A Disciplined Spiritual Life Month 2

Meditate on This

In this series, Ken Chitwood explores classic spiritual disciplines, taking up a new practice each month and sharing his experiences with the Thred community. Read more here.

The first time I tried to meditate, I was in my buddy’s backyard in Benicia, California. We each sat cross-legged on sawn-down tree stumps, rested our hands palm-up on our knees, took a deep breath, and closed our eyes.  

It didn’t go well. Or, should I say, it didn’t really go anywhere.  

Then again, we were seven years old. 

We were kids. We were mimicking what we had seen on television — or in my friend’s case, what he’d seen from his parents. 

Safe to say, I didn’t pick up the practice of meditation then and there. Nor did I understand that it wasn’t something only people in Dharmic religions practiced. I had no idea that Christians also used meditation as a spiritual discipline, as a means of growing closer to God and more in touch with the world.  

Depth and focus 

We live in an age of incessant distractions, instantaneous gratification, and immense crowds.  

In the Christian tradition, meditation is a way of detaching from the noise and commotion, withdrawing into silence, and prayerfully focusing on what God might be saying to us or calling us to do.  

Meditation is not just about emptying the mind. Instead, it’s about filling the mind, heart, and soul with a particular prayer, ritual activity, point to ponder, or passage of Scripture.  

For example, meditation can mean focusing on a single phrase or section of the Lord’s Prayer. It could mean taking a walk, being mindful of our surroundings, and remembering that each moment, each breath is a gift. 

It could also mean mulling over the news we see flitting past us on our social media feeds. Rather than scrolling past the headlines, we can practice sitting with a story and imagining how God is at work in that place, with those people, or how we might be called to do something about the situation at hand.  

Lectio divina  

One of the time-honored ways Christians have meditated on God’s Word has been through the process of lectio divina — holy reading.  

In lectio divina, theologian Richard Foster says, “our task is not so much to study the passage as it is to be initiated into the reality of which the passage speaks.” To do so, we read a portion of Scripture three times and proceed with four steps: reading (lectio); meditation (meditatio); prayer (oratio); contemplation (contemplatio).  

On the first reading, immerse yourself in a biblical scene with all your senses — taking in the sights, smells, and sounds that might have been present, using your imagination to place yourself in the moment. Maybe start out with an evocative passage like the story of the Egyptian midwives Shiphrah and Puah (Exodus 1:8-22), Rahab’s bold and brave resistance (Joshua 2-6), Jesus’ unexpected entry into Jerusalem, (Luke 19:28-40), or Peter and John’s beachside fish breakfast with Jesus (John 21:1-17).  

Go ahead and try it now.  

On the second reading, focus on a word or character, a phrase or even a piece of punctuation. Weigh or consider what this particular aspect of the passage might signify. Pondering it lightly and considering it from various angles, what is this saying to you, right now?  

On the third reading, pray the passage, letting the sensory impressions, focal points, and reflections from earlier steps suffuse your prayer.  

Is there such a thing as contemplation?  

Contemplation, the fourth step, is meant to be an extension of this prayer that leads to a non-vocal, apophatic, interior communion with God that transcends expression and sound.   

The overall idea with contemplation is that as the reading seeps into your soul — slowly and repeatedly — your mind is recalibrated, and you can interact with the world in a more God-attuned, intentional way. 

The problem is, ever since I first started practicing lectio divina almost twenty years ago, I’ve never advanced to that final step of silent contemplation or inner illumination.  

Maybe I’m still that seven-year-old kid who doesn’t quite know what he is doing. Maybe I’m just mimicking others who are far more advanced in meditation and I’m left muddling in the minors.  

But maybe, contemplation is not always the goal of lectio divina. Perhaps the aim is not to feel the Word only deeper within me but embedded in everyday life, much like with the characters you encountered in the passages above.  

Leaning into tentatio 

Martin Luther, a rebellious, medieval monk who thought long and hard about spiritual disciplines like lectio divina, actually proposed a pattern of spiritual reception that ended in tentatio rather than contemplatio.  

Related to the English word “tension” (and Luther’s German word of choice, Anfechtung) tentatio refers to turmoil and doubt, temptations and desperation, pain and panic — and not only those that we experience mentally, emotionally, and physically, but also the chaos and calamity that the world around us, and the people within it, undergo on a daily basis.  

For Luther, the end of meditation was not inner reflection or privileged personal bliss, but in experiencing God’s Word and its meaning in a world that feels on fire. Rather than just reading, understanding, and praying the Word, Luther encourages us to meditate on Scripture in the context of daily life and its many challenges and tremors, damnations and desolations — when the disease is terminal, the devastation total, the issues systemic, and the justice struggled for still so far off.  

This kind of meditation differs quite radically from what we normally regard as spiritual formation. But for me, at least, it’s led deeper into God’s Word and world.  

As I’ve sat with a passage while sitting by a loved one’s hospital bedside, digested a reading while deliberating over a difficult decision, or turned a text over in my mind as I turned another page in the newspaper, reading such horribly depressing headlines, I’ve found that Scripture’s richness and beauty take on new dimensions. I’ve also found that God is present there in these moments, abiding with me and those I weep with.  

When I feel there are no answers, when there is no still, quiet voice responding to me in the din of daily life, no contemplation deep enough or prayer meaningful enough, and I curse back at the void…tentatio reminds me to return. To keep asking. To keep opening my heart so that I might rediscover God and his grace more fully in stories like Shiphrah’s and Puah’s, Rahab’s or Peter’s.  

Taking the final step of tentatio seriously has taught me, as Luther put it, “not only to know and understand, but also to experience how right, how true, how sweet, how lovely, how mighty, how comforting God’s Word is.” 

And this, after all, is what meditation is all about — growing closer to God and more in touch with the world around me.

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