Reflecting on the biblical words that are translated as meditate is helpful because it reveals a few different things: 1) That meditation is intrinsic to Christian discipleship and is rooted in Jewish tradition (not Buddhist or New Age.) 2) That the various meanings of the biblical words that are translated as meditate help us to better understand what meditation actually is. 3) In gaining a better understanding of what meditation is we see its relationship to prayer.
First of all, it should be pointed out that meditate is an English translation of a Latin term: meditatio.
Often times Latin dictionaries define meditatio as meditation, which for our purposes doesn’t get us anywhere because we have already established that it is the Latin word that meditation comes from. That doesn’t tell us what it means. Sometimes it is also defined as a lesser form of contemplation. That is not a whole lot of help either because there are various definitions to the word contemplation and it is beyond the scope of this present essay to define contemplation. Even in Catholic tradition contemplation is used in very different ways by St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. John of the Cross. Another definition that is often given is to think about something. But if meditating is nothing more than to think about something then it renders it too imprecise to be of any real use as a term. We are all always constantly thinking about things but thinking and meditating have distinct definitions. If meditating is merely thinking, then who needs to meditate? (As it would already be happening without any effort or intention on our part due to the fact that we are constantly thinking).
So, it isn’t enough to consult the meaning of the Latin term meditatio, we need to look at some biblical terms that it is used to translate. But first we have to address its contemporary uses in respect to Buddhist and New Age practices to help us understand some contemporary non-Christian applications of the term.
II. The use of the term in reference to Buddhist and New Age practices
Meditation is not a “Buddhist” term. The term meditation as such (being an English word) is not to be found in any ancient Buddhist text. Similar to the exercise of us looking at the many biblical words that meditate is used to translate we would need to do the same thing with Pali, Sanskrit or Tibetan texts. However, it should be noted that meditate is only used in a general and popular way primarily by non- specialists in reference to Buddhist practices. Practitioners of Buddhism or specialists are going to use the specific transliterations such as vipaśyanā, smṛti, śamatha, maitrī, or gtong len, etc.. The term meditation could only in an imprecise way be used to translate these terms – which are inseparable from the philosophical aims of Buddhist teaching. Some of the Buddhist terms generally referred to as meditation more closely approximate what we would call focusing attention, or interior recollection or mindfulness, but other terms can’t be understood apart from Buddhist cosmology and doctrine as they have a specific soteriological function based on these beliefs. Perhaps the Buddhist term that is closest in meaning to the western term meditation is bhāvana, which means an interior practice.
It should also be noted that nowhere in Buddhist practice can meditation be reduced to merely “emptying the mind” or “not thinking”. These are caricatures based in ignorance of the traditions. One of them is based on conflating the Mahayana doctrine of Śūnyatā with the practice of directing the mind to the object of meditation. Śūnyatā is a philosophical position that rejects the existence of an eternal absolute (namely God and souls).
Meditation on emptiness for a Mahayana Buddhist then is the practice of applying focus to an analysis of reality aimed at deeper insight into this claim. In respect to the claim that meditation in the East is about “not thinking” this is even further from the truth. As a mental discipline it seems universally the foundation of meditation is focusing the mind upon an object, never merely “not thinking” (It is true that there is also so called “object-less” meditation in Buddhism, or non-dual meditation, but really the object here is awareness as such, rather than an object of awareness).
Whether in Asian Buddhism or in the Christian religion meditation is a practice that involves intentionality and focus on a higher or transcendent reality, a deeper truth, or experience of being. This isn’t what makes Christian meditation distinct from Buddhist meditation, nor is the fact that both tend to the mind from its default and often constant state of thought-fantasy that keeps us from focusing on what is perceived as most essential (to Christians, God and His Kingdom).
Another caricature based in ignorance of these traditions is to stay that Buddhist meditation is about not thinking. This is simply not true, even though it may be true that universally meditation requires focus and attention. Buddhist forms of meditation actually cultivate this, which is a virtue because it actualizes a human capacity. When we try to apply the mind to anything important, it probably isn’t the best time to be doing our laundry list, fantasizing about our future, brooding over the past, or worrying about whether we will get the promotion. Thus, rejection of Christian forms of meditation based on a notion that they are cloaked forms of Eastern practices of creating a void in oneself or not thinking are simply not credible and based in ignorance of these cultural traditions. Sadly, many faithful and otherwise skilled Catholic catechists (clerical and lay) resort to such faulty arguments.
