August: Week 1

Meditation and Prayer

A quick search supports what a number of commentators have suggested, there are probably more books written on prayer than any other aspect of the Christian life. Yet for many of us, prayer remains a mystery, perhaps even a source of frustration and guilt. This need not be so.

As far as guilt free definitions go, it’s hard to do better than this from Jim Houston: “Prayer is friendship with God.” Isn’t that a refreshingly simple and liberating way to think about it? It’s also very similar to a description given by Clement of Alexandria, writing 1800 years earlier: “Prayer is keeping company with God.” Friendship. Keeping company. Such simple language does not, however, imply a casual attitude towards prayer. Rather it is the result of a life in which everything has been soaked in prayer. Prayer is only ‘simple’ because it is central. Christians are people who pray.

There are many valuable ways to pray, and many traditions of prayer: contemplative, conversational, intercessory, liturgical, scriptural— and many others beside. While they are all helpful, this month we will focus on some traditions less familiar to the members of our church (St Andrew’s Roseville, in the Sydney Anglican Diocese). These styles of prayer are more reflective, listening styles of prayer which sit alongside Christian meditation. Note that prayer and meditation are not the same— even though they are complementary.

Meditation has something of a bad reputation. At best, it’s thought of as a practice for those hyper-devout contemplatives or the slightly strange mystics! At worst, it’s condemned as a heresy better suited to eastern philosophy. But the goal of Christian meditation is not an erasing of our thoughts and emptying of our minds. Instead its goal is to fill our minds and re-train our hearts with biblical truth. This re-ordering, and the stillness that meditation generates, fosters the tranquility of peace with God.

The practices of Christian meditation are very often a preparation and precursor to prayer. Memorising scripture is form of meditation; repeating and absorbing the language, learning the tone and rhythms, internalising the word of God such that we are formed and ready to pray. More than the athlete’s warm up exercises, meditation is the long-jumper’s run up to the line, the discus thrower’s explosive pivot, or the gymnast’s approach to the vault. There is no definitive line between ‘preparation’ and ‘action’.

When it comes to prayer, it is true that the book of James says, “You do not have, because you do not ask God” (James 4:2). Sometimes, as a result, we can claim license to jump straight into prayer with our list of frustrations and requests— our vision of a combined Suggestion Box and To-Do-list for God! There’s nothing wrong with prayers of petition but we need to ensure that ours are not a product of greed or guilt, instead of grace. We sometimes forget that James goes on in the following verse to say, “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (James 4:3). Now there are obviously some real complexities around not receiving, and I am not implying that our unanswered prayers are clear evidence of our improper motives. Instead my point is simply that preparing our hearts well enables our prayer to rise far above the transactional ‘getting of results’.

Growth Exercises

Week 1: Centring Down

Many of us find that the hardest part of prayer is getting started. Once we’re in the right place, with the time set apart, with our minds clear and focussed— then there’s a good chance we’ll pray. Christian Meditation is excellent preparation for prayer because it trains our minds to focus on God. It is like the runway for a plane at take off. 

One of the simplest forms of meditation is an exercise called “Centring Down” or perhaps more accurately, “Re-centring Prayer.” The goal is to re-focus our attention on Jesus Christ, instead of being pre-occupied with ourselves. Re-centring ourselves in this way provides an opportunity to move from feeling frantic and fragmented, to feeling more calm and centred. 

Try this exercise at least twice this week:

Find a quiet space which you do not regularly use for other purposes. If you use your office desk or the kitchen table it is likely that your prayer will be invaded by thoughts of the activities you customarily do in these places. Instead, perhaps you will place a comfortable chair in a sunny corner or you’ll find a special spot in your garden. 

Adopt a relaxed and comfortable posture with your eyes closed. Feel the ground under the soles of your feet. Become aware of any sensory information coming to you— smells, sounds or the feelings at the ends of your fingers.

Next, mentally hand over to God any concerns or distractions that invade your thoughts. As each one arises, simply entrust it to God and move on. Don’t allow your mind to continue to dwell on it. You may very well return to these matters later in your prayers, but for now, make Jesus Christ your priority. 

Move on from your own thought-world to make yourself present to God. He is always present to us. He never leaves us, but it is we who have set our attention on other matters. Now is the time to quietly lead our attention back to God. It is not yet time to address God with a specific prayer— the idea is not to say anything yet. Rather, we are simply recognising that God is present, and we are present with him. We draw near with expectancy and attentiveness. 

If your attention wanders, don’t become upset or bothered. Park that thought for now, and simply return your attention to God. Enjoy the reality that God knows your every thought— even before you think it— and that his thoughts toward you outnumber the grains of sand on the beach (Psalm 139:17-18).

Rest in attentiveness to God for a full minute (or more!). Now you are ready to pray.