Thursday, 8 October 2015

Christian Meditation

In the late 40s, a British Colonial Service officer named John Main began to frequent a Hindu ashram in Malaysia. There, in meditation, the devout Catholic finally tasted his life's ambition: to sit in the presence of God. At length he approached the abbot about converting to Hinduism. The guru's reply astonished him:


Like most Westerners, Main assumed all religions were about signing people up. But Hinduism (and Zen) actually discourages conversion. One's path is an invaluable, hard-won treasure; throwing it away to start all over again is a bad strategy, if you can help it.

Instead, the guru told Main to find a Christian way of meditation. The idea intrigued the Anglo-Irishman. Was there such a thing? He returned to the UK, became a Benedictine monk, and spent the rest of his life researching and resurrecting a form that had indeed, he discovered, once been central to Christian practice.

As one might imagine, there was some blowback. Notwithstanding Main's watertight historical case – the Desert Fathers, a prominent early Christian lineage, made sitting a pillar of their monastic practice, as did such seminal Church figures as John Cassian and John of the Cross – many insisted that meditation was unChristian by definition, on the well-worn pretexts that "I've never heard of it before" and "non-Christians do it." (For the record, they/we also pray, though I've yet to hear any Christian call down the Lord on prayer.)

And then came 1962. In that year, Pope John XXIII convened his now-famous Concilium Oecumenicum Vaticanum Secundum, otherwise known as the Second Vatican Council. The goal of this historic in-house revolution was to modernise, democratise, and personalise the Church. Main's reconstituted meditation lineage, envisioned as a loose œcumenical affiliation of small, often lay-led groups, fit the bill perfectly. He was given the Pope's blessing and a building in Montréal, and told to make it happen. The result was the World Community for Christian Meditation (WCCM), or Christian Meditation for short.

There being no Zen centre nearby when I began my own practice, I sat with the local Franciscans, who led a WCCM group, for almost two years. (Nor was I alone; one of my brothers there was a Vajrayana lay practitioner.)

There I discovered that WCCM-model sitting is virtually identical to zazen. A typical weekly meeting starts with a few minutes of teaching from the group leader – generally a brief elaboration on some point of mindfulness, with supporting Bible references – and then a few bars of soothing music, ceding to silence. (Some groups use a Buddhist-style singing bowl instead of music.) Group members repeat the mantra "Maranatha" inwardly, by way of stilling their thoughts and letting God get a word in edgewise. Afterward the music comes back up, or the keisu rings, and meditation ends. There may be shared commentary, or the session may simply disband, amid smiles and "see ya next week"s. The entire ritual takes an hour.

Some groups sit Asian-style, on zafus and zabutons, while others sit on chairs, as mine did. Lotus-sitting groups may follow the Tibetan aesthetic, or Japanese Zen; somewhere there may be a Hindu one. How these matters are decided I don't know, but it's just cosmetic; the practice remains the same.

I remain a major fan of Christian Meditation, and recommend it to the many Christians I meet who voice interest in Zen or meditation. The teaching is indeed œcumenical; there are no specifically Catholic elements in it, and no need for anyone to feel uncomfortable, regardless of denomination. (And you got that from two Buddhists.)

So Christians who hunger for a meditation practice should check out the WCCM. Sadly, there are not as many groups as the lineage deserves, but most large cities have at least one. A good place to start is the WCCM website.

Failing that, contact your local Catholic parish. You might have to insist a little; even among Catholics, Christian Meditation has yet to become a household word. If it turns out there is in fact no group nearby, talk to the priest about starting one. (You don't have to be Catholic to talk to a priest or to ask him for help, yea though Protestant eyes sometimes grow large when I suggest this.)

Any road, if you're looking to "be still and know that I am God", this-here'll get it done.

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