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Christians call it contemplation

by Thomas W. Goodhue
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Christian hostility to meditation has never made sense to me. I have tried various forms of contemplation. For me, contemplative prayer is not so much talking to God as it is listening to God.

Some Christians view meditation with suspicion, suspecting that it is foreign to their faith, and the same attitude can be found among Jews, Muslims, and others. 

One of the reasons for this may be that those who learn to meditate from Hindus, Buddhists, or Brahma Kumaris often report that they never heard anything about this in their church/synagogue/mosque. Sometimes, no doubt, this is true. Sometimes, they may not have been listening. As Tao Te Ching wryly observes, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

Christian hostility to meditation has never made sense to me. While I was a teenager, my father invited me to a silent prayer retreat with our church’s men’s club. For a pastor, my regional body of the United Methodist Church assigned the Rev. (now Bishop) Jane Allen Middleton to nurture the spiritual growth of its clergy, encouraging us to make time for week-long retreats. I have tried various forms of contemplation, from devotional reading to earthy Celtic spirituality, and have come to treasure shared stillness, whether a few minutes of silent prayer in Sunday worship or the extended periods of quietly “waiting on the Spirit” in Quaker meetings.

For me, contemplative prayer is not so much talking to God as it is listening to God. Or as St. Gregory the Great put it, “resting in God.” And as St. Augustine said, our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God.

Taking time for meditation does not necessarily mean withdrawing from human society. Some of us long to sit in silence not by ourselves but in a circle of others. Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest and political activist, calls his retreat site the Center for Contemplation and Action. Many of us can only maintain compassionate hearts if we take care of our souls and can only act effectively in the world if we regularly sit in silence. The Gospels record that Jesus often spent time alone, particularly after preaching to a crowd or caring for the sick. Bishop Middleton told a group of United Methodist clergy at a retreat, “We need time apart, so we don’t fall apart.” Martin Luther, the father of the Reformation, insisted, “It is because I work so hard that I must spend so long each day in prayer.”

Nearly every faith community teaches compassion for the poor. Whether you are praying before surgery or praying to stay sober for another night, the real test of your spiritual life may be this: Are you becoming a kinder, more compassionate person? Judaism emphasizes that God wants us to “defend the widow, the orphan, and the immigrants among you”—the most vulnerable of our neighbors—and has no patience for piety without justice and mercy. But as a sociology experiment found, studying the story Jesus told about the Good Samaritan, a despised foreigner who helped a wounded traveler whom others passed, did not make busy seminary students any more likely to assist a stranger in pain. 

What seems to help is contemplation. A study reported in the journal Psychological Science found that those who had eight weeks of training in Buddhist meditation were far more likely to give up their seat to someone in pain on crutches than those who wanted to take the course but did not receive the training. 

It is not clear why contemplation increases compassion, but researchers speculate that learning to pay attention to your breathing, thoughts, and feelings may make you more attuned to the suffering of others. Perhaps meditation—and all healthy prayer—can connect us to others with compassion.

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