Elements of a Contemplative Reformation Essay #5: “Full Resonant Harmony–How Christian Meditation Continues to Transform my Heart”

Elements of a Contemplative Reformation Essay #5

Full Resonant Harmony:

How Christian Meditation Continues to Transform My Heart

Stuart Higginbotham

This essay is the fifth in a series of reflections on key Elements of a Contemplative Reformation.  We have shared a series of conversations, exploring dynamics of an egoic posture, our tendency to grasp out of greed, the potential for shifting leadership frameworks, and the importance of cultivating a practice of prayer.  This particular essay delves more deeply into our current situation as we launch our Bicentennial Campaign—and how I understand the practice of Christian Meditation as essential in both my ministry and the ongoing shared ministry of our parish. 


My particular path into contemplative practice is like a long stumble in the dark, bumping into furniture while being beckoned to a door whose frame was outlined with light.  Or maybe it is like there is a compass in my soul that keeps turning me in a certain direction.  Or maybe it is like noticing I have been humming a tune for a while that I picked up from somewhere.  Once I pay attention to the tune, something in its familiarity and peculiarity entices me to sing it more and more.  Who knows why I am drawn to a daily practice of contemplative prayer?  I only know that my heart is grounded in my daily practice, and I’m grateful for it—even as the practice upsets my life in many ways.  Old assumptions are constantly challenged, and I am constantly invited to relinquish my yearning to control in my daily life and work.

Recently, we launched our Bicentennial Capital Campaign at Grace Episcopal Church.  For five years now, we have wondered and studied together, reflecting on ways that a contemplative posture might shape our common life.  We understand such a contemplative posture to be a particular stance or perspective grounded in prayer and an intentional listening for the Spirit’s guidance within a community of faith, as opposed to the more ubiquitous program-maintenance model of an accomplishment and task-oriented framework.  What would it be like to anchor our leadership development and parish ministry in an intentional practice of prayer, fostering an appreciation of silence as a means of inviting our hearts to open to a deeper trust in the Spirit’s guidance?  What would it be like to openly name our egoic tendencies with a desire promote trust and collaboration?

Such conversations are all well and good within classes, retreats, and even in staff development and basic organization.  When it comes to capital campaigns, however, the gravity to revert to the “typical” accomplishment and task-oriented posture becomes pronounced.  Now, as it were, we’re talking about potential building renovations.  Now, we are talking about large-scale commitments and investments with money and time.  Understandable anxieties rise to the surface given the degree of risk.  From my perspective, this means we must even more intently ground ourselves in our contemplative practice.  Our common work is far too important to rely on prior models or structures.

When I made my presentation to the parish, I outlined the key committees that would be guiding the parish through this process: the Bicentennial Steering Committee; the Campus Vision & Development Committee; the Finance Committee; and the Vestry.  Each of these groups holds a particular piece of the parish’s concerted work.  As I described their work, I made a point that I would not be leading any of these groups.  I recognized that, perhaps, this was a departure from prior campaigns that may have seen the rector as leading the Steering Committee at least—if not more.  I hoped to see if we really could hold our contemplative posture, so I shared my desire to approach my own role in a different way.

I shared with the community that I hoped I could focus my attention on the deeper conversations we needed to share, on ways to foster greater participation with and awareness of the Spirit’s presence among us, and on the deeper desires of our shared heart.  I named out loud my own heart’s desire to live into my own vocation in the midst of this particular moment in our community’s life: this community of a thousand souls yearning to see what God has in store for us all.  I harkened back to the conversations we had shared five years ago, when I described my hopes that I would be able to live more fully into my own vocation as I began my cure at the parish.  How would grounding myself in my daily contemplative practice shape and support my ministry as rector at Grace?  How can contemplative prayer be the grounding element of my leadership and our shared ministry rather than a tangential opportunity for “those who are interested in that sort of thing.”

Now, as we take these steps into this formative experience, I reflect more deeply on just how a dedicated contemplative practice continues to transform my heart.  What do I notice, in terms of my own response and engagement as the rector at Grace?

