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  • Writer's pictureJ Felix

The Sunday Service

Updated: Oct 10, 2023

I am the son, nephew, and grandson of Pentecostal and Protestant ministers. I meditate religiously. Within the Judeo-Christian tradition, meditation is a spiritual discipline- which includes prayer, worship, service, fasting, charity, gratitude, asceticism, and chastity among others. There is a path for each temperament. I found more peace in silence and stillness than in sermons and rituals.

The practice of Christianity is not identical across denominations nor is there uniformity in rites, rituals, or beliefs. Meditation is, arguably, the least practiced of the disciplines, but it is important to note that Christians have been meditating for millennia. It is not a new trend.

There are over 20 references to meditation in the Bible. The first mention is in Genesis 24: 62. "Now Isaac (c. 2000 BC) had come from Beer Lahai Roi, for he was living in the Negev. He went out to the field one evening to meditate..." It is doubtful that Isaac was sitting in full lotus, with his hands in a mudra. Rather, he was probably in a contemplative and prayerful state.

In the Book of Psalms, King David references meditation 19 times. I share seven here:

19:14 May the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord.

39:3 My heart grew hot within me. While I meditated, the fire burned.

48:98 We meditate on your unfailing love.

104:34 May my meditation be pleasing to him.

119:15 I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways.

119:97 O How I love your law; I meditate on it all day long.

143:5 I meditate on all your works and consider what your hands have done.

Meditation, as David described it, is more contemplative and generative. By generative, I mean the cultivation of an affect or quality of mind: gratitude, humility, compassion, joy. In the Epistles, the Apostle Paul writes: Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things. (Phil 4:7-8)

He repeats this instruction in a letter to Timothy: Meditate upon these things; that thy profiting may appear to all. (1 Tim 4:15)

By focusing the mind on virtuous qualities like compassion or loving kindness, we cultivate the feeling which then expresses outwardly in thought, word, and deed, such that the evidence of discipline "may appear to all."

These meditations are familiar to most Christians and not very different from preliminary practices of sila, or morality, in Buddhism, or ethical precepts found in the Vedas, Islam, Judaism, or other faiths. Indeed, religions of the world share many of the same fundamentals.

When I was young, I stumbled upon a transformative and powerful meditation technique: the mantra. A mantra is a word, sound or phrase we repeat to ourselves during the course of a meditation. It could be a meaningless syllable (Transcendental Meditation, Somatic Experiencing, etc), a word like "calm" or "relax," a phrase ("May all beings be free from suffering), a prayer, a verse.

I came across a book in the family library by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, a Protestant clergyman and author. I thumbed through his book: The Power of Positive Thinking. Dr. Peale invited readers to use mantras to condition the mind. Dr. Peale was a minister. The content was not unfamiliar to me.

"With God, all things are possible." I knew the verse, but never considered using it as a mantra. If, according to his claims, repeating the verse had helped others overcome their obstacles and obtain their goals, why deny myself this gift? Why not experiment and verify the claim for myself?

I repeated it to myself over and over throughout the day, every day, as Dr. Peale had suggested. “With God, all things are possible.” It would become my mantra on my bike ride to Mexico. The idea to cycle to Mexico was planted by a dreadlocked cyclist I met at a stoplight. As we rode together, he told me he had raced from Los Angeles to Mexico. It was the kind of feat that fell outside the circle of what I thought was possible. I could cycle 7 miles to work, but 175 miles to Mexico? I wanted to do something like that. This stranger, whose name I never knew and whom I never thanked, gave me a gift and inspired thousands of miles of adventure from America to the Caribbean to Japan and to Europe which followed from that first trip.

This was my introduction to the power of mantra meditation, the repetition of a word, sound, or phrase to condition the mind. This practice transformed my mindset. I found it eminently practical.

