Sermon preached March 20, 2011
Texts: Psalm 46 (Hymnal page 780)
Play a bit of The Beatles “Sexy Sadie.” Do any of you know who that song is about? Do any of you remember the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi? How about Transcendental Meditation? Beginning in the mid to late 1960s, Eastern forms of meditation became something of interest here in the United States, and in some ways they have remained of interest to many people. The Beatles traveled to India to meet with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi to learn meditation. The song is about the Maharishi. The Maharishi came to the United States to teach meditation here, even establishing a university in Iowa.
Why should Eastern meditation have gained a foothold here, in a country where Christian faith is so prevalent, in a country whose roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition run so deep? I am sure there are many reasons for this interest. We are a culture that is attracted to the new, and sometimes even the exotic. Another reason I surmise is that some were looking for a certain experiential dimension to their spirituality that they were not finding in Christian practices. Growing up, “meditation” was never something I heard about in my church.
But, you might be surprised to know that it is there. There is a rich tradition of Christian meditative prayer practices that can be an important part of our prayer lives as Christians. If Transcendental Meditation caught the attention of a number of people in the late 1960 and 1970s, perhaps it is also because the church had neglected some of its own meditative traditions. They are worth recovering.
Yet when I think about this, isn’t meditation an odd fit with an understanding of prayer that sees relationship and transformation at the heart of prayer? That was my sermon last week, that the heart of prayer is found in relationship – deepening one’s relationship with the God of Jesus Christ, and in transformation – being changed by the God whose love we know in Jesus Christ. Where might meditation fit into this understanding of prayer?
Meditation often uses repetition in prayer and that isn’t necessarily the best style of communication. Repeating usually isn’t a good thing in communication. If you have to repeat yourself too many times, you wonder if your partner is listening. Or if you hear your name repeated more than twice, there is usually impatience in the tone. David, DAVID, DAVID!
However, I think models of human communication break down here when we want to discuss communication with God. In her book In God’s Presence, Marjorie Suchocki writes that “God’s guidance… is an insistent whisper” (123). If we want to listen to God, it requires quieting down in a noisy world. It requires close attention in a world where distraction reigns. Prayer as meditation understands this. Prayer as meditation deepens relationship because its foundation is openness to God’s grace. We find a home in that grace in the quiet prayers of meditation. Meditation affirms God’s grace and quiets us. Meditative prayer turns us toward God and tunes us in more deeply to God.
Russian mystic Theophan the Recluse wrote: “To pray is to descend with the mind into the heart, and there to stand before the face of the Lord, ever-present, all-seeing within you” (quoted in Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, 59) Henri Nouwen, who quotes Theophan goes on to reflect, “the quiet repetition of a single word can help us descend with the mind into the heart” The Way of the Heart, 64). That’s meditation, that’s meditative prayer – to use words sparingly, repetitively to descend with the mind into the heart and there encounter God in deep and profound ways.
Contemporary Orthodox author, Federica Mathewes-Green, writes this about praying the Jesus Prayer, about which I will say more in a minute: In the process you hone your ability to discern God’s presence. He is already there, of course; we just aren’t very good at perceiving it. Practicing the Jesus Prayer helps you sharpen your ability to “tune into” his presence, just as you would practice your scales to hone your ability to identify musical pitch (The Jesus Prayer, x-xi). The Jesus Prayer is a part of an important prayer tradition within Christian faith, “hesychasm,” from the Greek word “hesychia” meaning “quietness.” It is a tradition of meditation, of contemplative prayer.
So if this sounds interesting, intriguing, how does one begin? The rest of this morning’s sermon is going to be experimental and experiential. You are going to learn some forms of Christian meditation.
Psalm 46:10a: Be still and know that I am God. These simple words can become a wonderful meditative prayer, a prayer of deep gratitude for God and God’s love and grace. Pray the words one at a time forward and backward.
The Jesus Prayer. The Jesus Prayer – Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me – was developed in the deserts of Egypt and Palestine in the early centuries of the Christian faith and the Christian church. It has been practiced in the Eastern Orthodox Church since. (Mathewes-Green, The Jesus Prayer, ix). Many have testified to its power, like St. Hesychias the Priest (8th or 9th century): Extreme watchfulness and the Prayer of Jesus Christ, undistracted by thoughts, are the necessary basis for inner vigilance and unfathomable stillness of soul, for the deeps of secret and singular contemplation, for the humility that knows and assesses, for rectitude and love. (The Philokalia, I: 164).
Use of beads. One can use prayer beads with prayers like the Jesus Prayer. The use of prayer beads is found in many traditions, and in both the Catholic rosary tradition and the Orthodox hesychasm tradition. Another wonderful repetitive prayer that works well with something like prayer beads is this: Lord Jesus Christ, you are the light of the world. Fill my mind with your peace, fill my heart with your love, fill my soul with your joy.
Body prayer: Meditation can use the body instead of or with words. Writing about praying the Jesus Prayer, Theoliptos, Metropolitan of Philadelphia (14th century) wrote: Do not neglect prostration…. Let each prostration be accompanied by a noetic invocation of Christ, so that by falling before the Lord in soul and body you may gain the grace of the God of souls and bodies (Philokalia, IV: 185). Using our body in prayer is an important meditative technique. I once taught this body prayer, and would like to teach it to you again:
1. Create a sacred space by bringing your hands together in front of you. Be enveloped in silence and peace.
2. Stretch your arms up in praise of God and in gratitude to God for the good gifts of life.
3. Bring your arms down just a bit, forming yourself into a human chalice to receive from God blessings and peace and grace.
4. Cross your arms in front of you, letting God’s grace and peace and love penetrate deeply into your heart and mind and soul. Know that you are loved by God just because you are.
5. Open you arms in service to the world. We are not meant to hoard the good gifts of life, but to share them, to give ourselves to others in love.
6. End with the sacred space stance.
The heart of prayer is relationship and transformation. Meditation, meditative prayer, can enhance relationship and transform our lives. When our lives our different, we can make a difference in the world. Meditative prayer is not the only kind of Christian prayer there is, and is not intended to be the only kind of prayer we pray. Yet it has its place in our lives, in our relationship with God. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God. Think of this river as a river of God’s grace, God’s peace, God’s love. Think of meditative prayer as allowing yourself to bathe in this river, allowing yourself to float in this river, making God glad. Amen.