I think back to the conversations we shared at the New Contemplatives Exchange at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado, in August 2017.  The last night we were there, Fr. William Meninger came to the retreat center to share a conversation with us.  He and Fr. Laurence Freeman entered into a lively and focused conversation about the dynamic relationship between Centering Prayer and Christian Meditation, two particular schools of contemplative practice that have nurtured the lives of so many around the world.  Many of us stayed up late into the night listening to them share their experiences of how these practices had shaped their lives.  I loved hearing Fr. William describe the way he found the dusty copy of The Cloud of Unknowing that led him, Fr. Basil Pennington, and, of course, Fr. Thomas Keating to develop the method of Centering Prayer.

In particular, Fr. Laurence and Fr. William “debated” whether or not one used their sacred word consistently as a mantra or as a symbol of their consent to relax into God’s presence.  To put it one way, was the word used in terms of concentration or reception?  In Centering Prayer, what part of yourself “releases the word” and rests in a receptive posture before God?  It was a fascinating conversation.

They both focused on The Cloud of Unknowing that, of course, describes the use of a word (albeit ambiguously):

Therefore, when you set yourself to this exercise, and experience by grace that you are called by God to it, then lift up your heart to God by a humble impulse of love, and mean the God who made you and ransomed you, and has in his grace called you to this exercise.  Have no other thought of God; and not even any of these thoughts unless it should please you.  For a simple reaching out directly towards God is sufficient, without any other cause except himself.  If you like, you can have this reaching out, wrapped up and enfolded in a single word.  So as to have a better grasp of it, take just a little word, of one syllable rather than of two; for the shorter it is the better it is in agreement with this exercise of the Spirit. . . Fasten this word to your heart, so that whatever happens it will never go away.[1]

Interestingly, as Fr. Laurence pointed out, The Cloud  itself at this point references John Cassian’s Conferences, as Cassian describes the need “to hold unshakably to this method” or “model.”  Cassian, in the late 4th and early 5th centuries, recognized the need for a “prayer formula.”  His direction, itself, nurtured John Main’s own development of the practice of Christian Meditation now taught through the World Community for Christian Meditation.  Cassian’s words are instructive:

This is something which has been handed on to us by some of the oldest of the Fathers and it is something which we hand on to only a very small number of the souls eager to know it: To keep the thought of God always in your mind you must cling totally to this formula for piety: ‘Come to my help, O God; Lord, hurry to my rescue (Ps. 69:2).[2]

The intentionality of that conversation made a great impact on my heart.  It was not that two spiritual leaders were arguing esoteric details of some obscure practice of prayer; rather, the experience taught me that the practice of contemplative prayer truly matters.  It has been an essential part of our Christian tradition since men and women first walked into the Egyptian and Syrian deserts to focus more intently on how to trust God’s indwelling presence.  Trust, it turns out, is an essential fruit of the practice.  Being in that space was itself a blessing that continues to bear fruit in my life.  I took the liberty of snapping a quick photo of Fr. William while I was sitting behind a friend (I couldn’t get Fr. Laurence in the photo, and Rafael Morales, from the Dominican Republic is also pictured).

For whatever reason, I had for some time found myself drawn to the practice of Christian Meditation.  The legacy of John Main’s work, now carried forward by Laurence Freeman and the World Community for Christian Meditation, had become a crucial piece of my own spiritual life—indeed the cornerstone.  For the past few years, the practice of saying a mantra had been very meaningful for me.  Each morning—and many evenings—my soul longed for me to go to my little prayer corner to sit and say my mantra.  Further, I would find myself saying my mantra at points throughout the day, realizing that some deeper part of myself had been repeating it, like an old hymn tune I had been unknowingly humming.  Was I saying it, or was it saying me?

I deeply appreciated Fr. Laurence’s thoughts that night—over drinks and ice cream—as he reflected on those in our group who had a sort of “amphibious existence.”  He pointed at me as he described the experience of parish clergy who were grounded in a contemplative practice, individuals who were actively seeking ways to anchor the myriad responsibilities and stresses of parish ministry in silence, solitude, and stillness.  I felt affirmed and supported in the challenges I was experiencing.  As my colleague Cynthia Park describes, the degree to which I am centered in my contemplative practice expands and sharpens my acuity to another’s voice—to their heart.  Rather than deafening me to other voices and perspectives—as may be argued with the misconception that contemplative practice is too insular—my desire for a discipline of Christian meditation opens my heart to trust God’s presence in my life and in the life of my entire community.  What Thomas Keating describes of Centering Prayer is true of all contemplative practice: “It is not done for the sake of having an experience, but for the sake of its positive fruits in one’s life.”[3]  Nothing could be more radical!

