A Catholic Monthly Magazine

How to meditate

Fr John Kelly

by Fr John Kelly ocso

(Editor’s Note: this is one of the last articles in this series. In it Fr John summarises a lot of earlier material.)

In former articles I have strongly emphasised that in my view both John Main and Thomas Keating have offered us forms of passive meditation or contemplation that can be profitably used by everybody. But I confined myself largely to theory. I have not spelt out in practical terms how one meditates. In this article I will try to offer the practical ‘know-how’.

Meditation, says John Main, is the simplest exercise imaginable. Find a quiet place where you will not be disturbed. Sit still in a comfortable position. John Main recommends that we sit erect with a straight spine. There is a long tradition behind this recommendation. During meditation it is important to stay perfectly still and avoid all unnecessary bodily movement.

Next we close our eyes. In this way we blot out all the distractions that come through the eyes. Next we begin to say our mantra or word slowly and rhythmically. We continue to say it from the beginning to the end of the meditation (Main). The mantra or word recommended by Main is the Aramaic word ‘ma-ra-na-tha’. Keating also recommends a sacred word (mantra). As far as I know he doesn’t have any special preference for special words. We can use words like ‘Jesus’, ‘Father’, ‘Abba’, ‘Saviour’ etc. It is best to stick with the same word always and not change it. In this way it gets into our system. We must not try to stir up feelings or analyse the meaning of the word. We simply say it rhythmically, without feeling, from start to finish. Main is strong on this point. Keating, I think, will allow one to drop the word after inner silence has been reached. But if distractions occur we must resume saying it immediately. What is fundamental is that we reach deep inner silence and preserve it as far as possible all through the meditation. Main is convinced that the best way to achieve this is to say the mantra from start to finish. I think that he is right.

But we may ask, is it possible to maintain inner silence for a long time? I think that there is question most of the time, not of complete silence, but of a relative stillness. There will always be some distractions that usually make very little impression because of the general stillness of mind and body. If we were to measure inner silence on a scale from 1 to 10 I think that the silence experienced in meditation fluctuates most of the time from 7 to 10.

Both Keating and Main insist that meditation must be practised every morning and every evening for the rest of one’s life. It is a discipline to which we commit ourselves. Without a serious commitment, to which we are always faithful, we will not experience the full benefits of meditation.

We may object and say, isn’t it sufficient to meditate once a day? Why must we do it morning and evening? Experience seems to demonstrate that we only derive the full benefits from meditation if we do it daily morning and evening. Meditation resembles food and sleep. We need to practise it with a definite frequency. There is question of both bodily and spiritual health. As I pointed out already, ‘grace builds on nature’.

A certain amount of faith in the tradition, natural faith, is also necessary. At times we will be tempted to chuck up the meditation. It can be boring to persevere day after day; we can get tired and weary. This is when we need to have faith in the tradition that has endured for thousands of years. Perhaps we do not notice any benefits from particular meditations. I heard some people say, ‘it does nothing for me’. Such temptations to give up must be ruthlessly swept aside. Unless we persevere faithfully in the discipline its good effects will not be experienced.

The primary effect of meditation is a better integrated personality. We are transformed and changed. We are more fully human. We are more fully alive mentally and physically. Millions of people practise secular meditation so as to enjoy better health of mind and body. We can learn a lot from such people and from the Asian masters.

In Christian meditation we are seeking more than human development. We hope that grace will build on nature. If meditation makes us more human the Holy Spirit can work more effectively in us because there are fewer blockages in us to God’s action. 

The motivation underlying Christian Meditation is not primarily self-fulfilment but the desire for deeper union with God. This motivation should urge us to take on meditation and it should be maintained during its practise. This motivation changes a self-centred natural secular activity into a work of divine charity. We maintain the necessary discipline out of love for God. The love of God urges us to commit ourselves to meditation, and that same love enables us to continue. Christian meditation then is a way of living, not for oneself, but for God. I am convinced that Centering Prayer or Christian Meditation, if practised faithfully, will make a rich contribution to one’s prayer life.

Everyone committed to prayer needs a rhythm of active and passive contemplation. The meditation we are considering in this article supplies the necessary passive dimension.

It is scarcely necessary to point out that this form of prayer should not be our sole form of prayer. In addition to passive meditation we need to be faithful to the other dimensions of the Christian life, such as the Eucharist, personal prayer, spiritual reading and the practise of virtue and good works.

Conclusion: In practice, in order to derive the full benefits of meditation we must commit ourselves to meditate daily, morning and evening for 20 to 30 minutes. During meditation we must faithfully repeat our mantra in so far as it is necessary to reach deep inner silence and preserve it. During meditation we must be perfectly still.

Tagged as: ,

Comments are closed.