Raise your hand if the word “meditation” brings to mind images of someone trying to empty their mind of every thought.
Okay, how many of you think of “meditation” as repeating a mantra — a secret word in a language you don’t actually understand?
What about option three: When you hear “meditation” how many of you think of a cow?
Seriously. You SHOULD think of a cow.
At least if you are a Christian — in the middle ages.
For medieval monks and nuns, “meditation” was something you did with a passage of the Bible. The meaning was very close to “rumination.” As in “ruminant.” You know: a cow, chewing her cud.
Take a verse from a Psalm. Repeat it to yourself. Repeat it again. And again. And again and again and again. Swallow the juice. Repeat it some more. That’s Christian meditation the good old-fashioned way.
That’s also step two in the process of lectio divina, or spiritual reading of Scripture, according to our go-to guy, Guigo II (d. 1188) who wrote the classic text on the topic, The Ladder of Monks.
Reading comes first. I pointed out that for Guigo, reading in lectio divina is actually serious study. For many Protestants it seems like this is the end of the process. Guigo is just getting rolling. There is a lot more to do if you want a really life-giving approach to the Bible.
Study, after all, leaves a lot of people dry — they definitely need more if they are going to interact with the Bible. Study can leave other people arrogant — and if we think we have come to all the answers then we need corrective measures.
So what’s the difference between study and meditation?
Sometimes Guigo seems to be saying reading and meditation are just different kinds of study:
Meditation is the busy application of the mind to seek with the help of one’s own reason for knowledge of hidden truths.
Hard mental work, too. He can refer to the results as being
…hammered out on the anvil of meditation
Notice the goal of the particular kind of study he has in mind for meditation. It is about unfolding “hidden truths.” I think he is pointing to the way medieval monks and scholars found many layers of meaning in Scripture. They assumed a passage would have a literal, historical sense. They also expected it to have meaning for our moral life, and for our spiritual progress, and for the hope of the coming Kingdom.
Meditation is the stage that brings out those layers of meaning.
In meditation you chew on a passage and ponder how the words and images play out throughout the whole of Scripture. That is going to bring out the connections to spiritual life, moral progress, and the rest.
Reading and meditation really are different, as Guigo makes plain using food as a metaphor:
Reading, as it were, puts food whole into the mouth, meditation chews it and breaks it up…
Study is just the start. You need to get enough Scripture into your mouth so that you can do something useful with it. If you fill your mouth with juicy grapes and don’t bite down, you are missing something.
Meditation makes you long for the reality Scripture promises.
He also points out that this meditation changes you inside. Not only does your mind come to see the richness of Scripture’s meaning. Your heart begins to long for the reality Scripture promises.
That sense of longing is crucial. Meditation makes us aware of how far our own experience of God and salvation is from what Scripture promises. That sense of distance, that ache, that longing, makes us aware that God is using Scripture to bring about major changes.
You need to see the distance between here and the goal, or you won’t know you are on the journey.
Give it a try. Let me know what happens.
I’d love to hear from you in the comments: What has your experience of meditation been?