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Just in case we are tempted to pick up a Christian book with a chapter titled "The Discipline of Meditation" and think that it's going to be chock full of instructions on seeking out a swami, learning to clear our mind of all thoughts, sitting bow-legged and then humming into the void, Richard Foster puts us straight in Chapter 2:
"Christian meditation, very simply, is the ability to hear God's voice and obey his word. It is that simple. I wish I could make it more complicated for those who like things difficult. It involves no hidden mysteries, no secret mantras, no mental gymnastics, no esoteric flights into cosmic consciousness. The truth of the matter is that the great God of the universe, the Creator of all things desires our fellowship."I must admit that this was a hard chapter for me to take in fully all in one gulp. And even though Foster has written in a logical progession, and has spent 18 pages covering the topic of meditation from a variety of perspectives, I am still having trouble understanding its very core. In other words, how is meditation different from what we know as prayer?
I've always heard that after we "pray," which too many times for me has been the act of trotting out my lists of things to be thankful for and things to ask for from God, we should do something even more important, which is to listen to God giving us direction and understanding. It might illustrate how much of a "baby" Christian I truly am by admitting that receiving an unmistakeable answer from God has almost never happened to me during the times of quiet meditation Foster encourages.
Not that God never speaks to me. I know of some concrete examples, as when I prayed to get certain jobs "if it was God's will," then to be initially disappointed and even nursing a feeling of betrayal when I didn't get them, only to realize much later that the jobs were in fact wrong for me, and only would have resulted in my being miserable.
That indirect and circumstantial way God talks to me -- or even His direct way, when for example I hear about someone's urgent need and feel an overwhelming urge to respond -- I am familiar with. But the other way -- of being quiet and still and letting God speak to me from the ether, so to speak -- I can't say that ever really happens at all. When I try to be quiet and just "listen," I assure you I hear no voice, see no children's letter blocks arranging themselves into words without human assistance, do not find my finger floating and then magically landing on the correct passage in the Bible. More often than not, I instead find my quiet mind wandering into topics most mundane and unspiritual, like isn't that air conditioner rattling a little?
This elusive practice of taking time to be quiet and letting God lead us seems to be exactly what Foster is calling meditation, so maybe you can understand my feelings of inadequacy. The author seems to be talking to me, however, when he points out one of my big problems -- apparent failure to possess the true desire to hear a word from God:
"How do we receive the desire to hear his voice? 'This desire to turn is a gift of grace. Anyone who imagines he can simply begin meditating without praying for the desire and the grace to do so, will soon give up. But the desire to meditate, and the grace to begin meditating, should be taken as an implicit promise of futher graces.' Seeking and receiving that 'gift of grace' is the only thing that will keep us moving forward on the inward journey."Foster goes on in this chapter to address some misconceptions about Christian meditation -- that it seeks detachment of the mind from God and the world, as Eastern meditation does; that it is by nature too difficult and complicated; that people who meditate frequently become too distant from life and are "no earthly good"; and that meditation somehow involves the trickery of psyching ourselves out. And the author also stresses the importance of letting imagination play a part.
Foster then gives some tips (not "laws," he stresses) on the mechanics of meditatiing -- the best places, times and ways to do it. But he lets the air out of my tires a bit when he stresses that
"It is impossible to learn how to meditate from a book. We learn to meditate by meditating."And with that, in some ways I'm back to square one. I must admit that I'm far from understanding this chapter as I should. I will have to read it again and again, prayerfully, and try to put what it teaches me into practice. As a place to begin, I think I might end up practicing one of the "forms" of meditation Foster discusses -- that of meditating on Scripture:
"This is not a time for technical studies, or analysis, or even the gathering of material to share with others. Set aside all tendencies toward arrogance and with a humble heart receive the word addresed to you. Often I find kneeling especially appropriate for this particular time. Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, '...just as you do not analyze the words of someone you love, but accept them as they are said to you, accept the Word of Scripture and ponder it in your heart, as Mary did. That is all. That is meditation.'"Okay. I'll give that a try.
Check out these other responses to Chapter 2: