Visions of Daniel

How is Meditation Prayer?


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Originally published in Journal for Religious, Sept.- Oct., 1982, pages 774-782. Reprinted here with permission and with some minor edits and up-dating.


Meditation practice has become commonplace—not only in secular culture at large but also among Christians. Use of the term meditation itself is a testimony to the influence of Eastern gurus. For the Christian tradition called contemplation what today is generally called meditation. But the practice, whatever it is called, is new to most Christians. They learn the techniques and practice them faithfully. Yet for many the lingering question remains: Is this really prayer?

That question is an important one. It is important because of the uneasiness of many who want to advance in prayer but who recognize in meditative practice nothing of what they knew as prayer: words and thoughts of petition, praise, penitence, and good will; feelings of concern, love, exaltation, abandon, and need. It is important also because a complete answer is not so obvious. There is, indeed, theological complexity in understanding exactly how these practices, common to non-Christians and even non-theists, can be Christian prayer. It is hoped that this essay will explain those theological complexities and, thus, reassure those whose primary concern is prayer. For the conclusion will be that, more than any other religious or philosophical belief system, Christian doctrine explains how the very activity of meditative practice is prayer.


Preliminary Definitions: Prayer and Meditation

Consider what prayer and meditation are. The Baltimore catechism defined prayer as lifting one's heart and mind to God. A complementary understanding, emphasizing God's initiating role in all prayer, sees prayer as our response to God's action in us. Yet both these understandings seem to conceive our relationship with God much in terms of “over-and-against”: we here, God there, and a relationship between these two separate poles. So a further understanding sees prayer as communion and emphasizes the union between God and us: we in God and God in us. According to this last understanding, to rest in oneself would effectively be to rest in God, and vice versa. Obviously this notion of prayer is the most relevant to meditative practice—yet its presuppositions are uniquely Christian.

Meditation refers to certain practices through which one moves beyond all thoughts and feelings and attains a state of simple presence. A convenient example is the Centering Prayer developed by the monks of St. Joseph Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. 1 Centering Prayer has its basis in the fourteenth-century mystical work, The Cloud of Unknowing. In this form of prayer, one repeats to oneself a religious word, always restoring one's attention to the word whenever attention drifts. Even pious thought about that word it treated as just another wandering of the mind. Through this practice one moves away from the concerns of everyday life. According to The Cloud, one sets between them and oneself a “cloud of forgetting.” Beneath this cloud of forgetting all thoughts and feelings, of whatever source and kind, are left. Then using the word as a dagger, one continues to penetrate the cloud of unknowing above, which separates one from God. Other forms of meditation do not use a repeated word. Instead, they use the breath, the heartbeat, some constant or repetitive sound, the sight of some chosen image, or a similar stimulus as a point of concentration or anchorage for meditative practice. Characteristic of this type of meditation is that one develops a non-conceptual awareness of just “being there.” Accordingly, this type of meditation differs from those which use imagery, imagination, feelings, and thoughts to facilitate personal integration and spiritual growth.


The Psychology of Meditation

Psychological studies show that—apart from all possible religious considerations—consistent meditative practice produces certain predictable effects. 2 Meditation induces deep states of relaxation. It gradually alleviates anxiety. It releases psychodynamic material into conscious life. It facilitates self-adjustment of the body to a healthful configuration. It dissolves habitual patterns of perception and cognition, freeing and changing the way one experiences and thinks about reality. And it eventually sets up an abiding state of altered consciousness, which is referred to differently in different traditions: mysticism, cosmic consciousness, enlightenment.

All those effects can be accounted for on the basis of natural processes in the human being. Physiological and psychological—image-ful, emotional—processes are involved here. But the key to understanding the most subtle effects of meditation is acknowledgment of human spirit. Human beings, apart from all religious considerations, are spiritual beings: they have a spirit and are capable of spiritual acts. 3

What is spirit? Material reality is defined by its extension in space and time. Anything material can only be in one particular place at any one particular time. Spirit, in contrast, is defined by its freedom from limitations of space and time. For example, at this very moment I can be in my mind in New York City or San Francisco while I am still sitting at my desk. Or again, when I grasp the meaning of the expression C = 2pr in Euclidian geometry, I know something about every circle at every place and every time. In understanding circle, I transcend space and time. I perform a strictly spiritual act. Or again, in general, all acts of understanding, knowledge, or love are spiritual; they are not essentially spatial or temporal acts. Humans, as such, are spiritual.