When I took up kayaking, I would repeat my mantras on long paddles across the sea. With another mantra technique, recommended by Peale, I could empty the mind of fear, impatience, stress, or whatever was troubling it. I would repeat to myself over and over: “With God’s help, I am ridding my mind of anxiety…” until I felt my mind being emptied of fear. Then I would repeat: “My mind is empty of fear” until I believed this. Finally I would think: “With God’s help, I am filling my mind with confidence.” I repeated this until the mind was convinced. This was all I needed to correct my course.

The sea could be a hard and unforgiving taskmaster. A heavy sea could swallow me up, toss me, crush me, pummel me.

They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; These see the works of the LORD, and his wonders in the deep. For he commandeth, and raiseth the stormy wind, which lifteth up the waves thereof. They mount up to the heaven, they go down again to the depths: their soul is melted because of trouble. They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wits' end. Then they cry unto the LORD in their trouble, and he bringeth them out of their distresses. He maketh the storm a calm, so that the waves thereof are still. Then are they glad because they be quiet; so he bringeth them unto their desired haven. Psalms 107: 23-30

The sea would undo the man who lacked a disciplined mind. With discipline, a man could check his anxieties or any other negative thoughts which siphoned off his energies. When you’re 8 miles out to sea, there aren’t many options. Paddle forward or paddle back, but, whatever you do, keep paddling. Tired? Can’t quit. Pain in your wrist? Better keep moving. Scared? There's nowhere to go but forward or back.

Whether paddling to the Channel Islands off the California coast, the islands off of the Japanese archipelago, or the Elizabethan Islands in New England where I now live, I never left shore without my safety gear or my mantras. I found a disciplined mind to be indispensable.

Mantras are a tool to keep the mind anchored and a way to set its course.

Hannes Lindermann, who had spent 200 days and nights alone at sea, wrote: “I had learned a great deal that could help castaways. I know that the mind succumbs before the body, that although lack of sleep, thirst and hunger weaken the body, it is the undisciplined mind that drives the castaway to panic and heedless action. He must learn command of himself and, of course, of his boat, which is his strongest and most resilient ally. Morale is the single most important factor in survival.”

Repetitive prayer is a variation of the mantra. Reaffirming our beliefs, repeating a verse over and over is a powerful technique. We "pray without ceasing." (1 Thessalonians 5:17) Hannes Lindermann called prayer “the invisible weapon of man, which brings him healing power and relaxation and renewed energy. Prayer, which brings hope and with hope, optimism and relaxation, is a powerful aid to self-mastery.” It’s enough for me that I believe it works. I pray and paddle, paddle and pray, repeating my mantras over and over- sometimes in the form of a word, sometimes in the form of a sentence, sometimes in the form of a prayer.

One weekend, I decided to paddle to Santa Cruz Island, 30 miles off the Santa Barbara coast. Halfway out, the winds began to stir and churn up the sea. Soon I was surrounded by whitecaps, a sign that winds were blowing at around 7-10 knots (6-12mph). Soon larger waves were forming and breaking over my kayak. Winds were blowing around 20 knots (19-24mph). I worried and began paddling in desperation, but tired quickly. My muscles were tense, my breathing was shallow. Anxiety corrupted and siphoned off energy. I began to chant a mantra and timed it to the breath and paddle stroke. I breathed in “calm” on the inhalation and “strong” on the exhalation. Soon, I was in rhythm. My mind settled. My limbs relaxed. The muscles in my face softened. I assessed my situation with a calm mind. Although the wind had slowed me to 2 knots, I was still making progress and decided to continue paddling into the wind. Every thought, every stroke, every muscle was trained on getting me to shore. I paddled with my attention on my breath and strokes. My confidence invigorated me. I sang a haka to the winds. I would switch mantras in response to conditions. When the muscles would tire, for example, I might use words like "power" or "endurance." 8 hours later, I beached at Scorpion Anchorage.

As you continue on your life journey, you may encounter rough seas and contrary winds. To paraphrase Jim Rohn: don't wish it were easier, wish you were stronger. Cultivate strength, courage, endurance, calm. Don't wish for fewer problems, wish for more skills. Cultivate skill sets to meet life's challenges. Mantras are one tool we can use to carve channels for the thought stream and direct them where we want them to go.

