merchant looking for fine pearls; when he finds one of great value he goes and sells everything
he owns and buys it. (Matthew 13:45)
Copyright 2002 The World Community for Christian Meditation
All rights reserved
2. National Co-ordinators of the World Community 51
3. Christian Meditation Centres 54
4. The World Community and Other Communities 56
5. Contemplative Unity: An Ecumenical Statement 59
There is nothing simpler than meditation. There are no difficult theories to master or techniques to excel in. Only simple fidelity is needed – and fidelity to simplicity. But as anyone who has tried it knows, being simple isn’t easy. We need all the support and inspiration we can get to persevere in what is a simple but demanding discipline.
This is where the group meditation comes in. It is a spiritual phenomenon and a source of great hope, especially in our unpeaceful and fear-ridden time, that small groups of people in more than 60 countries around the world meet weekly simply to meditate together. They gather in all sorts of places, from homes to churches to prisons, hospitals and places work, to share the practice that connects them, in silence, simplicity and stillness, to the ultimate source of life and peace. After meditating together they return to life charged with that energy of faith that comes from being in the presence of the One who promised to be with those who were open to him.
In one sense, of course, the meditation group is nothing new, but in another it is the most contemporary expression of and answer to the tremendous spiritual hunger that so characterizes our time. It is not surprising then that The World Community for Christian Meditation has become in these last 25 years a global spiritual family with a deep common experience and much wisdom to share about sharing the gift of meditation. You may have to step out on your own to start a group, but you will never be alone or without resources to help and encourage you.
But who exactly starts and leads meditation groups? Ordinary people, who need no extraordinary talent, only the faith to begin and the support of those who have gone before. So this little book offers encouragement and practical ideas about how one might not only begin a group, but sustain and nurture it along the way. And it suggests that such work is of utmost importance. Our world sorely needs the silent infrastructure of contemplation woven into its institutions and frenetic schedules. It needs the healing and transforming power that only the spirit can set free in us and among us.
I am grateful to many in our community who have helped in preparing this book – especially Carla Cooper, chair of our Guiding Board, Susan Spence, co-ordinator of the international Centre and Joe Doerfer, the Director of Medio Media.
Laurence Freeman, OSB
The Call of Jesus
‘Jesus bent down and started writing on the ground with his finger’. This moment, in St John’s Gospel, occurs after a crowd that had been about to stone a woman to death dispersed and the woman is left alone with Jesus. Like other great teachers of the Spirit in all traditions, Jesus lived what he taught and taught by the example of his own behavior. And time and again we see him teaching by silence. On another occasion he transmitted his teaching to a rich young man who found it difficult to renounce his possessions, by a direct and loving gaze. And again there were times when, in the face of contradiction and hostility, he kept a pure and truthful silence.
Compassionate presence, loving attention and truthful silence. These are still essential elements of the way we follow Jesus as our teacher and friend. He urged and empowered us to share in the work of teaching the good news. We are called to teach as our teacher teaches and to grow in relationship with him and likeness to him. The qualities of presence and silence are perennial truths of this journey. Of course, our individual personalities, like the culture that shapes us, makes each journey its own unique story. But the essential human quest, the challenges and the fruits of meditation, are the same for all at all times.
Everyone Is A Contemplative
To understand the meaning of the meditation and the meditation group we need to understand better what contemplation means. In ancient times the ‘contemplative life’ meant a life of privilege. Only those who were educated and sat on top of the social pile could afford the time and leisure for contemplation. Later in Christianity the contemplative life became more democratic and anyone in the church could follow it. But it meant giving up the ordinary vocations of marriage and work in the world for a celibate and cloistered life. Contemplation still seemed a gift that God gave only to an elite. It is curious how for centuries the universal teaching of Jesus was restricted to the few. Jesus called everyone to ‘be perfect’ in love and compassion like his Father, to leave self behind, to shed materialistic stress and anxiety, to find the ‘rest’ of contemplation in accepting his yoke. But the universal application of the essential teaching was forgotten or repressed or denied.
The first Christians however got the point. They listened to the gospel when it told them to pray without ceasing. They understood that contemplation is an essential, universal element of the human condition. Martha and Mary are sisters, two complementary dimensions of the person, not just two personality types. Without Mary’s stillness at the center, sitting at the feet of the teacher and listening, we become like Martha, irritable, complaining, discontented, distracted. In the end we are not even very productive in the work we do. In fact Mary and Martha are both working, one interiorly, the other exteriorly. Contemplation is not an escape from one’s life’s work. It is a part of our work and helps us to do the other part better. Mary and Martha are like two chambers of one heart. They don’t just complement one another; they need each other to realize fullness of life.
