Our subject today is love, but not any love. We are going to discuss the love that is the living dynamism that underlies all of reality; the love that is living energy of God, calling us to intimacy and friendship through Jesus Christ. Though we are going to discuss technical details and use many concepts that may seem to suggest otherwise, at the heart our discussion is about how we enter into and are transformed by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the gratuitous gift of God’s grace offered to us through Jesus Christ in the sacraments of Holy Mother Church.
The point of personal prayer and meditation is to tap into and make our hearts receptive the fullness of God’s life that is given to us through the Church. In our Baptism, we are brought into relationship with the Father, through the Son, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Because we are creatures subject to the decay of time, we need constant renewal and nourishment in order to unleash the grace of our Baptism, and in his wisdom, our creator gave us the Eucharist as the source of that renewal. In this way, all private prayer and devotion must be oriented towards and find its fulfillment in the Eucharist. In a sense, we can say that all private prayer is act of Adoration, an adoration of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist which leads us to awaken to Christ’s presence within us.
To understand how to gaze upon Christ’s presence and discover his face beckoning us within the depths of our hearts, I propose a very simply methodology. First, we will begin our discussion with the question of natural meditation. By this, I mean that humans possess a natural capacity towards reflection and contemplation, and that this natural ability is taken up into and transfigured by the light of Christ. From this, we will then consider how the orientation of Christian discipleship is to take natural human goods and to orient them towards a supernatural fulfillment that transcends the natural order. Thus we must maintain that while humans are capable of a certain amount of natural happiness and virtue, there always remains an end towards which unaided human nature cannot attain.
This supernatural end is our divination in Christ, our transformation by which we become partakers of Divine nature, our participation by which we can prophesy in the Spirit and say, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Then, I want to paint a portrait of this new mode of existence in Christ. This science of the saints in which we listen to and respond to the promptings of the Spirit.
Let us begin our exploration with the consideration of natural meditation. In his study of Buddhist meditation, the scholar Paul Griffiths makes a distinction which is the fundamental distinction in understanding meditation both in its East Asian forms and in all spiritual traditions. The clarity of his insight is so simple, but so often misunderstood.
He distinguishes between analytic and enstatic methods of meditation. Analytic techniques are simple enough to understand. By active pondering something, one is able to gain better understanding and clarity about a set of doctrines or other wisdom intended to lead to the good life broadly understood. For many schools of Buddhism, such as Tibetan Buddhism, the goal of meditation is to analyze and understand reality based on the teachings of the Buddha. Understanding in this form of meditation is much more than simply learning. It indicates a certain exploration, a deeper form of internalization in which one explores a given concept or vision of reality in a very personal and spontaneous manner.
The second form of meditation poses a lot more challenges for non-meditators to understand because we only know it by popular phrases which often are misleading. Popular expressions such as “empty your mind,” often given the impression of a trance like state that people find allusive. While spiritual experiences such as trances and other psychological phenomenon are common to all spiritual traditions, that is an over-simplification of what enstatic meditations entail.
In its simplest forms, enstatic techniques involve a level of attention which allows the meditator to tune out external stimulus and focus on something in particular. Paradoxically, enstatic techniques can also indicate a kind of passive receptivity in which a person allows the stimuli of the world and the workings of one’s interior dialogue to drift by without giving particular attention to anything.
My basic thesis in regard to analytic and enstatic techniques is that they constitute natural forms of meditation which are natural human goods. They are not extraordinary graces, they do not indicate any form of moral superiority, nor should they be confused with the experiences of the Christian mystics. Properly speaking, they lie within human nature’s grasp, and they exist in a way analogous to natural moral virtue.
This is an incredible insight of Catholic moral theology that I believe bears on our conversation. In the Catholic tradition, which is best synthesized and expressed in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, there is an understanding of virtue ethics which can help us to better understand the relationship between natural meditation and its Christian counterpart. In the work of Aquinas, natural virtue takes on a whole new orientation through the workings of grace. While in and of itself, natural virtue is praiseworthy and possesses a certain goodness which disposes the human heart to God, our ultimate end is beyond the grasp of our natural abilities. Through grace, natural virtue becomes infused which means that it is taken up and perfected by a relationship with Jesus Christ.
This is why the great Christian writers could enter into dialogue with the pagan philosophers of antiquity because while they recognized that writers such as Plato and Aristotle did not possess the fullness of Divine wisdom found in Jesus Christ, there was nonetheless a glimmer of that eternal beauty found within their noble efforts. I must say that I feel a very similar affinity to the aspirations of the Buddhist and Hindu meditators.
What I would argue is that the natural wisdom of East Asian religions is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. More simply put, if you like Buddhist meditation, you are going to find something much better and more incredible in Christian meditation. I would argue that all that is good, true, and beautiful in those religions is found in the Christian tradition. Specifically, we have within our tradition a sophisticated system that puts analytic and enstatic ways of meditation at the service of our relationship with Jesus Christ. Thus, like the virtues, these techniques are no longer simply impersonal modes of reflection, but becomes way of relating to the Father, through the Son, in the unity of the Holy Spirit.
There is a rich tradition of analytic techniques that can be found in most of the major schools of spirituality. In the West, perhaps due to our cultural temperment, there was a particular emphasis placed on analytic methods (which seems to be the norm even now in the United States). For example, most of the literature on Christian meditation written today envisions a set technique of considerations and active discourse in which the believer reflects upon and responds to some aspect of Divine revelation or spiritual reflection. Probably one of the shining lights of Christian analytic meditation is the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. These meditations are so thorough in their understanding of the human person and the workings of the Holy Spirit, that all should have at least a cursor awareness of their riches. In particular, the Rules of Discernment are perhaps the most concise guide to learning to respond to the Holy Spirit.