As Christians we reject Buddhist meditation, again, not because it uses activities of focus or recollection and develops these human capacities in an admirable way but because we believe it aim is based in a mistaken view of reality – namely that there is no Creator, that God doesn’t exist, that the World is an illusion, that there is no such thing as a human person (no self), that souls reincarnate, and that we are bound to the law of karma (rather than merciful love). Its purpose is to escape human being, rather than receive it as a gift. This is far afield from the Gospel.
So meditation is not a Buddhist practice or method as such, it is a Western term sometimes imprecisely applied to what we think Buddhists, particularly monks, are doing. To discern whether a meditation practice is Buddhist or not, we must ask, what is the goal? What is its object? It is there that we can test whether it will undermine Christian faith, or even be inimical to it.
Meditation as a term is also used in respect to New Age practices. Because of this both Catholics and Protestants are at times suspect of any reference to meditation. Often times it is caricatured as opening up a channel to the demonic or at best as a type of navel gazing. Meditation, misguided and wrongly conceived could be either of these things, and it may often be in New Age and in the neo-pagan revivial. But, that is not what Christian meditation is, indeed the aim of Christian meditation is to overcome such influences.
The fact that the term meditation is applied to practices that aren’t Christian doesn’t justify the claim that there is no legitimate place for Christian meditation. It just means that Christian meditation is distinct, different, than these other forms, not so much in its methods or techniques on the natural level, but in its aim, its object.
We can trust that meditation is rooted in the life of Christ and apostolic tradition because of the many ways the term shows up in translations of Sacred Scripture (especially the Psalms, King David was the quintessential meditator!). So we will now turn to a brief examination of the term meditate to see how it is used in Sacred Scripture.
III. Meditation in Sacred Scripture
First of all, it may be obvious but the English translation of the Bible I use is the Catholic version. Briefly I will say it is because the Catholic Bible recognizes the books of the Septuagint, or the Greek translation of the Old Testament as canonical. The overwhelming majority of references to the Old Testament in the New Testament are from the Septuagint, including a reference Jesus made to the Septuagint version of Isaiah. Luther’s reasons for discarding seven books of the Old Testament simply aren’t credible.
In the New American Bible Revised Edition the term meditate shows up 10 times. In the Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition it shows up 27 times. In the New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition it shows up 26 times. And in the Douay-Rheims Bible the term meditate shows up 40 times.
This Hebrew term that means to coo, groan, mutter, read out loud softly; to speak, and proclaim, is translated as meditate 5 times in the Old Testament (NRSVCE). An example of it is, “This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it. For then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall be successful” (Jos 1:8). Or we see it in the Psalms, “but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night” (Ps 1:2). Another Psalm reads, “I will meditate on all your work, and muse on your mighty deeds” (Ps 77:12). Looking at this term it is likely that when הגה is translated as meditate that we should view this way of meditation to include vocalization. Whether the law was actually being read or being recited from memory (it was more likely from memory) its purpose was to speak it in such a way that it was re-membered and interiorized. It was a slow way of speaking out the text where hearing it would reinforce the meaning and deepen understanding.
This Hebrew term is also translated in the psalms as meditate and can have a range of meanings including to speak enthusiastically, praise, lament, taunt, mock, instruct, teach, to meditate with thanks and praise. An example is, “I think of God, and I moan; I meditate, and my spirit faints” (Ps 77:3). While it is not exactly clear which meaning is closest here by the context it seems more likely that this is an experience in relationship to God where lament is present. He is being focused on, and thought of, but it is brining up some pain, some lament, the Psalmist’s spirit faints.
A slightly different usage is found here, “On the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on your wondrous works, I will meditate” (Ps 145:5). This usage of meditate seems to fit better with the notion of praise and it could also include the meaning to speak of the glorious splendor and majesty of God. Again, God is being thought of, dwelt on, and in doing that it brings about an awareness that leads to praise or thanksgiving.