Why Meditation Groups Matter Today
Just as in an active project we usually need a team to support us with its diverse talents, so in the work of contemplation we need community. Meditation, as John Main knew, creates and reveals community. The meditation group is but an expression of this truth. There is nothing new about Christians coming together to pray. ‘The whole group of believers was united, heart and soul; they joined in continuous prayer’. This was said of the small Jerusalem church that formed after the death and resurrection of Jesus.
And we can say the same about groups today. There has been in the last thirty years or so a revolutionary rediscovery of the tradition of Christian contemplation, not just for the cloistered few but also for ordinary men and women. This is not a merely academic discovery. The practice of meditation has awakened a new awareness that the contemplative dimension of prayer is open to each of us and invites everyone. Access is not restricted. It is a privilege of grace given by the Spirit to all. But like all gifts of the Spirit, we must do our part. If we are to live our particular vocation in daily life with depth and meaning, we must actively accept the gift, tending it with humble devotion and daily fidelity.
It is no news that Christianity is in a turbulent transition from a medieval to a modern mentality. If we listened only to the media and the sociologists we might conclude that the Christian church is in terminal decline. Certainly its structures and attitudes are going through a death process, but at the heart of the Christian view of death is the certain hope of resurrection. The Christian meditation group, therefore, is one of those positive and hopeful signs of renewed life, an authoritatively silent sign, that the spirit prevails.
Meditation is a universal practice that leads beyond words, images and thoughts into the faith-filled and presence-filled emptiness we call the silence of God. What is particularly Christian about it is the awareness that it takes us, in faith, into the prayer of Jesus himself. And when we share in the human consciousness of Jesus, who is simultaneously open to each of us and to God, we can begin to be truly open to one another. We can create and experience the growing union of persons we call community. As the fruits of the spirit appear – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness, and self-control – so also does the grace of recognizing Jesus in ourselves and in one another.
One of the most influential spiritual teachers of prayer of our time was the Irish Benedictine monk, John Main. He was born in England in 1926 and died in Canada fifty-six years later. For Fr. Bede Griffiths, writing soon after John Main’s death, he was the ‘most important spiritual guide in the church today’.
As a young Catholic diplomat in the Far East, John Main was introduced to meditation by a gentle Hindu monk, Swami Satyananda. Never swaying from his own Christian faith, John Main immediately recognized the value of this practice that deepened and enriched the other forms of Christian prayer. It was not until years later that he fully realized how deeply this silent prayer of the heart was rooted in his own Christian tradition. He saw with fresh eyes the teachings of Jesus on prayer. And he read anew John Cassian’s vivid descriptions of the early Christian monks, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, who practiced and taught by their own humble example the simple discipline of the ‘prayer of one word’. He saw how powerfully this discipline deals with the distractions that inevitably fill the mind, most obviously at the time of prayer but at other times as well.
In the mantra he saw the way to that stillness (‘hesychia’ as the eastern Christians call it) or ‘pure prayer’ that is ‘worship in spirit and truth’. He saw how the discipline of the mantra purifies the heart of contradictory desires and unifies us. The place of unity is the heart where we find the deepest and most natural orientation towards God as our personal source and goal. He understood too how the mantra brings us to poverty of spirit, or the non-possessiveness, that Jesus set as the first beatitude, the primary condition of human happiness.
John Main soon learned through his own practice of meditation that the morning and evening discipline of meditation balances the whole day, every day of one’s life, in an ever-deepening peace and joy. And more and more, he saw the connection between this experience of inner peace and joy with the Gospel and Christian faith. Prayer for him now appeared as much more than speaking to or thinking about God. It is being with God.
A Discipline Of Faith Made Easier
John Main also saw the quality of our relationships as the true measure of progress in meditation. He knew that progress was in the end an accomplishment of grace. But again, we must do our part. We must respond to the call of grace not with a mere technique, but with a discipline of faith. For John Main, as for the centuries-old Christian tradition he spoke from, a freely chosen discipline is the path to freedom not bondage. Spiritual discipline is a valuable necessity in the work of being free from the tyranny of egotism, compulsiveness, delusion and self-centeredness.
He was therefore always very clear that meditation is a way of faith and very practical about how and when it must be practiced. The minimal commitment to individual meditation twice a day and group meditation once a week is only the external aspect of the discipline John Main taught. He knew that most people begin the discipline of meditation half-heartedly or with a tremendous zeal that inevitably, like infatuation, dissipates. We begin, then stop and then begin again, often many times. It takes time, maybe years, for some people to incorporate the basic discipline of meditation in their daily lives.