Mantra is a Sanskrit word. Some Christians are skittish around ideas or concepts borrowed from other religions. This is not a criticism. Some initiates to the religion would be wise to hedge their fledgling faith. My grandfather was an alcoholic and practiced Santeria before his conversion and ordination. The extremism and intolerance of the Pentecostal faith provided him the structure and discipline he needed to overcome his doubts and battles with addiction. His faith provided a refuge for his 8 children raised on the mean streets of Spanish Harlem.

My father, like many Christians, was more tolerant and open-minded. He did not judge other religions. For him, Christianity was complete and sufficient. This belief is consistent with the Vatican's position. In Nostra Aetate (Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions), promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1965, the Catholic church praised specific aspects of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. The church highlighted many positive aspects of other religions that are similar to those of the Catholic faith and practice.

Indeed, within the Judeo-Christian tradition are more formal meditation practices similar to those found in other religions. Hesychasm was one of the earliest techniques and originated in the Early Church sometime in the 4th Century, long before the schism in 1054 that split the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. Hesychasm is Greek for "quiet; to rest." The practice was based on Christ's injunction in the Gospel of Matthew to "go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you."

The technique begins with katharsis (purification). In this technique, emphasis is on focus and attention. The hesychast, or practitioner, develops single-pointed concentration on his/her inner experience while repeating the Jesus Prayer:

Breathing in: O Lord, Jesus Christ

Breathing out: Have mercy on me.

This practice is similar to the gathas of Buddhism or the mantras found in the Vedic traditions. And the emphasis on focus and attention is similar to samadhi (concentration) in the the Threefold Trainings of Buddhism- which includes sila (morality) and prajna (insight or wisdom). The monastic traditions are also quite similar in this respect: monks and nuns go into a "room and shut the door," taking refuge in cloistered cells, practicing alone and in silence.

With practice, the hesychast cultivates nepsis (vigilance). Like the watchman Christ speaks of in parable, the practitioner is enjoined to “Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come.” (Mat 24:42)

“If the goodman of the house had known in what watch the thief (distraction, wandering, ego) would come, he would have watched, and would not have suffered his house to be broken up. (Mat 24:43)

This practice is also similar to mindfulness practices in Buddhism where practitioners are enjoined to remain watchful and vigilant over the mind on and off cushion.

The hesychast attaches eros “yearning” to overcome accedia (sloth) which leads, in time, to theoria (illumination). The mind approaches purity and stillness. Then finally, ego dissolves (kenosis) and the hesychast achieves theosis (union).

This map is similar to what meditators in other traditions experience. Indeed, those familiar with Buddhist teachings on the 5 hindrances (sloth, desire, ill will, doubt, and worry) will find some parallels here. The terms are different, but the end is the same- dissolution of ego, the false idol "I"; liberation from the prison of thought, awakening, transcendence, union, "the peace that surpasseth all understanding." (Philippians 4:7)

The path, too, is similar to the ones walked by contemplatives and mystics in other traditions. All contemplative traditions have a suite of moral codes that encourage moderation, sobriety, compassion, service, selflessness, charity, generosity, chastity, altruism, patience, and forgiveness. An ethical life is foundational. Morality is itself a path, a limb in the Yogic tradition, sila in Buddhism. Christianity is bhakti, or devotion in Sanskrit. Christianity also emphasizes bodhichitta, or loving kindness in Pali. Most Christians practice their faith this way- devotion, prayer, and service.

Meditation is not as entrenched in Christianity as it is in other traditions. Meditation is better suited to some temperaments like mine. I prefer quiet and solitude; I live like a monk.

The early Desert Mothers and Fathers were hermits and ascetics who retired to the desert and, in solitude, practiced meditation among other spiritual disciplines. The monks and nuns were the progenitors of Christian monasticism. Many of these traditions are similar to the monastic traditions of other faiths. In Hinduism, ancient texts describe 4 life stages called aśrama. The four asramas are: Brahmacharya (the stage for learning; the life of the student), Gṛhastha (the family stage; the life of the provider), Vanaprastha (the life of the forest walker/forest dweller), and Sannyasa (the stage of renunciation).

