Contemplative prayer is the simplest expression of the mystery of prayer.
Catechism of the Catholic Church 2713
The Tradition of Meditation
Meditation has always been part of the Christian tradition. In the world today there has been a renewed interest in the practice of meditation as a form of silent personal prayer.1 This could be due to the increased need for silence and stillness in the midst of our busy lives. Pope Benedict2 affirms this when he says, ‘Without doubt, a Christian needs certain periods of retreat into solitude to be recollected, and in God’s presence, rediscover his path.’3 The Gospels tell us that Jesus himself spent long hours praying in the silence of the night or that he went up into the hills to pray before dawn. ‘His daily activity was closely bound up with prayer, and…flowed from it.’4 His prayer was deep communion with the Father (his Abba). As disciples, we too are invited into this same loving communion with God. This is the essence and foundation of Christian life.
The tradition of meditation was particularly taken up by the earliest Christians who went to the desert to live a life of simplicity and prayer. They learnt to repeat a phrase from the psalms as they wove their baskets and did their other daily tasks. In this way they moved from saying words into silent contemplation. We can understand contemplation as a loving gaze or attention such as we would give to a beautiful view. We all have the capacity to pray in this contemplative way. If you have ever sat by the ocean in silent wonder, or reflected on the mystery of love, then you know the beginnings of contemplation.
Wordless meditation is suited to our hectic lifestyle which is overloaded with information. People want silence and stillness, and to find the mysterious, wonderful God. Perhaps it is the old peasant who put it best. When St John Vianney found him spending long hours in the back of the church, he asked him what he was doing, and the old man replied: ‘He just looks at me and I just look at Him.’ (c.f. Catechism of the Catholic Church 2715)
Christian meditation then is understood as the focusing of ‘attention beyond thought and imagination’ and leading to a ‘still, wakeful presence to the reality of God’.5
The Journey of Meditation
There are as many forms of prayer as there are types of people. Meditation forms part of the rich tradition of Christian prayer. It enhances and complements other ways of praying. Christian contemplation unfolds from the seeds of the graces planted at baptism.
Once we begin to meditate, that is, to have this personal meeting with God, we embark on a journey of growing friendship and intimacy with God. This leads us towards communion with God and an emerging self-knowledge. It is an invitation into deeper freedom to follow the Gospel more generously.
Traditionally meditation has been presented as a process with three elements:6
- listening attentively to the Gospel and seeking to live it;
- understanding more fully the meaning of the Christian faith;
- the movement towards silent union in love.
All three elements are found with varying emphases in everyone who walks the spiritual path. Each element involves the other, and needs to be nurtured and practised.
One with Christ
Contemplative prayer is a union with the prayer of Christ.
Catechism of the Catholic Church 2718
Meditative prayer is a process of discovering the interior springs of grace. The story of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan is an ideal image for our understanding of meditation. He first descends into the dark, silent waters of the river. When he emerges, the heavens open and the Spirit descends while he hears God’s voice saying: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, my favour rests on him’. Jesus stands there, transfigured, and then begins his work.
Everyone who enters on the way of meditation is invited to follow the same path and can do so because Jesus has opened the way beforehand.
The first step is to go down into the still waters of silence. It is a moment of ‘dying’ to oneself – turning away from habits that block the divine life within. It is also a moment of finding oneself, of discovering one’s own inner goodness and growing wisdom. This opens to a clearer understanding of the truths of the Christian faith. The gifts of the Spirit become manifest in one’s life as the meditator knows in their heart of hearts that they are ‘beloved’ of God. They know they are one with Christ. Meditation is done not for one’s own sake but for the benefit of others as well. Just as Jesus begins his work after his baptism at the Jordan so too we, by grace, become a blessing for others, a light to the world.
It is love that gives us the strength and desire to continue this ongoing journey.
- Use these links to explore two contemporary expressions of the contemplative tradition: Centering Prayer and Christian Meditation
- In ancient wisdom contemplation was seen as the goal of life, the good life. Read how meditation is a universal tradition.
- Read here an academic presentation on Christian meditation.
- You will find here another academic essay on the spirituality of the desert.
- As Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict wrote a letter to bishops on Christian meditation.
- Traditionally this is known as contemplative prayer
- Written as Cardinal Ratzinger when prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
- Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on some aspects of Christian Meditation, 1989, paragraph 23
- The General Instruction on the Liturgy of the Hours, xxi
- Laurence Freeman in The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality (ed. Michael Downey) Pg 649.
- These stages are traditionally called ‘purification’, ‘illumination’ and ‘union’.
