Notes on Christian Meditation and Living the Good Life

Talk on Christian Meditation and Living the Good Life
St. Michael UOC Ladies’ Sodality Retreat
Fr. Anthony Perkins, 13 May 2014

There is within us, a yearning for something better. We feel ourselves to be refugees in a land that isn’t quite right. We desire peace, joy, and growth within our own lives; but find peace to be far too fragile, joy far too temporary, and opportunities for growth undermined far too often. We desire all our relationships to be full of trust, comfort, and mutual assistance; but find them also be far short of our hopes and expectations. So we make due with what we have, find what joy we can in our hobbies, our religions, and whatever relationships that have either never been tested or that we have managed to salvage, despite the tests.

But we were meant for more than this. We were meant to do more than just distract ourselves to death. We were made for something better. No matter how we try to cover it up, drown it out, or ignore it, the still small voice inside us is there, reminding us of the truth. [Reminding us] That we were born to become perfect; perfect in joy, perfect in peace, perfect in fellowship with others (who were also born to become perfect). Perfect in the Unity that transcends creation and gave it breath. That we are not living up to our calling, that we have missed the mark, that we have settled for far less than we should. That our lives have been one compromise after another, justifiable and understandable, to be sure; but nonetheless weighing us down and keeping us from the only goals that are worth achieving.

St. Paul put it very starkly: All have missed the mark (sinned) and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).

[He was writing to an audience who recognized the tension between what was right and good and true – and the lives they were leading. They recognized not only that the “world groans in sin” (Romans 8:22), but that we groan with it. I sometimes worry that we are losing this recognition. It is easy for us to see that world is messed up, but ourselves? Are we willing to admit that? The Jews had the law to convince them that it was impossible to live perfectly – what do we have? A society that works with our pride, constantly telling us that we are victims, that we have done nothing wrong, and even if we have “missed the mark”, it is only because circumstances did not allow for a perfect choice. In short, we have a society that is quite willing to blame the 1% or the unions or the Russians or some other group, it is full of people who are not willing to admit their own culpability and confess their own imperfections. But if we cannot do this, then how can we become perfect? And if we do not admit to the damage our choices have done to us and our relationships, how can we heal?] 

The fact is that we are all fallen. We are all broken. None of us are capable of living the kind of lives we were meant to live. None of us are capable of giving others the kind of love they deserve. We must admit that before we go on. This is the cancer that eats at us as individuals and that destroys all our relationships. It is the thing that stands between us and the journey to peace and perfection.

This is the message of every prophet of every time and age: there is something wrong with us and with this world, but we were made for something better. This truth is so fundamental that it is found in every religion and informs every great work of art. It is not just part of the religious theology of Christianity, but something that is obvious to everyone who has eyes to see and ears to hear. And every religion has a way of dealing with it, and because the human situation (both the environment and the breath of God within us) is common to us all, we should not be surprised that the solutions often overlap.

Orthodoxy is the fullness of the Truth, not just for us as Ukrainians or converts, but the fullness of the truth period. For all mankind everywhere and at all times. If the Buddhists are doing something right, then they are doing something Orthodox. What I would like to do is present the three basic modes or mechanisms that God has established for all His people to heal their brokenness and grow them in perfection; these are the Mysteries, our love for one another, and hesychasm. The one thing that is key to each is the role of Christ. He is the One that 1) fills our rituals 2) blesses our love for one another and 3) greets us when we come to him in the stillness of our hearts 

The Way to Christian Perfection

Throughout the Gospels, we have accounts of sick people who encountered Christ and were saved. Throughout the history of the Church He established to carry on His work, we have the same thing: people, communities, and nations being brought to wholeness and perfection through Jesus Christ. This is a reminder that Christ’s mission – and thus the mission of the Church of which He is the living head – is real. He has the medicine that heals what truly ails us; and that this medicine is applied through developing a relationship with Him. All such relationships require some sort of mechanism. In the case of normal doctors, the mechanisms are things like conversation, prescriptions, and a healing touch. Through these modes, our relationship with our doctor brings us into greater health. Christ is our Great Physician and the mechanisms or modes that allow us to benefit from His care, power, and perfection are called mysteries. Today I would like to speak about three of these modes. 

The first is the most obvious and the easiest to explain. It includes mechanisms with which you are already the most familiar. Baptism washes away the contagions this diseased world has spread throughout our systems; Chrismation seals us with the health and protection of the Holy Spirit; Communion transfuses us and unites us to the source of all healing; and so on. I stand at wonder in the face of people who believe that God is an absentee Father when He is so active in this, His Hospital. If we are tempted to fall into this way of thinking, then see these actions of the Church – the very Body of Christ our God – in a new way. You can be healed by God now as surely now as you could 2000 years ago in Galilee because He is as present and attentive here and now as He was then and there. All of the Church’s disciplines, not just the Mysteries but also things like fasting, are part of this mode. To summarize this first mode, God heals through the Mysteries and Disciplines of His Church. All religions have rituals that provide comfort and some modicum of healing. But Christ is the Way to perfection – the Mysteries allow us to live in Him and Him in us. This is the fullness of Truth and you have it here.