Spirit is open to, and tends toward, all there is to know and to love. Our curiosity is never ending; our desire for love is insatiable. And as spirit itself is not limited to space and time, so that toward which it tends is not merely the spatial and temporal. Our human spirit wants to know and love all that is. Included in this “all,” of course, is God. But human spirit as such cannot grasp God. Being itself an embodied spirit, human spirit is limited to understanding only that which is also in some way embodied, symbolized, or represented. God, pure and unembodied spirit, is beyond our grasp, though we would want to grasp God, too. 4

Another of the things that human spirit wants to know and love is itself, spirit. This, an embodied reality, available to a person's experience in him- or herself, it can know. Thus, the human spirit, unbounded by time and space, is capable of knowing the unbounded: the human spirit itself. The human being, who possesses spirit, is in him- or herself open to grasping what is timeless, spaceless, and unlimited in its outreach: spirit. The human, simply as human and apart from all consideration of relationship with God, is open in some way to the infinite.

It is important to stress that something other than God can be correctly acknowledged as spiritual and infinite. It is important to stress that humans as such can grasp something infinite without grasping God. To neglect this point is to blur the distinction between created human spirit and uncreated Divine Spirit. To neglect this point is to blur the distinction between humans and God. Or course, neglect of this point also allows the easy explanation of meditation as prayer, but in this case explanation courts idolatry by uncritically calling divine what may be merely human. Unfortunately, too, contemporary theological emphasis on development and process readily glosses over this point. Then, for example, christologists hedge at the outright acceptance of the Nicene declaration that the Son is true God, not a creature, but one in being with the Father, 5 and attempt to explain the New Testament by suggesting that somehow Jesus “grew up” to become God. 6 Similarly, psychologists of spirituality assume that any transcendent experience is ipso facto an experience of God, and they refer to hallucinogens used in religious ceremonies as entheogens (literally, sources of God within) and suggest that neurological research treats of "God in the brain." Now, the difference between the infinity of the human spirit and of the Infinite God may ring hollow and foreign or be dismissed as excessively erudite. Yet, if the difference between creature and Creator means anything, the distinction is real and must be maintained. It is important to stress that the self-experience of the created infinite human spirit is not the experience of the uncreated God.

The human spirit can experience itself, and in experiencing itself, it can experience something unbounded by space and time. In experiencing itself it experiences the infinite and the timeless. Here is the basis for a viable understanding of cosmic consciousness or mysticism or enlightenment. The key to this understanding is the spiritual nature of the human, as such. No appeal to faith in God is needed here. In fact, secular forms of meditation (like TM) and non-theist religious traditions (like Tibetan Buddhism) 7 acknowledge subtle forms of altered consciousness even while they explicitly prescind from all questions about God. Evidently, successful meditative practice need not include theist presuppositions, and an account of all the effects of meditation need not include God.


The Theology of Meditation in General

Now the question “How is meditation prayer?” stands out more sharply. For it is possible to experience and account for all the effects of meditation without reference to God. By the same token, however, the ground is now cleared to answer that question more precisely. And the answer will be different for the mere theist and for the Christian. In both cases meditation is prayer, but not in the same way.

What is the difference between meditative practice for the secular person and the theist believer? In general, only the context is different. The believer views meditation not just as an exercise in mental hygiene and not just as a development of human potential or even of human virtue but also as an act with reference to God. Believers understand that in meditation they are not only relating to themselves and to the human spirit within them but also to God, the Creator of that spirit, or to God who actually lives within them. The only difference is the context of faith, the horizon of meaning within which the meditation is situated. The comparison between Centering Prayer and TM clarifies this point. Centering Prayer places meditative practice within a faith context: it calls for an act of faith before the practice and recitation of the Lord's Prayer at the end of the practice, and it conceives of the practice as prayer. But all the rest in the practice itself is identical with TM. The only difference is faith. Faith places the meditation—as it does every human action—in a broader context: it relates all things to God.

