[The following is an email interview I did with Dorothy Coup last year prior to visiting New Zealand. Dorothy’s questions are in italics. Donagh O'Shea]
Is Christian meditation something new?
No, but it wasn’t always called ‘meditation’. What the wide world now knows as ‘meditation’ was called in Christian tradition ‘contemplation’. This silent presence to God has always been a feature of Christian spirituality. But the degree of interest in it these times is something new. It may be that our world is now so noisy and so intrusive that people are attracted to the opposite.
How long have you been practising meditation, lecturing and writing about it?
It was on the early-morning time-table of every priory and monastery and convent in the world, so in my case that would set the beginning of it at more than 50 years ago! – though I'm sure much of what I did was almost purely discursive and not really contemplation at all. As for writing about it: let’s say around 25 years.
How do people, alone or in groups, learn to meditate?
We learn meditation haphazardly, I think, and that may be as good a way as any. When we programme ourselves we become too serious and we miss the things that are staring us in the face. People’s ‘meditation stories’ are very interesting to hear: they nearly always tell of a chance meeting, or a website, or a book picked up on a coffee table…. There are meditation groups of all kinds, and when people go along they find good reasons for continuing. Even if there’s no teacher, the very presence of other people is a great help.
A friend of mine decided to “try meditation,” joined a group and “gave it six months”. She said she didn’t really understand why she continued with this daily practice, nor did she “feel” any different. But after six months she discovered meditation was changing her life.
That seems to be just how it happens. Someone asked a jazz musician, “What’s the future of jazz?” He replied, “If I knew the future of jazz, it wouldn’t be the future!” It is the same with meditation: we don’t know what it is until we immerse ourselves in it; and even then, we may not be able to give a clear account of it, or where it is taking us. Its effects are very deep and may not appear at all at the level of ordinary awareness. But then, one day, as with your friend, you notice that something has changed. It’s better not to pursue this with too much curiosity: that might well kill it. If a plant is putting down roots it is better not to dig it up to see how deep they are.
Is meditation just for the very holy, religious like Carmelites or people with lots of spare time?
Indeed no; it is for everyone, a normal development of God’s grace in us. In the 1930s there was a lot of debate about this. Some theologians thought it was only for members of contemplative Orders; others held that it was for everyone. The latter group won that debate. Had it been otherwise, we might not be experiencing the extraordinary flowering of contemplative prayer in our time.
Meditation saves a lot of time! It helps to keep us from confusion and dissipation. I should be able to say: “I don’t have time not to meditate!”
Why meditate at all? Why not just say more prayers? Is meditation different from prayer?
Any conversation that had no silence in it would be very shallow. Contemplation is the silence that falls when we have said everything we want to say in prayer. Sometimes, I think, our friends would love it if we could just be silent with them. Of course there is a sulky kind of silence that is far from good, but the deepest understanding is always silent. “I was lost for words,” we say, as we rush headlong to make up the loss! But it is wonderful to keep silent and not drag everything to the surface.
How can I “pray for” people or things, such as my sick neighbour, or a job for my son who has been made redundant, if I am not telling God about them? Do I have to do that separately?
Prayer is a kind of speaking with God, yes; but it is not about imparting information. God already knows what is in our heart. Prayer is like shaking out our life before God, every corner of it: our hopes, our needs – including our need to praise God – our weaknesses, our sins, our many different relationships with other people…. Many people, it seems, used to ask St Thérèse of Lisieux to pray for them: so many that it became an impossibly long litany. But she found a solution. If my friends are in my heart, she said, and my heart is with God, then I am bringing those friends to God even if I don’t mention each one by name.
When any further shaking out would be just too repetitive, I fall silent: that is contemplation (or meditation as we call it now). Meditation doesn’t displace anything else in one’s life of prayer; but nothing else should displace meditation either.
I don’t recall anyone, among my family or their friends, going to meditation groups when I was growing up. Why are there groups now?
There are support groups for everything now: AA, Al Anon, NA, GA – all the 12-step programmes; as well as support groups for people who are bereaved, or recovering from nervous breakdown, etc., etc. These are a great blessing; they help us recover from what would be terribly isolating experiences. Catholic spirituality had slipped into a groove of unhealthy individualism (“Remember, man, thou hast but one soul to save!” – I remember this terrible phrase from childhood.) The proliferation of meditation groups today is much needed and is helping our spirits to heal.
Is Christian meditation different from say Transcendental Meditation?
Not having practised TM I don’t want to comment much on this. But I remember conversations I had with some TM teachers years ago, and to my surprise they were beginning to withdraw from the practice because, they said, it had brought them to a kind of emptiness, yes, but not to any sort of union – with God or with others, or even with themselves. This may have been because of the way TM was marketed in the western world, but I cannot go any further with that.
Do you have to persevere with meditation? Is it hard? When I was in a seminar recently, we meditated for 20 minutes before the talks. One woman told me after one meditation: “I didn’t manage to get into the zone this morning. I usually do with meditation.” Is she just terribly experienced or was I not doing it right?
Like everything, if you do it with your whole heart it is quite easy, but if you do it with half a heart it is very difficult. The main thing is not to give yourself a grade, but just to persevere. While it is helpful to have the support and encouragement of a group, it isn’t always a good thing to compare notes too closely. We have enough illusory thoughts of our own without following those of other people. We all have inner weather that changes like the seasons: some days are bright and sunny, other days are dark and cloudy. There’s no point in trying to figure it out. Meditation has a wonderful subtle way of figuring itself out in its own way. All we have to do is stay with it day by day, no matter what the inner weather. Don’t look for results; you will be looking with the wrong kind of mind. If we follow our whims, or those of other people, our meditation won't go very deep. But forget about deep or shallow – just do it! That's what the wise ones tell us.
Is meditation “one size fits all’?
From the outside, people in meditation look more or less uniform. You might expect them to be uniform on the inside too, because they are all trying to do the same thing: to remain silently present in the present moment. But what a variety of efforts! Each of us has to struggle with his or her own ego and its many disguises. No text-book will teach us here: we have to learn from our own experience. But we find that the deeper we go the more we touch our essential humanity – which is shared by other people. A wonderful bond arises in meditation groups, I notice. It is not the result of conversations and agreement in opinions; it has to do with our essential humanity – our ‘Christ-nature’ (a phrase I would love to see in circulation).