by Alex Holmes
by Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio
Galleria Nazionale d' Arte, Antica, Rome
Christian Meditation is a way of prayer where all our loving attention is focused on a prayer word, it's repetition becoming a mantra to calm the mind and body, bringing us into ever greater stillness and silence, and ultimately into Contemplation, a state of being which is beyond all thoughts, words and images where we simply rest in the present moment, in the presence of God. Christians are called to become Christ today which requires complete transformation, a radical shift of consciousness away from ourselves and into Christ who, as St Paul says, dwells in our hearts through faith (Ephesians 3). The disciplined practice of Christian Meditation helps to open the door to our being transformed, to becoming more Christ-like looking out to the world and less self-absorbed.
In Greek mythology, Narcissus falls hopelessly in love with his own reflection. He wastes slowly away and dies. Caravaggio's painting of Narcissus captures this total self-absorption. There is nothing in the painting bar the youth and his reflection. Narcissus appears bright and radiant, the reflection dull, shaded. What Narcissus takes to be reality, is mere lifeless illusion. This painting goes to the heart of our human nature and the struggle to be liberated from selfish and usually very instinctual responses to the world around us. This struggle is the great challenge of the spiritual life. Though none of us would wish to be described as a narcissist, we would surely all recognise self-centredness or vanity lurking somewhere within us. They seem an elemental part of human nature.
Jesus says, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God", "Then who can be saved ?" ask the disciples. "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible" (Mark 10).
There is a footnote to this passage in my bible: "Jesus' point is that by nature people do not submit to God's rule." "God's rule" sounds very school-mastery, autocratic! But I get the point; I know that my nature is a pretty unruly and unruleable affair. It's way, I sense frequently, is not God's way! And if I am to submit to "God's rule", or, as I'd rather see it, allowing Divine Love to be present as Jesus's Spirit within me, to take me over, then why does it seem so hard? Why can't it just be second nature, like getting dressed in the morning or driving a car? I've been meditating for two decades yet despite my best intentions to keep repeating my prayer word as I meditate, I can still spend much of that half hour period gazing, Narcissus-like, into the pond at myself. Self absorption seems absolutely second nature to me; stillness and silence most certainly do not! And I'm not sure they ever will. Here we get to the nub of it. Second nature is just part of our overall flawed human nature, the part that embraces the path of least resistance. Second nature is habit; when things become habit, the life drains out of them. They just happen.
Stillness and silence don't just happen. If we want them to happen, we must work away at them, and keep at it. "… there are no short cuts, no cheap graces." wrote fr. Daniel O'Leary in The Tablet, "Inner purity of heart has to be hewn from the rocks of our resistance."
There are no short cuts offered by St Paul either: "My friends, I implore you by God's mercy to offer your very selves to him: a living sacrifice, dedicated and fit for his acceptance, the worship offered by mind and heart…" (Romans 12) And what is this sacrifice? "The worship offered by mind and heart" , the very offering we make when we meditate. Our meditation practice is about the poverty of the single word. We sacrifice all the meanderings of our mind, all our narcissistic self-preoccupations, and focus all our attention on our single word. "Prayer consists of attention" wrote the 20th century french mystic and philosopher Simone Weil, "It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable towards God". Easily done? Quite the opposite. In fact I sense this all goes against the grain of our human nature and hence will never become second nature to us. It must be 'hewn from the rocks of our resistance' ; it will never be encountered along the path of least resistance.
If this sounds like all pain and no gain, let's go back to St Paul in Romans 12. He continues: "Adapt yourselves no longer to the pattern of this present world, but let your minds be remade and your whole nature thus transformed." He doesn't say remake your mind, but "Let your minds be remade". Allow yourself to be worked on! Through our "living sacrifice, the worship offered by mind and heart", we open ourselves to the gift of grace "a force from beyond the horizon of our own will." as Fr. Laurence Freeman, spiritual director of the World Community for Christian Meditation describes grace. In opening ourselves to the gift of grace, love comes pouring in, Divine Love which transforms us. On our own, we can rein in our untameable human nature by will power and gritted teeth. But these actions don't transform us; they merely suppress what it is we are trying to tame. Love alone will transform us.
Slowly, imperceptibly, we will be transformed. We must persevere in our discipline of prayer and meditation practice, however dry and boring it may seem at times and however distracted we are. "Faith is a personal commitment to go further, perseverance in relationship with what is not yet fully known to us but which we gradually realise is the source of all knowledge" (Fr. Laurence Freeman). When we persevere with our faith we learn to shift the focus of our gaze off ourselves. Simone Weil wrote that sin, "is the turning of our gaze in the wrong direction". When we shift our gaze in the right direction and allow our minds to be remade, we open ourselves to grace and the inpouring of Divine Love that will transform the whole of our nature.
And how is this transformation manifested ? "And all of us, with unveiled faces, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image that we behold in brighter and brighter glory; this is the working of the Lord who is the Spirit" (2 Corinthians 3). We become what we behold. Gradually we are transformed, from Narcissus into Christ, from the dull, lifeless reflection of the self-absorbed little me into the glorious reflection of the Risen Christ-in-me, looking no longer myopically inwards in the self-centred way of Narcissus, but out into the world with the clear, selfless, loving vision of Christ.
Top image: Christ the Saviour: a 6th century Icon from St. Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai