Experiencing God Through Meditation
Former Trappist monk James Finley talks about the spiritual benefits of contemplative practice for Christians.
BY: Interview by Lisa Schneider
The next thing that tends to happen is that the moment like all moments slips away and we get back in our car and drive home and pick up things at the store and run our errands and so on. But when we reflect on that moment of the setting sun we long for a more daily abiding meditative awareness that we so fleetingly glimpsed.
Meditation then comes in as a response to that longing; it's a way of sincerely inviting or opening ourselves to this meditative oneness with God.
Does meditation change people? Does it make them, for example, more peaceful, more compassionate, more thoughtful?
My sense is that it does. Let's say that I'm struggling with a lot of things that are going on in my life right now: "Oh my God, what if the marriage does fall apart?" or "What if I do lose my job?" What is so invasive about all these stressors that we all go through is this perception that we are nothing but these things, that they have the power to name who we are. But if in deep meditation I can intimately experience a oneness with God that transcends all these things, that's the peace that surpasses understanding. I know that yes, I face these things today, these things are going on, but the taproot of my heart is grounded in the oneness that's not reducible to any of these things. And I think as people learn to habituate that awareness, it does transform their life.
I think the Christian term would be an abandonment to divine providence—not just as an ideal, but as a kind of experiential inner peace that comes in being sustained by God. That changes people.
You write that the present moment is "a gateway to God." Could someone reading this interview stop right now and try to enter God's presence?
You can choose to stop right now, right at this point in the reading and sincerely open your heart to God who's loving you into this present moment and who's drawing you to himself at this present moment. You can sincerely and silently rest in that, in the "Here I am Lord" stand of attentive openness to God. That yielding to that inclination to rest in that silent openness to God is to give yourself over to "Christian meditation" or contemplative prayer.
One of the ways that the Christian mystics offered to help us in doing this is to take a word or phrase and to quietly repeat that word or phrase within yourself. Your word might be "Jesus" or "mercy" or "love". A phrase I invite people to explore, is that when you breathe out, silently say "I love you" as the expression of your whole being as an act of love to God. And as you inhale listen to God silently saying, "I love you." So the essence of the moment becomes this "I love you—I love you" [exchange], resting in God's presence.
You write, "The true nature of the present moment is the reality of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus." Could you explain what you mean by that?
Christ's life is a mirror of our own life and the deepest reality is that we're called to die to our most cherished illusions about ourselves. And our most cherished illusion about ourselves is that our failing, and our shortcoming, and our "sins"—as horrendous as they might be—have the power to separate us from the love of God. As I die to that illusion—which is an act of radical childlike trust in God's love—I am participating in the mystery of the cross in the ground of my own consciousness. That is, with God's grace, I'm dying to the last traces of fear and doubt and shame within myself. So that by dying to those cherished illusions of my own imaged autonomy from God's love, I am born into this kingdom consciousness or this mystery of the resurrection.
So for the Christian mystics, they didn't see the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as a story dualistically other than their life; rather they saw it as a story that revealed the deepest reality of their life. And we enter into this reality, which is at once God's life and our own, in the silent simplicity of meditation.