Christian Meditation – James Finley

Meditation is not always easy, but getting started is quite simple. In his book Christian Meditation, James Finley lays out some basic guidelines:

“The guidelines for meditation practice that I suggest are, with respect to the body, to sit still, to sit straight, to close your eyes or lower them toward the ground, to breathe slowly and naturally, and to place your hands in a natural or meaningful position in your lap. With respect to the mind, the guideline is to be present, open, and awake, neither clinging to nor rejecting anything. And with respect to attitude, the guideline is to maintain nonjudgmental compassion toward yourself as you experience yourself clinging to and rejecting everything, and nonjudgmental compassion toward others in their powerlessness, one with yours. “

Cultivating Visions through Biblical Meditations

The following extract comes from, “Cultivating Visions through Exegetical Meditations” by Dan Merkur, an article from “With Letters of Light: Studies in the Dead Sea Scrolls, Early Jewish Apocalypticism, Magic, and Mysticism” by Daphna V. Arbel and Andrei A. Orlov (Eds.)

What I found fascinating in this article is Merkur’s suggestion of direct correlations between the letters to the seven churches and the vision of the seven seals in the book of Revelation, and more, that they reveal the visionary meditation method of the author as being not so far removed from lectio divina and even less so from my own less formulaic approach. He says,

The monastic practice of converting concepts into images as a prelude to meditation is demonstrable, centuries prior to the rise of the monastic movement, in the New Testament book of Revelation. Whether the text is, as Marshall (2001) plausibly argues, Jewish and not Christian, it dates to the late first century, the precise period of Yochanan ben Zakkai and his students, whose legends are narrated in the second chapter of Hagigah.

Revelation asserts the allegorical character of many of the images in its visions. The first vision, which accomplishes John’s commission as a prophet, concludes with the statement: “As for the mystery of the seven stars which you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches and the seven lampstands are the seven churches” (Rev 1:20). In this manner, Revelation, like Daniel 7, appropriated the mythological tropes of the ascension apocalypses and invested them with allegorical meanings. Among the topics that John allegorized, I suggest, was the praxis of exegetical meditation. Let us attend closely to the motifs of seven letters and seven seals.

John is told to compose seven letters that are to be addressed to the angels of seven churches. Each letter is different, and there are no manifest connections among them . They are presented simply as a collection of unrelated letters that an angel happened to reveal to John (Rev 2:1-3:21). Next comes a vision of a throne in heaven, with one seated on the throne, surrounded by twenty-four elders and four living creatures (4:1-11). The enthroned being holds a scroll that is sealed with seven seals (5:1). John then mourns.

And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I wept much that no one was found worthy to open the scroll or look into it. Then one of the elders said to me, “Weep not; lo, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” (Rev 5:2-5)

These verses express the interplay between meditative technique and its revelatory response. John cannot open the scroll, because he cannot produce revelations. Only a heavenly being can open the scroll. Like mental imaging, however, weeping was a means by which seers might pray or prepare for revelation. The mixing of metaphors, by which the Lion of Judah (Rev 5:5) is a Lamb (5:6, 8) who opens the seals (6:1), emphasized the psychological nature of the vision. Like Pharaoh’s dreams of seven cattle and seven sheaves of grain (Gen 41:1-7), the Lion and the Lamb were mental images that were equivalent or interchangeable for John’s purposes. John constructed the mental image of the Lamb in the hope that it would function as a vehicle of revelation within a vision. He could as easily have meditated on another image such as a Lion.

Following these prefatory indications about mental imagery in general, John proceeded to the details of each of the seven seals . Scholars have not previously noticed that some of the verbal contents of the seven letters correspond to some of the images on the respective seven seals.

1 . The letter to Ephesus, the first church, states “To him who conquers, I will give permission to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Rev 2:7b) . The image of the first seal was a rider on a white horse, who had a bow and a crown. The text states that “he went conquering and to conquer” (6:2). In this way, the image on the first seal allegorized the ideas in the first letter, transforming a topic of abstract verbal conceptualization – “conquest” – into a mental image that could be used in meditation in order to cultivate a vision .

