HONG KONG (SE): Speaking to an audience of about 300 people at St. Francis of Assisi College in Fanling on January 27, Benedictine Father Laurence Freeman, director of the World Community for Christian Meditation (WCCM), asked people to picture a roomful of kindergarten children, sitting in a perfect lotus position, meditating in stillness and silence.
He recently witnessed this incredible scene in Myanmar.
The children were meditating naturally, he said, immersed as they were in the contemplative culture of Buddhism.
Father Freeman pointed out that Christianity, too, has a long, long tradition of meditation. The practice originated with the Desert Fathers and Mothers, a monastic movement from the 3rd century that had contemplative prayer at the centre of their lives.
Down the centuries, however, this dimension of prayer had been forgotten, and Father Freeman and WCCM—with 3,000 groups around the world—want to restore Christian meditation as part of our prayer life.
“We have become shallow, we’ve lost this depth dimension in prayer,” he lamented.
“We need meditation to become better disciples of Christ and we need it for an increasingly troubled and divided world,” he said.
Father Freeman described meditation as a journey of prayer from the mind to the heart and through one Christian sacred word, “the mantra,” repeated faithfully and lovingly, we let go of thoughts, words and imagination and enter into an ever deepening journey into stillness and silence.
The suggested mantra is the word Maranatha, used by St. Paul at the end of his first letter to the Corinthians, which means, “Come, Lord Jesus!”
“Don’t think of it as a technique that you have to master and become expert at and you’ll get an A grade as a meditator,” he warned. “Think of it as an art.”
Meditation can also be understood as the work of a relationship, Father Freeman continued, first of all being in relationship with yourself.
“We can’t be makers of peace if we are not at peace with ourselves, unless we overcome our interior personal conflicts and division,” he said.
As with every relationship, it takes work. Meditation is “simple, but not easy.” It is simple because it involves concentrating only on a word, but is not easy because it takes patience and practice. Ideally through daily practice, this prayer of silence will eventually take us to Christ within us.
In his talk, Father Freeman recalled the Apostles, the first disciples of Jesus. They were poor and simple, renounced their possessions, had poverty of spirit but carried themselves with dignity and above all, they loved Jesus.
So how does meditation help to become better disciples? “In the process of meditating and coming to the core of our being, we are also stripped—leaving everything behind—a spiritual renouncing if you will, until there is purity of heart in union with Jesus,” he said.
Jesus modelled contemplation for us, spending time praying alone, regularly, seeking solitude and silence for his prayer to the Father. The pope, in a recent letter, said it was absolutely necessary if we are to be holy in our daily lives that we take time off every day for stillness and silence, in other words, for contemplation.
Expanding to the modern world, Father Freeman said human dignity is essential in the face of threats from totalitarianism and state authoritarianism. Meditation is one way to counter this, as we allow our spirit expand and grow, we become more open to love and compassion and feel a common humanity with others.
Meditation will help us become “big, generous, inclusive, not petty, not prejudiced, not sectarian,” he said.
Along with the spiritual benefits, Father Freeman said medical and scientific studies have shown that meditation improves the cardiovascular system, the immune system, enhances the quality of sleep and helps one deal with anxiety, depression and anger.
“A doctor said to me recently this is the only area of medical research where we see no negative side effects,” said Father Freeman. “So meditation is pretty good for you.”
He differentiated meditation from mindfulness. Mindfulness as a relaxation technique has helped many and deserves credit. But mindfulness is basically an observation of the self in the present moment and is taken out of context as an end in itself.
“The American military is teaching mindfulness to its snipers. You can be a mindful sniper!
“I don’t think that’s what the Buddha had in mind or what Jesus had in mind; to go into your inner room and pray.”
Mindfulness has its place and serves as a good prelude or preparation for meditation. “Without meditation, mindfulness has limited value,” he said.
This is because the orientation between mindfulness and meditation is vastly different. Mindfulness leads to self-fixation, whereas in meditation, the attention is off oneself and into selflessness, working towards the fruits of the spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness…
More than ever, “we need this recovery of our own interiority, of our own contemplative dimension.”