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Meditation in Christianity

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Early hermits/anchorites/monasticism Medieval & late medieval mystics 3. Reformation systemization Contemporary meditation spirituality

Earliest Christianity emphasized prayer

Meditation was introduced later, in the mid 2nd century by the first of the desert hermits Over the next few hundred years, many Christians who wanted to completely devote themselves to prayer found their way to the desert, lived alone in caves, and spent their days in prayer and meditation. These were almost always ascetics. We know little of their meditation practices.

Sts. Paul and Anthony, hermits

St. Paul was one of the first Christian Hermits. St. Anthony of Egypt was an abbot who visited Paul when he was old and about to die. The life of Anthony, and the accounts of others who went to the desert, such as St. Jerome, tell of their being tempted by demons in dreams and visions, usually symbols of real forces in their lives or society: food, sexuality, power.

From the early evidence: Hermits, later called anchorites, meditated on the life of Jesus, especially his suffering and death, following the scriptural injunction of Paul the Apostle to share the sufferings of the savior as part of the path to salvation. Once the New Testament canon was complete, by the third century, biblical texts, not only the New Testament, but also parts of the Old Testament, became the foundation of meditation practices. By the beginning of the fifth century CE, St. Benedict of Nursia, the founder of Western monasticism, was completing his Rule of St. Benedict, which laid out the monastic life with its devotion to manual labor, prayer and meditation. Monks lived ascetic lives in community, praying at set hours of the day and night, meditating on readings at meals and in cloister, and also did manual labor to support their communities.

Hildegard of Bingen

1098-1179 Abbess, founder of three convents Composed music for meditation Author of natural history, medicine, lives of the saints, and visionary theology (SciviasKnow the Ways of the Lord; Liber vitaeBook of the Merits of Life; Liber divinorumBook of Divine Works) Her theologial works are accounts of her visions that occurred during meditation.

She presents the love of God as a maternal Love, in contrast to previous theology


Movement of lay women in northern Europe, to live celibate lives of service in the community, with community prayer and meditation a part of their rule.
Many of Beguines experienced God or Christ in their visions and dreams. Some wrote of their experiences of communion with the Divine, including Beatrice of Nazareth, Hadewijch of Antwerp, and Marguerite Porrete. Marguerite Porrete wrote the Mirror of A Simple Annihilated Soul, and when she refused to recant this work, she was burned at the stake in Paris in 1310.

Mechtilde von Magdeburg

Mechtilde von Magdeburg (1297-1294), a Beguine, wrote The Flowing Light of the Godhead, which depicted the essence of God as love and light that overflowed onto all. Excerpt: The fish in the water cannot drown, The bird in the air cannot fall, Gold is not destroyed by fire, But there receives its shine and glow. God has given to all creatures the way to follow their own nature. How then could I resist my nature? I have perforce left all to enter into God, Who is my Father by nature, My borther by his humanity, my Betrothed by love, And I am his since before time began. Do you believe I do not experience this? He can do both: burn with his strength and refresh with his consolation. But be not over-sorrowful: You can again teach me, when I return; Then I shall surely need your counsels, for the earthly kingdom is full of pitfalls.

Meister Eckhart

1260-1328, scholastic theologian of the University of Paris. Specialized in metaphysical theology and mysticism. Frequently taught and preached in convents and connected to some Beguines. Like them, he wrote in the vernacular, and is considered important in theological humanism. Tried by the Inquisition, he died before there was a verdict.

St. Teresa of Avila

1515-1582 founder of Counter Reformation reform movement among Carmelites; founded new convents Visions most of her life; inspired her writings (Interior Castle; The Way of Perfection) Taught path to God had four stages: 1) hearts devotion; 2) devotion of peace; devotion of union; 3) devotion of ecstacy or rapture

Berninis sculpture, Rapture of St. Teresa

St. Ignatius Loyola

1491-1556, Counter-Reformation founder of Jesuits Wrote the Spiritual Exercises, an extended program of examination of conscience, meditation on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the ongoing work of God in the broken world we live in. Exercises were meant as a one month retreat, but can be condensed for weekend retreats, or extended for those living amidst the world.

St. Ignatius Loyola

Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius 1 through 20


First Annotation. The first Annotation is that by this name of Spiritual Exercises is meant every way of examining one's conscience, of meditating, of contemplating, of praying vocally and mentally, and of performing other spiritual actions, as will be said later. For as strolling, walking and running are bodily exercises, so every way of preparing and disposing the soul to rid itself of all the disordered tendencies, and, after it is rid, to seek and find the Divine Will as to the management of one's life for the salvation of the soul, is called a Spiritual Exercise.

Thomas Merton, monk, poet, writer. 1915-1968. Gethsemane, Kentucky

The truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering the more you suffer because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you in proportion to your fear of being hurt.

The Merton Prayer

MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Thomas Merton, Trappist Monk

Meditation was originally only for those who retreated from the worldreligious orders. Beguines signal the beginning of the shift to laity, which kept expanding in the Counter-Reformation and Modern periods. Meditation and mysticism have been suspect by the institutional Church, as leading to heresy. Visions and dreams are less prominent in meditation today, though still present. Women in Christianity have struggled for the right to meditation, due to prejudice concerning their intellectual ability.