That is the general answer. The more specific answer requires a differentiation between a theist context and a Christian context. 8


Defining the Theist and the Christian Contexts

Theism believes in God. Over and above this, Christianity believes in our participation in God: God has “called us to share his own glory and goodness” and to “share the divine nature” (2 Pt 1:3-4). Theism acknowledges that only God, as Creator, can account for the human spirit we have and, indeed, for all that is; according to theism, we have a created human spirit. Over and above this, Christianity believes that we also possess the uncreated Holy Spirit, which is poured into our hearts (cf. Rm 5:5, 8:11 , 14-17, 26-27; Ga 4:6). Theism acknowledges that we are made in God's “image and likeness,” that we are somehow like God; and this is understood to mean, among other things, that we are spiritual according to our created nature. Over and above this, Christianity believes that in Christ we also live God's very own life.

By using images and metaphors, the New Testament explicitly points out this same contrast, which is the contrast between the Old and New Testaments. Now we are no longer servants; we are friends (Jn 15:15 ). We are called not to slavery but to adoption as God's own children (Rm 8:15 ). Whereas Israel could not see God's face and live, we are to see God “face to face” and come to understand even as we are understood (1 Co 13:12).

The brunt of these comparisons is this. According to Christian belief we are not only created by God and loved by God; we are also living God's own life, destined to be one in and with God even as the Father and Son are one (see Jn 17:21). Traditional Catholic theology speaks here of sanctifying grace in contrast to healing grace. For it is one thing to be healed of sin, to have fallen humanity restored to its full human potential. And it is quite another thing for this restored humanity to be raised also to divine glory, to share in the divine nature. It is precisely the latter that is at the heart of Christian belief about human salvation, even as belief in the unique divinity of the man Jesus Christ, fully divine and fully human, is the hallmark of Christianity.

Christians acknowledge Jesus Christ as the source and paradigmatic instance of human salvation. He is the Eternal Son of the Father become human. He is uniquely divine, God in a way that no human ever was or will be. Son of the Father, he lived his earthly life ever faithful to who he was and, so, faithful to his Father. Thus, as a human being, he merited to be raised from the dead. Then his humanity shared the glory that was his as God before time began (see Jn 17:24 ) but that, according to divine wisdom, he had surrendered, emptying himself and taking on the form of a slave (see Ph 2:6-7). When, because of his free human fidelity, his humanity was transformed to share in divine glory, he became the first instance of human deification and, thus, introduced into history a new possibility for human becoming: what has once happened is indubitably possible. And the Spirit he sent to dwell in us guides us, too, to attain the deified state that he first attained.

We can suggest something of what it would mean to share in divine life, to be deified. Consider that our human spirits are absolutely open-ended; they are geared to embrace to universe. So, as our unending curiosity shows, we would want to know everything. In the ideal, we would not rest at peace until we understood everything about everything. But in this case, we would be sharing in the mind of God because only God understands everything about everything. Likewise, in fact our loves are petty; we are limited in our practice of good will. But if we could unleash the full power of our human spirits, we would love everything and everyone to the full extent of their lovability. But again, in this case we would be like God, who alone loves without measure. Expanded to their ideal capacity, our human minds and hearts would know and love even as God does. Thus, because of God's perfection of our human potential through the Holy Spirit poured out in us in Christ, we would be sharing in God's own way of being. Insofar as it is possible for creatures to do so, we would be sharing in divine qualities—perfect knowledge and perfect love. Here, then, is an example of what it might mean for a human being to be deified. Here is an account of what happened to Jesus' human mind and heart in his resurrection and what awaits us in perfection through the beatific vision in heaven.

