In November 2004, Christianity Today published an article ominously titled “Dangerous Meditations,” which explored a growing trend among Christians who were finding solace in meditation and yoga. The piece wanted that such practices were unwise, pantheistic, and undergirded by a “worldview in conflict with biblical spirituality.” The assertions of the article expressed the kind of arguments I had been steeped in growing up in the conservative Christian South.
But more than a decade after this piece was written, I sought out mindfulness meditation and yoga in order to cope with an inexplicable chronic pain disorder. Not only did these practices revolutionize my physical and emotional health, they opened the door to a deeper expression of my Christian faith. All the anti-mediation scare tactics had turned out to be, well, just that.
That’s why I was overjoyed to learn about J. Dana Trent’s book, “One Breath at a Time: A Skeptic’s Guide to Christian Meditation.” While keeping her feet firmly planted in orthodox Christianity, she boldly charts a path into contemplative spirituality. Trent is a graduate of Duke Divinity School and religion professor whose proposals are worth considering. Here we discuss how meditation varies from Western forms of prayer and why meditation is not in conflict with the Christian faith.
JM: Let’s start with a basic question. How does meditation different than prayer? Are they the same thing or is there overlap?
JDT: Simply put, prayer is talking to God; meditation is intentionally listening to God. While prayer is a cornerstone of the Christian faith, modern prayer is often focused on talking about what we “need” or “want” from God. This makes prayer transactional, egocentric, and often, ethnocentric. When prayer places our (and our group’s) desires in the center of the conversation, we drown out God’s voice, presence, and will—which is inclusive of all humanity.
The nature of meditation fosters contemplation—reflecting on God’s presence and listening for God’s voice. The most standard form of meditation—controlling the breath (our life force from God), calms our anxious minds and restless bodies, facilitating our attention and focus on God.
There is nothing wrong with fervent prayer. But when we find it’s focused just on us—and it’s difficult to be still or quiet—we miss experiencing God, who arrives in the silence (See 1 Kings 19:12).
JM: You’re not just promoting meditation, but “Christian meditation.” What makes meditation Christian, and why are you skeptical of it?
JDT: Early church monastics returned to foundational spiritual practices by studying Jesus’s examples and meditating on the Psalms. Orthodox Christianity developed “hesychasm,” focused on “theoria” or “gazing” at God. Medieval mystics Saint Teresa of Avila and Julian of Norwich emphasized contemplation as a tool for connecting with Christ. Twentieth century monk Thomas Merton thought meditation was crucial to faith: “through meditation, we hear God.”
My personal skepticism was two-fold. First, I was raised and ordained as a Southern Baptist, where meditation was feared as emptying the mind. At Duke Divinity School, my study of Hebrew and Greek, church history, Christian theology, and early Christian spiritual practices refuted that argument.
Second, I had talked to God my entire life. How could I listen? I tried meditation apps; they didn’t work for me. So, I wrote my own guide—one that Barbara Brown Taylor has graciously called a “clear and doable invitation to be still with God.”
JM: You aren’t the only skeptic. I know many. They point out that we don’t really see anyone doing meditation in the Bible and that it isn’t something we are taught to do in the Bible. What say you?
JDT: I spend an entire chapter of “One Breath at a Time” exegeting scripture and discerning whether Jesus meditated.
In the TaNaKh, the Hebrew word for “meditate” is hagah, or “to sign, murmur, or ponder.” Its conjugations are used throughout scripture, most notably in Psalm 1:2 as a verb: “Their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his Law they meditate day and night.” The Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures) translates hagah to meletao, meaning “to ponder or study.” The modern English term we know as “meditate” originates from the Latin word meditatio meaning “to think or reflect upon.”
Did Jesus study scripture and ponder upon God? Did Christ think and reflect upon his ministry in the wilderness, his service to others, his friendships, his death, and what was to come? Absolutely. There is no shortage of scripture examples that demonstrate this practice.
JM: You say that Jesus was a contemplative, which I suspect might confuse a more traditional Western Christian. Can you explain what you mean?