That is just why a meditation group is so valuable. Not many people are so good at self-discipline entirely on their own. It takes time and continual encouragement to build a good habit. Through the support and example of others, we strengthen our insight that meditation is simple, but not easy; life-giving, not life-denying; and most of all, a way of love. For all these reasons John Main encouraged people who wanted to learn to meditate and to keep on meditating to cultivate the gifts of community that grow among those who share the journey of prayer. Hence the formation and persistence of more than a thousand groups of three or six or 20, meeting weekly in homes, offices, hospitals, hospices, prisons, colleges, schools, shopping malls, and even the United Nations Building.
Sharing The Gift
At a certain point in your own practice of meditation it dawns on you that you have indeed received a pearl of great price. Your Martha has stopped complaining about Mary. You see that being comes before doing and gives all doing the character of love. Still you may feel uncertain and cautious about taking the next step. After all, you will say, ‘I’m not a guru. I don’t know much about it anyway. And on top of that I’m not very good at it. I can’t teach anyone else’. These thoughts are a good sign that you probably are ready to share the gift. But how to begin?
The very first step is most likely becoming comfortable to bearing witness to the reality of your own practice. This hardly means taking on any kind of in-your-face evangelical fervor. Sometimes you meet someone who shares him or herself with you more deeply than usual and you think ‘maybe they would be interested in meditation’. So mention it. Or someone asks you why you seem a little easier to get on with than before. Tell them. Or you’re staying with friends and you need to get away for half an hour to meditate before the evening socializing. Explain where you’re going. All this is a matter of discretion, of course. Fortunately meditation cultivates discretion and good judgment.
Starting a group is a step further. Again you may feel hesitation. ‘I’m just a beginner,’ you will say. John Main says we are all always beginners. ‘But I’m not a teacher,’ you will say. Yes but Jesus is. You have only to worry about being a disciple. Seeing yourself as student, a disciple of Christ who teaches you by meditating in you, with you and for you, is all the qualification you need to go ahead. Jesus encouraged his disciples to teach ‘in my name’, which means in his presence and with his spirit. You need to be humble, but never afraid. Furthermore you have a community and a tradition to support and help you.
First Steps: First Obstacles
So you begin where you are and as you are. If you belong to a parish or worshipping community, start there. Speak to the priest or pastor or parish council or fellow parishioners. Explain what this gift has come to mean to you. But be prepared for surprise, uneasiness, even suspicion. Remember that when many people hear about meditation for the first time they are likely to think you are describing something new and strange at best or, at worst, something quite alien or threatening. Stay calm and don’t be put off! It does help, however, to be familiar with the most common misperceptions about meditation. Here are a few of the most common:
Meditation is not Christian. It is imported from Buddhism or Hinduism. Explain as best you can that meditation is a universal spiritual discipline, existing in most other religions, especially those older than Christianity. But the way of silent prayer is deeply rooted in the Christian tradition, historically, theologically, and scripturally. Your understanding of the tradition John Main handed on, especially as he describes it in Word Into Silence and The Gethsemani Talks, is invaluable here. Sharing these powerfully clear little books is an excellent way to build relationships of trust and help others grow in under-standing and confidence that meditation is a way of prayer and faith. Two other effective resources that help others situate meditation firmly on Christian ground are the pocket-sized Christian Meditation: Your Daily Practice and the video, Coming Home, which also tells the story of the World Community through the voices of individual meditators from around the world.
The mantra is not Christian. Another aspect of the fear that meditation is not Christian is discomfort with the mantra, both as a term and as the ‘work’ the tradition teaches us to do. Again there is strong and consistent teaching. There is John Cassian’s pivotal disclosure of the key to desert wisdom in his magnificent 9th and 10th Conferences on Prayer: poverty of spirit, the humble recitation of a few sacred words, what he calls in Latin the ‘formula, that helps us keep our attention on the Lord instead of ourselves’. The 14th Century classic, The Cloud of Unknowing, calls it the ‘one little word’ that helps us turn from distraction toward the silent mystery of God. John Main had the insight to call the sacred word a ‘mantra’ thus linking the specifically Christian tradition to the universal wisdom. ‘Mantra’ is, of course now an English word, too, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, despite its too-often use to describe the promises of politicians. Originally a Sanskrit word (the root tongue of most European languages) mantra refers to ‘that which clears the mind,’ a short scripture verse or sacred word used in a repetitive way to help deepen attention. The rosary, the words of the mass, blessings, and familiar, repeated prayers of all kinds are mantras in this sense. And finally, there is the authority of Jesus who tells us not ‘to babble on,’ but to go to your secret chamber and there pray not with your lips, but in silence to, as John Cassian describes it, ‘the searcher not of words, but of hearts’.
