Meditation, Prayer, and Worship

It wasn’t a burning bush or a lightning bolt from heaven—not common occurrences on subway trains where Cynthia was reading. But Diana Eck’s words hit her hard: "On a Tuesday evening there is no church among the dozen in Harvard Square that is packed with seekers who want to deepen their life of prayer; no church even opens its door for such an offering. Those who are serious about spiritual practice go to the Buddhists." In Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras, Diana Eck tells how 150 regulars attend sessions at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center on a typical weeknight and wonders why it is that there are no Christian equivalents:

One certainly can point to Western disciplines of prayer, and many who explore the spirituality of the East eventually find their way to these traditions back home. . . . But at least on a Tuesday night in Cambridge, there are no introductory courses in these matters for all those seekers who do not know where to begin but who are yearning for a stillness of mind and heart before God—or, for those who have lost touch with God, simply a stillness of mind and heart.

As beginners in meditation this quote led us to want to share what we had found. We answered the challenge Diana Eck lays down by giving a workshop in our home meeting—Friends Meeting at Cambridge —based on our four-plus years of regular practice, our book learning, a meditation class, and a daylong course. Although in our workshop we shared specifics about types of meditation, it seems especially pertinent to Friends to focus on our exploration of the interweavings of meditation, worship, and prayer. We came to these understandings, not as scholars in these rich practices or the religions from which they spring, but from our own experience.

Meditation and Meeting for Worship

Meditation, as we practice it, is individual. It can deepen our relationship with the Divine, just as prayer, Bible study, or devotional reading can, but it is a solitary practice. Quakerism, however, is rooted in community—a central part of which is corporate waiting on God. As Quakers, we should open ourselves to community worship as we sit in meeting rather than keep our focus on our meditation practice. In his essay "Waiting Worship," in Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order, Lloyd Lee Wilson puts it this way:

A commonly evoked metaphor for meeting for worship is that of many individual candles brought together to give a stronger light, but this overemphasizes what we bring to worship as individuals and slights the action of the Holy Spirit. The nature of "waiting worship" is not what we individually bring to the gathering as part of corporate worship, but that we learn to leave behind those things that prevent true worship from occurring. A more appropriate image is that each worshiper brings that amount of silence which (s)he has been able to nurture through daily practices and disciplines, and together the assembly creates a larger silence, in which the eternally present divine Word may be more clearly heard.

To help reach that open space empty of self/thought/agenda that prepares us to hear God in a larger silence, Friends might benefit from using meditation techniques to center before worship. Just as reading devotional literature might help us be ready for worship, either during the week or right before meeting, so too can individual meditation. But because the corporate element of meeting for worship is central, ideally we will set individual practice aside when the time comes for corporate worship. It is vital that we be open individually to the movement of God within the group. Emptying ourselves of individual intention and thought is the discipline we need for corporate worship.

Meditation or Prayer?

There are so many types of prayer and so many ways to define the words used for experiences that defy definition. In a description from Henri Nouwen, "To pray is to descend with the mind into the heart and there to stand before the face of the Lord, ever-present, all-seeing, within you."

Henri Nouwen’s prayer might seem like meditation from the outside—a silent sitting and detachment from the outward—but God is there. John O’Donohue, in his tapes The Invisible World: On the Beauty of Prayer, uses several phrases that describe prayer as the central language we speak: "Prayer is the art of presence and the sister of wonder"; "A candle flame in Tibet leans when I move"; "Prayer is the presence that keeps the harmony at the heart of the chaos"; "Prayer is not in time, but time is in prayer"; "Prayer makes the unknown interesting"; "The soul is not in the body but the body is in the soul." He also comments that those who do not pray live off the prayer of others.

From a personal perspective, this is what we have found. Prayer has become more real for us in several ways as a result of meditating, perhaps as a contrast to it and enriched by it. To us prayer is conversation with God. It can be formal or informal; it can be questioning or thanking, or angry. It is awareness of the center, "for in him we live, move, and have our being" (Acts 17:28). Prayer can be intercessory, intentional wishing and visioning well-being for a friend, for the community, for an irritating colleague at work, for Israel and Palestine. Prayer can also be throwing everything over to God; it can be recognizing, when we are consumed by trying to find solutions that escape us, that we need to turn our problems over to God literally by letting go, emptying, asking. As a result of meditation, the emptying part seems more possible now.

