Listening to God
An Introduction to Christian Meditation
How does anyone speak to anyone else? There’s nothing mysterious about human communication. We get to know someone by listening to the words they use. Spaces between people are bridged by words. They enable us to find out more about them, to draw closer and closer to them. This is why Christians have always regarded the Bible with awe from the earliest times, because it contains the words that bridge the gap between God and man – God’s words. It even goes a step further by showing how God’s words were eventually embodied in the flesh and blood of a human being – Jesus Christ. When we learn to listen to his words we learn to listen to God. When we learn to love him we learn to love God. This is why all authentic Christian prayer begins not by flinging oneself into obscure states of transcendental awareness, but by trying to get to know and love Jesus Christ.
When we read the scriptures then, slowly and prayerfully, allowing them to sink into our hearts, we listen to the word of God speaking to us now. This is how the early Christians used to pray in a method of prayer that the Desert Fathers called “Lectio Divina” or the divine or sacred reading. It was so called, not just because they believed the words they read were inspired, but because they believed that they too would be inspired as they read them by the One who inspired them in the first place. They believed that through the holy reading they would be lead on and into a sort of profound conversation with God that would lead them on and into what St Paul called ” the height and depth, the length and breadth of God’s love that surpasses the understanding”.
This is why whatever other methods of prayer we may at times find helpful, we must never forget and always turn back to the Bible as the Christian prayer book ‘par excellence’.
The early Christians knew no other. Many of them knew whole chunks, if not all of the Gospels off by heart. They had no other prayer book to hand, nor did they have need of them. Read John Cassian’s description of how the Desert Fathers used the scriptures, most particularly the New Testament and the Psalms. He emphasized how they were not interested in how much they read, but in how deeply they penetrated the sacred texts. They would read a few verses at a time going over them for a second and a third time, poring over them, entering more profoundly into their dynamic inner meaning. Then they would pause in moments of deep interior stillness to allow the same Spirit, who inspired them in the first place, to inspire them also. When they had savoured one particular text they would reverently move on to another and repeat the process, leaving pauses for silence, for the inpact of the words to seep into the very marrow of their being. As this prayer grew more and more intense, the moments of silence would become more and more prolonged until in the end words would give way to periods of profound inner recollection.
Four Latin words have been traditionally used to describe how “Lectio Divina” can lead serious minded Christians onward to experience the Love that surpasses all understanding. The words are Lectio, Meditatio, Oratio, and Contemplatio.
Sadly this ancient and traditional way of leading ordinary Christians onwards through meditation to contemplation was lost sight of for a series of reasons that are happily no longer relevant today. You see when Christianity spread along the famous roads built by the Romans, it found itself in rather rude and primitive surroundings compared with the sophisticated empire into which it was born. How could you give the scriptures to people who could not read or write? Although it had always been the policy from the earliest times to translate the Liturgy and the Scriptures into the language of the people, how could you do this when the people had no language, or at least no written language sufficiently developed to allow such a translation to take place?
By the time this became possible, and more and more people were able to read, it was reformers unacceptable to the traditional church, who first gave the people the Word of God in their own language. This is why the Church has for many centuries frowned upon, if not positively discouraged the reading of the scriptures.
During these centuries, when ordinary people were starved of the scriptures, it was the prerogative of the great saints and spiritual leaders to present the central mysteries of the faith to the people, in a way that could lead them to prayer. Simple devotions grew up for the illiterate, techniques of mental prayer were introduced and methods of prayer came into vogue, culminating in the meditation manuals that we have known almost up to the present day.
Many of these helps to prayer have stood the test of time, like the Rosary, the Stations of the Cross the Exercises of St Ignatius for example, and others. In general these various improvisations were good because they genuinely re-presented the authentic teaching and spirit of the Gospels. In so far as they continue to do this they can still be used with profit and help guide people to genuine sanctity, as they have done so often in the past. However, the scriptures have been opened to all once again, so they ought to be put in pride of place as the means of guiding any serious searcher through meditation to the profound contemplative union with the One who inspired the sacred scriptures in the first place.
If you find the traditional Latin words Lectio, Meditatio, Oratio, and Contemplatio, used to describe the practice of Lectio Divina,too cumbersome or difficult to remember then think of the “Four R’s” instead. They have helped me to try and follow the example of the Desert Fathers over the years, so hopefully, they may be of help to you too. They are simply Reading, Reflection, Reaction and Resting.