Our life in this world, transformed in Christ, is our initial and growing participation in the divine life of God, through the Holy spirit. We are incorporated into the Trinity. These beliefs are distinctive to Christianity, and with them Christianity significantly transcends mere theism. Christianity not only acknowledges that there is a God but also envisages human participation in the very life of God. Thus, when asking questions about God and our relationship to God, it is necessary to distinguish the theist context and the Christian context and to propose the answers appropriate in each case.


The Theology of Meditation: The Theist Context

The hallmark of the theist context is the acknowledgement of God as creator of all that is and, conversely, the recognition of all creation as somehow an expression of God. According to theism the created world gives some indication of what God is like. Indeed, the human intellect as such may know that God is, but it does not know what God is; it cannot grasp God. An understanding of what God is must rely on created things, which merely suggest something about God. More specifically, the theist believer recognizes the human spirit as the most subtle of God's creations. It is the analogue par excellence for God, who is also spirit.

Theism acknowledges God as creator and acknowledges human spirit as the most adequate analogue for God. However, these acknowledgements do not add another factor to any experience in this world. The one who believes in God does not experience something different in this life from the one who does not believe in God. Belief in God adds a further dimension of understanding to human experience, but it does not add to the intrinsic factors that constitute the experience. Questions about God are of a whole other order in comparison with questions about the things of this world. God accounts for the fact that there are things at all in this world; God accounts for the fact that things exist. But given that things do exist, any further explanation of them can prescind from God. Thus, the non-theist and the theist can in principle both deal with life equally well. In dealing with life, they both have the same data at hand: life as it is give to us. The theist acknowledgment of God does not add to the data; rather, it provides a further explanation of the data. It provides the answer to a whole other order of questioning, namely, question about the very existence of things.

Thus, in the specific instance of meditative experience, what is available for the experience of the theist believer and the non-believer is exactly the same. With continued practice, both can experience the ever further subtleties of the human spirit. The theist, of course, relates this experience to God, recognizing God as the creative source of the human spirit and as somehow inevitably implicated in the experience of that spirit. But the authentic theist will not claim to be experiencing God during meditation. The theist would only claim to have a heightened experience of human spirit, as, indeed, the non-theist could likewise claim. Non-theist Buddhism, for example, speaks of meditation as a tool for releasing one's Buddha-Nature.

That conclusion is implied in the technique of meditation itself. During meditation practice all thoughts and feelings are to be treated with equal indifference and be dismissed. Even thoughts about God are given this same treatment. They are irrelevant to the practice. They are a disruption of the meditative process. Before and after the practice itself, the theist meditator may dedicate the practice as a devotion to God. Likewise, before and after the practice itself, he or she might consider that what is being experienced during the practice—namely, the mystery of the created, spiritual self—is something from God. But all such thoughts are irrelevant to the practice itself. And though the explicit, God-oriented intention that initiated the practice may carry over implicitly in the ensuing behavior, explicit reference to God is clearly extraneous to meditative practice. During meditation the theist and the non-theist dedicate their efforts to exactly the same thing—fidelity to a practice that heightens the human spirit's awareness of itself.

Those are the legitimate theological conclusions about meditation considered within a strictly theist context. Within this same limited context, how can meditation be legitimately called prayer? There are a number of ways.

First, through meditation I dedicate myself to knowing and enjoying God's gift to me, namely, myself as a created spiritual being. The joy of this experience is an indirect praise of God.

Second, during meditation I make a concerted effort to become my fullest possible self. I work to integrate my spirit into my psychic and physical constitution. In this I acknowledge myself as worthwhile, and I strive to be all that I can be. Thus, I implicitly praise God, who made me.

Third, during meditation I surrender all my thoughts and feelings about God. I strive to transcend my thoughts and my feelings, even though they are not about God, for I recognize them precisely as something of myself and not God Godself. Thus, my meditation is a form of self-surrender. I continue to strive ever beyond myself toward God, though, of course, I realize I will never attain God. In this I express a self-sacrificing desire and love for God. In this I worship God.