The early desert Mothers and Fathers were wandering sadhus of the 3rd Century. In The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, one hermit wrote: 'Take care to be silent. Empty your mind. Attend to your meditation in the fear of God, whether you are resting or at work." Abba Moses said: "Sit in thy cell and thy cell will teach thee all."

Apophatic meditation is another centuries old technique that began sometime in the 5th century. Apophatic means “approaching God by negation- without concepts, images or words.” to experience "the peace of God, which surpasseth all understanding." It is a concentrative practice similar to the Vedantic technique of neti neti ("Not this, not this"). It is a rejection of whatever mind conceives as God. God cannot be grasped by the puny intellect from which it derives its source and light. We approach without concepts, receptive, expecting nothing, with an open heart thirsting for instruction and experiential insight- not more words or theories or ideas or theology- but direct experience.

In the Catholic Church, lectio divina is is a traditional monastic practice of scriptural reading, meditation and prayer intended to promote communion with God and embodiment of the Word. The technique consists in:

1. Reading (Oratio)

2. Contemplation (Contemplatio)

3. Meditation (Meditatio)

4. Prayer (Oratio)

The rosary, or prayer beads, are often used to train, discipline, and center the mind in faith.

Visualization techniques are as common in Christianity as in all contemplative traditions (e.g. the Mahayana or Tantric schools of Buddhism). We visualize Christ or a saint and contemplate their qualities. We try to generate these qualities within ourselves: the compassion of Christ, the altruism of a saint, the faith of an apostle.

We can use visualization in other creative ways. When a Catholic woman of faith approached me for help with her anxiety, I asked her if she knew the story of Jesus calming the storm which appears in Luke 8:22–25; Matthew 8:23–27; and Mark 4:36–41.

Now when they had left the multitude, they took Him along in the boat as He was. And other little boats were also with Him. And a great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that it was already filling. But He was in the stern, asleep on a pillow. And they awoke Him and said to Him, “Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?” Then He arose and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace, be still!” And the wind ceased and there was a great calm. But He said to them, “Why are you so fearful? How is it that you have no faith?”

When a great windstorm of anxiety upsets this vessel, I told her, imagine Christ arising and rebuking the winds. Repeat "Peace" on the in-breath and "Be still" on the out-breath until the winds cease and there is a great calm. Do this with faith.

When my soul is troubled, or when I cannot see a way out of suffering, I approach Christ with the desperation of Bartimaeus, the blind man who implored Christ to see.

And they came to Jericho. And as he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a great crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus, was sitting by the roadside. And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he cried out all the more, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" And Jesus stopped and said, "Call him." And they called the blind man, saying to him, "Take heart. Get up; he is calling you." And throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. And Jesus said to him, "What do you want me to do for you?" And the blind man said to him, "Rabbi, let me recover my sight." And Jesus said to him, "Go your way; your faith has made you well." And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him on the way.

This is a variation of hesychast's prayer ("Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!"). I approach with the urgency and insistence of a Bartimaeus. Breathing in, I think: "Oh, Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" I imagine Christ asking: "What do you want me to do for you?" On the out-breath I answer from the heart: "I want... (to see as you see, to love unconditionally, peace, courage, or whatever is heartfelt).

Centering Prayer is another popular technique amongst Christian meditators. Father M. Basil Pennington suggests these steps:

  1. Sit comfortably with your eyes closed, relax, and quiet yourself. Be in love and faith to God.

  2. Choose a sacred word that best supports your sincere intention to be in the Lord's presence and open to His divine action within you.

  3. Let that word be gently present as your symbol of your sincere intention to be in the Lord's presence and open to His divine action within you.

  4. Whenever you become aware of anything (thoughts, feelings, perceptions, images, associations, etc.), simply return to your sacred word, your anchor.