Firstly Reading (Lectio). Begin by reading the sacred texts. Then re-read them slowly and prayerfully. Then Reflection (Meditatio), reflect on what you have read – ruminate on them, as St Augustine would say, allow the inner meaning of every word to seep deep down into the very marrow of your being.
Learning to pray the scriptures means learning to read in a new way and learning to listen too as we’ve never really listened before.
You see we are so bombarded with reading materials from all sides every day of our lives, that we have had to acquire a habit of reading at a breathtaking pace of knots, just to keep abreast of what’s going on. Every day there’s the newspapers to be read mountains of junk mail to sift through, memoranda to be absorbed, and letters and bills to be dealt with. Our only concern is to glean the relevant facts as quickly as we can and to move on to something else. If we apply the same techniques to the way we read the scriptures it won’t enable us to get to know Christ more deeply. They should be read as we would read good poetry, endlessly going over them to plunder their contents.
Then Reaction (Oratio), react in your own way and in your own words. Real prayer begins now as you start trying to raise your heart and mind to God, as you begin responding to the inspired words upon which you have been reflecting. When everything has been said that needs to be said, then be still, Resting (Contemplatio) replete with what you have received in deep interior stillness. Then gaze with the inner eye upon the presence within that is more tangible than ever before. When distractions inevitably come to disturb this contemplative stillness start again at the beginning reading and re-reading, reflecting and reacting ’til you can return again to the inner stillness, if only for a few moments. Gradually what was initially difficult becomes easier with practice. Then, with your heart and mind raised, you can be open and receptive to God’s action for ever longer periods of time. In time, and with perseverance, you will eventually begin to experience something of the “height and the depth, the length and breadth of God’s love that surpasses the understanding”. Gradually this self-same love will surcharge our own weak human loving enabling us to love, serve and feel for others, outside of formal prayer, in a way and to a degree that would be quite impossible without it.
I usually recommend people to turn to the Gospels to begin with, most particularly the Gospel of St. John, turning to his famous discourses, especially his profound spiritual discourse at the Last Supper, from chapter 13 to chapter 17. There’s enough food for prayer there for a lifetime. Then turn to the letters of St John and St. Paul, the Acts of the Apostles and then to the other New Testament writers.
However the 4R’s can be used to explore other religious texts as well. Use them to meditate more systematically and more deeply on your favourite spiritual hymns and poems. There are many profound and beautiful hymns that we only glance at briefly every now and then when we sing them in church or at “Songs of Praise”. Hymns like “Lead Kindly Light”, or “Come Holy Spirit” etc. The Hymnal can be a rich source of material for meditative prayer. Some of the modern folk hymns are ideal too. The music may be of varying quality, but the words are often both scriptural and profound.
Use the 4R’s to meditate on some of the liturgical texts that we often pay little attention to at the time. The great Eucharistic prayers for instance. We rarely have time to penetrate their profundity when they are being read for us at Mass. One of the advantages of using these prayers in this way is that without realising it, we are being moulded into Christ own prayer. These great liturgical prayers are the most perfect extended examples of the patter of all prayer, the “Our Father”.
There are many other liturgical prayers and hymns that can be used for personal prayer in this way. The “Gloria” is a perfect example and so are many other ancient poems hymns and sequences used throughout the liturgical seasons. Use the psalms too, especially those that you feel speak to you in a special way in your particular needs. These were one of the main sources of spiritual nourishment for the Desert Fathers.
The use of liturgical texts in this way helps to build a bridge between public and private prayer. Too often they are seen as two entirely different and separable departments of Christian worship, when they should be seen and experienced as two indispensable and inseparable aspects of a believer’s prayer experience.
Now in order to facilitate the use of the 4R’s as a means of meditating more effectively on the words of Christ in the Gospels some people find it helpful to recreate the scene in which the sacred words were first spoken in their imaginations. Let’s suppose that you’ve chosen to meditate on those profound words of Jesus as recorded for us by St. John in the famous discourse at the Last Supper. Begin by setting the scene in your imagination. Picture the Apostles preparing the tables, see Christ coming into the room, watch the way he moves, look into his face when he speaks, then mull over his every word using the 4 R’s to help you penetrate their inner meaning. The same sort of scene setting could be used to build up the atmosphere before meditating on other Gospel texts. The Passion of Christ, for instance, would lend itself to this method of praying. Don’t just think of what Christ went through, go back in your imagination and place yourself in the event. You are amongst the soldiers at the scourging, one of the crowd during the carrying of the cross, an onlooker at the actual Crucifixion. You see everything as it happens, you open your ears and hear what is said and then you open your mouth and begin to pray. Although this approach does not appeal to everybody nobody should be put off because it can lead to an emotional response. We are not dealing with pious fantasy here but with the most momentous historical events in human history. The word was made flesh precisely so that people of flesh and blood could understand and see God’s love made tangible. Christ’s death was a brutal and painful reality through which the Word, who was made flesh, speaks of love in a way that is intelligible to all. To neglect the Passion as a primary source of Christian meditation and prayer is to neglect the most important manifestation of God’s love that ever happened. We are not blocks, we are not stones, we are not senseless things, if we cannot eventually respond in kind to such love then there is something wrong with us.
