It’s been a long time since I wrote about St. John of the Cross. The main reason for that is it takes so much time to delve into his writings, understand them myself, then relay them in a way I think my readers will understand.
But today we’re going to revisit St. John briefly. Let’s examine what he says about meditation. I’ll be using Union with God by Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen as a guide.
Like St. Teresa of Avila, John sees meditation, particularly on the Gospels, as essential to spiritual growth.
Remember, meditation for Christians means meditating on–that is, pondering–something. It is only concerned with quieting the mind to the extent of setting aside distractions. We meditate on the Scriptures, the Creed, or the lives of the saints. We use our minds and our hearts to grow closer to God in prayer.
Second, remember that meditation is not a method or technique, but what the Catechism calls an expression of prayer. Meditation methods are numerous. The exact format is not important. But every legitimate format of meditation uses the mind and the heart to help the soul enter into conversation with God through Christ.
Meditation is not optional
Fr. Gabriel writes of St. John’s doctrine,
“the soul that desires to attain contemplative union with God has to practice meditation, that is to say, mental prayer.” (Union with God, ch. 4)
This goes along perfectly with Teresa’s teaching. She says,
“For this [meditation] is the first step to be taken towards the acquisition of the virtues and the very life of all Christians depends upon their beginning it. No one, however lost a soul he may be, should neglect so great a blessing if God inspires him to make use of it.” (Way of Perfection, ch. 16)
A friend on Facebook said the other day that without meditation (on something), prayer becomes the babbling of the pagans, or esoteric eastern meditation. Exactly! We could also say, prayer without this pondering devolves into focusing on oneself and one’s problems, or conversely to completely losing a sense of oneself as a real and unique person.
Christian prayer is a pouring out of oneself for the Beloved, in response to the Beloved’s self-outpouring for us. We must acknowledge that the Beloved is Other and that the self is real, before this exchange can take place.
In praying with Scripture, we listen to the very Word of God. We open our hearts to make room for that Word–who is a Person, not just ink on a page. Then we pour out our love for Him–first, in words, gestures, and loving glances in prayer; then in acts of love throughout the day.
How high above a mere chat with (or chattering at) God!
Loving knowledge of God
Fr. Gabriel notes two purposes of meditation in St. John’s teaching.
“Inspired with love for Christ in affectionate meditation, the soul feels spontaneously compelled to want to live as He did.”
But this imitation of Christ is not the highest purpose of mental prayer. John himself writes,
“The purpose of meditation and of mental discourse on divine things is to derive from them a little loving knowledge of God.” (Ascent of Mt. Carmel II, XIV, 2)
As Fr. Gabriel explains,
“all is directed to loving knowledge and affectionate conversation with God in order to prepare the soul for contemplation in the best possible way.” (ch. 4)
This loving knowledge of God develops slowly from interacting with God in the Scriptures. At first, it is often difficult, intellectual, seemingly empty. Then gradually the soul begins to fall in love with her God. She ponders a verse for a moment, then praises her Creator. Eventually, she sees her Beloved in every word on the page, so that she can hardly open the Gospels before casting herself at her Lord’s feet in adoration.
And then the emptiness returns, more painfully. She fears she has offended God. Why does she feel nothing? Where has He gone?
He hides Himself. He makes her sigh for Him. She longs for Him as the deer longs for water. She casts aside all else as useless to her.
At last He comes. With a trickle that becomes a torrent. She is ready to receive Him, because she has prepared her heart through meditation.
This is the glorious teaching of St. John of the Cross.
I have started a new website called Is Centering Prayer Catholic?
Over time, I’ll be compiling all my posts related to Centering Prayer at that site. Dan Burke has also given me permission to re-post articles from SpiritualDirection.com there. I want this to be the go-to source for inquirers into Centering Prayer. My Quick Questions page has about 3500 words responding to the most frequent questions people ask. I’d be very pleased if you would share this page with your friends, family, pastor, bishop, diocesan theologian, spiritual director, and so on. Also, let me know if you think anything needs further clarification. Thanks!