Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Like Fine Wine

In patristic tradition, the usage of the word meditation was confined to the ways in which the mind and heart were diligently handed over to the word of God. This was done to renew the mind and heart through that word. The fathers maintain that it is not proper for man to engage in meditating on anything other than the written word of God, that is, the Bible. For inward meditation can imprint its impression on the emotional and intellectual makeup of man. Man, therefore, should not be so stamped except by the holy word of God, which accords with God’s will and mind…

According to patristic tradition, the first degree of meditation begins with reading the words slowly, relishing them, and repeating them in an audible voice. Reading, to the fathers, always meant doing so in an audible voice and relished in our inner consciousness. In this manner, it can find rest in our innermost recesses. Reiteration here is like rumination. After a while the words actually become one’s own words. Man, then, becomes a faithful storehouse for the word of God. His heart becomes a divine treasure for it… This is what is originally means by ‘keeping the gospel’ or ‘keeping the word.’

Matthew the Poor, Orthodox Prayer Life

Reflection – OK, just a couple more days with Matthew the Poor and meditation. Seriously, though, I am increasingly convinced that the lack of meditation on God’s word underlies a great deal of our spiritual malaise in the Church and (a fortiori) in society at large.

Some may object that meditation leaves them feeling a bit dry, that it can become too easily just another head trip, an intellectual exercise that goes nowhere in particular fast. While this is understandable, I think that reflects a certain lack of understanding of the process of meditation as traditionally understood in the Church.

We may think that the idea in general is to read a Scripture passage and then think about it and draw some helpful conclusion about it. That’s not quite it, and Matthew the Poor is helpful here. The above description makes it sound like ‘reading’ and then ‘thinking’ (which for us North Americans too quickly turns into ‘analysing’ or ‘dissecting’ which is useless for Scriptural prayer) are parallel, that we read so as to move on to the analysis.

No. No way. Never. Absolutely not. (Stop that right this instant!). First comes reading. Second comes reading. Third comes… reading. Fourth comes (wait for it!) reading. Meditation is first and foremost and above all a putting oneself in the presence of God in his inspired living word. Before our ‘rational’ brain kicks in, before we start pulling it to pieces and figuring out the difficult bits and all that useless stuff, we have to bask, to soak, to savor the word, to roll it around in our mouths like a fine wine, to revel in the very cadence of the syllables, to spell it out, practically, letter by letter.

Only after a good long time of that should our minds offer any kind of suggestion or reflection. And even then, the thought process should be dialogic, a prayer, a conversation with God: ‘Gee, Lord, I guess you really do like to heal blind people! Wonder where I’m blind? What don’t I see here and now in my life? Maybe I don’t see my own royal dignity, or your love, or the goodness of your creation or… OK, Son of David, have mercy on me, and heal my blindness.’ That kind of thing, not some dreadful dull sterile chain of thought which too often is quite literally a chain.

God’s word is a living word, you see, and when we bring ourselves into contact with it as I and Matthew are trying to describe we are not simply doing an intellectual exercise. We are in the presence of a Person, and that Person can act, then, our keeping of the Word opening the door for that action and that movement.

Anyhow, it’s all in John 14:21-26, which is the passage Abba Matthew cites. But I do know that we need to hold this word of God in our minds and hearts more fully and deeply and allow it to have its way with us. It is a transformative word, and unless we allow it to do its unique transforming work we are left with our own ideas, attitudes, beliefs, patterns of thought and behaviour. So, open up your bibles, folks, and read them. Plant that seed in the soil of your hearts, and trust that God knows how to make it blossom.

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