For a developed understanding of enstatic meditation, the prime example is the Hesychast spirituality of Eastern Christianity. There are some examples in the West, particularly in the work The Cloud of Unknowing, but Eastern Christian Monasticism developed and perfected enstatic techniques in ways that we are only beginning to understand.
There is one key insight that I think is incredibly helpful for many of the debates that are taking in place in the United States currently. From my study of works such as the Triads of Gregory Palamas and the great collection of Hesychast Spirituality called the Philokalia, I have come to believe that they say enstatic techniques as merely a preparation for what they called pure prayer. I will gladly take correction on this point, but I have come to believe that practices such as the Jesus prayer and praying with the breath were merely a preparation for a more spontaneous way of relating to the Lord. The texts of the Philokalia were meant simply as an introduction to prayer, a beginner’s guide that we be supplemented by the guidance of the elder monks.
In this regards, we now must begin to understand a vision of Christian prayer which takes into account a deeper form of intimacy which goes beyond our intentionality and our natural efforts. To understand this better, let us return to our analogy with St. Thomas Aquinas’s understanding of the virtues. While natural virtues are fulfilled and oriented towards Christ through the gratuitous gift of grace, there remains a further level of Christian discipleship which can be difficult to grasp. The irony is that every Catholic who has gone through Catechesis has at least heard of the idea before, and at first it may seem so simple.
The idea is what we all know as the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. While that may seem very simple at first glance, the way that St. Thomas and the Catholic tradition understand the gifts of the Holy Spirit is anything but simple. In its most basic sense, the gifts of the Holy Spirit represent a whole new mode of existence in which the actions of the Christian are united with work of God. The Christian tradition uses a whole series of phrases to try and arrive at this mystery. In the West, we talk about cooperating with the work of the Holy Spirit, a kind of moving with God in which our will is mystically united with His. In East, they talk about synergy in which expresses the idea of communion between the energy of the human person and the energy of God (using their terminology).
Keep in mind, this is the whole mystery of our transformation in Christ. This is why the Early Christians would make claims such as “God became Man so that Man might become God.” Let us be careful, however. While we come to move with the Holy Spirit and participate in the Divine creativity, we nonetheless remain human and fallible. In a mysterious way, the saint is always aware that even in the heights of sanctity, the human person possess the ability to fall almost instantaneously. Such an awareness does not inhibit the saint, but rather forms the foundation for a perfect contrition in which the saint learns to constantly hold before their gaze the need for conversion.
With that in mind, the tradition understands that while analytic and enstatic methods of meditation are an excellent preparation for the Gifts, they are nonetheless still distinct. To understand the higher forms of prayer, we must understand a principle of Eastern Christianity which is important to our conversation.
In the East, an important debate arose around St. Paul’s admonition to pray without ceasing. This led to many bizarre heresies, but it also lead to what I consider one of the most important insights for our conversation. Faithful Christian thinkers began to understand that prayer without ceasing did not indicate a constant flow of activity, but rather a mysterious state of being, a kind of watchfulness and attentiveness to the Divine presence, which allowed the believer to move constantly with the workings of grace. One of my favorite phrases of scripture that I believe describes this well is the phrase found in the Torah which talks about walking in the presence of God. Like the gifts of the Holy Spirit, this walking in the presence of God involves a constant renewal in which the believer surrenders to God with each moment, perhaps with each breath. This total gift of self is not possible without God’s grace.
As we grow in our respond to God’s grace, the Lord gives us little divine touches which help us to orient our life to his presence. While we never leave behind discursive reflection in its entirety, and in a certain sense we may often return to analytic and enstatic techniques, nonetheless our prayer takes on a whole new way of relating to the Father, through the Son, in the unity of the Holy Spirt.
Specifically, the Catholic tradition talks about the mystical grades of prayer and the gift of infused contemplation. While impossible to adequately understand until one is experienced in meditation, these graces indicate ways of relating to the Lord in which God reveals his glory and his presence. The believer must learn to accept these graces and surrender to their mysterious working. In time, these moments in which God interrupts our normal modes of meditation come to dominate more and more. One of the greatest dangers to Christians is that they not understand these graces and work against them. Like the people of Israel who preferred the food of Egypt to the pure gift of manna, we often want to return to what is familiar and comforting instead of allowing ourselves to be led ever deeper into the mystery.
To learn to surrender to these mystical graces, there is always an element of suffering and loss. We must die to self to rise with Christ, and often we fear this form of suffering. At first it can be frightening and alarming. We think we are truly lost and we retreat from the furnace of our quest because of deep insecurities and a subtle rebellion of the will. The good news is that this initial repulsion is quite natural but if we have the courage to persevere, the glories of heaven await us.
In closing, I want to explain something that I believe is the key to walking this path of transformation in Christ. When all is said and done, I believe the most important quality is perseverance. All of us are going to fall into some form of self-delusion and we are going to make mistakes, but if we learn to stick with it, eventually God is going to open our hearts. He is going to do this through the mediation of his Church, through the sacraments, through our friends, through our families, and through the sound guidance of our pastors. In short, our salvation takes place through a whole network of communion in which we are able to discover God and self.