Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

Crossing the Meditation Divide

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 25, 2006

There are many people who, at one time or another in their lives, have trouble meditating. For example, they become incapable of focusing their minds on incidents from the life of Our Lord. They find themselves no longer able to turn over these scenes in their minds, or to draw spiritual sustenance from doing so.

When this happens, conscientious souls will often work harder and harder at keeping up their meditative prayer while apparently benefiting less and less. This can become very frustrating, and is sometimes cause for considerable distress. But it shouldn’t be.

What the Problem Isn’t

Sometimes the cause of problems with meditation is obvious. For example, if someone has never been able to meditate successfully despite consistent effort, he or she may simply lack the natural gift of discursive reflection, and should adopt other forms of prayer. Similarly, when someone is depressed or ill so that the mind shrinks from any effort, preferring to drift aimlessly and focus on nothing at all, then one need look no further for the cause of the problem. Moreover, when someone doesn’t care enough about God to discipline his mind and draw it away from all those worldly things upon which the imagination so delightfully dwells, then it goes without saying that meditation will not come easily.

But for those who strive for spiritual growth and have used meditation quite effectively in the past, a new inability to meditate is unlikely to have been caused by dissipation, tepidity, depression, melancholy or lassitude, unless they can see other signs of spiritual regression in their lives, or of illness. In such cases, rather, this problem with meditation is almost certainly a significant stage in spiritual growth. All competent spiritual directors are aware of this point, which has been most systematically developed by the masters of Carmelite spirituality, including St. Teresa of Avila and, preeminently, St. John of the Cross.

The Presence of God

For souls well along the path of prayer, meditation is rarely more than a starting point, a way to focus the mind for a moment before entering the presence of God. Prolonged discursive meditation by which we reflect sequentially on various aspects of a tangible scene from Scripture or some similar concrete experience, is an excellent path in the beginning because it disposes and habituates our souls to spiritual things. At the same time, it occupies the imagination and weans all our senses away from the natural and worldly forms and images with which we are ordinarily concerned, including any base forms and images by which we may be tempted.

But despite the benefits of meditation, it can only be “a remote means for beginners”, as St. John of the Cross puts it, and not “a proximate means to union for proficients.” John insists as the very foundation of his spiritual doctrine that no form or image, and no sense or other human faculty, can possibly unite us to God, who is infinite Spirit. Rather, that union must come through spiritual gifts, beginning with Faith. For this reason, at a certain point of progress after the soul is habituated to spiritual things, God generally diminishes our faculty for discursive meditation and invites the soul to enjoy His presence more directly.

The Three Signs

That so many who are experienced in prayer go through this difficulty with meditation is a sign of the truth of John’s teaching. The great doctor of the Church gives three signs by which we may discern whether it is time to leave meditation aside in favor of this more direct practicing of the presence of God. And, as we might now suspect, the first sign is “the realization that one cannot make discursive meditation or receive satisfaction from it as before. Dryness is now the outcome of fixing the senses on subjects that formerly provided satisfaction.” Note, however, that John cautions us against getting ahead of ourselves. We are not to give up meditation unless and until this dryness occurs.

The second sign is equally important and must accompany the first. It is “an awareness of a disinclination to fix the imagination or sense faculties on other particular objects, exterior or interior.” The imagination will, of course, wander at times. John is speaking of fixing purposely on extraneous things. If we do deliberately seek to enjoy thinking about extraneous matters, then the inability to meditate which constitutes the first sign is doubtless due to some dissipation. To be a sign that meditation should be given up, there must be a general disinclination to fix the imagination or sense faculties on anything during prayer.

In fact, not just the first two signs but all three must go together, for the third sign is that “a person likes to remain alone in loving awareness of God, without particular considerations, in interior peace and quiet and repose, and without the acts and exercises…of the intellect, memory and will.” Or again, a person at this stage “prefers to remain only in the general loving awareness and knowledge we mentioned, without any particular knowledge or understanding.”

Two Cautions

These matters are introduced briefly in Chapter 13 of Book Two of The Ascent of Mount Carmel, and the work as a whole treats them extensively. It is perhaps important to note two possible misunderstandings which could arise from the brief outline presented here. First, this change in mode of prayer, while a sign of spiritual development, is not a sign of perfection but a deeper invitation to it, for perfection always consists in our conformity to the Father’s will. There is no question of feeling superior to those who successfully practice discursive meditation, which would clearly be an inspiration of the Devil.

Second, the loving awareness, interior peace, quiet and repose described by John are not full contemplative union, let alone a participation in the beatific vision. As John puts it, “Actually, at the beginning of this state the loving knowledge is almost unnoticeable.” This is because God’s communication of His Presence is likely to be extremely subtle and delicate, and because we are habituated to meditation, which is wholly sensible, and it takes time to become attuned to “this new insensible, purely spiritual experience.”

Why You Need to Know

The problem that many face is transitional. Despite the fact that they gain a more abundant interior peace by simply relaxing in God’s presence, they fear they are being lazy, making no effort, backsliding. Consequently, they resist this interior peace and actually lose much of its benefit. Most people have never been taught that this is a normal—and welcome—spiritual development. Knowing about this change before we reach it enables us to avoid a good deal of trouble and to make faster spiritual progress. And for those currently struggling against this transition, the advice of John of the Cross will be an enormous help.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

Sound Off! supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

There are no comments yet for this item.