Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Meditation, the Saints and Positive Brain Changes

There are many types of prayer and one prayer experienced by many saints is called contemplation. Contemplation is infused prayer which means God does most of the work and it is a pure gift of God. In order to prepare yourself to receive the gift of contemplation, you have to practice Christian meditation or Centering Prayer (or mental prayer as St. Teresa of Avila called it). Meditation opens you to the possibility of experiencing contemplative prayer.
According to a pamphlet on Centering Prayer by Fr. Thomas Keating, "The source of Centering Prayer, as in all methods leading to Contemplative Prayer, is the indwelling Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The focus of Centering Prayer is the deepening of our relationship with the living Christ. It tends to build communities of faith and bond the members together in mutual friendship and love."
A simple way to practice Christian meditation is to repeat a one or two syllable word while breathing in and out mindfully. I use the Holy Name of Jesus and breathe in-Jesus- and in breathing out I use one of His sacred titles such as Savior or Redeemer. When thoughts arise I gently push them away as if with a feather and repeat the sacred Name. This type of prayer which can also be called the "Holy Name of Jesus Prayer," not only brings you closer to experiencing contemplation but also reduces stress, helps one to focus better and has a great many physical as well as psychological benefits. It also can deepen your relationship with God.
Now in an interesting study recently published by the National Academy of Sciences, when participants in the study practiced mindful meditation there were measurable positive effects in the brain. Healthy brain changes occurred which could be seen in MRI imaging. Fascinating. It seems the saints have been right all along. St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Therese- the Little Flower, St. Catherine of Siena, the Desert Fathers and Mothers (as well as many others) all practiced some form of meditation which opened them to contemplative prayer. It is fruitful prayer, as we can see in the life of the saints and those who practice this discipline.
I've been trying to work Christian meditation into my morning prayer discipline. It's worth the effort from everything I've read and experienced. But to see the "fruit" of this prayer you have to stay with it and be consistent. It takes time to see the graces of this prayer.

Be still and know that I am God. (Psalm 46:10)

...But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door and pray to your Father in secret and your Father, who sees in secret, will repay you. (Matthew 6:6)

For mental prayer, in my opinion, is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him, who we know loves us. (St. Teresa of Avila-"The Book of Her Life" 8.5)