Sunday, August 15, 2004

be still...

Lago Gutierrez, Bariloche, Argentina

I've started practicing meditation recently. I discovered its role in the life of a Christian contemplative largely via my stay at the Shantivanam ashram in India, and the subsequent discovery of the World Community for Christian Meditation. Meditation is not, contrary to what a lot of people think, a time spent in deep pious thought, instead it is the opposite. Meditation aims to banish all thought, and just be.

Many people see this as some new age type of practice that has been stolen from Buddhists and Hindus. But what is not often known is that Christian meditative prayer goes all the way back to early desert monks and nuns in the first century CE. Jesus may not have specifically taught meditation, but the method practiced by monks today satisfies his teachings on prayer remarkably well. We spend time alone with God, with few words, an open ear and simple humility. I firmly believe that God is not something to be thought out with our minds, but rather experienced through faith and love. Yet for me this is hard, I find that I am most stimulated by theological discussion and find prayer rather a struggle, so I took up meditation to help me out.

What I didn't realise is that it is actually very very difficult. Trying to turn off your thoughts and sit in silence is akin to stopping the tide. Contemplatives advise channeling your thoughts into one word, nowadays referred to as a mantra (from Sanskrit). A mantra is a prayer word that you repeat mentally in your head for the entire meditation session. For Christians, the WCCM recommends the word maranatha, an Aramiac word meaning 'Come Lord Jesus'. You 'say' the word as four syllables of equal length; I like to say MA-RA as I breath in, and NA-THA as the breath goes out again.

The idea is that your brain will be occupied so much with this one word, that other thoughts will subside. Of course, this is just the idea, and in reality you will find yourself swamped with trivial thought. Everything from what you will eat for supper, to the book you've been reading to the meaning of existence itself will flood into your mind. The key is to turn from these thoughts and go back to the silent repetition of the mantra in your mind. But it isn't easy. It is a chore, and one that I most often do not enjoy doing.

I try to take twenty minutes before breakfast, and the same again before supper. I have made a special CD that plays a Taizé song, then there is a twenty minute silence, before another Taizé song begins to signal the end of the session. If you fancy having a go yourself, I can heartily recommend this page for some good introductory material. But be warned, it is difficult for everyone who starts meditation, and can be very discouraging when you realise that the entire session was spent thinking about where you left your sunglasses and when the doctor's appointment is. Sometimes, of course, you just don't want to do it! But I'm told that with perserverence, it is a good way to open yourself up to God without worrying about doctrine or creeds or any other religious anxieties.

I admire your attempts here, it's something I waver on the edge of myself.

I got given a tape last year after taking part in an alt worship event by a group called Ikon (, with the title "listening to God". When I played it on returning home from Greenbelt, I found it was a blank tape of nothing.

The idea seems to be that repletion, whether of Kyrie Eleison, Hail Mary, or the static of a blank tape, aids a moving into the subconscious. This is part of the mystical process, contemplation seems to require a stilling of our conscious mind, so I’ve found. Ever the difficult person, I myself tend to use images – particularly icons like The Vladimir Virgin with Child( – or strongly contemporary music such as Aphex Twin (, who strangely manages to be clattering electronica & timeless as a Gregorian chant.

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