Excerpt from The Making Of An Ordinary Saint

The Main Distinction of Christian Meditation

Many meditative techniques have been developed by a variety of religious and nonreligious traditions. The main distinction of Christian meditation is a focus on filling rather than emptying. It is not done as a self-help mechanism or a tool to relax, although it almost always results in relaxation, but rather as a way to connect with God, to hear and obey. Christians throughout the centuries have followed biblical examples of meditation in a variety of ways that people find helpful to the process: sitting in silence before God, focusing on a verse or picture, spending time in nature, using music or various imaginative exercises. Christian meditation, sometimes referenced as contemplative or meditative prayer, is essentially little more than an active response to the verse, Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10). It is a time to discern the still small voice” of Yahweh (1 Kings 19:12).

It wasn’t until I began to formally study Christian meditation that I realized this has been the primary activity I have used through the years to encounter God.

Since there are forty-two biblical references to meditation, it’s odd how absent the practice is from modern Western Christianity. For many Christians, meditation is often seen as a practice reserved for New Age or Middle Eastern religions, and many are unaware of its deep roots in historic Christian practice and thought. Not to mention that stillness is an affront to our idols of efficiency, hurry, noise, and distraction. Spirituality with no concretely defined goals and objectives can be threatening. We almost always value purpose over mystery.

Some Christians go so far as to object to the practice altogether for fear that using one’s imagination is a gateway to the demonic. How many good things do fear and misunderstanding keep us from? The human imagination is an amazing God-given gift. Our world is full of examples of its redemptive use— art, music, and innovations.

What Meditation Looks Like For Me

For me, meditation usually begins with closing my eyes and taking a series of deep breaths. This helps me begin to let go of the distractions and temporal concerns that seem to dominate much of my life. Some thoughts I let drift by; others that I need to remember I jot down. I prayerfully invite God to guide my time while I simply focus my attention on him. Oftentimes I silently pray, confess, worship, untangle situations, and make resolutions. Sometimes I just sit and listen. Occasionally, I fall asleep. I don’t think God minds; he knows when I’m exhausted and mean well.

In special moments the silence of meditation ushers in wonder and joy. As I’m carried into the mystery of God, the stillness is like breast milk from God: tender, loving, and intimate. Often, however, silence brings emptiness. I get to face the emotion that seems most characteristic of the human experience: loneliness. I’m reminded of how I tend to turn good things like family, friends, social media, work, church activities, sex, TV, books, internet, future goals, spending money, sports, and hobbies into distractions in order to fill the void. 

In the depths of meditation, I sometimes well up in tears. I’m aware I don’t know how to live, how to be. I become more in touch with my body, my heart, my surroundings. It is not escapism; it is becoming alive to the world, alive to the presence of God in his created order. 

Boredom is the key. You know you’re getting close when you begin to feel its empty weight. Monotony ushers in joy. I realize how seldom I fully enjoy the richness of the sacred. I’m frightened by how distracted my life has become. I used to think multitasking was a virtue to strive for. It is not. The forgotten art of focusing on one task at a time is a treasure, a joy, and the gateway to a life of prayer. In this space we learn to listen. We gently respond to the rhythms of the Spirit. 

While physical, mental, and innate awareness of God’s presence or voice is one of the most glorious things a human can experience, his hiddenness is as much an act of love as his presence. Like the tree digging its roots deep in the earth, desperately searching for the water it needs to survive, we pursue God in spite of what we experience or feel. God’s seeming absence is vital for the growth of our souls. Spiritual maturity requires both presence and longing.

With over two thousand years of Christendom to draw from, there is a long legacy of books written by Jesus followers to lead and guide us. I’m not sure if we are facing a decaying spiritual evolution or if I’m just a book snob, but it seems the most substantial books, the type of book that can only be written after collecting a lifetime of knowledge and experience, are older. Modern books often lack the bite, depth, and courage of the old writers.

Years ago, when I was first introduced to the idea of sitting in God’s presence, a good five minutes was about all I could handle. Here again I have had to let go of my obsession with progress. While I haven’t intentionally meditated with regularity, it has quietly become a major part of my life. And it’s only after years of practice that I can now sit for extended periods of time. Yet I find it doesn’t take long to reset my attention to the work of the Spirit brooding and hovering about, pursuing and loving his creation. So when I find a moment or two, I welcome God’s presence and find, as Henri Nouwen said, The inner fire of God is tended and kept alive.”

Foster, Nathan. The Making of an Ordinary Saint: My Journey from Frustration to Joy with the Spiritual Disciplines (pp. 85 – 88). Baker Publishing Group, 2014.

Photo by Alex Perez on Unsplash

Text First Published October 2014 · Last Featured on Renovare.org August 2023