An old man said: “Take care to be silent. Empty the mind. Attend to your meditation, in the fear of God, whether you are resting in bed or at work. If you do this, you will not fear the assaults of demons.”
~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 11.47
A distinctively Christian meditation is not so easy to come by these days, certainly not in the United States, at least. However, meditation has been a Judeo-Christian practice for as far back as we know. I offer here a few meditations on the subject from my own studies and experience.
The very first psalm contrasts the way of the righteous with the way of the impious and sinners. Of the righteous man, we are told, “His will is in the Law of the Lord, and in it he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:2). The Lord, in fact, commanded the people of Israel to order their whole lives around meditating on the Law, putting commandments on their doorposts, talking about them whether walking or resting, standing or sleeping. It was always to be on their hearts, minds, and tongues.
For Christians, Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the Law. Thus meditation on the Law (though not neglected) is transcended by meditation on Christ himself. Eventually this developed into a very specific tradition known as the Jesus Prayer, the repetition of the name of Jesus, particularly through some variant of the following: “Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
I have been asked before if there is any Christian equivalent to the Buddhist practice of mindfulness, which, in my very limited knowledge, is an effort to be purely present in every moment and take in all of one’s surrounding and experiences as they happen.
In one sense, Christian meditation is nothing like this. While it too requires one to “empty the mind,” the focus is not on the world around oneself, or even really on oneself, or on emptiness, but on Jesus Christ.
However, this is not quite the whole picture. The confession of Christians that “for us and for our salvation” the Son of God became the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, means that meditation on Christ does involve a certain presentness. In particular, however, it is a presentness to one’s reality in Christ and the reality of God in humanity and all creation through Jesus Christ. To empty one’s mind of every other thought and passion and to intently focus on the name of Jesus is to have one’s eyes opened to our selves as they truly are and are meant to be, and the world around us as well.
In the Russian spiritual classic The Way of a Pilgrim, the anonymous pilgrim writer learns the Jesus Prayer and recounts his experience. After, under the direction of an experience spiritual guide, giving himself to praying it thousands of times a day, linking it with his breathing and the beating of his heart, he describes a great joy that overcomes him as the prayer takes on a life of its own. It suddenly becomes an essential part of his very constitution.
To meditate on the name of Jesus is to experience reality as it truly is from a Christian point of view. But how hard it is for us who are neither monks nor pilgrims to cultivate such mediation! Nevertheless, the simple advice of this old man is worth considering: “Attend to your meditation, in the fear of God, whether you are resting in bed or at work.”
At this point in my life, I find that nearly the only times I am able to practice any meditation are when I am putting Brendan down for the night or a nap, during my evening prayers, lying in bed before sleep, or walking to and from work. Perhaps I get a minute or two here and there at work when I remember that nothing in my life needs to hinder the continual repetition of the name of Jesus. Monks who had cultivated the practice even speak of praying continually—even in their sleep their hearts went on praying! Yet I struggle to pray in such a way even when awake.
The very last psalm exhorts the whole of creation: “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord” (Psalm 150). Every living thing lives by virtue of God, who is Life itself. Each breath can itself be a prayer. And so, when I am not overcome by the vice of sloth, I take a little time each day, as I am able, to breathe in and say, “Lord Jesus Christ,” and breathe out and say, “have mercy on me.” Breathe in: “O Son of God”; breathe out: “save me.” And repeat.
On rare occasions, when I am able to truly empty my mind of all other cares, the sweet aroma of the name of Jesus seems to fill my lungs, and my mind and heart for once speak as one as all words pass away, utterly insufficient. “Take care to be silent,” says the old man. The best way I, who so struggles for silence, have found to do that is to be silenced in this way. Such awe tames the tongue.
“If you do this,” says the old man, “you will not fear the assaults of demons.” There is no care so diabolical that it, apart from one’s own assent, can rob away the peace of Christ within. Indeed, fear is impossible in such a state. It has been melted away by divine love. Such love is perfect, lacking in nothing, and “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).
In the end, in fact, love is precisely the reason for repeating the name of Jesus in meditation. Just as teenagers who experience the rush of eros for the first time might repeat the name of their beloved over and over again, so too we the Church, the Beloved of Christ, repeat his name in near ecstasy. Such an overpowering love is dangerous when directed toward any one or anything else unchecked, but Jesus Christ alone can rightly call us, in this way, to abandon all that we have and are, and come and follow him. And yet, in losing all these things, even our very souls, we find them anew, transfigured by the union of our hearts with his.