Meditation has helped us to be capable of that emptying. Where before we might have started out praying but soon were muddled with a string of thoughts, we can now focus more purposefully. "Lord, be with John in the hospital. Comfort him. I should do something nice for him—take him a meal when he gets home. I could do that Tuesday night. No, I …" and I’m off and running. This still happens but we can recognize "monkey mind" more quickly now and go back to our interaction with God, just as we can more easily stay focused on a human conversation or any other immediate experience. We can empty ourselves of those other thoughts so that we can be receptive to God.

When we meditate, the emptiness is the goal. Larry Rosenberg, in his book Breath by Breath, says about the mindfulness for which we strive in meditation, "Mindfulness is unbiased. It is not for or against anything, just like a mirror, which does not judge what it reflects. Mindfulness has no goal other than the seeing of itself. It doesn’t try to add to what’s happening or subtract from it, to improve it in any way."

But prayer has a different goal. With prayer, the emptiness exists in relation to the faith that God will fill the space vacated by life’s busyness. Meditation is an exercise—a meaningful and life-changing one—but not necessarily practiced with the intention of being in communication or relationship with God. That doesn’t mean God isn’t there. Perhaps this is the difference for us: our goal in prayer is to communicate with God. We seek the Lord’s presence when we pray, but not when we meditate.

There is another way meditation feeds prayer. We forget how insecure life is, how we never know what might happen to us at the next moment. Meditation—and the recognition of the impermanence of our own bodies, our loved ones, our thoughts, our breath, and each moment—makes that insecurity more real. That awareness then opens us to prayer to help us deal with that uncertainty. Prayer allows us to live on the precipice of the unknown.

Meditation to Prayer and Back Again

Prayer includes both asking and listening for the answers. If we cannot listen well and cannot be still, how can we hear the answers that come? In her Pendle Hill pamphlet, Prayer: Beginning Again, Sheila Keane writes:

Listening to God’s answers to prayer requires an attitude of inner silence. This is a challenge when churning with the indecisions and anxieties of discernment situations. To help us listen, one essential discipline for discernment is radical self-care. When we attend to our selves, we become quiet inside, able to listen. Self-awareness, acceptance, and nurture, as well as gentle stripping away of the false self, are all important to the discernment process. We need to give ourselves the time to discern.

So, meditation helps us hear the answers to prayer by developing mindfulness and the ability to be still. The answers to prayer often lead us to action. Meditation helps us act with attention and compassion. The action usually results in more prayer and more meditation and so the cycle continues.

Meditation’s Effect on Prayer and Worship

For most of us "our thoughts think us, our feelings feel us," as Eknath Easwaran writes in Meditation, so that "we do not have much say in the matter." Meditation is helping us learn how to live more intentionally—recognizing when we are choosing to think rather than obsessing; being present to the person with whom we are speaking; savoring the food we are eating; hearing the music to which we are listening; praying when we set out to pray; and being fully open to the Divine in worship. Meditation helps prepare us to be in relationship with God mindfully, whether we are waiting at a red light, praying for a sick relative, or worshiping on a First Day morning. God is interwoven through every moment. Being fully alive right now allows us to glimpse some sliver of Light through each act—allows us to discern holiness in the earthy and the sublime if we are able to be still enough to watch for it.

P.S.: Did the Workshop Work?

We were asked to repeat the workshop, so it seems Diana Eck was right. We discovered that meditation has been both a source of spiritual nurture and a matter of curiosity in our meeting. Some attendees have meditated for years and longed for a Quaker context to their practice, a chance to share their experience and an opportunity to learn more. Others wanted to try meditation but didn’t know where to start. Attendees found the chance for all of those things.

In an attempt to discern a difference in meditation, prayer, and worship, we facilitated the following exercise, which others might want to try. Sit in a stable, upright position—on a cushion cross-legged or in a straight-back chair with feet flat on the floor. For 15 minutes try moving through the continuum of meditation, prayer, and worship. (Since worship is a group experience, you will need at least one other person.) Start with one form of meditation with which you are familiar, move from it to some form of prayer as you know it, then open to the group and the dynamic/center as you would in meeting for worship. It doesn’t matter how much time you spend in each, just try to include all three. Then discuss with your group how each of the practices felt. What were the differences or similarities among them? What did you discover?
© 2003 Susan Davies and Cynthia Maciel Knowles

Susan Davies

Susan Davies, a CPA who works with for-profit and not-for-profit businesses, is currently working with New England Yearly Meeting on financial systems. Cynthia Maciel Knowles is a Master of Divinity student at Andover Newton Theological School and works at Massachusetts General Hospital. Both are members of Friends Meeting at Cambridge (Mass.).