Questions About Different Methods of Contemplation

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Recently I had an email exchange with a long-standing reader of this blog. With that person’s permission, I am sharing the conversation here, edited to protect the reader’s privacy. The questions are some that I think many people might ask.

Hi Carl, a very quick question.  Is the Jesus Prayer and Christian Meditation (as taught by the World Community of Christian Meditation) basically the same thing and only the ‘mantras’ are different?

Thanks for your question. Actually, I would not say they are the same thing. The method taught by WCCM is similar to an eastern meditation practice — shamatha, or “calm abiding” — but it is a Christian practice, using the Aramaic word maranatha as the mantra. As a type of meditation, it is a practice that stresses attentive presence to silence. By contrast, the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me”) which has a long history within Christianity, especially Eastern Orthodox Christianity, involving a more intentional experience of relational prayer, and a conscious awareness of the mind settling in to the heart. So it is more “content rich” than meditation practices like WCCM or Centering Prayer. Again, I’m pointing this out not to judge one or the other, but simply to be accurate and fair in understanding how they really are different methods.
Which one is better? I think that varies from person to person. I would say try both, and see which one seems to be the more spiritually helpful or meaningful for you. Working with a spiritual director can help you in sorting out that discernment process.
Is it okay to “blend” the two? I’m sure in the eyes of God it’s okay, God simply wants us to pray, to attend to Him. But if you are looking to “go deep” in one practice or the other, then I would say it’s helpful to be consistent with that practice’s teaching. If you try to repair a Ford with parts from a Chevrolet, it may not work too well!

Thanks, Carl. The context of the question is I am suffering some anxiety issues at the moment. Are both practices equally effective at helping against anxiety from a physiological point of view?

Actually, for alleviation from anxiety I would probably go first with Centering Prayer or WCCM meditation. The Jesus Prayer can get really intense! Wishing you relief, and many blessings.
Thank you. I’ll take a break from the Jesus Prayer.
As always, trust your own experience, and take my advice as just that: advice, not dogma. But perhaps giving yourself some time with a gentler practice can be a blessing for now.

Thank you. Another question: I really like Richard Rohr’s  Yahweh breath prayer. Breathing in on Yah and breathing out on weh.  Does this work as centering prayer?

To answer your question, let me first offer another perspective. Maybe you’re over-worrying about trying to understand the differences and similarities between the different methods of silent prayer. I would encourage you to simply do the types of prayer that you feel drawn to, and not worry so much about whether it’s the same thing as other forms of prayer.
Having said that, I would not call Rohr’s Yahweh/breath prayer “Centering Prayer,” because the instructions are different. Rohr’s breath prayer is closer in methodology to WCCM’s approach. But again, I’d suggest you let each one just be its own thing.
What makes Centering Prayer unique is that the method includes using a sacred word, but only when you’re conscious of distractions. If you find yourself resting in the silence, even the sacred word can fall away. That’s different from Rorh’s or WCCM’s approach, which involves continuing to work with the mantra or the word “Yahweh” even when you are resting in deep silence.

Thanks Carl… I did the Yahweh meditation this morning and it resonates with me. I guess I just want to make sure it’s a valid practice… The perfectionist in me wants everything to be be valid and perfect!

There are so many ways to pray. I trust Richard, and the Rabbi he learned it from! But the real question always is, do I have a sense that this prayer is helping me to grow in my relationship with God? That’s the key, because a prayer may be valid but that doesn’t make it the right prayer (for you!).
One more question for you. I have recently discovered a spiritual teacher on YouTube that I really like, but he is not a Christian. Is it ok to listen to people who are not Christian? I found a lot of what he said helpful right now.  But I’m worried I’ll spiritually confuse myself.
I personally think it is okay to listen to non-Christians, because everyone is created in the image and likeness of God. So of course we can find wisdom and insight and inspiration even from those who do not share our belief system.
Of course, the other side of this is to listen/read everyone — whether Christian or non-Christian — with discernment. Sometimes Christians make mistakes. And sometimes non-Christians do too. We need to keep our minds open to learning, and to discerning. Remember the old saying, “Don’t believe everything you read (or hear).” This is true regardless of the source, Christian or non-Christian. if we can be open-minded but discerning, then we are in the best position to learn broadly but also to be careful and intentional about maintaining our deep faith commitment.

Updated 8/19/21: description of WCCM’s Christian meditation practice edited to clarify the nature of its affinity to eastern forms of meditation. Thanks to a reader who wrote the following to me: “Christian Meditation is based on the teachings of the Desert Fathers, particularly St John Cassian… The originator of WCCM, Fr John Main — when a laymen — was introduced to meditation by a very holy Hindu man. In fact, on entering the seminary, John Main was told “that is not prayer” and out of obedience he dropped the practice. Some years later, to his joy, he discovered mantra meditation did have a long Christian tradition via the Desert Fathers.”

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