The second is related to this one: God works through His people. God is one, and we are in Him and He in us. The love that we share is a manifestation of His love. The care that we give one another is His care. We tend to think of the Mysteries as something that only priests can serve, but the truth is much stronger than that. We are all part of His Body and His Blood flows in our veins. To the extent we have grown in Him and Him in us, we become His comforting voice and His healing hands to this world. Yes, we should emulate the paralytic man’s friends by bringing people to the Church for healing (be it bodily or by name), but we should also continuously manifest the Church to them through our love for them. If we are truly Christian, then we are not in God and Him in us just when we are here in Church, but always. This simple truth is one of the great teachings of fathers like St. Gregory Palamas. He defended it against the temptation to see Orthodoxy as an intellectual meritocracy, with healing meted out by those who had read the most books and knew all the right words. God did not call us to read books, but to feed the hungry, heal the sick, clothe the naked, care for the powerless, visit the needy, and so on. To summarize this second mode, God heals through the Love of His people (the Church). Again, this is something that is common to all religions. But Christ is the Way to perfection; wherever two or more are gathered in His name, He is there; He is the one in need of help; as the source and fountain of all Love, He is the one that is manifested in every selfless act. This is the fullness of the Truth, this is the Orthodox Way. 

The third mode is the way of silence, hesychasm. We are sick. Our minds have become warped. We confuse our will with God’s and make an idol of our pride. We need to heal our minds. We cannot do this by reading books, even the right ones (although we can certainly make things worse by reading the wrong ones). Nor can we simply “try harder” to be good. Both of these simply act as offerings to our pride, trying to make it stronger so that it can overcome everything else. What we need to do is to quiet that pride and lower the mind to Christ. Hesychasm. God in us. Quiet. Peace. Restores truth and beauty to the center of our lives with the mind in its proper place as the executive of this beauty and truth.

So how do we achieve this peace? First, you have to immerse yourself in the Mysteries of the Church and you have to dedicate yourself to selfless love of and service to your neighbor (to include you spouses, your parents, your children, and even those people who unjustly seek to do you wrong). Next, you have to develop and follow a prayer rule. Spending five-ten minutes each evening and morning in prayer over an extended period of time is a prelude or warm-up for the way of silence.

[what we learn when we faithfully dedicate ourselves to following a prayer rule – single-mindedness, self-discipline, the mind of the Church, the basics of having a relationship with God; at some point, if we are paying attention, we will also learn a lot about our minds and our bodies]

The problem of thoughts – and the difficulty of finding silence. It’s hard, but you certainly won’t find it if you don’t try! And if you don’t, there is a real risk that the other two modes – being religious and being nice – will become distractions, taking us right back to where we were at the beginning of the story.

Which is why, my dear brothers and sisters, we need to develop the tools to bring peace to our lives and to those around us. 

We have all fallen short of the Glory of God, but through Christ we are saved. Through Him the warfare in our world and in our lives can be stopped; through Him peace can reign now and will reign eternally. Romans 8:19&21 says that “The creation waits with eager longing for the sons of God… because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.” We are those children of God – if we accept Him and allow Him to transform our lives.

Epilogue: Do NOT let your heart be troubled!

Christ is the King of Peace; He is the one who says; “Let not your heart be troubled!” He is the One who came not to destroy the world, but to save it. When we feel that longing for something better; when we recognize that we have settled for less than we should have; when we see how we have missed out on the joy we were meant for … it may just make things worse. It would be a pretty cruel joke if the only thing that Christ – and Holy Orthodoxy – could do is show us another standard that can can never live up to! But the whole point of Christ’s ministry – the thing we call Holy Orthodoxy – is to heal and perfect us. This is not just another game of externally imposed expectations, this is real way to peace. A peace that “passes all understanding.” For many people, meditation is a way to experience that peace in very tangible ways. 

Why should we meditate?

“Suppose you read about a pill that you could take once a day to reduce anxiety and increase your contentment. Would you take it? Suppose further that the pill has a great variety of side effects, all of them good: increased self-esteem, empathy, and trust; it even improves memory. Suppose, finally, that the pill is all natural and costs nothing. Now would you take it? The pill exists. It’s called meditation.”

~ Jonathan Haidt from The Happiness Hypothesis

The secular scientific literature confirms the value of many of our religious practices, from regular church attendance to sacrificial giving and from caring for others to fasting. This isn’t just cultural; the human body is wired for worship, fellowship, spirituality, and religion. One of the areas that has received the most serious scientific investigation over the last ten to twenty years is meditation. 