I use the word ‘eventually’, because to begin with when we first start to use the 4R’s, with or without the use of the imagination as I have just explained it, there is little intellectual or emotional response. To start with the truths of the faith are to big, too enormous, almost too incredible for us to take in effectively. When I first heard that the stars in the nearest galaxy Andromeda were 2 million light-years away I simply could not take it in. The distances were too enormous for my mind to cope with. It’s exactly the same with the truths of our faith, at least to begin with. Take the central truth of our faith that God is love and that he loves us deeply and personally in such a way that he wants to enter into us to make his home within us. These truths are too much for us to cope with they too great for us to take in, at least initially; it’s as if our minds are paralyzed by their power. We simply cannot penetrate or comprehend their meaning. It’s the same with our emotions too; they can only respond to a stimulus of a certain degree of intensity. When I first heard of my mother’s death I didn’t react, it was all too much for my emotions to cope with. Once again it’s the same with the truths of the faith.
However with good will and, with genuine and that means continuous effort come what may, things will gradually begin to change for the better. This state of mental paralysis gradually begins to lift. The slow, meditation on the sacred texts suddenly begin to bear fruit. The spiritual understanding begins to stir, the emotions are touched, and begin to react. What began as rather dry academic knowledge about God changes and begins to strike with an ever-deepening impact. Knowledge begins to turn into love, as the love that God has for us begins to register with effect. Nobody can remain the same when they realise that another loves them. We respond automatically; the emotions are released and we begin to express our love and thanks in return. This is the beginning of real pray that will grow with depth and intensity as the truth of God’s love is brought home time and time again in so many different ways, through slowly poring over and digesting the scriptures (Reflection or Meditatio).
As the impact of the Gospel message begins to explode with maximum effect, the believer finds that even the most extravagant words do not sufficiently voice the depth of feeling that they feel welling up from within. (Reaction or Oratio) In the end the words of thanks praise, adoration and even the language of love gives way to silence, a silence that says far more than the most potent man-made means of expression conceivable.
The slow meditative penetration of the texts, now opens out and envelops the whole person as the believer is ever more deeply absorbed into a silent contemplative gaze upon God. The most powerful and poignant expressions of the new relationship with God seem to be emptied of their meaning in face of the reality. ‘Words united the separate parts, but in perfect union there is the perfect silence of bliss’. That’s why the last of the 4R’s is Resting or what has traditionally been called contemplatio or contemplation, which can be defined as “the simple loving gaze upon God accompanied by awe”.
In the light of all this it’s easy to see how the scriptures continually use the analogy of human love as the best possible way to describe how the love between Man and God begins and grows to perfection. In the beginning of human love words are usually hard to come by, there is an initial embarrassment coping in a first time love affair. There is usually a certain strain, even a certain artificiality in the way we express ourselves. In subsequent meetings the conversation tends to revolve around getting to know about each other in more detail. Gradually the spark of love that was there from the beginning is fanned into flame and words of explanation give way to the language of love. The closer love draws the two into one the need for words grow less and less. It is enough to be alone, to be at one with each other in a profound pregnant silence.
Now the prayer that once seemed so difficult, that was once approached as a rather tedious duty, becomes not only easy, but also desirable. It is no longer difficult to find time to do what you want to do more than anything else. You want nothing more than to remain still, at rest gazing upon God, open and ready to receive whatever he chooses to give. Then after months rather than years, of this highly charge and emotion-filled prayer, in which you gratefully and willingly wait on God, then God begins to act as never before. An ever more powerful inflow of love begins to act within you, precisely because you have never been so open and receptive to his action before. Now it’s time to learn a new form of prayer in the mystic way into which you will now be led, to receive from God what will alone enable you to be united with him far more perfectly than before. In order to understand this new form of prayer and how it facilitate the union you desire more than any other its necessary to learn now to receive from God.