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Some Aspects of Christian Meditation

the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

I. Introduction

1. Many Christians today have a keen desire to learn how to experience a deeper and authentic prayer life despite the not inconsiderable difficulties which modern culture places in the way of the need for silence, recollection and meditation. The interest which in recent years has been awakened also among some Christians by forms of meditation associated with some eastern religions and their particular methods of prayer is a significant sign of this need for spiritual recollection and a deep contact with the divine mystery. Nevertheless, faced with this phenomenon, many feel the need for sure criteria of a doctrinal and pastoral character which might allow them to instruct others in prayer, in its numerous manifestations, while remaining faithful to the truth revealed in Jesus, by means of the genuine Tradition of the Church. This present letter seeks to reply to this urgent need, so that in the various particular Churches the many different forms of prayer, including new ones, may never lose their correct personal and communitarian nature.

These indications are addressed in the first place to the Bishops, to be considered in that spirit of pastoral solicitude for the Churches entrusted to them, 50 that the entire people of God--priests, religious and laity--may again be called to pray, with renewed vigor, to the Father through the Spirit of Christ our Lord.

2. The ever more frequent contact with other religions and with their different styles and methods of prayer has, in recent decades, led many of the faithful to ask themselves what value non-Christian forms of meditation might have for Christians. Above all, the question concerns eastern methods.1 Some people today turn to these methods for therapeutic reasons. The spiritual restlessness arising from a life subjected to the driving pace of a technologically advanced society also brings a certain number of Christians to seek in these methods of prayer a path to interior peace and psychic balance. This psychological aspect is not dealt with in the present letter, which instead emphasizes the theological and spiritual implications of the question. Other Christians, caught up in the movement towards openness and exchanges between various religions and cultures, are of the opinion that their prayer has much to gain from these methods. Observing that in recent times many traditional methods of meditation, especially Christian ones, have fallen into disuse, they wonder whether it might not now be possible, by a new training in prayer, to enrich our heritage by incorporating what has until now been foreign to it.

3. To answer this question7 one must first of all consider, even if only in a general way, in what does the intimate nature of Christian prayer consist. Then one can see if and how it might be enriched by meditation methods which have been developed in other religions and cultures. However, in order to achieve this, one needs to start with a certain clear premise. Christian prayer is always determined by the structure of the Christian faith, in which the very truth of God and creature shines forth. For this reason, it is defined, properly speaking, as a personal, intimate and profound dialogue between man and God. It expresses therefore the communion of redeemed creatures with the intimate life of the Persons of the Trinity. This communion, based on Baptism and the Eucharist, source and summit of the life of the Church, implies an attitude of conversion, a flight from "self" to the "You" of God. Thus Christian prayer is at the same time always authentically personal and communitarian. It flees from impersonal techniques or from concentrating on oneself, which can create a kind of rut, imprisoning the person praying in a spiritual privatism which is incapable of a free openness to the transcendental God. Within the Church, in the legitimate search for new methods of meditation it must always be borne in mind that the essential element of authentic Christian prayer is the meeting of two freedoms, the infinite freedom of God with the finite freedom of man.


4. The Bible itself teaches how the man who welcomes biblical revelation should pray. In the Old Testament there is a marvelous collection of prayers which have continued to live through the centuries, even within the Church of Jesus Christ, where they have become the basis of its official prayer: The Book of Praises or of Psalms. Prayers similar to the Psalms may also be found in earlier Old Testament texts or re-echoed in later ones. The prayers of the book of Psalms tell in the first place of God's great works on behalf of the Chosen People. Israel meditates, contemplates and makes the marvels of God present again, recalling them in prayer.

In biblical revelation Israel came to acknowledge and praise God present in all creation and in the destiny of every man. Thus he is invoked, for example, as rescuer in time of danger, in sickness, in persecution, in tribulation. Finally, and always in the light of his salvific works, he is exalted in his divine power and goodness, in his justice and mercy, in his royal grandeur.

