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Christian meditation, yoga and contemplative prayer

Today is International Yoga Day, and here are a few frequently asked questions on the practise of Christian Meditation. Catholic News approached Sr Ruth Montrichard, Member Guiding Board of The World Community for Christian Meditation (WCCM) International; Regional Coordinator WCCM-Caribbean.

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Responses were submitted by Judy Joseph Mc Sween, Member of Leadership Team, WCCM-Caribbean on behalf of Sr Ruth.

  1. How are the Christian forms of meditation and yoga different to the forms used in the Eastern practices?

In Christian Meditation, we take our attention off self.  For Christians, it is a way to realise and know the Christ within.  It is the prayer of the heart—pure prayer.  A time to just be in the presence of the Holy Spirit.  It is this attention to Christ and this “other centeredness” that distinguishes Christian Meditation from other forms.

  1. How long have these been practised in the Catholic Church? How did they begin?

The roots of meditation practices lie within all wisdom traditions and dates back to the 5th century BCE [formerly BC].  In the words of Fr Laurence Freeman OSB, “Christian meditation is anchored in a tradition that dates back to the Desert Fathers, especially John Cassian, who lived in the 4th century, and it runs through the institution’s history. Vatican II has revived it and opened it to all. If the Gospel is a motor to engage in the world, it also has a mystical side: it is the tradition of Christian meditation, nourished by the prayer of the heart or prayer of Jesus, the centre of orthodox spirituality— the repetition of the same sentence, “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me sinner”. 

In 1955, John Main, founder of WCCM, while serving in the British Colonial Service in Malaya from 1955–56, met a Hindu monk, Swami Satyananda, who taught him how to pray with a mantra. For the Swami, the aim of meditation was the coming to awareness of the Spirit of the Universe who dwells in our hearts in silence.  John Main asked the Swami whether as a Christian he could practise prayer using a mantra as the Swami taught. The Swami agreed, “Yes, it will make you a better Christian.”

For 18 months he meditated with the Swami and it was this encounter that led him to the pilgrimage of meditation and to eventually to discover the mantra tradition as taught by John Cassian. When he eventually became a Benedictine monk, he began teaching meditation in 1976. He recommended the Aramaic prayer word ‘Maranatha’.

 Whereas Cassian proposed a longer prayer phrase, Main, influenced by books like the 14th century The Cloud of Unknowing, saw the benefits of a single word.[8] The basic teaching, however, remained that of Cassian: “The mind should unceasingly cling to the formula . . . and restrict itself to the poverty of a single verse.”

  1. Is practising any form of meditation/yoga etc that is not Christian based wrong?

The purpose of Christian Meditation, pure prayer, is to develop our relationship with God, with the indwelling spirit.  The attention is away from self.  I would say that if the attention is not on God, the relationship will not be developed.

  1. What is contemplative prayer?

I think that this descriptor by Anna Krysten, Aleteia, of Contemplative Prayer, captures accurately what it is.  I quote “contemplative prayer is like sitting with Him, delighting in His presence without the need for words.”

This kind of prayer is a gift and not something we can make happen in the same that we can open our mouths and give voice to a prayer. When St Teresa of Avila described prayer, especially contemplative prayer, she did not offer complex discourses but resorted to analogies to describe what is difficult to put into words. She wrote of the process of filling a bucket of water: it can be accomplished either by filing it from a well which takes much effort, or by simply allowing the bucket to rest at the source of the water, so that if flows in effortlessly.  Contemplation she likened to the direct filling from the source, a pure gift (The Interior Castle). Fr Thomas Dubay writes that “in this second case, the rising of the water is quiet and peaceful; one does not know where it comes from or how it arises” (86, Fire Within). This is infused contemplation… a divinely given, general, nonconceptual, loving awareness of God. There are no images, no concepts, no ideas, no visions.”

  1. There are some Catholics who are very wary of these practices. What would you say to them?

Some of our greatest fears include the fear of the unknown, the fear of self-knowledge and perhaps the fear of God himself, hearing Him directing our path and being reluctant to follow his way.  Meditation surfaces all the above.

  1. How often should you meditate?

It is recommended that we meditate twice daily for 20 minutes—at the start of the day and at the end of the day.  I encourage everyone that if there are times during the day, you become anxious or overwhelmed for whatever reason, to just pause, take a few breaths and recite ‘Maranatha’.

  1. How should you do it?

John Main summarised the practice in this simple way:

Sit down. Sit still with your back straight. Close your eyes lightly. Then interiorly, silently begin to recite a single word—a prayer word or mantra. We recommend the ancient Christian prayer word ‘Ma-ra-na-tha’. Say it as four equal syllables. Breathe normally and give your full attention to the word as you say it, silently, gently, faithfully and—above all—simply. Stay with the same word during the whole meditation and in each meditation day to day. Don’t visualise but listen to the word, as you say it. Let go of all thoughts (even good thoughts), images and other words. Don’t fight your distractions: let them go by saying your word faithfully, gently and attentively and returning to it as soon as you realise you have stopped saying or it or when your attention wanders. Meditate twice a day, morning and evening, for between 20 and 30 minutes.

  1. Is there anything you should be careful of when practising these?

We encourage meditators to remain with the same mantra.  We also encourage them to be part of our meditation community, join one of our meditation groups, that meet both face to face and virtually.

  1. Is it true that when practising meditation, you open yourself to negative spirits?

I think that wherever we are, we may be open to negative spirits.  It is our God-centredness in our thoughts, actions, being and practices, that provides us with the protection we need.  Building our relationship with God through the Christ focus of Christian Meditation, through pure prayer is another way.

  1. What are the benefits to be derived?

Through meditation, we experience the manifestation of the fruits of the Holy Spirit love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.  As these fruits manifest, we see the transformation in our relationships with God and others, our increased ability to be more attentive to the people we are with; we are better able to manage our emotions, our impatience, our anger. This leads to better leadership, better teamwork.   As we become less stressed, we see the reduction in the symptoms of stress related diseases eg reduced blood pressure, blood sugar—physiological benefits.

  1. How does a person know that they are “meditating correctly”?

? By the transformation in their lives.