Rossini: What are the levels of Christian meditation?
Christian meditation is a matter of prayerfully pondering the truths of the faith, applying them to one’s life, then entering into a conversation with God based on one’s pondering.
In meditation, we use our minds and our hearts to draw closer to God. Saints and spiritual theologians generally speak of three levels of meditation.
When most people speak of meditation, they mean discursive meditation. This involves a lot of mental activity. When one is first practicing mental prayer, it can seem academic. It often centers on facts. Applying the Scripture to one’s life might be difficult at this stage. As one practices meditation, however, a deeper prayer develops. Soon the Scriptures come to life. Lessons seem to jump off the page.
Then meditation begins to move the heart. Sometimes one feels convicted regarding sin. Other times Jesus’ words or actions call forth praise or thanksgiving. Now the heartfelt part of meditation really begins. One feels an emotional connection with God. Words spill out from deep within. This type of meditation is called affective prayer. It is still truly meditation, even though it is less about thinking of God than it is about loving him.
It’s important to follow the impulse toward more affective prayer when it comes. Affective prayer has the ability to convert one’s heart in a way that discursive meditation does not. Those who practice affective prayer often lengthen their time of mental prayer as they begin enjoying their dialog with God in a new way.
Some people are naturally more emotional and less intellectual. They may move to affective prayer almost from the start. Others will find this transition takes longer. Either way, one should not force it. Prayer should develop at its own pace.
There is a further development of meditation known as the prayer of simple gaze or acquired recollection. In this prayer, meditation simplifies. Instead of passing from one reflection to another, one finds a single idea resonates in one’s soul. It may be a single sentence of Scripture, a simple mental image of Jesus, or a loving phrase. Meditation slows down. One lingers on this idea, savors it. Words slip away. One soaks in a silent love of God. At first this recollection may last only a moment. Then it becomes longer and more frequent. It is often sweet and emotional.
There are several errors one must be careful to avoid regarding acquired recollection. The first is being afraid of this simplification of prayer and filling the stillness with words. Doing so stifles the Holy Spirit and stunts growth. The opposite error is giving oneself completely up to silence, abandoning meditation. This practice cultivates spiritual gluttony, making one attached to the consolations of prayer.
A third error, prominent in our day, is trying to achieve recollection through mental techniques. Techniques can produce a mental silence, but this is the result of a manipulation incompatible with true prayer. The final error is to mistake acquired recollection for infused contemplation, which is a pure gift. This is still an active prayer, even though simplified.
At the stage of acquired recollection, one should still begin with Scripture, returning to one’s simple idea or to the written word when the silence fails or the mind wanders. One must strive more than ever to live a life of virtue and love of neighbor.
All active forms of mental prayer fall under the category of meditation. God gives us the grace for the next stage when he sees we are ready for it. One should welcome these developments without trying to rush from one stage to the next.
Connie Rossini is a member of St. Peter Parish in Omaha. She is co-author of “The Contemplative Rosary” released by EWTN Publishing and author of four other books on Catholic spirituality.