Dear Donagh,

…. It’s ages since I heard a sermon on prayer.  Our curate long ago used to talk about little else.  I notice that a lot of your questions and answers are about meditation, but never about prayer.  I don’t have a question as such, but I'd like to see what you have to say about prayer, and does talking about meditation all the time push prayer out of the picture?  Thanks for your website.  I look in on it nearly every day.  Noel

Dear Noel,

What you say is true: people don’t ask much about prayer now, they ask about meditation.  Thanks for your question. 

No, meditation doesn’t (shouldn’t) push prayer out of the picture.  I know there are people who meditate but never pray.  This is not in the Christian tradition.  There’s an enduring spiritual classic from 14th-century England called The Cloud of Unknowing, full of common sense in these matters.  Quoting a 12th-century Carthusian, Guigo II, the anonymous author wrote about the three practices of the spiritual life, leading to a fourth: contemplation.  (Usage has changed; today, people tend to use the word ‘meditation’ in place of ‘contemplation’.)  He wrote: “There are methods which a student in contemplation may practice, and these are: Reading, Thinking, and Praying…. These three are bound together in such a way that… the stage of thinking can be reached only after reading…. And prayer may not be achieved unless thinking comes first.  Verify this with your experience.”  In other words, each needs the one(s) that went before.  In order to think, you have to have read something; in order to pray, you need to have thought about something; in order to contemplate, you need to have prayed.  If one part of that practice were to be neglected, he suggests, the rest would fall away.  This is very sound advice.  Some people today reach for meditation as a substitute for all these other practices.  But this leaves it in a vacuum, unrelated to the rest of one’s life.  I find this book extremely useful, and I use it often when teaching.  In this Centre, at the weekly session called ‘Christian Mystics made simple’, we use this method.  We read and reflect together on a passage from one of the mystics… ending up with a 25-minute period of silent meditation.  So, as I said, Noel, meditation doesn’t push everything else out.  Meditation replaces no other practice; but equally, no other practice replaces meditation. 

The greatest danger for any religious practice, I think, is that the ego is capable of using it for its own purposes.  Of course, that danger hangs over everything we do.  In prayer, I could be saying the right things, and yet trying just to massage my ego.  The ego doesn’t know how to pray, because there’s no truth in it; it has been called ‘the original lie’.  It is a false, or at best a partial, identity.  But there’s a remedy for that.  When you pray, pray first for your enemies.  If you see nobody as an enemy, then pray for the people who see you as their enemy.  This guarantees that your prayer is Christian prayer and not an ego massage.  This passage from Matthew’s gospel is extraordinary in its depth and breadth: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.  For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?  Do not even the tax-collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (Mt 5:43-47).  I cannot really pray until I have taken that on board. 

Someone once said to me that meditation is being used as a half-way-house by people who haven't the humility to pray.  But, I say, why complain so soon?  Give them a chance!  Give grace a chance to work in them!  A half-way house is half-way there.   Many people were never taught how to pray, but only to ‘say their prayers’, and make ‘acts of contrition, faith, hope, and charity.’  If through meditation they come to discover the full picture of meditation (as I outlined it from The Cloud of Unknowing), the ‘half-way house’, as that gentleman called it, will turn out to be home, not half-way home.  They will discover that what we loosely call ‘meditation’ today is actually what Christians through the ages have called ‘contemplation’: abiding silently in the presence of God. 

I hope these few thoughts will help clarify it for you, Noel.


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