Practicing Gentleness: Meditation and Passing Through the Crowd

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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 Presence

Spirituality 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.   

3 comments

  1. Dear Andrew, for three years I practiced John Main’s meditation and was on my way to become an oblate but something about it always bothered me and I did some research. It is beyond doubt that the practice of contemplative prayer by reciting a word and only listening to the sound of the syllables is not found anywhere in Christian tradition.

    The Jesus Prayer, for example. is an authentically Christian, aspirative prayer of the heart, hallowed by the Eastern Catholic tradition. John Main should have taught it, or something like it, like John Cassian’s single psalm verse, or the Cloud’s aspirative mode of “prayer of the one word,” instead of importing an exclusively Hindu form of manta into the Christian tradition. Nowhere in the Christian tradition does any teacher of prayer direct one simply to listen to the mere sound of the word without ever intending its meaning. “Sacred sound” mantra recitation is Hindu in origin and intent, period.

    Father George Maloney is a teacher of the Jesus prayer and the prayer of the heart, and he has a wonderful passage at the end of his The Silence of Surrendering Love where he teaches the recitation of Jesus . . ..Abba . . . along with the breath. It bears some resemblance to John Main in its focus on non-discursive, contemplative attention, but without the alien and false Hindu teaching of “sacred sound.” It directs us to, “not be concerned about any thought content” but this is absolutely not the same as using the sound of word as a “harmonic,” as Main teaches. That is unique to Eastern, non-Christian meditation. Father Maloney:

    “Now you wish to empty yourself of all thoughts so that you can be filled with the formless presence of God – Father, Son and Spirit- the living Trinity that dwells within you. As you continue in a relaxed manner to breathe deeply in and out, synchronize your breathing with these two names who are unseen but very really present: Jesus … Abba. Breathe in deeply and mentally recite the name and experience the presence of JESUS. Breathe out slowly and mentally say the name and experience the presence of ABBA. Continue to breathe in slowly and mentally think of Jesus. Breathe out slowly and mentally think: Abba. Jesus … Abba … Do not be concerned about any thought content. Let the words become for you a way to rivet your attention and focus your mind so that you can reach a meta-rational state of concentration that will allow you to listen in a deeply receptive mood to God as He speaks to you in the utter silence of your body, soul and spirit.

    “This is what it means to pray in the heart and in the spirit. It is to allow yourself to be filled like an empty receptacle with the Spirit’s gifts of faith, hope and love. I believe this is what St. Paul was referring to when he told us that our recited prayers are not the highest form of adoration but that it is when we yield to the Spirit of Jesus and allow Him to pray within us that we pray the best.”

    This is the prayer method that I wanted to teach as an Oblate of WCCM, but I got the distinct impression that Fr. Laurence wouldn’t accept it. That, and the fact that WCCM mistakenly teaches, after being shown the error by numerous scholars, that sacred-sound meditation is found in Cassian and the Cloud, is what prompted me to leave WCCM.

    WCCM needs to be forthright and admit that John Main was mistaken, and that the method of prayer he taught is a Hindu-Christian hybrid. Perhaps they will lose some members and gain others. In any event, I would have more respect for the organization if it taught the truth. I am glad I discovered Main’s error when I did, after three years of practicing it. I hope it has not caused me any serious spiritual and psychological damage, and I regret having unwittingly led others down a wrong path of prayer.

    I’m glad to say that a few of the members of my WCCM Monday group are now praying with me on Zoom every week in silence using the aspirative prayer method of prayer of the heart.

    Best,

    Dr. Thaddeus J. Kozinski

    “The Sophist takes refuge in the darkness of not-​being, where is at home and has the knack of feeling his way, and it is the darkness of the place that makes him so hard to perceive… Whereas the philosopher, whose thoughts constantly dwell upon the nature of reality, is difficult to see because his region is so bright, for the eye of the vulgar soul cannot endure to keep its gaze fixed on the divine.”

    –Plato, The Sophist

    “Now unto Him who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.”

    —Jude 1:24-25

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    1. Thankyou Andrew. It is never just sound of the word in Christian Meditation but sound and meaning combined, like Gregorian chant, like Taize chants. There is nothing wrong with the sound of words that have meaning. Christian Meditation in my view is an inner chant, and, as you say, should be practiced gently, not as a technique but as a way of opening to the prayer of Christ.

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    2. Thank you Thaddeus for your comment, and for the time taken to write it. I have been sitting with how to reply for a day or so. In the meantime, Stefan has commented below – I commend his comment to you.

      Furher to Stefan’s comment, I would say that there are some in The WCCM who use the Jesus Prayer while meditating, also some who use the word ‘love’ as recommened by the author of The Cloud of Unknowing. The community is also welcoming of those who might use such names as Abba, Father, or terms like agape. The maranatha mantra is recommeded, not perscribed.

      My experience is with maranatha; a sacred word in aramaic (the language Jesus spoke, and used by St. Paul in his letters). Over the years, as grace has used this word to draw by attention into the heart, it has become a wonderful catalyst for hope, for faith, for love; the journey has been into these ever more deeply as Jesus comes alive ever more in the whole of me.

      Thaddeus, I wish you well on your journey into the mind of Christ. I shall meet you there.

      Peace
      Andrew

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