Meditation is also a contemplative practice into gentleness. To help us understand this, we can use a story from the Gospel of Luke (Luke 4:16-30). The story is about Jesus going back to his hometown of Nazareth and the local synagogue (probably the one he attended with his family growing up). While there he effectively announces his mission statement, using the words of the prophet Isiah:
The spirit of the Lord is on me, for he has anointed me to bring his good news to the afflicted. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives, sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim a year of favour from the Lord. (Luke 4:18-19, NJB)
In the story Jesus speaks well, and all are impressed – and surprised. They have a certain idea about Jesus: he is Joseph’s son. What they are hearing now, and what they are seeing, does not sit with the image they have.
The people who think they know Jesus do not really know him. Assumptions and judgements already long made do not change. Jesus stands in his own authority before them and still they fall back on what they think they know: ‘This is Joseph’s son, surely?’
In response to this Jesus dares to compare himself with the prophets Elijah and Elisha; he also compares his fellow Nazarenes to those in the time of Elijah and Elisha, people who also could not see what was in front of them: another prophet of God who cannot do much with people of closed mind and fixed attitude.
This puts people in a rage. How dare Jesus compare them to those who rejected Elijah and Elisha, and who does he think is anyway! They take hold of Jesus, drag him out of town and are all set to throw him off a cliff, presumably to his death.
Let’s pause the story here for a moment and look at the crowd in a different way; let’s look at the crowd allegorically rather than literally. The locals of Nazareth, those who cannot change their minds, let’s associate them with our own deep-seated attitudes and judgements. We all have, to some degree, attitudes and judgements that can hold us back from change, from seeing people and things as they really are.
And, of course, we also have thinking and emotion that operate more at the surface of the mind; those daily concerns about things, as well as our own everyday worries and anxiety.
Let’s say that all these levels of mind, from the more surface distractions to those deeply held attitudes and judgements, all of these are like a crowd in the mind distracting us and pushing attention away from the now of present moment.
How can we move past this crowd of the mind and into the heart, where we are in and with God?
Should we start pushing back at the crowd in our minds, pushing and yelling at them to leave us alone? Or perhaps we could let the crowded mind have its way with us, resign ourselves to it?
This part of the gospel story of Luke chapter 4 is instructive for us. Jesus does not push back nor does he resign himself to the crowd. What does he do? The story says ‘…he passed straight through the crowd and walked away.’ He did not respond to them, he simply passed through them.
Remember the crowd here is the crowd in our minds. Could it be possible that we can do what Jesus did with his crowd and simply pass through this crowd of the mind and walk away? Yes, it is possible. How then, can this be done?
This passing through is the way of the mantra. In the practice of attending and re-attending to the mantra we learn the art of not looking at or responding to the crowd within and simply passing through them. This happens as we practice, a practice that is faithful, one that is not done with results in mind, but done growing in the Fruit of the Spirit. This is the shape of our perseverance. Simply say your word while both this word and the attention we give it are rooting in, and fading into, a silent and loving heart.
As we practice, the divine life within us moves, changing the crowd from boisterous and ridged to quiet and open.
We can now say a little more here about the way we say this word: we must say our word gently.
John Main said
…we must approach our task and follow our way [of saying the word] with simplicity, with humility and with gentleness. We must learn to be very gentle with ourselves as we learn to root the mantra in the heart. Only the smallest effort is required.The Way of Unknowing (Wipf and Stock, 1990), 129.
The way of saying the word requires only the smallest effort. It is not a way of force. The mantra is not a sledgehammer busting up the rock of our thinking; this is yelling and pushing at the crowd. Over time, and we are talking perhaps many years, practicing this smallest effort of attention on the mantra will have attention passing through all in the mind that seeks our attention. Attending with the smallest, most gentle effort, is all that is needed to keep the mantra moving into the heart. To say the mantra, perhaps most importantly, is a practice of gentleness. To practice gently is to become still.
This ‘smallest effort’ is like the faintest breath on a feather, the smallest breeze on a leaf. This is all that is required. Grace does the rest.
As we practice this gentle art of the mantra we silently and imperceptibly grow in the very gentleness we are practicing. Like Jesus, in this gentleness, we pass through the crowd. This is how we walk our way into the heart and grow in all the fruit of the Spirit.
Adrian van Kaam, a Christian spiritual and psychological teacher from the second half of last century wrote:
Gentleness transformed by divine grace is the royal road to Divine PresenceSpirituality and the Gentle Life (Dimension, 1974), 11.
This is what happens as we meditate. The fruit of gentleness grows in us becoming the gentleness we live in as who we are. Gentleness then becomes the ‘royal road’, the way in which we ‘pass through’ the crowded mind and into the divine presence at the heart of consciousness.