Christian meditation is an ancient practice dating back thousands of years, to the first days of the church. And it was part of the tradition of those of the Jewish faith long before that. There are many biblical references to meditation, from Genesis through the New Testament, with many specific mentions in the Psalms.
In fact in Psalm 1, God’s people are urged to meditate on his word – on his law – ‘day and night’.
Martin Luther, too, practised, taught and wrote on meditation. He reformed and simplified the medieval monastic model as he did so, according to LCA Pastor Tim Jarick, in his paper ‘Mysticism, Monks and Marty: Meditation in the Lutheran tradition’.
Pastor Tim, Chaplain at Pacific Lutheran College at Caloundra in Queensland, explains that Luther put praying to God for guidance first before reading the Scriptures in his model and made the cross of Christ central to the Lutheran tradition of meditation.
And yet, as Lutherans in Australia and New Zealand, many of us have grown without much knowledge of what Christian meditation is and how and why it is an important, even central, element of our faith journeys.
Indeed, until recent times, many modern Christians have shied away from the practice, says Lutheran Pastor Stephen Abraham. Pastor Stephen, who was already teaching Christian meditation when a spinal injury left him with permanent debilitating and chronic pain and forced his retirement from full-time ministry in his early 30s, uses meditation whenever his pain is severe.
He has developed his own style of Christian meditation over three decades, which draws on a range of influences including the Desert Fathers (early Christian hermits, ascetics and monks, who lived in the Egyptian desert from the 3rd century); Roman Catholic priest, Benedictine monk and spiritual writer John Main; the French ecumenical monastic fraternity Taizé, Martin Luther and, of course, the meditations present in the Bible.
Pastor Stephen says that in other religions meditation is about ‘controlling your mind’ or ‘mindlessly losing yourself’, whereas, in Christianity, it is about ‘giving your thoughts to God’ and ‘giving him control of your thinking’. ‘It is letting your mind-space be governed by God’s word so that the Holy Spirit can direct your daily life’, he says.
‘Meditation is something all humans share: a relaxed focus, a tool to calm mind and body, a place of solace in a busy world.
‘Muslims pray, but we as Christians aren’t afraid to pray or use Christian prayer in our daily life just because Muslims pray. Hindus sing, but we don’t write off all singing us “un-Christian” or an evil practice. Likewise, Buddhists meditate, but for 3000 or more years meditation has been part of the Judeo/Christian experience, even if modern Christians have shied away from it.
‘Just as Christian prayers and music are uniquely Christian, Christian meditation flows from our encounter with the Trinity as revealed in the Bible. In practice, it is a place where the Holy Spirit can guide our reflection as we focus on God’s word.’
Pastor Anthony Price, who serves the worshipping communities of Gawler Lutheran Church north of Adelaide and is accredited as a Spiritual Director and Retreat Leader, teaches Christian meditation and offers spiritual direction. He believes there are several reasons why meditation may have become a ‘lost’ practice in the Lutheran church.
‘Firstly, maybe that’s to do with the New Age movement and that people have a perception that it’s a bit weird’, he says. ‘That’s the unhealthy forms of meditation that take us off of the word, and Jesus and the Triune God.
‘I also think there’s a fear of the unknown – people just don’t know about it.
‘And I have to think about my role as a church leader. If I wasn’t really experiencing it myself, I wouldn’t have been teaching it. So while we as pastors may have learnt about it, if we haven’t experienced it in a life-transforming way, we may not have taken on board the centrality of meditation. And Luther is a fine example, who tells us and teaches us how important it is for us.’
Kathy Worthing, a member of the World Community for Christian Meditation state executive for South Australia and leader of a Christian meditation group, believes this contemplative ministry form is having a revival among everyday Christians – including in the LCA/NZ.
‘Recent spiritual writers such as John Main, Laurence Freeman, Joan Chittister and Richard Rohr have been at the forefront of the resurgence in the practice of Christian meditation, taking it beyond the monastery walls and into the lives of everyday Christians’, she says. ‘As Laurence Freeman said in A Pearl of Great Price, “Our world sorely needs the silent infrastructure of contemplation woven into the institutions and frenetic schedules. It needs the healing and transforming power that only the spirit can set free in us and among us”.’
Pastor Anthony, who had a life-changing experience through attending a retreat based on the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius in 2009 says he came to realise that it’s an important element of our faith-life to have a heart – or experiential – connection with Scripture, as well as a head – or intellectual – one.
He took a year out of parish ministry in 2012 to complete a Master’s degree in Spiritual Direction with the University of Divinity. He has led retreats using his Lutheran adaptation of The Ignatian Exercises, a retreat program written by Ignatius of Loyola, a Spanish Christian layman at the time who would later become the founder of the Jesuits. The program features Christian meditations centred on the Scriptures, the gospels and various prayers.
He believes the main benefit of Christian meditation ‘is to experience Christ himself’. ‘He says, “I am with you always”, so it enables us to experience him and his love and helps us to grow in faith, to grow in hope, to grow in love – real love in action as we join Jesus in his mission’, Pastor Anthony says.
‘The word meditation literally means “to chew on”, so it belongs to all of us as human beings. Jesus says, “Do not worry”, and worry is a form of meditation; it’s something that we ruminate again and again. So we all naturally meditate, but in terms of Christian meditation, the all-important aspect is, “Where’s the emphasis? What’s the content that we’re meditating on?”
‘For us as Christians, it’s the God that we believe in, the Triune God, Father, Son and Spirit, and where we experience him most centrally is in Scripture, through God’s word.’
Pastor Stephen has written a Christian meditation program with the hope of making the practice easy for time-poor people. For a copy, you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
He also has produced YouTube meditation videos, which can be watched and heard at www.youtube.com/c/StephenAbrahamMusic/videos and songs on online social audio platform SoundCloud, which are available for free at https://soundcloud.com/stephenabraham/sets/breathing-scripture/s-pv895