Meditation for the unmeditative

One Christian devotional practice I’ve never really got the hang of is that of meditation: in other words, concentrated devotional contemplation of God, his works and his word. I don’t have that kind of mindset: my brain can hold its attention on such things for about fifteen seconds before it goes flitting off on some distraction or other.

In the light of that, reading George Guiver’s book Company of Voices has provided a personal insight into why I’ve found the daily offices so helpful over the past ten years. Guiver (p.112) quotes the Orthodox writer George Florovsky on the contrast between meditation and liturgical worship:

Orthodoxy makes little or no use of that form of spiritual recollection known in the west as “meditation”, when a period of time is set aside each day for systematic thought upon some chosen theme. Its place is taken in the Orthodox Church by corporate liturgical worship.

In the church’s liturgy (whether in the east or the west), we hear “the same necessary and saving truths continually underlined”, so that “the theological significance of the different mysteries of the faith is indelibly impressed upon [our minds], becoming almost second nature”.

Hence, for those of us who struggle with interior meditation, the daily office provides a structure within which the “mysteries of the faith” are held before our minds each day. Indeed, that is the earlier practice: only in the later middle ages did interior prayer and meditation come to be privileged (in the west) over liturgical prayer.

Guiver argues that “the great spiritual masters of personal prayer always upheld the importance of seeing the connection between private and liturgical prayer”, but in popular perception this link became “too attenuated”, and indeed the direction was reversed:

… so that personal experience was necessary in order to validate liturgy, instead of liturgy providing the ground for personal religion.

This is another area where I have been grateful for the insights of the Lutheran church. In the past, I saw my personal “quiet times” during the week as the engine-room for my Christian life, from which my weekly participation in public worship would then draw its energy and “validity”. After all, I didn’t want to be one of those “Sunday-only” Christians, did I?

Now I see it as precisely the reverse: it is the gifts we receive from God in the Divine Service that are the source of our life in Christ, and individual daily devotion then draws on those gifts and that life to sustain us during the week.

Note: Great minds think alike, and so it seems do mine and Michael Spencer’s. Michael has written a great post over on Internet Monk on how the liturgy of the church – and he specifically cites Celebrating Common Prayer in the comments – has liberated him from the guilt-inducing “models of Olympic prayer” as practised by evangelical “prayer warriors”. “I’m the guy who is really glad the Lord’s Prayer is short”, he writes, and he’s not the only one.

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4 Responses to Meditation for the unmeditative

  1. Lee says:

    Bracketing concerns about Marian devotion for the moment, I think the Rosary can be an effective “half way house” between purely liturgical prayer and the kind of meditation you describe here (it was at one time a “layman’s office” of sorts). The vocal prayers provide rhythm and structure while the mind meditates on the various “mysteries.” I wonder if the Jesus prayer in the Orthodox tradition doesn’t have a similar place?

  2. Tom R says:

    I once came across an Evangelical Rosary someone had composed. I think it had a Psalm instead of the Hail Mary.

    Of course, as Catholics are quick to point out, the words of the “Ave” are taken straight out of Scripture. But then, so too are the words of the “Great is Diana of the Ephesians” collect found on page 126 of the Book of Common Prayer.

  3. Chris Jones says:

    Lee,

    I wonder if the Jesus prayer in the Orthodox tradition doesn’t have a similar place?

    Superficially similar, but in reality significantly different. An Orthodox will use a prayer rope (sort of a “rosary made out of yarn”) as an aid to the constant repetition of the Jesus Prayer. Thus far it is similar to a Catholic’s use of the rosary; but the nature of the prayer is different. As Florovsky says (as quoted in the original post), there is little place in Orthodox spirituality for exploring the mysteries of God through “systematic thought”. The aim of Orthodox hesychast spirituality is not the exercise of the rational faculties, but the promotion of a simple, direct, and non-conceptual awareness of the presence of God.

  4. What John said. I’ve just been immensely blessed by a sermon I heard at church. In fact, this is usually the way God speaks to me – through a sermon. And I love hymns, because they are a way of meditating on God’s righteous acts together with other believers.
    For God to stir up His Spirit in you when you are alone in your room is one thing, but to be in the company of believers, all rejoicing in the same truths about the same saviour is perhaps even more amazing.

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