JDT: Mother Mary and Joseph raised Jesus in the ancient faith of Judaism. Jesus was steeped in Hebrew scriptures and very devout. When his parents lose him for three days during a Jerusalem temple pilgrimage, they finally find him sitting with temple priests and teachers, contemplating on and learning about scripture (See Luke 2:41-52).
Christ was raised in a faith that taught its followers to hagah on scripture day and night. The Bible contains no shortage of writings on Jesus’ contemplative life—including Christ seeking “deserted place[s]” for solitary reflection. The garden of Gethsemane scene provides insight into Jesus’s meditation on his forthcoming crucifixion (See Matthew 26:39; Mark 14:35-36; and Luke 22:42). Scripture makes a that meditation (to think, reflect upon, or ponder) is central to Jesus’ spiritual life and ministry. This is a man who—both in community and in solitude—listened to God and for God’s will.
JM: Meditation is something of a fad these days–at least where I live in New York City. Where does meditation show up in Christian history?
JDT: In the 4th century B.C.E, Emperor Constantine’s conversion to and enthusiasm for Christianity was considered a boon to building, growing, and preserving the Christian faith. But there were downsides to becoming official and dominant. The early church became large and more complex. It had treasuries and buildings for public worship. It was easier for Christianity to become enmeshed with the state and politics, suffocating the opportunity to stand in contrast to the dominant exploitative culture as it had under persecution.
During this historical time, the first Christian monastics emerge. They reject this newfound public church and withdraw from a public religion they perceive as becoming corrupt. They fled to the wilderness to restore countercultural Christian spiritual practices and pursue holiness through contemplation and meditation on the Psalms and Jesus’s teachings. In what feels like a chaotic time in the Church, how might we be encouraged to do the same?
JM: I practice a lot of mindfulness meditation and I do a lot of yoga. What do you think about yoga? Can that be Christian too?
JDT: Modern American yoga is often portrayed as poses used for exercise, flexibility, or relaxation. In its original Hindu and Indian context, yoga is an entire way of life—not just poses. This way of life is firmly ground in the philosophical and theological context of Eastern Revelation found in the Upaniṣads, Vedānta sūtras, and Bhagavad-gītā. It is a complex system with specific guidelines aimed to deepen spirituality.
Most non-Hindu Americans practice yoga for its health benefits, not its theology. Yoga enthusiasts can explore the entirety of yoga, including ahimsa (non-violence) and vegetarianism. Hindu ethics would not conflict with Christian values. But in its most authentic, comprehensive form—yoga as a way of life is distinctly Hindu.
Because of the scriptural and historical evidence of meditation’s place within a Christian context, using the term “Christian meditation” would not be a misappropriation, whereas “Christian yoga” could be.
JM: Many people–I think of Baptist theologian Albert Mohler–say that yoga or certain times of meditation practices are non-Christian or even pagan in nature. How do you respond?
JDT: My sense is that what Mohler and other meditation critics are referring to is the idea that meditation is “emptying the mind.” That is not the goal of Christian meditation. Rather, in “One Breath at a Time,” I emphasize that Christian meditation is quieting our 24/7 thoughts in order fill the mind with God. God—including God’s nature, word, and commandments—are the focus of meditation in Christianity and Judaism, not emptiness or nothingness.
JM: If a Christian out there wants to dip a toe into the meditation pool, where should they start?
JDT: One Breath at a Time launches January 1, so it’s perfect for spiritual guide for New Year’s resolutions, intentions and Lent preparation. Meditation is not mutually exclusive with your prayer practice. They are different, but they can co-exist.
Your invitation in steps:
- Commit to just three minutes per day to start.
- Be consistent.
- Try all five modalities in “One Breath at a Time” (Breath Meditation, Centering Meditation, Lectio Divina, Loving-Kindness, and Devotional Meditation). Us the built-in Ignatian Examen to see what challenges you and what comes easily.
- No judgment; no negative self-talk. God is always with us; we merely must be willing to listen, one breath at a time.