by Father Roger J. Scheckel, Spiritual Advisor
One of the spiritual practices that Marian Catechists make a commitment to carry out, daily, is meditation. For catechists-in-formation, the requirement is ten minutes a day, and for those in candidacy and those consecrated, the requirement is fifteen minutes a day. Recently, questions have been raised regarding this spiritual practice of meditation. These are some of the questions that have been forwarded to me:
- What is meditation, and how is it distinguished from contemplation?
- Is it correct to equate a period of meditation with, for example, praying the rosary in a reverent and “meditative” manner?
- May the ten (or fifteen) minute period of meditation be divided into various intervals, or numerous “meditative pauses” throughout the day?
Meditation is prayer. Along with vocal prayer and contemplation, it is one of the three expressions of prayer that has been used in the life of the Church from its beginning. Vocal prayer expresses a unity of the body and soul; meditation employs primarily (but not exclusively) the intellect in considering interiorly the truths of our Faith; and contemplation involves an engagement, or union, of the human heart with God. All three have in common the recollection of the heart.
As it is true of all prayer, meditation requires preparation. It will require, at the minimum, taking time out from one’s busyness and finding a place where one will not be easily interrupted or distracted. There is no better place for meditation than in the presence of the Most Blessed Sacrament. One expects the least amount of distractions and interruptions when in a church or chapel.
Meditation involves a concentration of the mind on some aspect of the Faith. It is not something exclusively intellectual, in that it is able to also engage the senses and the will. Often, meditation will conclude with a practical resolution in some matter of the Faith.
Meditation begins with some kind of presentation being made to the intellect. It may be initiated with spiritual reading, an artistic expression of the Faith found, for example, in a stained glass window or icon, a particular scene from nature, (as in the beauty and majesty of a sunrise), or the consideration of a sacramental that may be in one’s possession.
An example of a meditation on a sacramental can be found in our Holy Father’s Apostolic Letter, On the Most Holy Rosary. Toward the end of his Apostolic Letter (par.36), following his exhortation encouraging contemplation of the mysteries of Christ as seen through the eyes of Mary, the Pope encourages a meditation on the sacramental itself, i.e., beads linked together with a rope or chain that converges on a Crucifix. By itself, the rosary can be viewed simply as a “counting mechanism,” or it can take on a deeper symbolism when the beads are observed to “converge upon the Crucifix, which both opens and closes the unfolding sequence of prayer.” Meditation on this convergence encourages the realization that Christian life and prayer begins with, and leads to, Christ, who in turn leads us to His Heavenly Father. The Pope continues with the perspective of Blessed Bartolo Longo, who viewed the chain that holds together the beads, as a “sweet chain” that binds us to God; and a “filial chain” that puts us in tune with Mary, the handmaid of the Lord, as well as Christ, who made Himself a servant, out of love for us. The chain serves as a poignant symbol of the way in which we are linked together in faith with our brothers and sisters, living and dead.
While the instrument of the Rosary itself may be a fruitful source of meditation, the daily praying of the Rosary is something entirely different than the meditation just described. The Holy Father presents the actual praying of the rosary as contemplative prayer. In answer to one of the questions being asked by Marian Catechists, the praying of the rosary should not become a substitution for the required daily meditation.
A kind of overlapping may be found in the spiritual practices, between spiritual reading and meditation. Spiritual reading is one of the best sources for providing content for meditation. It is possible to combine spiritual reading with meditation. There is a natural and easy tendency to pause, in the course of one’s spiritual reading, to consider prayerfully, in a more personal way, what is being read. During spiritual reading, the fifteen minutes of required meditation can be spread out over the fifteen minute course of the reading. One’s meditation should be brought to completion within the time period required. The meditation should not be broken up into smaller pieces of time, over the course of a day.
An important source of material for meditation is the Sacred Scriptures. A fruitful form of Scripture meditation is lectio divina. This form of prayerful meditation has been used for centuries, particularly by consecrated religious. Marian Catechists, who have completed the Ignatian Exercises, will easily recognize the methodology of lectio divina.
The Office of Readings within the Liturgy of the Hours provides another excellent source of material to provide content for meditation.
Meditation can be difficult to accomplish due to distractions, which cause the mind to wander away from that aspect of the Faith being considered. Do not be disheartened. It is rare that a person who lives within the world, is able to achieve perfect solitude. When distractions occur, you should not become filled with anxiety or discouragement, but simply return back to your heart and reassert your heart’s desire to be in union with God. Distractions do test the person who meditates. However, when the test of distraction is met with faithfulness and fortitude it serves to build up and strengthen one’s spiritual life.
Techniques for meditation are offered through books, tapes, seminars, etc., that may prove helpful. Such techniques will involve suggestions concerning such bodily functions as breathing, body posture, and the beating of one’s heart. It is possible that some of these techniques may produce feelings of quiet and relaxation, pleasing sensations, and even experiences of light and warmth. While these techniques may be used in meditation, one must be cautious in not identifying such physical sensations with the deeper consolations of the Holy Spirit. Caution must be taken with any approach to meditation that focuses almost exclusively on methodology or technique, and very little on the content that is being used for the meditation. What makes Christian meditation Christian, is that one is encountering some aspect of the Christian Faith in the meditation.
In recent years, importation from Eastern religions has entered Christian spirituality. It enters primarily by introducing the Christian to various techniques for meditation. Some of these techniques can be helpful, depending to a great extent on the depth and authenticity of the spiritual and moral life of the person engaging in the prayer of meditation. Caution is advised when various suggestions from a non-Christian source are being encouraged. A spiritual director, who thinks and lives in accordance with the Church’s mind and heart, should be consulted if and when such techniques are being considered. I would also recommend reading the Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church, “On Some Aspects of Christian Meditation,” (Orationis Formas) that was issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on October 15, 1989.
Meditation is a wonderful and important way to pray. The Marian Catechist who utilizes it, daily, will greatly benefit as a result of it.
Originally published in the Tilma, Summer 2003