2 . The second letter, addressed to Smyrna, includes the statements: “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev 2:10-11). The second seal portrays a rider on a red horse, who is given a great sword, and removes peace from the earth, so that people kill one another (6:4). Once again, the image allegorizes ideas in the corresponding letter. The concepts of the devil and tribulation were expressed as the mental image of a sword-bearing rider who kills people.

3 . The third letter and seal introduce a new detail regarding the selection of imagery for meditation. Instead of having the motifs of the seal repeat the motifs on the letter, the second sets of motifs contrast with the first. The third letter refers to church members at Pergamum “who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice immorality” (Rev 2:14). The third seal (6:5-6) similarly addresses the topic of food; but it does so differently, by portraying famine. Within the third seal, the visual image of scales to weigh food is inconsistent with the auditory reference to the cost of grain by volume (Aune 1998: 396). Discrepant doctrinal ideas are similarly juxtaposed. In 1 Cor 8, Paul permitted eating food sacrificed to idols, on the grounds that idols have no real existence; although he allowed that some individuals might be led into sin through the practice. In 1 Cor 10:23-11:1, Paul again permitted eating food sacrificed to idols; he acknowledged, however, that on-lookers might thereby be led into sin. John’s criticism of Balaam and Balak may have been addressed to followers of Peter and Paul (Himmelfarb 1997: 90). Certainly the phrase “stumbling block” alluded to Paul’s teaching that Mosaic law is a stumbling block for Jews (Rom 9:32-33) . Through its image of famine as a rider on a black horse who holds a pair of scales (6:5), the third seal alludes to a different criticism of rabbinic teaching. Scores of rabbinical sayings discussed good and bad deeds as earning merits and demerits that were recorded in a heavenly Book of Life. By the first century B . C . E ., imitatio dei had translated this trope about divine retribution into a practice of judgmentalism within the Jewish community . The mishnaic teaching, “Judge all men on a scale of merit” (Abot 1:6) was explicitly rejected by Jesus’ saying, “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matt 7:1; compare Luke 6:37) .

4 . The fourth letter, addressed to Thyatira, includes a discussion of the process of divine retribution: “those who commit adultery… I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent… I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve” (Rev 2:22-23). The letter’s description of “this teaching” as “what some call the deep things of Satan” (2:24) referred, I suggest, to God’s purpose in creating Satan. In Job and rabbinic teaching, Satan furthers God’s purposes by exacting retribution on God’s behalf . The fourth seal allegorizes these ideas of divine retribution in its image of a rider on a pale horse. His “name was Death, and Hades followed him; they were given authority” (6:8). As an abstract concept, retribution could not be converted directly into a mental image; the somewhat far-fetched reference to “the deep things of Satan” provided the opportunity, however, to portray Satan as the rider named Death . The identification was rabbinic: “Rabbi Simon ben Laqish said: Satan, the evil inclination, and the angel of death are one and the same” (b. Baba Batra, 16a).

5 . The fifth letter, addressed to Sardis, advocates the perfection of works. The letter ends with the promise that those who “are worthy” will “walk with me in white” garments (Rev 3:4) . This image recurs on the fifth seal. On the seal, “the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God” (6:9) are given white robes (6:11) .

6 . The sixth letter, to Philadelphia, promises deliverance in the endtimes. “I will keep you from the hour of trial which is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell upon the earth” (Rev 3:10). The abstract concept of a trial could not be expressed as a mental image that was suitable for use in meditation. Because individual trials could be pictured in their concreteness, the sixth seal conveyed the general idea of trial by portraying disaster on a cosmic scale: “there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale; the sky vanished like a scroll that is rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place (6:12-14). The motif of trial occurred within the mental image as direct speech. Men call “to the mountains and rocks…the great day of…wrath has come, and who can stand before it?” (6:17).

7 . The seventh letter, addressed to the church in Laodicea, demands repentance. “I know your works… .For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked… .Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; so be zealous and repent” (Rev 3:15, 17, 19). As an abstract concept, repentance was unsuitable for representation by a mental image that could be used in meditation. The seventh seal instead portrayed the worship of God. “When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour” (8:1) . The motif alluded both to the revelation of the “still small voice” to Elijah on Mount Horeb in 1 Kgs 18:11-12, and also to Ps 65:2, “to You silence is praise,” which the Qumran Songs of Sabbath Sacrifice interpreted as the worship distinctive of the highest angels in heaven (Alexander 2006: 22, 38, 41, 98 n . 3).

