The Place of Meditation

John ArmstrongSpirituality

Mediation and contemplation are both essential aspects of prayer and Christian devotion.  I was taught very little about either growing up an evangelical. I have learned a great deal more by pursuing the subject of spiritual formation over the last ten years or so. Today I want to consider the value of meditation. Tomorrow I will connect this to contemplation.

Meditatio means “to consider, or to reflect.” Traditionally it has been viewed as a form of mental prayer in which the mind is very active. In early spiritual thought it was understood best by the Rule of St. Benedict which specifically urged Christians to meditate on “a text of the Bible so as to study it and learn it—to commit it to memory, to understand its meaning, to endeavor to live by it.” St. Francis de Sales says the word meditation means simply “an attentive and repeated thought that is capable of producing good or evil affections—feelings of fond attachment. In Holy Scripture, however, the world is ordinarily applied to the attention we give to the things of God [in order to] to stir us up to love them.”

By the sixteenth century the meaning of meditation narrowed to focusing more particularly on the activity of using one’s imagination and reason to develop an event or idea from Scripture or Christian tradition, with a view toward promoting affective devotion and the sanctifying of one’s life. Various systems evolved, especially that of St. Ignatius Loyola, which were used to help in the actual practice of meditation.

St. Francis de Sales noted that “every meditation is a thought, but every thought is not meditation.” Simple reflection within the mind is much like a fly that moves from one place to another. There is activity and experience. But meditation is more like a honey bee who moves from flower to flower extracting the honey of divine love from the holy mysteries of the Christian faith. When we truly meditate we seek to do more than learn, we pursue the love of Christ in prayer actively through what we learn. This process is learned and all too rare among modern evangelicals.

We rightly think about many subjects but meditation always has a very specific reference to those thinking about those objects in our life whose consideration makes us more holy and devout. The devout soul will gather the honey of God’s truth, much like the bee, and store it for wintertime. In meditation we move form one mystery to another not merely to admire the beauty of the truth but to give our reflective attention to the divine purpose so that we can relish the honey and thus feed the soul.

One reason evangelicals quite often miss the specific ways that truth and mystery feed love and devotion in the heart is to be observed here. They study Scripture much the way a scientist studies science, following the procedures of modernity. They pull a text apart, analyze it, and then they even preach from it. They put the text into a system of theology, often a very rationally defensible system. And then they see devotion is arguing for their system or debating it over against rival systems. In so doing they miss the deep joy of meditation, a joy that truly feeds and nourishes the soul so the love of God becomes the primary matter in Scripture study and Christian reading and conversation.