Fourth, during meditation I let go of my thoughts and feelings. I still have incessant activity of my own mind. Thus, I adopt a stance of humility and receptivity before God. I put myself in a position where I am more likely to “listen to the Lord,” that is, to be more receptive to the signs around me that might indicate what is right and good for me before God. Thus I reverence God.

Fifth, knowing that human spirit is the closest thing to God that I have in this world, during meditation I allow myself to experience and marvel in my own spirit, which is something like God. Thus, I try to come as close the experience of God as is possible in this world. Thus, I acknowledge God's glory.

Sixth, during meditation I still the wanderings of my heart and mind and allow myself to be present to the present moment. In this I am present to what is—not to what was or what might be—and so I am more present to God, who makes all reality be.

In those ways the practice of mediation can be understood as prayer even within the limited presuppositions of a strictly theist context. Note that meditation within the theist context is prayer only in the first two senses note above: prayer as lifting mind and heart to God and prayer as responding to God's action in us. However, the strictly theist context does not allow one legitimately to suppose that during meditation one actually experiences God or comes to be one with God. Through meditation one may indeed momentarily leave the world of everyday living. But this is not to say that one has experienced God. Strict theism allows, rather, that one can only experience the created things of this world. Among them, of course, is one's own human spirit, which by its very nature does transcend the everyday world of space and time.


The Theology of Meditation: The Christian Context

With the introduction of the Christian context, 9 the possibility for understanding meditation as prayer expands. Christianity is, of course, a theist religion, so all that was said above about mediation as prayer remains valid within the Christian context. But in comparison with theist presuppositions, Christianity shows a striking difference. According to Christian belief we have not only a created human spirit but also the uncreated Holy Spirit within us. The Holy Spirit transforms our human spirit and opens it to the possibility of embracing divinity. It does so by becoming one with our own spirit. Then, when we are present to our own spirit, we are also present to God. In Christ, we already are somehow one with and in God even as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one (see Jn 17:21 ). Accordingly, the life we now life is no longer merely human. Rather, we are living and growing in the very life of God. Our life and God's life have become one.

That realization justifies one further explanation of mediation as prayer. When during meditation I become present to myself, I am also becoming present to God. Here, for the first time, prayer is communion; the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and I are growing in unity; during meditation, I further the process. Thus, meditative practice is “Christian Life Concentrate.” It is a form of intense dedication to growth in God's own life.

Understood in this way, meditation as a passive form of prayer actually finds more justification in Christianity than in other theist religions. Despite the anomaly of our recent prayer tradition, Christians more than any others can legitimately and coherently speak of meditation as union with God and its consistent practice as a process of deification. Indeed, without the presuppositions of Christianity—the unique divinity of Jesus Christ, his transformation of humanity through the resurrection, and the sending of Holy Spirit into our hearts—without these presuppositions or equivalent ones, talk of deification is sheer fantasy. The irony is that many Christians, understandably fascinated by talk of deification in Eastern religions, are abandoning Christianity and especially belief in the unique divinity of Jesus when only a doctrine such as the Incarnation provides sound basis for such talk. Thus, Christians should feel comfortable with the intense practice of mediation. Within the Christian context, more than in any other elaborated theological perspective, meditation itself is prayer—the prayer of communing with God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

However, the above analysis is of theological importance. That is, it is important for a proper understanding of how meditation can relate to God and, so, be prayer. But it is hardly very important for the practice of meditation.

Granted that the beliefs of Christianity are true, they are an account of the reality that all humans, without exception, live. Consider that whether or not someone acknowledges God, the world in which he or she lives is still a world created by God—even as Jesus said: The Father's “sun rises on the bad and the good, he rains on the just and the unjust” (Mt 5:45). Similarly, whether or not someone knows and acknowledges Jesus Christ, he or she lives a life graced because of Jesus Christ. Thus, the first letter to Timothy insists, “God is one. One also is the mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all” (2:5-6). Likewise in Gaudium et Spes (article 22), the Second Vatican Council teaches that in a way known only to God even those who do not know Christ are able to share in his paschal mystery.

