Experiencing God Through Meditation
Former Trappist monk James Finley talks about the spiritual benefits of contemplative practice for Christians.
BY: Interview by Lisa Schneider
Many people associate meditation with Eastern traditions. What do you mean by meditation?
Today more and more Christians are using the term meditation in a way that was traditionally referred to in the Christian tradition as contemplation, and that's how I'm using it.
At the heart of the Gospel is Jesus saying "I and the Father are one." The early Christians understood this as a call to enter into Christ's divine oneness with the Father. They felt they could respond to that call by entering into that oneness experientially; even on this earth they could realize something of this eternal oneness with God that Christ came to reveal and proclaim. And they sought to experience this through meditation and prayer.
Christian meditation is way of experiencing God beyond what the ego can grasp or attain. It's beyond thought, beyond memory, beyond the will, beyond feeling.
Although many Christians are rediscovering this ancient practice, there are other Christians who are opposed to meditation of any kind. Why?
My understanding is that it really has to do with the historical origins and developments of the Protestant traditions of Christianity. [It's] within some of the more fundamentalist or evangelical versions of the Reformation that you have this resistance.
You don't tend to have this resistance in the Catholic-Episcopal high church traditions because they're rooted in this kind of historical lineage back through these Christian contemplatives and mystics of the early church.
But I think with the Reformation there were very valid concerns among the reformers as to abuses that were going on within the church. And in that process of reform—which took place within the period of the Enlightenment which gave a tremendous emphasis to reason, to the importance of interpreting things by the use of sound reason and the interpretation of text and so on—I think it kind of slips off from there to a suspicion of meditative dimensions, even though the contemplative modes of Christian faith have these very ancient roots within the Christian community itself. So today there would be many evangelical Christians who are not really taught this openness to these dimensions.
And I think another thing is also true: I think there are many evangelical Christians—because I've talked to them, patients in psychotherapy and on my retreats—who are actually experiencing this deep contemplative form of prayer. They would speak of it as a deep sense of "being one with the Lord" or of being "surrendered over" or being consumed in God's love and so on, but they wouldn't necessarily think of it in terms [of meditation].
Some believe—we see this on Beliefnet's discussion boards—that meditation drives thoughts out of your mind and "invites the devil in."
Sometimes I will tell people who express that—well why not try it? Why not try to just quietly and sincerely and silently open your heart to God and see for yourself if you sense something dangerous or bad or dark. And you might discover that the opposite's the case.
What about those who might say, "Isn't prayer enough?" Why should Christians meditate?
It's not that prayer isn't enough. God has made the human heart in such a way that only God will do. And the God-given longing for God is fulfilled in a oneness with God in which nothing short of that oneness is enough. There's a kind of deep, sincere ache within the heart. It prays, and the prayer actually intensifies or deepens a longing for oneness with God beyond the words of the prayer and also beyond the emotions and the feelings that can come up in the consolations of prayer. Nothing is enough; only God is enough. And that's the mystical quest really, that's the contemplative theme.
You believe meditation has a transformative power and write that "It works." How does it transform you, how does it "work"?
The approach that seems helpful to me is to make a distinction between ego consciousness and more interior meditative states of awareness. By ego consciousness I'm referring to the modes of consciousness that are expressed when I say "I think" or "I remember" or "I want" or "I believe."
And the ego consciousness is a gift from God; it's through healthy ego consciousness that we get through life in the world. God wants us to have a healthy ego because when our ego is not healthy we suffer and those around us suffer. But the thing about ego consciousness is that in and of itself it's not gracious enough, it's not generous enough to be the subjective ground out of which we realize this oneness with God.
There are moments in which we're kind of unwittingly let out beyond ego consciousness and one example I give is standing alone looking at a sunset. In a very subtle but intimate way, while we're absorbed in the beauty of the sunset, we're at a moment of meditative awareness, beyond the intellect, beyond the memory and beyond the will. And whatever feelings that might come up, we also sense that the essence of the moment transcends emotion. We intuitively sense the richness or the fullness of the moment, and in terms of religious faith, we would say we sense God's nearness.