Monday 28 April 2014

Christian Meditation- Part One

                                                     Icon of Sophia, the Wisdom of God of Kiev

When I go into my house, I shall repose myself with her: for her conversation hath no bitterness, nor her company any tediousness, but joy and gladness.
Book of Wisdom 8

But thou when thou shalt pray, enter into thy chamber, and having shut the door, pray to thy Father in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret will repay thee
Matthew 6

The 'her' referred to by the author of the Book of Wisdom (by convention King Solomon) is Wisdom itself, personified as female. There may be a literal sense in which Solomon considers that a peaceful domestic setting is a good place to seeks Wisdom. That sense if it exists, however, is secondary to the mystic sense in which one enters into ones heart and engages in a loving dialogue with the Spirit. Essentially both Solomon and Jesus are giving us advise about meditation in the Christian sense of the word.

The first part of the process involves a withdrawal from the world. Or rather, since we are talking about the heart, firstly we must expel the world from it. The world, in the sense of all our worries and concerns, earthly hopes and ambitions, colonises and dominates our internal realm. We are restlessness in search of repose and Solomon proposes that we go into our house as the preliminary step to achieving this rest. What primarily distracts us is that a succession of thoughts and desires parades before our mind and every so often we reach out and grab hold of one, clutching it to ourselves and focussing our regard upon it. There is little we can do about this parade but we are completely in charge of the decision to grab or let be. We must become aware of our the difference between the "I" who watches the parade and the ego which generates it. And whenever the "I" becomes aware of engaging with the ego then it should just gently let go.

The period between entering the house and achieving the state of repose is simply the time it takes for the "I" to become aware that it is no longer paying attention to anything of the world, worldly. There are various ways to achieve this state. The recommendation of Jesus is that we petition for help on the grounds that the Father will send us precisely the assistance which we require. Eastern Orthodox Christians tend to use the Jesus Prayer. This practise has become quite common in the West also in recent decades but in a flawed way. The Orthodox teaching can be found summarised in the Philokalia: On Prayer of the Heart At it's core is the repetition of a short invocation of the name of Jesus coupled with a petition for assistance. However, this is advice given to monks who will be be using the prayer within the framework of a whole structured life dedicated to God and revolving around the liturgy and sacraments of the Orthodox Church. When Westerners appropriate the prayer and use it as a mantra what they are trying to do is use a Buddhist/Hindu practise and put a Christian gloss on it. It as if it was the stilling of the mind alone that is important.

A still mind is no doubt a good thing by comparison with a troubled one but it is a stage on the path to union with God it is not an end in itself for Christians. Catholic tradition has proposed a number of different ways for detaching attention from the tumbling flow of worldly thoughts and desires. One is to consciously focus your mind and engage your heart on a single topic, the Passion of our Lord is the most common one. This does not mean simply to repeat the narrative to yourself or to think discursively about its role in the economy of salvation. It does mean that you hold the Passion before the eyes of your heart, not analysing it but entering into it and responding to the love and the suffering of Jesus with emotions  of sorrow, contrition, gratitude, love. Even a short meditation of this kind leaves the world far behind and prepares you for repose in  spiritual sense.

The intuition behind the Jesus Prayer is not false. Praying can also lead us into the state we seek. Christian belief suggests that this is so primarily because God answers prayers. When His name, or that of the Blessed Virgin, is invoked He drives away the thoughts and temptation, conventionally described as demons, that otherwise would crowd in. That is, the success of prayer is a free act of the Grace of God not the mechanical consequence of frequently repeating a few words. Christian life, Christian prayer and Christian meditation are entirely about relationship it is never "all about me." Catholics could pray the Rosary which combines prayer and focussing the mind on a divine mystery like the Passion in a wonderful manner.

