The tradition and practice of Christian Meditation - 2
Laurence Freeman continues: “In the second half of the last century John Cassian’s ‘Conferences’ led John Main back to the practice of meditation in the Christian tradition, which he had first discovered as a young man in the East.
Cassian’s two conferences ‘On Prayer’ moved from a general overview of the theology of prayer to a specific recommendation of how to live it at its most radical depth. In the ‘9th Conference’ he describes the spectrum of prayer – its many expressions – but shows how all these forms converge in the ‘prayer of fire’, the mystical experience of union with the prayer of Jesus himself. This theology is at the heart of Christian meditation. John main saw that in meditation we move beyond an egotistical, self-centred focus on ‘my prayer’ into a lived understanding that Christian prayer is centred in the prayer of Jesus. ‘We do not know how to pray but the Spirit prays within us’.
In the ‘10th Conference’ Cassian describes the monologistic prayer – the prayer of one word –that became the basis of the Jesus Prayer of the Orthodox Church. For reasons too long to explore here the Western Church lost touch with this simple method which, for the Orthodox, was and remains their touchstone of lived faith. Cassian – recognized as a saint by both Churches – describes the formula or mantra as a way to the first Beatitude. By the “renunciation of all the riches of thought and imagination” we come directly to that poverty of spirit which is the condition for our entry into the Kingdom of God – the Kingdom or experience of God that Jesus says lies within us and among us.
Cassian goes on to describe the various states of mind through which we will be led and with which we sometimes have to struggle as we keep returning to the word in faith and love. The whole Christian mystical tradition with its many schools and great teachers can be said to be an elaboration of this fundamental insight. Cassian ends by saying that his own practice of meditation was not as easy as he had thought it would be but that it led him to read the Scriptures with new eyes and as if he had written them himself. Finally he affirms that the very simplicity of this prayer of the heart makes it universal. It is not a prayer just for the educated but for all. We might add now – and as this conference will witness – that it is for all ages as well.
A thousand years later this same tradition manifested in the flowering of the 14th century English mystical tradition. The Cloud of Unknowing was written for a select audience but has since become one of the most influential and popular works of contemplative prayer in this tradition. His teaching on the ‘one little word’ and the ‘laying aside of thoughts’ is in direct line with the Desert spirituality and John Main’s teaching. Tradition like doctrine develops – we can see how this tradition of prayer has remained essentially constant but kept pace with the evolving mind of the Church. Meditation has today become democratic. No one is excluded from it and in practising it we affirm the universality of the gospel and of faith in Jesus.
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