Saturday, February 15, 2014

Some Aspects of Christian Meditation

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) when he served as Head of the
Congregation For The Doctrine of The Faith

When most people think of meditation, probably what comes to mind is something from Hinduism, Buddhism or some other Eastern religion. Catholics do not fair much better. Christian meditation is not something that many Catholics and Christians know much about. If you happen to fall into this group, today's post is definitely for you.

A considerable number of Catholics have abandoned Christianity and wandered to Eastern religions to discover what they have to offer them, failing to recognize that the Catholic faith provides for complete spiritual growth in the form of meditative prayer. I hope to help remedy this sad reality by focussing on the genuine tradition of the Catholic Church, one that ensures that meditation never loses the correct personal and communitarian nature. Today's post contributes to a series of posts I have been publishing on the New Age and forms part of an awareness effort that began on my blog with the initial post, The New Age - An Introduction. I have based today's post on the second source originally listed at the above noted initial post, the Vatican document Letter to The Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation. It was issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) on October 15, 1989, on the Feast of Saint Teresa of Jesus. This document is key to understanding what constitutes authentic Christian meditation. I have included it in my research not only because it will help identify how Catholics should prepare and engage in meditative prayer, but it will also serve to "filter" out the many deceptive New Age practices, whose techniques and somewhat ambiguous language, entice many away from proper Christian meditation.

At issue are the erroneous "eastern methods" of meditation inspired by such religions as Hinduism and Buddhism, that include practices such as Yoga, Zen and Transcendental Meditation. Not only have such erroneous methods of prayer infiltrated Catholic parish communities, but they have been met with very little opposition. To make matters worse, these and other "eastern methods" have been embraced and promoted by those who clearly have failed to seek the truth about the New Age spirituality underlying their techniques and practices.

So, let us briefly review what is authentic Christian prayer. To begin with this understanding will enable us to clearly identify the errors presented by eastern methods. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, provided a concise and clear premise of what Christian prayer is: 
Christian prayer is always determined by the structure of the Christian faith, in which the very truth of God and creature shines forth. For this reason, it is defined, properly speaking, as a personal, intimate and profound dialogue between man and God. It expresses therefore the communion of redeemed creatures with the intimate life of the Persons of the Trinity. This communion, based on Baptism and the Eucharist, source and summit of the life of the Church, implies an attitude of conversion, a flight from "self" to the "You" of God. Thus Christian prayer is at the same time always authentically personal and communitarian. It flees from impersonal techniques or from concentrating on oneself, which can create a kind of rut, imprisoning the person praying in a spiritual privatism which is incapable of a free openness to the transcendental God. Within the Church, in the legitimate search for new methods of meditation it must always be borne in mind that the essential element of authentic Christian prayer is the meeting of two freedoms, the infinite freedom of God with the finite freedom of man. (3)
By clearly understanding what constitutes authentic Christian meditative prayer, we avoid the potential danger of falling into syncretism. Syncretism is the combining of different religions, cultures and ways of thinking. (12) Syncretism can occur when the truth is not known or understood. Under such conditions, many eastern religions and their New Age practices and ideas can infiltrate Christian communities and may be considered as positive inclusions to help people in a variety of ways. Yoga comes to mind immediately as it is typically categorized as an "exercise only activity with no spirituality attached." Nothing could be farther from the truth. The techniques in yoga have a specific purpose, part of which is to bring the practitioner into an "altered state of consciousness" which in itself is the gateway to exposing one to the demonic. If such dangers have become a reality in some parishes, then what is authentically Christian in Catholic meditation has become diluted, diminished and perhaps even completely vanquished from the understanding of those individuals who practice and promote eastern methods of meditation.

A key aspect of authentic Christian meditation involves an ascetic struggle and a purification from one's own sins and errors. (18) Let us not forget the words of our Saviour, "Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God." (Matthew 5:8) The Gospel lesson from this approach is a moral purification from the lack of truth and love, and on a deeper level, from our selfish instincts which are an impediment to recognizing and accepting God's will in its purity. (18) Once we free ourselves from our selfishness and passions, we then can proceed to be free in God, a true positive freedom. Employing such an approach is in essence a matter of self denial, served by the practice of mortification. It is through self denial that we are free to carry out the will of God and share in the freedom of the Holy Spirit. (18)

For Catholics and Christians alike, the approach of emptying oneself in no way implies a disconnect with the true God of Israel. The emptying of oneself that God requires is to put it concisely, a renunciation of personal selfishness and not the renunciation of those created things that God has given us and has placed among us for our earthly pilgrimage. Pope Emeritus Benedict XI, then Cardinal Ratzinger clearly makes point understood:
On this topic St. Augustine is an excellent teacher: if you want to find God, he says, abandon the exterior world and re-enter into yourself. However, he continues, do not remain in yourself, but go beyond yourself because you are not God: He is deeper and greater than you. "I look for his substance in my soul and I do not find it; I have however meditated on the search for God and, reaching out to him, through created things, I have sought to know 'the invisible perfections of God' (Rom 1:20)." "To remain in oneself": this is the real danger. The great Doctor of the Church recommends concentrating on oneself, but also transcending the self which is not God, but only a creature. God is "deeper than my inmost being and higher than my greatest height." In fact God is in us and with us, but he transcends us in his mystery. (19)
As Catholics and Christians alike, we must always remember that arriving at union with God, seeking HIm in meditation is His gift to us. We can not achieve this by some "technique" whether that involves the utterance of sounds or the abnormal movements and positioning of our bodies. Our desire and the opportunity to be emptied from all that inhibits us from being free in God, is God's gift to us for those who sincerely seek it. It is a gift that can only be granted in Christ through the Holy Spirit and never through our own efforts. (20)

As we journey on this earthly pilgrimage seeking a greater union with God, let us never forget that authentic Christian meditation always flows to the Father in Heaven. Our seeking God will be a matter of the Holy Spirit guiding us, through Christ, to the Father. (29) As I conclude this post, I would like to leave you with the following quote from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI that captures the authenticity of Christian meditation: 
The love of God, the sole object of Christian contemplation, is a reality which cannot be "mastered" by any method or technique. On the contrary, we must always have our sights fixed on Jesus Christ, in whom God's love went to the cross for us and there assumed even the condition of estrangement from the Father (cf. Mk 13:34). We therefore should allow God to decide the way he wishes to have us participate in his love. But we can never, in any way, seek to place ourselves on the same level as the object of our contemplation, the free love of God; not even when, through the mercy of God the Father and the Holy Spirit sent into our hearts, we receive in Christ the gracious gift of a sensible reflection of that divine love and we feel drawn by the truth and beauty and goodness of the Lord. The more a creature is permitted to draw near to God, the greater his reverence before the thrice-holy God. One then understands those words of St. Augustine: "You can call me friend; I recognize myself a servant." (31)
If we truly seek God in meditation, let us not be deceived by the many New Age alternatives to Christian meditation. Rather, let us as Catholics and Christians alike, focus our efforts on true, authentic Christian meditation, which always has at its core, Jesus Christ our Saviour and Redeemer. May we never forget Christ's words to us, "I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6)

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