By Agnieszka Ruck, The B.C. Catholic
Many who are suspicious of meditation still associate it with yoga or mindfulness
[Vancouver – Canadian Catholic News] – Meditation. In the modern Western world, the word is often associated with yoga mats, incense, candles, and mindfulness practices. According to Benedictine priest Fr. Laurence Freeman, OSB, that has made many Catholics suspicious of the practice.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Freeman, the founder of the World Community for Christian Meditation, said a form of meditation rooted in the Gospel is slowly making a comeback in the Church, and that’s a good thing.
Back to the roots
A revival of Christian meditation was sparked in the 1960s in part thanks to Fr. John Main, an Irish Benedictine monk who noticed Christians were yearning for deeper spiritual lives.
“People were looking for an interior experience of God and they weren’t finding it in the Church. What did they do? You had transcendental meditation. You had the great search going eastwards, to Asia. And more recently, in our time, we have mindfulness, which is kind of an abbreviated form of Buddhist practice but made popular because it’s very secular,” said Freeman.
The Irish monk studied the phenomenon and realized his monastic tradition had its own ancient practice of meditation that had been marginalized or somehow forgotten.
“Contemplation as a whole became an object of suspicion in the modern Church. The emphasis went entirely on other forms of prayer: mental prayer, devotional prayer, liturgical prayer,” said Father Freeman. “Those are very important forms of prayer, but without ‘the prayer of the heart,’ they easily become mechanical, superficial, or they wither.”
Fr. John Main dug deeper, looking into Jesus’ teachings on prayer and finding Jesus described it as something you do interiorly (behind closed doors), in silence, with a calmness of mind (not worrying), and with undistracted attention on God.
All of this led him to formulate and teach meditation grounded in the teachings of Jesus and early desert monks in a way that is accessible to Christian lay people. In 1977, at the invitation of the Archdiocese of Montreal, Main and Freeman arrived in Canada to teach.
Main died in Montreal in 1982, but Freeman continued his work. In 1991, inspired by his mentor, Father Freeman formed the World Community for Christian Meditation. It is now present in 100 countries.
Prayer of the heart
John Cassian, a fourth-century monk and mystic, called meditation “pure prayer,” because of its focus on God, not on oneself. That can be hard for a generation used to multitasking.
“We live in a very distracted age. Young people particularly grow up with an addition to their mental chatter, devices, and social media,” said Father Freeman, who recently led a three-day seminar on meditation for about 200 people at Quest University in Squamish.
“By letting go of that, we rediscover the real presence of the spirit in us, our own spiritual dimension.”
To let go, Cassian recommended finding a quiet place and choosing a word, verse, or short phrase to repeat. He used the Latin word for “formula.” Today, people might be more familiar with the word “mantra.”
“We’re turning the attention off ourselves to God through the spirit of Christ in us,” explained Father Freeman. He recommended choosing a word like “maranatha,” which means “come, Lord” in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke.
To meditate, a person must sit in an upright, relaxed, and alert position; close their eyes; slowly, interiorly repeat the word or phrase; and spend about 20 minutes or so in the “prayer of the heart.”
“The art of meditation, in a very practical way, is to be in the present moment by letting go of your thoughts as they arise and returning to the journey to the heart, the inner room,” said Freeman.
Not a solo experience
This meditation Freeman teaches in his travels isn’t just mindfulness or “smuggling in Buddhism,” as he’s been charged. Rooted in the early Church, it stands apart from the practices used by other religions or stressed people looking to relax.
For example, it’s not meant to be done in isolation. The World Community of Christian Meditation has chapters all over the world, with members creating parish groups and meeting weekly to listen to recorded reflections and meditate together in silence.
JoAnn Kelly-Cullen, a member of St. Anthony’s Parish in West Vancouver, meditates for 30 minutes twice a day. “In spite of yourself, your life begins to change and your understanding of Scripture deepens,” when you meditate, she said. “It helps the rest of my day. I would miss it if it didn’t happen.”
The meditation group at St. Anthony’s meets weekly for a 10-minute recorded lecture by Main or Freeman, followed by 25 minutes of silent meditation in the church.
“When you meditate together, in a Christian context, you are experiencing in a silent way what it means to be the body of Christ,” said Freeman.
There is “so much loneliness in the world, so much digital isolation and disconnection, we have to find a way through that loneliness back to an experience of communion, community, and friendship. It doesn’t look like it, but this is the direct way to do it: by entering into silence, stillness, and solitude, you find that community.”
Let the little ones come
While adults may have a difficult time meditating, WCCM school liaison Andy Burns said it often comes easily for children, who are not burdened by the same distractions adults carry.
“God is winking at them all the time,” he said.
“When I’m working with children, I say: ‘Your heart has ears. You’re not going to be listening for God the way I’m speaking now, but your heart can sense God’s presence.’ Kids catch on to that very naturally.”
More naturally than Burns himself, who was only introduced to meditation four years ago. “I noticed how it enriched other forms of prayer,” once he got the hang of it, he said. “I realized more and more the mystery within me, and I began to notice more and more that it’s in other people, that it’s in Mass, that it’s in adoration.”
Catholic bishops in Canada have spoken in favour of Christian meditation. Bishop Douglas Crosby of Hamilton has described it as a beautiful form of prayer.
“It would probably be the kind of prayer that monks and cloistered sisters, nuns, would experience in their convents and monasteries, but more and more people are using Christian meditation as a very profound form of personal prayer and communal prayer. You experience the peace and the love of God as you do this,” said Crosby.
“When you close your eyes, you really are in your own chapel. You can quietly block out everything, all the distractions, and focus … It is a very Christian way, and a Catholic way, of praying.”