The correspondence of the seven letters and the seven seals is tidy. The seals expressed concepts in pictorial imagery that the letters had formulated verbally. Because the letters to the seven churches alluded, among other texts, to the letters of Paul (Charles 1920: 94-95; Fiorenza 1985: 151), the seven seals provided object lessons in the procedure of exegetical meditation on the letters of Paul, as well as on the seven letters of Rev 2-3. Revelation indicated how to prepare scripturally based, abstract ideas in forms that could be visualized as mental images for the purpose of cultivating visions. The first two seals presented simple examples of the procedure that depended on literal correspondences between texts and images. More sophisticated procedures were illustrated in the further examples. The third letter borrowed a phrase from Paul, but the third seal devised an image that alluded to a contrary teaching by Jesus. The fourth letter, on divine retribution, briefly mentions the concept of “the deep things of Satan”; the fourth seal was wholly devoted to exploring this doctrinal curiosity. The fifth, sixth, and seventh letters each mentioned abstract concepts whose pictorial representation by the corresponding seals required still greater ingenuity. By these examples, the seven letters and seals together comprise an introduction to the practice of exegetical meditation.

The procedures of exegetical meditation that were outlined in Revelation can also be discerned in midrashic descriptions of visions. In Mechilta d’Rabbi Ishmael, Rabbi Akiba resolved the apparent paradox in Exod 20:18, “And all the people were seeing the sounds,” by explaining: “Seeing and hearing that which is given to sight; they saw a word (Hebrew Diber) of fire coming out of the mouth of the Gevurah (= dynamis) and being hewed on the Tables” (as cited in Gruenwald 1980: 73, n . 1). According to this midrash, the Israelites at Sinai heard the ten commandments and mentally imaged an archangel whose mouth spewed fire that carved the two tablets of stone. The Sinai revelation was not an instance of synesthesia, when sensory channels are confused. The Israelites saw a coherent symbolic vision that portrayed the miraculous carving of the words in stone, precisely as though they had been performing exegetical meditations.

Does meditation need to be complex?

meditationFrancis of Assisi once said, “It is good to read the testimonies of Scripture; it is good to seek the Lord our God in them. As for me, however, I have already made so much of Scripture my own that I have more than enough to meditate on and turn over in my mind. I need no more . .. I know Christ, the poor crucified One.” This comment resonates with me. My meditations rarely take the Lectio Divina form as memory is often more than enough. The gospel may be hard but it is not terribly complex.

Nothing and Everything

“Eastern meditation emphasizes abandonment. Such meditation has total relinquishment as its aim. To the Asian mystics the highest stage of enlightenment is complete self-emptying. For Christians, however, emptying isn’t the end of the story; it’s just the beginning. Jesus emptied himself so he could be filled to overflowing.”

Deep-Rooted in Christ: The Way of Transformation (Joshua Choonmin Kang)

 

Meditation in the Scriptures

Do you realize there is more in the scriptures about meditation than there is about speaking in tongues?

The Psalms contain many explicit references to meditation.

More implicitly, both the Old Testament and New Testament affirm the practice of reflecting and remembering God’s word and works, of being mindful and searching our hearts, of seeking God’s face and encountering the living God through visions and entranced prayer. We are encouraged to seek solitude, wisdom and to experience the renewal of the mind.

Curious how we read past so much of this.

Christian Meditation and Self Exploration

While I was on holidays I had opportunity to reflect on my meditation practice and where I’d been experiencing difficulties.

In particular, I’ve been experiencing some double mindedness over the use of non-Christian relaxation techniques on the one hand, and the whole issue of self exploration on the other.

Firstly, regarding non-Christian relaxation techniques, I’ve always found the Zen ‘just sitting’ technique very helpful for stress release, as well as Yoga inspired ‘progressive muscle relaxation’. But because they conflict where I’m at theologically, insofar as Zen and Yoga presuppose pantheism, since becoming a Christian I have often experienced inner tension with their use. A paradox you might say.

But over the holidays this raised some wider issues for me about self exploration in general. To what degree is self exploration, as a form of meditation, legitimately Christian? I mean, in recognizing a crucial distinction between the Creator and the created, between God and the self, isn’t self exploration just a wee bit self absorbed? In fact, aren’t we aiming for the opposite?