When it comes to this vital element of trust, there is one image of Christian Meditation that speaks powerfully to me: harmony.  In his writing, John Main repeatedly speaks to our call to be aware of our over-dependence on our rational capacities.  We cannot think our way to God, as the broader Christian contemplative tradition teaches us.  Rather, our prayer calls us to an appreciation of what he describes as humanity’s greatest challenge: a healing of division within ourselves as people and the broader community.

The truly religious understanding of our humanity is not found in terms of reward and punishment, but in terms of wholeness and division.  The supreme religious insight in the East and West is that all our alienations are resolved, and all our thinking and feeling powers united, in the heart.[4]

The practice of Christian meditation, by use of the mantra, helps foster this degree of integration in our heart space.

The mantra “does this,” Main suggests, by functioning as a harmonic in our hearts, in that deeper part of ourselves that is healed and restored by a greater awareness of and trust in the Spirit’s guiding presence.  His words are powerful:

It is like a harmonic that we sound in the depths of our spirit, bringing us to an ever-deepening sense of our own wholeness and central harmony.  It leads us to the source of this harmony, to our centre, rather as a radar bleep leads an aircraft home through thick fog.  It also rearranges us, in the sense that it brings all our powers and faculties into line with each other just as a magnet drawn over iron filings pulls them into their proper force fields.[5]

Elsewhere, Main describes the way we each have various capacities, including the gifts of our minds, our planning skills, “rational analysis,” and other operations that are important for our functioning life.

None of these do we reject.  But in meditation we stand back from all of them and, in that very process, we discover a harmony and an integration that become the basis of all our subsequent use of these great human gifts we have been given.  The peace, the stillness and the harmony that we experience in meditation becomes the basis for all our action.[6]

And, further, Main makes the crucial link between the practice of meditation, the integrative healing of our capacities as human beings, and our participation in God’s own life.

What the New Testament cries out to us is that the fullness of being we are summoned to, dwells within our being as it is now and is realized when our being and the being of God come into full resonant harmony. Meditation invites us to enter the resonant harmony of God.

Beyond a certain point, language always fails us.  But we have to try to use language to direct our attention toward the mystery and its depth.  The mantra takes up where language fails.  It is like God’s harmonic.  By rooting it in our heart, every corner of our heart, every fiber of our being is open to him and every ounce of his power is channeled into us.[7]

Far from being an esoteric practice distant from the practical concerns of parish life, Christian meditation and the discipline of saying my mantra bear much fruit in my daily life as a parish priest.  For me to understand the harmony I desire within my community, I am led to reflect more deeply on the harmony of my own heart—or its state of disharmony as the case may be.  For me to understand the harmony my heart desires, I am led to reflect more deeply on the way my practice itself functions, one might say, as a harmonic within my soul, resonating throughout every moment of the day as it transforms the way I live and work in the world.  To claim such is not to reduce the practice of Christian Meditation down to some utilitarian function, as though its purpose is only to “help make me a better priest;” rather, what I continue to experience is that the practice of Christian Meditation helps me live more fully into God’s dream for my life as a human being whose particular vocation is that of a parish priest—and husband, father, and friend.

At this point, as we enter into this Bicentennial Capital Campaign, I am holding close to my practice—as my practice holds me close—as I continue to be transformed by this experience of resonant harmony: God’s harmony with me in my heart, my harmony with my parish community, my parish community’s harmony with itself, and God’s resonant harmony with us all.

[1] The Cloud of Unknowing, The Classics of Western Spirituality Series, Edited by James Walsh, S.J. (Mahweh, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1981), 133-134.

[2] John Cassian, Conferences, The Classics of Western Spirituality Series, Translated by Colm Luibheid (New York: Paulist Press, 1985), 131-132

[3] Thomas Keating, Open Mind, Open Heart in the collection Foundations for Centering Prayer and the Christian Contemplative Life (New York: Continuum, 2006), 95.

[4] John Main, Word into Silence: A Manual for Christian Meditation (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2006), 14.

[5] Ibid.

[6] John Main, The Way of Unknowing: Expanding Spiritual Horizons Through Meditation (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2011), 10.

[7] John Main, Essential Writings, Edited by Laurence Freeman (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2002), 62-63.

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