This Hebrew term that is translated as meditate shows up in one of my favorite Psalms: 119. “Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all day long” (Ps 119:97). And, “I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your decrees are my meditation” (Ps 119:99). Perhaps this term really captures meditation as something that happens in the heart and leads to both love and understanding of God and the divine law. It brings up a notion of a time of thoughtful reflection upon the Word of God that leads to wisdom.
Interestingly, the English term meditate is used much less in New Testament translations than in Old Testament translation. The Douay-Rheims perhaps uses it most and employs usages of it that are closer perhaps to the broader range of original meanings – here connected with communication: “Who, by the Holy Ghost, by the mouth of our father David, thy servant, hast said: Why did the Gentiles rage: and the people meditate vain things” (Acts 4:25).
Having established a sense of meditation in Sacred Scripture it is necessary to mention that the term meditatio didn’t really take on a more precise definition in the context of Christian discipleship until later centuries, particularly in the context of Christian asceticism and monasticism.
While there are some different usages of the term I think the best way to understand meditation is looking at it in the context of lectio divina. But we must understand that when we do it this way it is not meant to exclude the fact that most meditation until books were readily available and literacy was high was done orally, and vocally, by memory. Singing and chanting, vocalizing, has always been central to meditation. Taking that into consideration and looking at the stages of lectio divina below the stage of reading could just as easily be replace with hearing, because reading is a type of hearing of the Word of God. It could also be envisioned as reading out loud. Here are the traditional stages:
- Lectio – Reading
- Meditatio – Meditation
- Oratio – Prayer
- Contemplatio – Contemplation
Rather than go through an exhaustive explanation of the stages of lectio divina at this point it is enough to recognize that meditation is situated somewhere between reading (or hearing) and prayer (intentional communication with God).
Meditation is preparatory to prayer but is in a way essential to it because it helps one to interiorize and understand the Word of God and in that sense through it inspiration to pray takes place. It is always meant to lead to prayer, to God, and isn’t an end to itself. It also isn’t merely reading, hearing, or just thinking about something. It goes deeper than that and requires intentionality, focus, and recollection. It asks of discipline, without which the mind and heart strays to Worldly clamors, and temptations. Its foundation is grace, but it doesn’t happen without effort. That is why so many of the ancients and the saints speak of how essential silence, stillness, and solitude are for prayer, because those settings are conducive to the type of meditation that would lead to authentic Christian prayer – Trinitarian prayer.
Meditation requires mortification (death to the World, the flesh, and the devil) and asceticism (spiritual exercise), its foundation is repentance and it is oriented to faith (repent and believe). Yet, it is lower than prayer, it is true that prayer is objectively higher because prayer is a more direct communication with God. We do have to be careful in making too firm a distinction between the two, though, while recognizing the distinction is useful and necessary. In practice, in experience, one is always leading to the other, one deepens the other and the lines between them aren’t as clear. But the distintion remains important.
We typically begin prayer through listening to the Word preached or by reading, we then bring it into our hearts, we probe it, we chew on it, we digest it – this is meditation. We apply our mind to it, we bring our entire person before the truth that we recognize and submit ourselves to it. It leads naturally to praise, petition, thanksgiving, repentance, adoration, etc.. So, meditation is the intermediate stage between hearing the Word of God and prayer, it can help us grow in wisdom, understanding, familiarity with Jesus, and virtue. Most importantly through meditation we often receive a deepening of the theological virtues of faith, hope and love – how can we not when in contact with the Word of God?
We haven’t yet defined Christian prayer as such, or examined its necessity for salvation. That will be next. Then, having taken into consideration everything that has been introduced, we will examine a definition of Centering Prayer to ask the question of whether or not it is Christian prayer in the way it is defined. We will answer that question by asking whether it meets some criteria that we have established. Note: we are not asking the question of whether it is meditation, or whether it is prayer, but if and in what way it is Christian prayer, and if in any way (as defined here) it falls short of Christian prayer. This isn’t meant to be an attack on people who practice Centering Prayer, but rather a catechetical effort to help people who might practice Centering Prayer orient more completely to the Church’s own understanding of Christian prayer so that it achieves what the end of prayer begs of: completion in Christ through communion with Him.