Folks like Richard Foster have asserted that meditation on scripture is the highest form of Christian meditation, and given my experience that the experience of Jesus trumps the experience of Matt, I say Amen. But the problem is meditation on scripture can often push the focus away for here, away from now. And it’s right in the now that I’m experiencing stress and the distractions that follow in its wake.

Having sat with this (once again) though, I was drawn back to David Augsburger’s talk of tri-polar spirituality, of a more balanced spirituality that recognises God, self and others as worthy foci. Though monotheistic meditation conflicts with the sort of pantheistic meditation that collapses self into God, this does not mean self exploration is sinful. Quite the contrary, the practice of confessory prayer would be practically impossible without a heavy dose of self reflection. The important thing though, is to have a humble understanding of the self.

In this regard I was drawn back to Ecclesiastes. It is worth reflecting on the limits to our experience, to our ontological dependence on God, to the meaningless of life if our self is our only reference point. God is here, God is now, but God extends beyond my limited experience.

Finally I was drawn to thinking of stress as inner conflict. In the same way as conflict resolution in our social worlds requires active listening, conflict resolution in our psychological worlds also requires active listening: actively listening to God, actively listening to the different sides of ourselves, and actively listening to the way we and others impact on one another. Self does not need to be banished, merely dethroned, and brought into alignment with God. Listening to the breath, the body, just sitting, just listening, this is good – provided we recognise the limits to this experience, and open to being drawn beyond our experience. Make sense? Maybe you’d like to share some of your own thoughts, experiences, unresolved questions.

Listening to God, self and others

There are many ways to incorporate listening into your spiritual practice; here are three broad ways.

Listening to God. If prayer is a conversation with God then surly we should listen to God as prayerful as we talk to God? I often begin my prayers with the words of Samuel, “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.” (1 Samuel 3:10) Some times I listen through scripture, lectio divina style, other times I just listen, simply listen. Not just in solitude either, it is also good to listen in the midst of action.

Listening to self. Of course, self awareness is an important dimension of spiritual practice too. In this I am guided by the words of the Psalmist, “Search your hearts and be silent” (Psalm 4:4) Listening to self is a journey into humility but also a journey into self discovery. You have a unique relationship with God because you are unique. Some personal contextualization is required here.

Listening to others. Then of course, we should listen to others. God challenged Cain, “Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.” (Genesis 4:10) We should not be deaf to the pain of this world. In practice this means listening to other cultures, including Christians from other cultures, and listening to other religions, including the irreligious. Listening is essential to loving.

How does Christian meditation differ from eastern meditation?

How does Christian meditation differ from eastern meditation? One answer that seems to be pretty popular amongst Christians these days is that Christian meditation is about “filling the mind” whereas eastern meditation is about “emptying the mind”.

But this answer has always struck me as overly simplistic, to the point of being downright misleading. I suppose it kinda makes sense if transcendental meditation is the only form of eastern meditation you know about. But there are forms of eastern meditation that involve complex visualisations, and even the most text-centred forms of Christian meditation involve emptying the mind of distracting thoughts, so there are too many exceptions for this to be a good guideline for every situation.

Drawing on my own experience, with both eastern and Christian meditation, I would suggest the more significant distinction is the different ends which they are directed towards. More significant than the different methods is the different motivations, more significant than asking “how” is Christian meditation is different is asking “why” Christian meditation is different.

Quite simply, biblical meditation is NOT aimed at enlightenment.

Meditation and Ethical Transformation

I was just wondering if there were any people out there that were interested in exploring Christian meditation but were nervous about the whole altered states of consciousness thing?

Here is how I see it: I am basically open to altered states of consciousness, I experience them myself, but the value of our meditation practice should not be measured by the depth of our epiphanies but by the shift in our lives. One of the distinguishing marks of Christian meditation down the centuries has been its deeply ethical focus, and on this I draw your attention to 1 Corinthians 13:2.

“If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”

For the Christian mystic, moral transformation takes precedence over phenomenological experience as a gauge of how well your practice is going. You may have experienced all sorts of things, but if you experience no discernible impact in the way you relate to people, no restoration of justice in your relationships, then chances are you’ve just being fooled by a glamour. Chances are you’re just being an experience junkie. I think this explains the Christian reluctance to say much about techniques down the centuries – mere reproducing of phenomenal experiences is of secondary concern only. So my advice is, be open to the experience but don’t get fixated on it or make too much of it.

