The following is a talk given to the Attleboro Area Council of Churches Annual Meeting, January 24, 2011.
The story of Jesus visiting the home of Martha and Mary is well-known from Luke 10:38-42. Vermeer’s painting of Christ in the Home of Martha and Mary captures the story well. Vermeer paints the three as a close triangle. Martha is not alienated, the way she is depicted in many paintings of this subject. Mary and Martha are equals, and equally appreciated. The Gospel does not set the contemplative and the active in opposition nor does it say that one is better than the other. Rather the difference is between distraction and focus. Jesus specifically says that Martha is distracted, trying to do too many things at once, when a simple meal would have sufficed. Mary is taking the role of the disciple, listening at the feet of the Lord. She has focused on the important thing for that moment, listening and paying attention to God. If Martha had done that she would have realized that the meal might be simpler and wait until later.
So the difference is contemplation, focusing, listening and paying attention to God. Another way of saying it is: contemplation helps you work smarter not harder. Studies of creativity show that creativity tends to happen when we stop thinking about a project and let it sit for a while. In the spaciousness or emptiness our minds come up with new solutions and perspectives. Harvey Cox said that meditation in the Biblical tradition comes from the principle of the Sabbath, stopping activity, mental as well as physical. So, just as the Sabbath was made for human beings (not the other way around), contemplative prayer is also intended for our benefit.
Contemplation is the fourth stage of lectio divina (praying with scripture): lectio (slow reading); meditatio (reflecting on what rings a bell for you in the text); oratio (talking with God about your feelings); contemplation (listening in silence).
Most of us have no trouble with steps 1 – 3, but step 4 is difficult. A man joined a monastery, where he was only allowed two words every ten years at the time of his conference with the Abbott. After ten years his two words were, “hard bed.” After 20 years his two words were, “cold food.” After 30 years he finally said, “I quit.” The Abbott responded: “Good! You’ve done nothing but complain since you got here!”
The good news is that silent prayer is not that difficult! There are methods to help us. There are different ways of contemplative prayer, the prayer of silence, but I want to focus on one method I have found very helpful. It is called Christian meditation, as taught by the Benedictine monk, John Main. John Main learned to meditate from a Hindu teacher in India, who encouraged him to find meditation within his own Christian tradition. Meditation is the Eastern word for what is called contemplation in Christianity. John Main found meditation in the teaching of John Cassian, the fourth/ fifth century monk, who brought the teachings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers to the West. Cassian recommended the repetitive use of a phrase from the psalms, “O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me” (Psalm 70:1). John Main shortened this to the Aramaic word, Maranatha, which means, “Lord, come!” Aramaic was the everyday language of Jesus.
While meditation is common to many religious traditions around the world, the method of practice and the purpose may differ. The purpose of Christian meditation is, in John Main’s words, “to allow God’s mysterious and silent presence within us to become more and more… the reality which gives meaning, shape and purpose to everything we do, everything we are.” The discipline is approached for twenty to thirty minutes twice daily in the following way (from the World Community for Christian Meditation website http://www.wccm-usa.org ):
Choose a quiet place. Sit down comfortably, with your back straight.
Close your eyes lightly. Sit as still as possible.
Breathe deeply, staying both relaxed and alert.
Slowly and interiorly, begin to say your mantra or prayer word. Listen to the word as you say it. The suggested word is “Maranatha” (“Our Lord Jesus, come!” from 1 Corinthians 16:22).
Continue repeating it gently and faithfully for the whole time of the meditation.
Return to it as soon as you realize you have stopped saying it.
Stay with the same word during the meditation and from day to day.
Do not evaluate your meditation. You are not trying to perfect a technique. Do not be discouraged by distractions. Rather, let them come and go, always keeping your attention on the mantra. In time, the fruits of your meditation will appear in yourself, your life, and in all your relationships.
The international website www.wccm.org has lots of helpful resources, including books, recorded talks and videos, music for meditation, retreat and conference information, and particularly helpful are recorded guides to meditation (“TimePeace”). There are over 1500 meditation groups worldwide, with several in New England, including one which meets Tuesday evenings from 7 – 8 p.m. at LaSalette Retreat House, Attleboro. The purpose of these groups is to support the daily practice of Christian meditation. You are welcome to join us.