Monday, December 14, 2015

Thoughts on Christian Meditation (Part 2)

The Wild Reed's Advent 2015 series on Christian meditation continues with an excerpt from Christopher Harding's 2014 Aeon essay, "Silent Communion: What Good is the 'Christian' Part in Christian Meditation?"

In this excerpt, Harding highlights the history and key people of the modern-day movement to "revive the contemplative dimension of Christianity."

(Note: For Part 1 in this series, click here.)

The simple wooden cross a few feet away from me on the carpet is offset — aesthetically and theologically — by some ambiguously spiritual pieces of crumpled coloured linen that are strewn in front of it. The linen says: "Don’t worry about the cross so much." The cross says: "Take the linen seriously."

We sit down on the floor. Others come to join us, choosing cushions, wooden chairs or little kneelers according to taste and physical condition. Eight of us in all, gradually forming a horseshoe around this enigmatic centrepiece, whose final touch is a Tibetan singing bowl. With the cross and the crumples, it makes up the Holy Trinity of contemporary Christian meditation.

Just how happily those two words sit together — ‘Christian’ and ‘meditation’ — is part of my difficulty here, as I get used to my surroundings in this Edinburgh prayer group. That same question has been a matter of some controversy ever since the movement to revive the contemplative dimension of Christianity got going in the 1970s. Talking about ‘revival’ gives away one’s sympathies, of course. It insists that this isn’t just Western Christianity’s rearguard action against its rivals in the New Age and Asian philosophy camps — that it represents an authentic strand of Christian tradition, albeit one long left for dead by our obsessively verbal modernity. The three founders of the modern movement certainly claim deep roots for it. All three were monks, and while most of Christendom dozed or counted the minutes in creaky church pews, they were practising the spirituality of the Desert Fathers, The Cloud of Unknowing and Teresa of Ávila. They knew the Christian past, and were convinced they knew what its future must be.

One day Thomas Keating received a rare knock at his Trappist monastery door in New England. When he went to answer it, the youthful caller only wanted directions to a nearby Buddhist meditation retreat. ‘But we do that here!’ Keating thought to himself, as the boy wandered off down the road. Inspired by the encounter, he helped to create a new ‘Centering Prayer’ practice, blending Christian spirituality with the language of modern psychology.

Two English Benedictines travelled a similar path. Bede Griffiths was living in a Christian ashram — ‘Shantivanam’ — by the side of the Kaveri River in Tamil Nadu, garbed in the saffron robes of a holy man and learning everything he could from Indian spirituality, music, art, liturgy and prayer. Finding that his ashram was filling up with Western refugees from a frigid, fossilised Christianity, he wrote a series of influential books calling for renewal, in dialogue with India’s contemplative traditions. Meanwhile, John Main was taking the mantra-based meditation practice he’d learned from an Indian monk and setting up a meditation centre in London. He soon followed it with a priory in Montreal, and his successor, Laurence Freeman, later helped to create the World Community for Christian Meditation (WCCM).

Both the WCCM and Keating’s organisation, Contemplative Outreach, have since gone global, their leaders racking up the air miles in support of fledgling meditation groups and promotional work around the world. Keating ended up learning to meditate in airports. Freeman always seems to be just back from one country and packing his bags for another — from Brazil to Poland, Australia to Haiti. If Christian meditation retains the ‘peace and love’ spirit of the bell-bottomed generation who revived it, it does so in serious and pragmatic ways.

To read Christopher Harding's essay in its entirety, click here.

NEXT: Part 3

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Thoughts on Christian Meditation (Part 1)
Diarmuid O'Murchú on Our Capacity to Meditate: "A Gift Bestowed Upon Every Human Being"
Happy Birthday, Mum! (includes Thích Nhất Hạnh's thoughts on walking meditation)
Prayer of the Week – November 23, 2015
The Source is Within You
The Ground Zero Papal Prayer Service . . . and a Reminder of the Spirituality That Transcends What All the Religions Claim to Represent
Prayer and the Experience of God in an Ever-Unfolding Universe
In the Garden of Spirituality – Anthony de Mello
"Joined at the Heart": Robert Thompson on Christianity and Sufism
Sufism: Way of Love, Tradition of Enlightenment, and Antidote to Fanaticism
As the Last Walls Dissolve . . . Everything is Possible
The Most Sacred and Simple Mystery of All

Related Off-site Link:
What is Meditation? – The World Community for Christian Meditation.

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