2017-03-27
James FinleyJames Finley has been a student of contemplative prayer for more than 20 years, six of which he spent at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, where he studied with Thomas Merton. He is the author of several books, including "The Contemplative Heart," and his teachings are also available on CDs from Sounds True. In "Meditations for Christians," for example, he guides listeners to "enter the mind of Christ" (listen to an audio clip). Now a clinical psychologist in California, Finley leads meditation workshops and retreats throughout North America. He spoke to us about his book, "Christian Meditation."

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.

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.