The Practice of Meditation I
There are some basic aspects to consider as you prepare to meditate. These include, making a regular time to meditate, choosing a suitable place, taking time to prepare the body and mind, adopting a good posture and attention to breathing. The practice of meditation in the Christian tradition has four basic components. Posture, Breath, Word and Blessing. In this section we will look at Posture and Breath, and in the section ‘The Practice of Meditation II’ we will look at Word and Blessing.
Focusing on Posture and Breath as you prepare students to meditate gives them time to make the transition from the busyness of the day to a more receptive mode of being. These simple preparation exercises make the meditation time more effective.
Be still and know that I am God (Ps. 46:10)
Posture is an important aspect of meditation. If your body is still and relaxed, it is more likely you will be receptive to this way of deeper prayer and stillness. You may sit on the floor or on a chair with your hands resting comfortably on your knees or lap. Consciously let go of the stress and tension from your body. Close your eyes gently. If you are sitting in a chair, keep your feet firmly on the floor. Relax your shoulders…arms…neck…face. Keep your spine straight and your head level. Relax your legs and feel the stillness in your body. Be aware of any sounds in the far distance, then be aware of your heart beating. Be aware of the silence in the room.
The Hebrew word for Spirit is ruah, the same word for ‘breath’. St Paul links the Holy Spirit with breathing (sighing) when he writes:
…the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit…(Rom 8:26–27).
So, as you prepare to meditate, pay attention to your breathing. Become aware of the present rate of your breathing, then gently, move toward a deeper, slower and calmer rhythm. Consciousness of your breathing helps you to become more centred and still, more deeply aware of the Spirit within.
Meditation in the Classroom
Young Children have a special capacity to experience the presence of God – a capacity to develop a conscious and intimate relationship with God.
To Know Worship and Love, Level 1a, 2001, 6
Meditation is essentially a simple practice, and is ideal within the classroom setting. When beginning meditation in the classroom it is best to commit to practicing consistently (at least once per week) for a short amount of time (a few minutes) rather than occasionally for a longer time. This gives the students the opportunity to become accustomed to it, and to enjoy it.
You could begin by setting aside short periods of time for meditation at the beginning or end of a lesson, as part of morning prayer or to conclude the day. As the students become more comfortable with meditating you could increase the time. If possible choose a time of day when the students are most likely to be receptive. It can be helpful to clear a space in the room and create a calming environment, e.g. dim the lighting, light a candle, sit the students in a circle. Students can sit either cross-legged on the floor or upright on chairs.
Guide them through the steps of correct posture and relaxation, as well as consciousness of breathing. Simple relaxation techniques allow students to make the transition from the busyness of the day and to move into a more receptive mode, even if just for a few minutes. Do this without haste. Go slowly and allow periods of silence.
Here are some suggestions to help prepare students to meditate. You can adapt them to your own needs.
Preparing to Meditate: Junior
Preparing to Meditate: Senior
- All four Gospels tell us that Jesus prayed. He prayed alone on mountains and in the wilderness. He prayed on roads, in people’s homes and in synagogues. He prayed alone with God and he prayed with and for others.
- What can the Taize community in France teach us about the practice of prayer and meditation?
- Richard Rohr explores the concept of reflective living in this introduction to contemplation called Becoming Stillness.
- This site provides you with support for Christian Meditation with children.
The Practice of Meditation II
Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret (Matt 6:6).
Meditation is not relaxation, although it may lead to a sense of peace and calm. Meditation is about praying with our whole being. It is about gathering oneself in the centre of one’s being, in order to be attentive to the presence of God. It is a way of simplicity where, ‘we allow God’s mysterious and silent presence within us to become more and more…the reality in our lives’.1
The Christian tradition provides clear guidelines for practising meditation using a sacred word or phrase: John Cassian2 and the use of a short biblical phrase to come to an interior silence in prayer; The Cloud of Unknowing3and the use of a short word with the intention of seeking God in silence and stillness; the use of the Jesus Prayer4 as a form of unceasing prayer as practiced by the early desert monks.
John Cassian(c. 360-435) writes: ‘We pray in our room whenever we withdraw our hearts completely from the tumult and noise of our thoughts and our worries and when, secretly and intimately, we offer our prayer to the Lord.’5
More recently, the practices of Christian Meditation (through the World Community for Christian Meditation), and Centering Prayer represent contemporary expressions of the rich tradition of Christian meditation.
3. The Sacred Word
In Christian meditation the reciting of a word or phrase is an expression of love and faith in God’s presence. It represents our intention to be attentive and receptive to God’s presence with us. It expresses our hearts desire for God. The word or phrase helps to focus and centre the mind and heart enabling us to leave behind other thoughts and worries.
