Benedictine monk Laurence Freeman, Director of The World Community for Christian Meditation, expounds on the teachings of Jesus regarding prayer and contemplation. Fr. Freeman describes the different elements of the teaching and their practical applications that lead to finding God within.
Jesus is called a teacher more often than by any other name in the Gospel. Master, rabbuni, teacher. What does he teach? Does he just teach rules and regulations and ways of keeping the commandments of the Law?
Above all, Jesus is a teacher of contemplation. This is his great importance, and this is what we often miss when we think, or read, about Jesus.
Why do i say that? Because if you look at the Gospel and what Jesus tells us about prayer in particular, you see very clearly he’s teaching us contemplation. Let’s take, for example, his words in the Sermon on the Mountain, Chapters 5, 6, and 7, St. Matthew’s gospel. First of all he warns us against external religion, because external religion can simply feed the ego. He says don’t stand on the street corners trying to attract people’s attention and feed your fame or your reputation, the other people see you. But he says, when you pray, go into your inner room, and praise your Heavenly Father who is in that secret place. What ‘secret’ means, mystery, the mysterious place.
And what we learn from meditation is that we are a mystery to ourselves. God is a mystery, but the depths of our own being open us to that mystery of Self, which opens up into the mystery of God.
So the first element of his teaching is interiority. Prayer is about interiority. And then he says, when you pray do not go babbling on like the heathen who think that the more they say, the more likely they are to be heard. This is a very important understanding of prayer for the Christians because we tend to use so many words. We fill up our church services with endless words, endless beautiful prayers, perhaps, but in the end there’s no silence. And Jesus very clearly emphasizes the quality of silence in prayer. And he says the reason for this is because your Heavenly Father knows what you need before you ask.
So much of our prayer is taken up with petition and intercession, asking God to do this, to do that. But if God knows what we need before we ask, surely that changes the way we do our petitions and intercessions. We don’t have to try and get God’s attention; we don’t have to get God to change His mind. We don’t have to try to get God to intervene on my personal behalf.
God knows what we need before we ask. That gives us tremendous trust. To be still. To be in the present moment. Not to try and get God’s attention, but to realize that it is we who have to learn to pay attention, that God is paying attention to us already.
Leave Worries Behind
The next element of Jesus’s teaching on prayer is about leaving anxiety and worry behind. This is where he tells us, do not worry about what you are to eat and what you are to drink, what you re to wear. So much of our life we spend buying food and buying clothes, but he says don’t become unduly.
He’s not saying we shouldn’t be concerned about physical well-being or that we shouldn’t be concerned about the needs of others less well-off than ourselves. But he’s saying, don’t get caught up in the consumer madness, where you are simply lusting after the next product or concerned because you haven’t got the latest fashion. He’s telling us, look at the beauty of the world that you live in, the beauty of the flowers of the fields, the birds of the air. And by contemplating the beauty that we are part of in the natural world, we can find ourselves in a much more peaceful place, free from being driven and ravaged by our desires.
And then he tells us, be mindful. Set your mind on God’s kingdom, that means ultimate reality, before everything else. And everything else will come to you in due course. Mindfulness–not jumping from one thought to the other, one action to the other, without being aware of what we’re doing, without any peaceful mindful attention or transition. Being mindful is what prayer is about.
Be in the Present
And finally he tells us, be in the present moment. Don’t worry about tomorrow. Being in the present moment, being mindful, letting go of our worries and fears and anxieties at the time of prayer. Moving beyond words into a trusting, loving attention, and finding that place of interiority where our heart is open to the mystery of God within us. That’s what Jesus’s teaching on prayer is about.
How do we put that teaching on contemplation into practice? Meditation is the way that we receive the gift of contemplation. It’s the way we enter into that experience of contemplation that we are capable of, each one of us. If you meditate with a child, six years old, you realize how simple and how natural meditation is.
So learning to meditate is learning to be. It’s learning to be fully alive, to be in touch with yourself, to be in touch with the world around you, and to allow yourself to be open to the mystery of God, which we live and move and have our being, every moment of every day.
About Laurence Freeman
Dom Laurence Freeman OSB is a monk of the Olivetan Benedictine Congregation of Monte Oliveto Maggiore and Director of The World Community for Christian Meditation. He has conducted dialogues and peace initiatives such as the historic “Way of Peace” with the Dalai Lama and is active in inter-religious dialogue with other faiths as well as in encouraging the teaching of Christian meditation to children and students and in the re-appropriation of the contemplative wisdom tradition in the Church and society at large.
He is the Director of the WCCM Benedictine Oblate Community. In 2010 he launched the MEDITATIO outreach programme of the Community to mark the celebration of its twentieth anniversary.
Laurence Freeman is the author of many books and articles. He is also the editor of John Main’s works and a member of the Board of Medio Media, the publishing arm of the World Community. Visit www.wccm.org for more.