Serious (i.e. peer-reviewed, double blind, survey, etc.) research has established that meditation confers these benefits:

  • Stress relief (and lower blood pressure) and lower anxiety (cortisol)

  • Enhances concentration (single-mindedness; the ability to focus)

  • Better sleep, especially later in life (strongest among men)

  • Pain management

  • Positive empathy and connectiveness 

How do you meditate?

When you think of examples of successful meditation, what images come to mind? The Buddhist monk at a mountain-top temple? A Hindu Yogi doing amazing tricks with his body? An Orthodox monk levitating in a spirit of transcendence with light radiating from around him? A guru who uses positive energy, spiritual words , and even miracles, to inspire their followers?

These are not helpful. Imagine YOU, the you you are right now, experiencing peace. That is what meditation looks like; you gradually learning to ignore the monkey mind and let go of all the crazy that you have gotten used to. It’s not hard, but you do have to actually do it. Here are some ways to start:

One of my favorite ways to meditate is walking. Walking creates a rhythm. It also provides just enough stimulae to keep the animal brain busy, allowing your “sovereign reason” to stop playing kindergarten teacher and relax. Find a place where you will be safe and undistracted (e.g. by social interaction and the temptation of self-consciousness). Walk at such a pace that you can take deep breaths that match the timing of your steps (the number of breaths to steps and steps to breaths varies!).

Another way is to sit comfortably in a “quiet” place (which is why this father of four with two dogs who lives on a busy road often needs to go for a walk!). Our house is rarely quiet, and I do not always have the self-discipline to ignore noises, so I often put on some good “mood music”. Music is a great way to help us relax and concentrate. Again, we are wired for it – take advantage of that fact! What kind of music helps you relax? I have tried many types; what works best for me is instrumental music (or music in language I don’t understand) with simple melodies and nature sounds. You can buy music made specifically for meditation. I really liked the one the masseuse was playing a while back and bought a copy. I still use it (Angel Paradise by Monroe Products). As for the “sitting comfortably” part, you don’t want to fall asleep, but you don’t want to have to worry about falling over either. You can also meditate laying down (as when you are laying down to sleep or nap). Some (but certainly not all!) meditation techniques can even be done while sitting in the driver’s seat!


But what do I DO? Guidelines and examples.

The beginning. Start with a very slow prayer that invites God in to guide and strengthen you. 

“O Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth, who is everywhere present and fills all thing; Treasury of Blessings and Giver of Life: Come and abide in us, cleanse us from every impurity, and save our souls O Good One.”

As you pray, slow down your breaths to match the words. E.g. breath in to “O Heavenly King”; pause on “Comforter”, then breath out on “Spirit of Truth.” Continue this pattern through out the prayer.

The Prayer Rule. You can continue through your prayer rule of memorized prayers as you do this (I find Psalm 23 especially useful!). Take your time. Breath deep and slow. Relax. 

Take Stock. Once you have gone through the memorized prayers and psalms (even just the “Our Father!”), take stock of yourself: loosen the tension in your shoulders, then work your way down through your body, relaxing each portion, if there is any pain, acknowledge it, but then move on. As you do this, keep the breathing deep and slow. This use of the mind to take stock of the body is known as “mindfulness meditation”. Your body is the temple of God – when you do this, you are serving as the sacristan of the temple, making sure that everything is as ready as it can be.

Intercessory Prayer. Once you have done this, transition to sympathetic meditation or intercessory prayer. This takes the general form of the litanies of the Divine Liturgy, but by taking your time to match your deep breathing to the slow rhythm of the words and calling to mind each of your prayer intentions, you are transformed into a living prayer. For example, when you pray for those in need – bring up their faces and your love for them. Think of their needs and ask the Lord to grant them His peace and perfection. Stay away from judging anyone (this engages the monkey mind). When you notice that you have gone down a rabbit hole (e.g. memories, expectations, judging people), get back on track. I find it useful to cross myself as I pray for each intention, doing so slowly and in rhythm with my breathing. 

Take Stock. Intercessory prayer provides temptations for anxiety; as before, take the time to release any tension that may have crept in before moving on.

Hesychasm. Once you have completed your intercessory prayers, match your breathing to the gentle rhythm of the Jesus Prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” or something else similarly simple and to the point (e.g. “Restore the joy [of your salvation]”; “Father, Son and Holy Spirit – One God”; or even just “Jesus”!). The idea is to keep the animal mind focused on the mechanics of the prayer and the breathing so that your conscious can simply “be still and know” (Psalm 45/6:10).

Finishing Up. Finish up as you began, using one of the standard endings from your prayer book.

Don’t get frustrated or upset or worry if you cannot keep focused on these prayers for very long. Over time you should see general improvement, but even so you will find your ability to relax and focus is sometimes stronger and sometimes weaker – this is normal! 

If you make this a regular part of your daily ritual, you will train your mind for peace. In times when you are loosing your calm, a couple of deep breaths will be enough to bring you back to yourself.