Choose a short word such as:
Jesus; God; Spirit; Amen; Maranatha; Shalom; Love; Abba; Peace; Mercy; Listen; Silence; Stillness; Faith; Trust; Calm; Yes.
Or a phrase such as:
I trust in you; Let it be; Jesus my friend; Do not be afraid; Letting Go; Be still; Peace be with you; Help me; God is Love; Be Still and Know that I am God.
Introduce the word or phrase gently and stay with the same one during the period of meditation. Be alert and relaxed. If you find that you are distracted by other thoughts, come back gently to your word or phrase again. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with your eyes closed for a few moments.
Following are suggested meditation methods.
Meditation Method: Junior
Meditation Method: Senior
We are called to be a ‘blessing,’ and to bless.
Catechism of the Catholic Church 1669
Meditation is a gift, a grace. By grace, the person who sits in meditation becomes a blessing to others, as though they were a candle flame placed on the lamp stand and filling the room with light. Meditation is not a selfish and solitary act. It is of benefit to the whole world.
Reading: Just to be is a blessing.
Beginning Meditation in the Classroom
Prayer, contemplation and silence are natural components
of a child’s religious life.
To Know Worship and Love, Level 1a, 2001, 7
When you decide to introduce meditation to your class, it is important that you are supported by your school. Ensure that you tell your Religious Education Coordinator, and if possible, have other teachers introduce it with you. Be aware of the Christian tradition of meditation (by referring to this website) and follow the guidelines.
Here are some areas to be aware of when you introduce meditation in the classroom:
Meditation in the Classroom
Leading a Meditation Session
When leading a meditation session it is helpful to prepare the students and give them some time to move to a more receptive mode. It is best to commit to practicing consistently (at least once per week) for a short amount of time (a few minutes) rather than occasionally for a longer time. This gives the students the opportunity to become accustomed to it, and to enjoy it.
Giving the students time for relaxation to prepare for meditation is especially helpful. There are some suggested relaxation exercises in ‘The Practice of Meditation I’. It is important to be clear about the length of time you will meditate with your students and let them know how you will measure the time (it is helpful to use a timing device such as a bell to chime at the end of the meditation period). Over time, you will be able to increase the time for meditation as the students become accustomed to it.
Here are some suggestions for leading a meditation session with junior and senior students.
Leading a Meditation Session: Junior
Leading a Meditation Session: Senior
- The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks about Christian Meditation.
- Fr Laurence Freeman speaks about Christian Meditation.
- Use these links to explore two contemporary expressions of the contemplative tradition: Centering Prayer and Christian Meditation
- This film clip provides you with support for Christian Meditation with children.
- John Main, The Inner Christ. (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1987), 15.
- John Cassian, Conferences CWS Series (NY, 1985)
- See for example: C Wolters, The Cloud and Other Works, (London, 1978)
- Kallistos Ware, The Power of the Name: The Jesus Prayer in Orthodox Spirituality. (Oxford: Will Print, 2000)
- John Cassian, Conferences CWS Series (NY, 1985), chapter 9
Meditation leads to action. ‘The practice of Christian meditation is not an escape from this everyday life but in fact meditation compels us to love, service and compassion for others.’1 That is, the more we grow in a loving friendship with Christ, the more we will be graced to be involved in his mission to the world. He asks us to be the ‘salt’ of the earth and the ‘light’ of the world – to love both God and others.
The more we receive in our silent prayer the more we can give in our active life. Christian Meditation leads to Christ, and Christ leads to union with God. The spiritual ‘heart’ expands and we begin to see God’s presence within our own lives and all around us. We become sensitive to the needs of our neighbours, particularly those who are suffering in any way. We begin to take on the mind of Christ and hear the call to serve others as he did.
‘What [we] take in by contemplation [we] must pour out in love.’
- Explore the concept of contemplative living. We are invited to bring God into our lives through contemplation, and to develop compassionate relationships with others and our environment.
- Paul Harris, Christian Meditation: Contemplative Prayer for a New Generation. (Toronto: Novalis, 1996), 93.
- Meister Eckhart Quoted in Padraic O’Hare, The Way of Faithfulness: Contemplation & Formation in the Church (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press, 1993), 21.
Whole School Meditation: An Innovation Story
Beth Walsh, Religious Education Leader at St Clare’s Catholic School Truganina, was inspired while on a trip to Assisi, Italy to introduce Christian Meditation to her school community. This special presentation details the process of bringing the practice of Christian Meditation to the whole school community at St Clare’s, as well as insights from the students themselves.