For most people prayer means words.  But, from the earliest Christian tradition, a form of prayer has been practiced that does not depend on words.

The practice of silent prayer, commonly referred to as “meditation” is rooted in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.  Habakkuk counseled his congregation that, they should recognize that “the Lord is in his holy temple” and “let all the earth keep silence before him!” (Habakkuk 2:20)  Isaiah said simply, “Sit in silence.” (Isaiah 47:5)

In one of the few places where Jesus gave instruction about how to pray he issued a stern warning saying, “When you are praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think they will be heard because of their many words.” (Matthew 6:7)  Instead Jesus said, “whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.”  (Matthew 6:6)

In the 4th century the Christian monk John Cassian traveled to the deserts of Egypt where he uncovered a deep tradition of Christian spirituality and practice. Cassian found desert fathers and mothers who understood Jesus’ instruction to “go into your room and shut the door” to mean we should “withdraw our hearts completely from the clatter of every thought and concern.” [1] This led to a way of “wordless prayer,” that “transcends all human understanding and is distinguished not, I would say, by a sound of the voice or a movement of the tongue or a pronunciation of words.”  [2]

This discipline of “wordless prayer” has carried on as a deep, sometimes hidden stream in Christian practice to the present day.

In the over-stimulated culture of the 21st century, meditation is more essential than it has ever been.

This prayer of silence offers the opportunity to step aside from the demands, pressures and tensions of daily life.  It enables us to rest in the presence of God who, through the prophet Jeremiah, called all people to “Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.” (Jeremiah 6:16)

Meditation is a short retreat taken on a regular basis. It is an opportunity to step aside for a time from the noise, hurry, and clutter of daily life. It helps put life back into perspective and re-grounds us in our awareness of the presence and action of God in all of life.

Meditation is not escape from reality. It is a return to home. In meditation we share in the practice of the Prodigal Son who found himself in a distant and foreign land when he suddenly “when came to himself and said, “…I will get up and go to my father.” (Luke 15:17,18a) In meditation we wake up and intend to return to our awareness of the father.

 

© Christopher Page

 

 [1] John Cassian The Conferences trans. Boniface Ramsey, O.P (New York: Newman Press, 1997), p. 353.

[2] Ibid., p. 345.