Project Canterbury

Problem Papers
Holy Cross Press
This piece was originally published in 1940 as Problem Paper No. 4 at West Park, NY

What is Meditation?

In the life of St. Francis-Xavier, we are told that during his Japanese mission he visited a Buddhist monastery, and as the abbot was showing him around he saw a number of monks apparently engaged in meditation. The saint was curious to know what really was the object of the mental exercise. In answer to his query the abbot replied, "Well, some of them are adding up how much they collected in gifts last month; others are thinking about their food and clothes; others again about how they are going to amuse themselves. Of this you may be sure-not one of them is thinking of anything important."

That abbot may have been a cynic, but Christopher Robin saying his prayers is only a twentieth century version of the same experience, and many an honest Christian must confess a similar unprofitable use of his meditation time. Hence, it happens that although nothing new can be written upon this subject, it is none the less one that must be brought constantly to the attention of Christians.

It is utterly impossible to make any decided advance in the spiritual life without the practice of meditation. The truth of this becomes obvious when we discover what is meant by the terms. Spiritual growth is an ever-deepening friendship with God. "Friend, I have called thee by that sacred name" was said of Father Abraham. Friendship is impossible without intelligent intercourse. Many persons in their communion with God never get beyond the ordinary paths of prayer, which consist almost entirely of petition, with an occasional aspiration, such as "Lord, have mercy," or "Thanks be to God." All this is good and proper in its place, but even human friendship involves something more than to ask favors or to express either gratitude or apology. There must be a communication of thoughts and interests. Human conversation is the medium of earthly friendship. God is a Spirit and we are mortal, hence the difficulty of approach is greater, but it can be overcome by meditation, which fulfils better than any other form the ancient definition of prayer—"the lifting up of the heart to God."

There has never been a time when meditation was more needed and perhaps less practiced by Christian people. The reason for this is easily discovered. Western civilization has not developed along contemplative lines, and this modern age with its radio, television, cinema, and highly illustrated journalism is rapidly bringing about the atrophy of the thinking faculties. People do not want to take the time or to make the effort to think. Meditation is not, of course, a mere intellectual exercise, but as the very expression "mental prayer" indicates, there must be some mental effort. We cannot expect to rise straightway to the state of passive contemplation or rapt ecstasy. God has given us intellect and will after His own image and we can only work out our salvation in attaining to God’s likeness by the use of the best members we have. Meditation faithfully practiced, and persevered in becomes in time, we may say with all reverence, a springboard from which the soul leaps out into the realm of eternity.

The chief obstacles in the way of acquiring the art of meditation are at the start. Every spiritual teacher or director often meets the question, "How can I meditate?" In order to answer this, it is always best to clear the ground by mentioning what is not to be done.

Meditation is neither reading from a book on the one hand, nor vague daydreaming over subjects however religious. Spiritual reading, very valuable in itself, or as a handmaid to prepare the way for meditation, is not meditation, and one will never get very far if he is tied down either to a book or to another person’s outlines. It is best to launch boldly out into the deep and to prepare one’s own material. It may not be so good or inspiring as would be found elsewhere, but one can at least say of it as Touchstone did of Audrey, "an ill-favored thing, but mine own." God asks of a man what he hath, and not what he hath not.

A mistake sometimes made by spiritual teachers or preachers is to use meditation time as an opportunity to prepare a discourse. Here an audience is visualized, and the mind turns to it rather than to communion with God. On the other hand it is not difficult to identify the priest who himself practices regular meditation. He never needs to turn over the sermon barrel, for as he lives he grows in the knowledge of God and spiritual things, and there is a freshness and depth to all his words.