Meditation is dangerous. This most often comes from fundamentalists whose aversion to mystery and need for literal and absolute certainty often conceal a high degree of fear and repression of fear. They react angrily when they are affronted or frightened by anyone daring to question the certainty they hold as the very essence of true faith. They will say ‘when you open yourselves up or blank your mind the devil will come in’. More likely, however, the devil will get a chance to come out! Negative feelings and shadowy thoughts may get released when repression is lifted. This is quite natural but it can be bumpy for a while. The literature of Christian contemplation offers many descriptions of this process and advice on dealing with it. Meditation practiced moderately and in faith is not dangerous. It is more dangerous not to meditate. Meditation is not about blanking your mind but about being poor in spirit, open to the indwelling presence. Christians who believe in the resurrection and the presence of Christ within them should above all approach meditation with confidence and hope.
Meditation is selfish. That’s what Martha thought too. But Jesus said that Mary had chosen the ‘better part’. His own example of life shows him balancing his periods of active ministry with times of withdrawal and quiet. Navel-gazing is selfish. Meditation is the purest work of selflessness we can do because it takes the attention off the ego’s agenda. Gradually it becomes a habit, a way of life. And gradually we see that our prayer is not an alternative to action, but its very ground. We discover the inextricable relationship between being and doing, and the simple fact that our life is as good as our prayer. If the latter is only about us, so then will be the former. If meditation did not show its fruits in greater love and compassion – that would be the great objection, and a valid one. But as stressed before, the only true measure of the efficacy of meditation is ‘am I growing in love?’
Meditation is just a relaxation technique. We hear more in the popular media about meditation as a way to lower blood pressure, raise body temperature, and increase beta waves. This should not be a surprise in a medical and scientific world that claims the primacy of chemical and biological determinants of human behavior and identity. There is of course documented evidence that meditation is an exceptionally effective way to relax and experience the physical and psychological benefits of reduced stress and anxiety. But these outcomes are merely lovely secondary benefits of what is first and foremost a way of prayer. We might say that modern science has finally caught up with ancient wisdom.
Whatever objections people may raise when you start speaking about starting a group, listen to them. Try to see where they are coming from. Don’t be defensive or argumentative. And remember that most priests, for example, never had an intro-duction to contemplative prayer in their training. They were formed to think of themselves as administrators rather than spiritual teachers and so, humanly enough, they may indeed feel threatened or put off by a lay person talking about contemplation. And remember that you are not saying—and the tradition does not teach—that meditation is the only way to pray. Try to share your own experience of how meditation is not a substitute, but a support for, all other individual and collective prayer. It feeds Christian life in all its dimensions, bringing us back to the living truth of the Gospel with heightened appreciation or to it, with fresh wonder, for the very first time.
If you get a negative response to your suggestion about starting a group, respond to the rejection contemplatively. It will strengthen you. Consider whether you should wait and try again or reflect on other avenues, other places or communities you might explore. But you may well be lucky, too. You may find a strong openness, indeed gratitude, that you suggested it and eagerness to help you. Then what?
Getting The Word Out
Publicity means not hiding your light under a bushel. It doesn’t mean you have to sell meditation as a product. John Main said it was caught rather than taught. Perhaps the very best way to begin is to organize and offer an introduction to Christian Meditation, featuring a brief talk and perhaps showing of the Coming Home video, to be followed by group meditation. You may do the introduction yourself, especially if you have had the opportunity to attend a School for Teachers session in your area, or you may also be able to invite a leader from an existing group nearby or another volunteer in your area who would be happy to team up with you. Many regions have individuals so designated to help with new group formation. The introduction may be repeated at various intervals along the way, and can be organized to suit any circumstance: church, home, school, or business.
Making use of examples available through the School for Teachers, as well as descriptions in the Community’s many other fliers and brochures, prepare a simple one-page description of the essential facts: what, why, when (and how long), where, and who. Describe the key points honestly and briefly. Remember that the combination of the words, ‘Christian’ and ‘meditation’ and ‘group’, speak pretty strongly for themselves. This ‘one-pager’ can serve as a communications resource in itself, a simple flier to distribute or even mail to selected others. It will also help you keep your facts together for other kinds of communications: phone calls, e-mails, faxes, brief notice in the appropriate in–house publications, like the parish bulletin and/or newsletter. You can also consider a poster in a key location or a notice in the local community newspaper. And remember, wherever you set your introductory session, be sure to let your friends who are interested know. Encourage them to join you and to pass the word along. Finally, if your diocese has a spirituality commission, make contact with its leadership. Whether or not your introduction or group will be held in a church setting, members of the spirituality group may very well give you critical moral support, as well as offer helpful suggestions.