The MOST Theological Collection: Vatican II: Marian Council
"Chapter 16 - Pondering in our hearts with Mary"
Vatican II, in describing the reaction of Mary after finding her Son in the Temple, echoes the words of the Gospel:1 "In a meditative way, she kept all these words of His m her heart." In the same document, the Council warns priests that their apostolic work should not crush the spirit of meditation, but instead, should be fed by it:2 "... realizing what they do and imitating what they handle [in the Mass] instead of being crushed by the cares, dangers and burdens of the apostolate, let them rather ascend through them to higher sanctity by nourishing and warming their activities through an abundance of meditation, to the delight of the whole Church of God." Religious too are urged3 "to learn the 'eminent knowledge of Jesus Christ' by reading the divine Scriptures and meditation."
To imitate Mary's pondering in her heart is good not only for priests and religious, but for all. For it consists simply in uniting our minds and our wills with God by thinking on divine truths, and then stirring up our wills to align better with His will.
Before taking up the practical means of carrying out meditation, we might focus on one special aspect of it namely, the role of our minds in meditation. There are two ways of knowing something, notional knowledge, and realized knowledge. Suppose I read in the news that there is a famine somewhere in Asia. I will probably believe the news report, but yet I may not be specially influenced by it: after all, such reports are all too frequent. This is notional knowledge. But suppose I were to go to the famine area, see people actually suffering, perhaps even dying of starvation. I would then know of it. but in a different way. Then my knowledge would be realized, and it would surely drive me to act.
There are, obviously, many degrees on this scale in which knowledge can pass from a mere notional knowledge, to a deeply realized knowledge. It is evident that if my faith is to be vivid, I will need to try to bring my knowledge as far as possible along that scale towards fullest realization. For realization is dynamic. Someone has aptly said that then we not merely live with faith, we live by faith, that is, faith becomes dynamic, a driving force, not just something chat we carry about in a sort of inert condition. For if we realized the truths of faith as vividly as we do today's major sports event, then for sure, we would be much different.
We saw in chapter 10 that we dispose ourselves for a deeper and stronger faith by acting on faith, by living our lives in the way a man does who deeply believes in, and almost sees with his eyes the spiritual realities. We need to add that faith is deepened not only by action, but also by meditation on the truths of faith.
Is a general spirit of reflection or recollection or frequent realization of the presence of God sufficient for this purpose? Such a general spirit is of course a help. But we really need to take time out to accomplish much. As little as fifteen minutes a day would make a great difference in the spiritual growth of anyone who cares to make the investment.
How go about meditation? Many very elaborate methods have been proposed. Today, it is the fashion to ridicule or at least disregard them. But really, we would do better if we were to confess that people are very different, each from the other. And further, there are tides and trends that vary from age to age. These elaborate procedures probably were quite helpful in other times. In fact, it is likely that some persons today-for people are all different-would find them beneficial. But for most persons today, a more informal approach seems to be preferable.
We might begin by just taking time out, as it were, for a moment, to let our mental engines stop racing. We could try to recall and to begin to realize what we know is true that God is present everywhere. We may prefer to think of Him as pervading even the vastness of interstellar or intergalactic space; or we may find it better to think of the special presence He has in our souls by grace.
After this toning-up exercise, we begin the actual meditation, unless, of course, we find such thoughts as suggested engage our attention so that we want to dwell on them. Then there is no need to move on to anything else. And that will happen to not a few persons on various occasions.
There are several ways of starting. Probably most persons will find the soak-in approach very good. Most of us will need some good book to help us, a book that presents well the basic truths of faith. We read far enough in the book to find a spot which strikes us as worth dwelling on. Then we put down the book for a while and as it were hold that thought before the eyes of our mind, with the idea of trying to realize it, to let it soak into our consciousness. In the course of doing this we may feel the need of divine help, and informally ask for that. Or we may find ourselves inclined to make some prayerful comment. Suppose for instance, we were reading something on the greatness of the majesty of God. Perhaps it was just the psalm line:4 "O Lord, our Lord, how great is your name throughout all the earth." We could hold before our mind's eye the thought of His infinity, and contrast it with our nothingness. We interiorly feel like bowing to the dust, expressing the fact that we are nothing compared to Him. The writer of this Psalm felt that reaction:5 "What is man, that you remember him? or the son of man, that you visit him?"
