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A Skeptic’s Guide to Christian Meditation

February 25, 2019 by Jonathan Merritt

In November 2004, Christianity Today published an article ominously titled “Dangerous Meditations,” which explored a growing trend among Christians who were finding solace in meditation and yoga. The piece warned that such practices were unwise, pantheistic, and undergirded by a “worldview in conflict with biblical spirituality.” The assertions of the article expressed the kind of arguments I had been steeped in growing up in the conservative Christian South.

But more than a decade after this piece was written, I sought out mindfulness meditation and yoga in order to cope with an inexplicable chronic pain disorder. Not only did these practices revolutionize my physical and emotional health, they opened the door to a deeper expression of my Christian faith. All the anti-meditation scare tactics had turned out to be, well, just that.

That’s why I was overjoyed to learn about J. Dana Trent’s book One Breath at a Time: A Skeptic’s Guide to Christian Meditation. While keeping her feet firmly planted in orthodox Christianity, she boldly charts a path into contemplative spirituality. Trent is a graduate of Duke Divinity School and religion professor whose proposals are worth considering. Here we discuss how meditation varies from Western forms of prayer and why meditation is not in conflict with the Christian faith.

Jonathan: Let’s start with a basic question. How does meditation differ from prayer? Are they the same thing or is there overlap?

Dana: Simply put, prayer is talking to God; meditation is intentionally listening to God. While prayer is a cornerstone of the Christian faith, modern prayer is often focused on talking about what we “need” or “want” from God. This makes prayer transactional, egocentric, and often, ethnocentric. When prayer places our (and our group’s) desires in the center of the conversation, we drown out God’s voice, presence, and will—which is inclusive of all humanity.

The nature of meditation fosters contemplation—reflecting on God’s presence and listening for God’s voice. The most standard form of meditation—controlling the breath (our life force from God)—calms our anxious minds and restless bodies, facilitating our attention and focus on God.

There is nothing wrong with fervent prayer. But when we find it’s focused just on us—and it’s difficult to be still or quiet—we miss experiencing God, who arrives in the silence (See 1 Kings 19:12).

Jonathan: You’re not just promoting meditation, but “Christian meditation.” What makes meditation Christian, and why are you skeptical of it?

Dana: Early church monastics returned to foundational spiritual practices by studying Jesus’s examples and meditating on the Psalms. Orthodox Christianity developed “hesychasm,” focused on “theoria,” or “gazing” at God. Medieval mystics Saint Teresa of Avila and Julian of Norwich emphasized contemplation as a tool for connecting with Christ. Twentieth-century monk Thomas Merton thought meditation was crucial to faith: “through meditation, we hear God.”

My personal skepticism was two-fold. First, I was raised and ordained as a Southern Baptist, where meditation was feared as emptying the mind. At Duke Divinity School, my study of Hebrew and Greek, church history, Christian theology, and early Christian spiritual practices refuted that argument.

Second, I had talked to God my entire life. How could I listen? I tried meditation apps; they didn’t work for me. So, I wrote my own guide—one that Barbara Brown Taylor has graciously called a “clear and doable invitation to be still with God.”

Read Jonathan Merritt's entire interview with Dana Trent on his blog, "On Faith & Culture."

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Throughout my Walk I experienced the presence of the Risen One in the devotional spaces as well as in times of teaching, meditation, and prayer. The communion with brothers, experienced in the daily sharing at the table and in the Word, generated deep bonds of brotherhood.” 

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