Christian Meditation – A Catholic Perspective

Earlier today I was asked a question about Christian meditation which reminded me that I had planned to make a few comments on the “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on some aspects of Christian Meditation” some time ago.

I am not sure how many of you have heard of this open letter, but coming from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Jospeh Ratzinger, who is now Pope, it is about as official a statement as you are likely to get from the Catholic Church on meditation. The document outlines what the critical issues are for Christians, at least from a Catholic perspective, and provides some guidelines for experimenting with new forms of meditation for the prayerful Christian.

Here are some excerpts I found particularly pertinent:

“Christian prayer is at the same time always authentically personal and communitarian. It flees from impersonal techniques or from concentrating on oneself, which can create a kind of rut, imprisoning the person praying in a spiritual privatism which is incapable of a free openness to the transcendental God. Within the Church, in the legitimate search for new methods of meditation it must always be borne in mind that the essential element of authentic Christian prayer is the meeting of two freedoms, the infinite freedom of God with the finite freedom of man.”

“Without doubt, a Christian needs certain periods of retreat into solitude to be recollected and, in God’s presence, rediscover his path. Nevertheless, given his character as a creature, and as a creature who knows that only in grace is he secure, his method of getting closer to God is not based on any “technique” in the strict sense of the word. That would contradict the spirit of childhood called for by the Gospel. Genuine Christian mysticism has nothing to do with technique: it is always a gift of God, and the one who benefits from it knows himself to be unworthy.”

“Some physical exercises automatically produce a feeling of quiet and relaxation, pleasing sensations, perhaps even phenomena of light and of warmth, which resemble spiritual well-being. To take such feelings for the authentic consolations of the Holy Spirit would be a totally erroneous way of conceiving the spiritual life. Giving them a symbolic significance typical of the mystical experience, when the moral condition of the person concerned does not correspond to such an experience, would represent a kind of mental schizophrenia which could also lead to psychic disturbance and, at times, to moral deviations.”

“The love of God, the sole object of Christian contemplation, is a reality which cannot be “mastered” by any method or technique. On the contrary, we must always have our sights fixed on Jesus Christ, in whom God’s love went to the cross for us and there assumed even the condition of estrangement from the Father (cf. Mk 13:34). We therefore should allow God to decide the way he wishes to have us participate in his love. But we can never, in any way, seek to place ourselves on the same level as the object of our contemplation. the free love of God; not even when, through the mercy of God the Father and the Holy Spirit sent into our hearts, we receive in Christ the gracious gift of a sensible reflection of that divine love and we feel drawn by the truth and beauty and goodness of the Lord.”

Now, I would invite you to read the full article. I don’t agree with the tone, I think it is a bit too boundary maintenance focussed, but, insofar as Christians should exercise discernment in this I think the document does make some important points, and more, that Protestant and Orthodox mystics should engage with it. The points which I have highlighted above are ones which I have already made elsewhere on this blog, as a Protestant, and it is these commonalities I want to draw attention too.

Meditating on the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ

Crucifixionofjesuschristimage

In his letter to the Galatians, the apostle Paul said:

“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

I have always found this is a very good verse to meditate on in my quite moments. It reminds me that in Christ Jesus I have a new identity, and am now being called to live in accordance with that new identity. But it is not through my own ego strength that this is possible, but rather, through the surrendering of ego, through faith, through entrusting my “self” to God. The crucifixion of Jesus Christ is not just a dusty old story, it is a transforming experience for those of us who would give up their own agendas and enter into it.

Meditations on the Tarot – The Hierophant

Hierophant-tarot-christian-meditations Who is the hierophant?

The hierophant puts us in the presence of an act of benediction, of blessing, of bestowal of Spirit.

As we approach the hierophant we find him seated between two temple pillers. In his left hand he clasps a sceptre with a tripple cross and with his right hand he blesses supplicants – supplicants seeking the keys to the kingdom – with a threefold blessing.

And he blesses them thus:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called sons of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

The hierophant is the one whom understands the mystery of the magician, the Lord of earth, air, sky and sea.

“When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

    They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

    “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

    Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

    Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”