5. Thanks to the words, deeds, passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, in the "New Testament" the faith acknowledges in him the definitive self-revelation of God, the Incarnate Word who reveals the most intimate depth of his love. It is the Holy Spirit, he who was sent into the hearts of the faithful, he who "searches everything, even the depths of God" (I Cor 2:10), who makes it possible to enter into these divine depths. According to the promise Jesus made to the disciples, the Spirit will explain all that he had not yet been able to tell them. However, this Spirit "will not speak on his own authority," but "he will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you" (Jn 16:13f.). What Jesus calls "his" is, as he explains immediately, also God the Father's because "all that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you" (Jn 16:15).

The authors of the New Testament, with full cognizance, always spoke of the revelation of God in Christ within the context of a vision illuminated by the Holy Spirit. The Synoptic Gospels narrate Jesus' deeds and words on the basis of a deeper understanding, acquired after Easter, of what the disciples had seen and heard. The entire Gospel of St. John is taken up with the contemplation of him who from the beginning is the Word of God made flesh. Paul, to whom Jesus appeared in his divine majesty on the road to Damascus, instructs the faithful so that they "may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth [of the mystery of Christ], and to know the love of Christ which surpasses all knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God" (Eph 3:18 ff.). For Paul the mystery of God is Christ, "in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Col 2:3) and, the Apostle clarifies, "I say this in order that no one may delude you with beguiling speech" (v. 4).

6. There exists, then, a strict relationship between revelation and prayer. The Dogmatic Constitution "Dei Verbum" teaches that by means of his revelation the invisible God, "from the fullness of his love, addresses men as his friends (cf. Ex 33:11; Jn 15:14-15), and moves among them (cf. Bar 3:38), in order to invite and receive them into his own company." This revelation takes place through words and actions which have a constant mutual reference, one to the other; from the beginning everything proceeds to converge on Christ, the fullness of revelation and of grace, and on the gift of the Holy Spirit. These make man capable of welcoming and contemplating the words and works of God and of thanking him and adoring him, both in the assembly of the faithful and in the intimacy of his own heart illuminated by grace.

This is why the Church recommends the reading of the Word of God as a source of Christian prayer, and at the same time exhorts all to discover the deep meaning of Sacred Scripture through prayer "so that a dialogue takes place between God and man. For, 'we speak to him when we pray; we listen to him when we read the divine oracles.'"

7. Some consequences derive immediately from what has been called to mind. If the prayer of a Christian has to be inserted in the Trinitarian movement of God, then its essential content must also necessarily be determined by the twofold direction of such movement. It is in the Holy Spirit that the Son comes into the world to reconcile it to the Father through his works and sufferings. On the other hand, in this same movement and in the very same Spirit, the Son Incarnate returns to the Father, fulfilling his will through his passion and resurrection. The "Our Father," Jesus' own prayer, clearly indicates the unity of this movement: the will of the Father must be done on earth as it is in heaven (the petitions for bread, forgiveness and protection make explicit the fundamental dimensions of God's will for us), so that there may be a new earth in the heavenly Jerusalem.

The prayer of Jesus has been entrusted to the Church ("Pray then like this"--Lk 11:2). This is why when a Christian prays, even if he is alone, his prayer is in fact always within the framework of the "communion of saints" in which and with which he prays, whether in a public and liturgical way or in a private manner. Consequently, it must always be offered within the authentic spirit of the Church at prayer, and therefore under its guidance, which can sometimes take a concrete form in terms of a proven spiritual direction. The Christian, even when he is alone and prays in secret, is conscious that he always prays for the good of the Church in union with Christ, in the Holy Spirit and together with all the saints.

As Carmelites We live our life of allegiance to Jesus Christ and to serve Him faithfully with a pure heart and a clear conscience through a commitment to seek the face of the living God (the contemplative dimension of life), through prayer, through fraternity, and through service (diakonia). These three fundamental elements of the charism are not distinct and unrelated values, but closely interwoven. 

All of these we live under the protection, inspiration and guidance of Mary, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, whom we honor as "our Mother and sister."