Distractions can come to us from all our senses. Many of the things the ego sends clamouring before the doors of the "I" will come attached to memories of sights and sounds, tastes, smells and sensations. For some of us this will be more so than for others. What many find helpful, then, to counter this, is to have non-wordly rivals to these things which will lead us towards the things of the spirit and away from the things of the flesh. Most commonly used, I would think, are crucifixes, icons and holy pictures or statues since our sense of sight is so important to us.  Turning our eyes towards images of our Lord, our Lady, the Angels and Saints and looking at them not as objects of analysis but as so many sparks from the divine fire of love brings us ever more fully into our heart-house and leaves the world ever further behind. The use of incense, candles, sacred music and the like can also help. It depends how distractible we are and what it is that distracts us.

The important thing to remember with any technique is that it is only a tool that we use. If we find ourselves going on ever longer expeditions to find just the right icon or getting irritated because we have the wrong set of rosary beads then we have missed our way. We wish to enter our house fully. We wish to repose fully. But we only wish to do these things because otherwise we cannot be face to face and heart to heart with divine wisdom. We empty ourselves of ourselves in order for her to fill us with the gifts which flow through her hands.

In part two we shall look at the conversation of Wisdom

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  1. But suppose the girl could find somewhere else equally congenial for the toad, move it there then mow the lawn? Then the toad, the girl and the father all get what they want. A stark moral dilemma is solved - or rather dissolved, or obviated - by an adept practical action. And I'd say that a girl who looks for ways to look after toads and fathers simultaneously is more admirable than one who chooses one or the other. That characterises a lot of patient, pragmatic, problem - solving politics and public administration that still goes on day by day despite the posturing and confrontation.

    1. It's rather ingenious to illustrate your point by moving your comment from the toad post to the meditation one. Lateral thinking there.
      The problem is that we don't know what impact attempting to move the toad might cause. It might be traumatised. It might be injured trying to escape. It might be exposed to predators from whom it is currently concealed. If mowing the lawn at that moment in time was necessary then it might be a risk worth taking but if it was merely desirable then it could be sacrificed without causing suffering.
      And the father did benefit to the extent of getting most of his lawn mowed free of charge.

    2. Actually blogging incompetence rather than ingenuity - but thanks for giving me the benefit of the doubt!

      Yes, but equally the toad carefully mown around might have been discovered by a cat. A driver who carefully waits for a cyclist may hit a child who runs out further down the road instead of being safely past. And so on. We can only ever make probabilistic predictions about the consequences of actions or inactions. A child with no knowledge of toad ecology but a tendency to sentimental anthropomorphism may well harm the toad. You need relevant factual knowledge as well as good intentions to stand a reasonable chance of intervening in ways that make things better, and you can still be caught out by events.

      You're right that in the example as given, where it doesn't terribly matter whether the last bit of lawn gets mown, leaving the toad is probably - though not certainly - the safer decision. But this often won't be the case. Inaction can be just as fraught with consequences as action. Over (say) the implications of people living longer on the affordability of pensions, or the level of housebuilding falling short of household formation, there is no equivalent of the low risk, forego-the-payment-and-leave-the-toad-in-the-grass option. Just carrying on as we've been going is just as likely to produce unfair and nasty consequences as trying to do something (albeit for different people at different times, and I'm certainly not defending the current government's choice of response to either of these!)

      What I'm trying to argue is that it's not just a stark choice between revolutionary politics on the one hand and a reliance on love on the other: that boring old incrementalist, managerial 'art of the possible' politics also has a place. A society with our staggering level of material wealth and technical sophistication ought to be able to provide everyone with a decent house and a secure old age. Our failure to do so indicates a failure of organisation and political will, and not necessarily anything more profound.

    3. Ah, I see you are reading the parable in a political sense. The idea is that 'the Sabbath was made for man not man for the Sabbath.' Which is to say uniformity is administratively convenient so enforcing uniformity is a characteristic of any authority. However, sometimes we should consider making administration a bit more inconveniently difficult for administrators in order to make life a lot better for people who will lose something important to them if forced to conform to a regulation that makes, say, a language or a way of life disappear. Always assuming, of course, that this is compatible with the demands of justice and equity.