There is no better way of starting the practice of meditation than that taught by the Father Founder of the Order of the Holy Cross. Many years ago he gave in a retreat an instruction on meditation, the substance of which afterward appeared in a Holy Cross booklet. He suggested that a notebook, be arranged with a page for each day of the month, that some subject such as the parables or the miracles of our Lord be chosen, and one or more verses be assigned to each day. At night after a brief prayer, a picture of the scene should be recalled to the mind and some points written down in the form of an outline. This concentrates the attention and stimulates thought. In the morning, at least ten or fifteen minutes should be set apart for the meditation proper. Commentaries and other books may be used in preparation, but only as the mind assimilates such matter, somewhat as the body does the food, does this become its own, and all books should be put aside during the actual meditation. The slavery to books may come from various causes, such as timidity, laziness, or intellectual curiosity and desire to widen one’s knowledge, but whatever it may be, the practice is equally fatal to real advance toward spiritual proficiency.

From the intellectual activity in the consideration of the points prepared, the affections are aroused and the soul passes on to what is technically known as affective prayer. This consists at first in ejaculations, often the repetition of familiar scripture or hymns, but eventually it becomes a veritable "song without words," a voiceless communion with God. Often in meditation as before the Blessed Sacrament, one feels, "God is here, I know not how." From this mystic communion, we are recalled to our mortal estate, and to make the meditation of practical profit in our earthly pilgrimage, we must follow the precept of St. Francis de Sales, and gather a nosegay of the heavenly flowers to carry with us through the day, and make some resolution which should be brief and definite. Recollected at intervals, it forms a link between our morning tryst with God and the homely duties of life.

Periods of aridity are bound to come, but the soul that perseveres faithfully and conscientiously in preparing and making the best meditations of which it is capable, will be rewarded with the gift of a higher form of prayer, and the time will surely come whether before the altar or in the solitude of one’s chamber, when there will he a ladder set up between earth and heaven, and the angels will be seen ascending and descending, taking up our poor aspirations to God, and bringing down messages of love and counsel. God crowns His own gifts in us, but we must make the effort to cooperate and use the lesser to obtain the greater.

The higher stages of prayer do not pertain to the scope of this paper, but we are told to look to the end in whatever we undertake, and it may not be amiss to glance for an instant at the goal of true progress in prayer.

Meditation prepares the soul for its occupation throughout eternity, the contemplation of God. Dom Pickery, O.S.B., in commenting on Cassian’s conferences, has said, "After fulfilling the office of Jacob, the supplanter, one passes naturally to the dignity of Israel, who sees God . . . Sprung from charity as its flower, contemplation is its highest exercise and will alone know no end. Contemplation, declares the Abbot Theonas, is the one thing the value of which surpasses all the merits of our righteous acts. All the merits of holiness are good and useful for the present life and secure the reward of eternity, yet if compared with the merits of divine contemplation they are trifling. Works of virtue are needful in this life alone by reason of bodily necessity, or the onslaught of the flesh, or the in- equalities of the world; but in the world to come when this mortal shall have put on immortality and the natural body shall have been raised a spiritual body, when transfigured flesh will no more lust against the spirit, and there will be an end of the inequality which calls for duties of fraternal charity, works of virtue will likewise cease, and all men will pass from these manifold practical works to the love of God and contemplation of heavenly things in continual purity of heart. For this eternal vision face to face the Christian sighs. At least he desires to realize on earth some far-off image of it. Eager to gain knowledge of God he betakes himself while he is still in the flesh to that duty in which he is to continue when he has laid aside corruption, and he makes this uninterrupted prayer his one care, his perfection and his end."

The Reverend Mother Mary Theodora, C.S.M.


A Method of Meditation

, the Rev. J. O. S. Huntington, O.H.C. Holy Cross Press.

School of the Eternal,

the Rev. J. O. S. Huntington, O.H.C., and the Rev. Karl Tiedemann, O.H.C. Holy Cross Press.

A Study of Meditation,

the Rev. David Jenks, S.S.M. Mowbray.


the Face of Jesus Christ: A Course of Meditations for the Christian Year, the Rev. David Jenks, S.S.M. Longman’s.


Little editing was necessary for this little gem. However, I did add a reference to television to Mother Mary Theodora’s list of modern-day distractions.

G. Robert Stephenson, Jr., MD
Duke University, Durham, NC
22 February 2000

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