This means that through meditation even those who do not believe in God nonetheless experience God's creation, especially the human spirit. And it means that even those who do not believe in Jesus Christ nonetheless commune with God through Christ's Holy Spirit within them. As they meditate, they are, indeed, growing in God's own life. They are being deified. They do, indeed, experience not only themselves but also God. For the reality which we live is the same for all, though not all recognize it for what it is. In the living of everyday life, even in the practice of meditation, Christians have no cause to think themselves superior to the others. All can experience God; all can share in sanctifying grace.

But this conclusion can be legitimately drawn only given the presuppositions of Christianity. This conclusion holds only given Christian revelation and faith. For who would suspect that the life we live is actually a growing participation in divine life, were this fact not known through Christian faith? Who would suspect that during meditation one experiences not only the created human spirit but also the uncreated Holy Spirit, were this fact not known through Christian faith? For apart from Christian faith meditation can be prayer only in the more limited ways listed above.

The issue at stake here is a theological one; it pertains to correct understanding and not to correct practice. It is, nonetheless, an important issue. In today's world of religious pluralism, we must be able to note the similarities and differences among the various religions. Face to face with other religions, we can no longer get by with only partially accurate explanations of what we believe and do as Christians—and especially son in light of the recent Fundamentalist take-over of the very name Christian. All may be meditating, but meditation does not mean the same thing if considered within the limitations of different religious contexts. It is far too easily said that God is within us, that we are growing in divine life, that we are divine. It is far too easily said that in meditation we commune with God. For what can so easily be said cannot so easily be explained. Christian doctrine provides a coherent explanation of our communion with God. Meditation is prayer. It is preeminently prayer understood as communion with God. But this is so only because of the redemption effected for us in Jesus Christ.


1 See Thomas Keating, M. Basil Pennington, Thomas E. Clarke, Finding Grace at the Center (Still River, MA: St. Bede Publ., 1978)

2 See Daniel A. Helminiak, “Meditation- Psychologically and Theologically Considered” Pastoral Psychology, 30, 1981, pp. 6-20.

3 For an understanding of “spirit,” I rely on Bernard J. F. Lonergan, Insight: A study of Human Understanding (New York: Philosophical Library, 1957) and Method in Theology (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972). See also Daniel A. Helminiak, “Consciousness as a Subject Matter,” Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior , 1984, 14 , 211-230 [and The Human Core of Spirituality: Mind as Psyche and Spirit (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1996)].

4 See Bernard J. F. Lonergan, “The Natural Desire to See God,” Collection (Montreal: Palm Pub., 1967), pp. 84-95.

5 See James P. Mackey, Jesus the Man and the Myth: A Contemporary Christology (New York: Paulist Press, 1979), esp. pp. 238, 242-245. [For discussion, see Daniel A. Helminiak, The Same Jesus: A Contemporary Christology (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1986), pp. 115-123.]

6 See John Macquarrie, “The Humanity of Christ,” Theology , 74, 1971, p. 24. Bruce Vawter, This Man Jesus: An Essay Toward a New Testament Christology (New York: Doubleday, Image Books, 1975), pp. 186-90. [For discussion, see Helminiak, The Same Jesus, pp. 40-45.]

7 See Chogyam Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism (Berkeley: Shambhala, 1977).

8 For a detailed and technical account of what I here call “contexts,” see Daniel A. Helminiak, “Four Viewpoints on the Human: A Conceptual Schema for Interdisciplinary Studies, I and II,” The Heythrop Journal , 1986, 28 , 420-437 and 1987, 29 , 1-15 or One in Christ: An Exercise in Systematic Theology (doctoral dissertation), Boston College and Andover Newton Theological School, 1979, pp. 363-88, 393-405 [or Religion and the Human Sciences: An Approach via Spirituality (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998)].

9 See Helminiak, “One in Christ,” pp. 392-438; [ The Same Jesus, Chapter 10; Spiritual Development: An Interdisciplinary Study (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1987), Part III; Religion and the Human Sciences, pp. 123-143.]