experience a back-and-forth movement between pondering the beauty of creation and then moving into praise or any other kind of prayer, we see the close connection between Christian meditation and prayer.

4. Mindfulness meditation can draw us into prayer. Mindfulness meditation is one of the most common forms of meditation in our time, both inside and outside the Christian faith community. In mindfulness meditation, we try to settle ourselves into this particular moment, laying aside our judgments and analytical thoughts about the various things on our minds. I have experienced mindfulness meditation as a helpful practice in several ways. It helps us slow down and let go of worries. It helps us appreciate God’s gift of breath and life in this moment. And it can help us see where God is present, here and now. All of these help us move almost seamlessly into thankfulness prayers.

Lovely and loving God, you are beautiful beyond description, too marvelous for words. Help us take joy in pondering who you are and what you have done. Give us moments of reflecting on the unique presence and roles of each person of the Trinity. Open our eyes so we can see you in nature and gaze ardently at you, our Creator. Then, as we see you more clearly, help us turn to you with our words and emotions.

(Next week: Journaling and prayer. This is the 14th post in a series on spiritual practices and prayer. If you’d like to learn more about spiritual practices, the first post of the series is here. That post also has a list of all the posts in the series. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up below under “subscribe.”)

Last month I had an article in Refresh Journal of Contemplative Spirituality about how to nurture a contemplative stance.

Some related posts:

[1] The section on meditation in the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices that Transform Us is pages 191-193. (Adele Alhberg Calhoun, InterVarsity Press, 2015 edition.)

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