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United Reformed Church Spirituality articles:

Drawing on the World Community for Christian Meditation

Ann Morton
4 August 2018

When I was asked if I would like to write something on Meditation for the URC Retreat Group’s magazine Encounter I felt both pleased and rather daunted as it seemed such a large subject to condense into a small enough space and do it justice. What should I put in, and what leave out?

I was drawn towards meditation some years ago through the Buddhist route. After starting out as an Anglican and then transferring to a United Reformed Church — where I experienced many years of hearing and enjoying inspirational sermons — I began to feel that, ultimately, words will always have their limitations and that I needed to explore the way beyond words and into the silence, and try to find that still point within myself where the Spirit dwells. I joined a Buddhist Sangha and there I experienced excellent teaching and the discipline of silent meditation in a group. I discovered that the teaching in no way conflicted with my understanding of Christianity, and in fact it gave me a new perspective on the Christian faith. In recent years I have let go of my attachment to the Buddhist Sangha and have been pursuing the meditative way through Christian avenues, namely through the World Community for Christian Meditation (WCCM).

For those who are not acquainted with this organisation, the WCCM was started by John Main, a Benedictine Monk, who, having experienced meditation in the East, set out to bring this practice to ordinary people. Previously it had been largely the province of monastic orders and the churches had seldom shown any interest in it, and John Main, over many years, set out to teach and encourage meditation worldwide by the setting up of ecumenical meditation groups which could exist within or outside churches. The basis and inspiration for his teaching dated from the early monastics or “Desert Fathers and Mothers”, many of whom spent years in solitude in the desert, meditating. This way of prayer was largely lost in subsequent generations until it became almost entirely the province of monastic orders.

John Main’s work continued until he died and then his place, as Director of the WCCM was taken by the present Director, Laurence Freeman who is also a Benedictine Monk and under his guidance group meditation has continued to proliferate throughout the world.

Meditation (or Contemplation as it is sometimes called) is not an activity of the mind, in the sense of thought processes. It is an interior meeting with our true selves and thus with God — a meeting without thoughts even about God. In fact it is a “being with God” in complete silence. Thoughts will come — that cannot be helped and it doesn’t matter — but they can just be acknowledged and then let go of rather than being dwelt on and pursued. There are various practices that can be used to help meditation, such as focussing on the breath or saying a mantra: people use whatever is most helpful to assist in the stilling of the mind. If you seem to be particularly distracted one day, it doesn’t matter, it is not a matter for self-judgement. The most important factor is the regularity of the practice, even if it is only five or ten minutes twice a day, initially.

I believe it is also very important to have good teaching, Buddhists are very keen on the oral tradition being passed down through a lineage of teachers, but for Christians I think we mostly have to rely on a mixture of talks, retreats, books, CDs, the Internet, and most of all practice. It is particularly helpful to have the chance to practise in a group. The commitment and energy generated in a group usually make it a very different experience from that of meditating alone.

Meditation does not make people into recluses; it usually brings people closer to each other. In this age of so many divisions between peoples of different denominations and faiths, meditation can be a way through to meaningful connections with people of other churches and faiths or of none. There is no dogma or doctrine to divide those sitting together in meditation; on the contrary, they can find a unity which transcends all barriers and respects the differences of others. It is a practice of love.

So why are churches so reluctant to encourage meditation in their congregations? It may be because most people find it quite difficult, at first anyway. Although the practice is very simple, that does not mean it is easy. Many people find silence difficult, so that in itself is a challenge. But there is a lot of help around. We can all use what is available from sources such as the WCCM, and encourage congregations to join or set up ecumenical groups under their auspices. A huge amount of helpful material is available through the WCCM, including their website, and Laurence Freeman is a most inspirational teacher.

At the URC Centre for Reflection at Aston Tirrold, we have formed a small meditation group, run on the lines recommended by the WCCM, and we have access to a constant supply of recorded talks and other materials to assist us, for example, as introductions to our meditation sessions.

The world needs the healing that comes from silence, stillness and the alert attention focussed upon the Spirit, within that silence. It is the prayer of the heart.