We may be able to hold that thought, that attitude for perhaps thirty seconds. Then it begins to fade into vagueness or mere reverie. At that point we may be able, by rereading the line in our book, to bring it back again and reuse it, just as before. Perhaps the same cycle may repeat a few more times. But then we will find the need to move on in our book to find another passage that will help us.
Some, instead of allowing some simple thought to soak in, do better if they develop an idea, from step to step. For example, they might take that same thought of the immensity of God and expand it, by using some data from astronomy: I look to the northern sky and see, if I know just where to look and have a small telescope, the galaxy of Andromeda. It is really comparable to a universe all by itself. It is the closest of the "island universes" to our own. How far? So distant that astronomers estimate it takes light between one and one-half and two million years to reach us, racing at the speed of something over 186,000 miles per second. Yet God made that, not with careful planning and immense labour, but by simply saying: Let it be. And He loves me, and pays attention to me!
Others, though they are less numerous, will be able to take a Gospel incident and as it were give it a replay in their mind, just as if a movie or TV film were repeating it for them. Some can even think of themselves as present, and converse with some of the persons who take part in that episode.
We already noticed that we may find ourselves inclined to add some spontaneous, informal prayer, perhaps even of a conversational character, while we are thinking or contemplating. Whether we do that in the course of our considerations, or after, is not important. But it is important to try to get it in somewhere. Really, it is almost natural to want to talk over, with God Himself, or with Mary, some of the things we have been thinking about. If we realize the basic truths they should stimulate us to want to do something. Perhaps I may discuss what improvement in policy is suitable for me, at this present time. Or we may notice how far short we fall of what we should be, in relation to the truths of faith. And for sure, we should see that we need, in any words, formal or informal, to ask for divine help to improve.
It is important, as we said, to have both of the elements that we have discussed, namely, thoughts and informal conversations. Really, this means that we are uniting both mind and will to God. We unite our minds, by thinking about His truths, by trying to realize them. We should also unite our wills, by talking with Him, by laying plans to better align our wills with His will.
The proportion of these two elements, the work of the mind, and the work of the will, is apt to be very lopsided when we first take up meditation, and probably for a long period thereafter: the work of the mind takes up most of the time we devote to meditation. But over a period of time-the length of the period varies much in individual cases, but it is not apt to be short-there is likely to be a shift in proportion, so that we spend more time on the phase in which our wills are active.
After that second stage, though some may be led by grace to omit that second stage, there comes a third stage of the development of meditation in which we find that we can use the "soak-in" technique described above, but we will be able to have many more cycles from the one thought with its matching attitude; we can spend even an entire fifteen minutes or more without the need of going on to other considerations. Some call this stage the prayer of simplicity. The reason for the name is obvious: there is need of only one thought, and one response to it.
We mentioned that general habitual recollection is not enough. that we need to spend a longer time on meditation. But the fact that we do give ourselves a certain period for meditation daily not only should not dispense from efforts at recollection and frequent if not constant awareness of the presence of God; but habitual recollection in turn tends to deepen meditation. In a later chapter6 we will return to this matter of habitual recollection, and suggest some means of cultivating it.
As we said before, we probably will use a book to help us during the time of meditation. It is helpful to look over the book the day before, to find spots that will be most helpful to us. Further, spiritual reading in general, including reading other than directly meditative matter, helps make us more apt for meditation.
St. Alphonsus7 long ago made a very apt comment on meditation. He said that whereas a man might be able to continue with many other religious exercises without giving up a sinful way of life, the case is different with meditation: he will either give up meditation, or give up his sinful ways. For meditation, pondering in our hearts in imitation of Mary, is dynamic. We cannot realize divine truths, and remain unmoved. That is why she never tired of pondering in her heart the words and deeds of her divine Son.