Father Keating adds: "The method consists in letting go of every kind of thought during prayer, even the most devout thoughts."

Many Christians practice secular meditation techniques. Neuroimaging shows that meditation promotes structural change to the brain. Meditation is manifestation of Romans 12:2- "Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind."

I integrate the science of meditation with my faith. When focusing attention on the breath, for example, I might begin with Scripture: "All the while, the breath is in me, and the Spirit of God is in my nostrils." (Job 27:3) When I assume a meditation posture, I might think: "Ye are the Temple of God, and the Spirit of God dwelleth in you... for the Temple of God is holy, which temple ye are." (1 Corinthians 3:16) When scanning the body, I might think: "I am fearfully and wonderfully made; marvelous are thy works and that my soul knoweth right well." (Psalm 139:14) When discouragement arises, I might think: "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me." (Philippians 4:11) When fear arises, I might think: "God hath not given us the spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind." (2 Timothy 1:7) When my spirit is troubled, I can take refuge: "The Lord is a strong tower, the righteous runs into it and is safe" (Proverbs 18:10) or "The LORD is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold" (Psalm 18:2) or "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble." (Psalm 46:1)

Saturating consciousness with these verses purifies the thought stream such that the only thoughts are encouraging ones. Confidence grows and I am lifted up. Even in my distress, I find refuge in Scripture and rise above the darkness and heaviness of despair. “The Lord is with thee, thou mighty man of valor.” (Judges 6:12) There are hundreds of verses like these which we can ingest like vitamins or minerals to keep the spirit strong on its earthly pilgrimage.

As a church musician, I've also curated hymns that integrate best with the contemplative way. One of my favorites is by Haskell (circa 1800s):

Be still. Let the Spirit speak;

Forgo the wordly strain.

Your closet enter; shut the door,

Let silence in you reign.

The center of your being find,

From it turn not away.

Wait on the Lord; give ear to him

And all He has to say.

The Great I Am in you will speak,

And you will wisdom find.

With seers who in ages past

The hearing ear inclined.

I also enjoy playing hymns at a certain cadence, songs that slow the breath down to a frequency of 6 or less. With mindfulness, the traditional hymnal Hallelujah can be sung in such a way as to induce the relaxation response.

Many contemplatives understood this intuitively. Gregorian chants, for example, slow the breath down to 6 breaths or less. The lyrics, moreover, orient the mind Godward. One of my favorites is Ego Sum

Ego sum alpha et omega (I am Alpha and Omega)

Primus et novissimus (The first and the last)

initum et finis (The beginning and the end)

qui ante mundi principum et in seculum (before the world was and after the world is)

seculi vivo in eternum (I dwell in the eternal)

ego sum vestra redemptio (I am the redeemer)

ego sum rex vester (I am your king)

ego vos resuscitabo in die novissimo (I will resurrect you on the last day)

Christianity also informs my practice in a much deeper sense. The end is kenosis (self-abnegation, no-self). Like the Apostle Paul, I wish to "die daily" to self, to ego. Ego is the golden calf, the false idol. When I was a boy, I recited Solomon's prayer with all the sincerity and innocence of a child: "I am but a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in... So give Your servant an understanding heart... to discern between good and evil." (1 Kings) From my youth, I have sought God, having experienced the ecstasy of union early; I have known no greater bliss.

Christianity, practiced in this way, becomes more of a way of being in the world, and less of a religious system bound by doctrines, traditions, creeds, rituals, and rites. Many Christians may feel disenchanted or disillusioned with the hierarchical and bureaucratic nature of organized religion. Others find themselves in disagreement with certain teachings or doctrines of their particular denomination or church.

Some Christians may feel a lack of genuine community or meaningful connections within their local church. If they don't find the fellowship, support, and spiritual nourishment they seek, they may seek alternative avenues for connection or spiritual growth outside of traditional church structures. As more and more people engage with diverse perspectives, they may develop doubts or skepticism regarding certain aspects of their faith- especially those that challenge scientific reasoning. It is possible to reconcile the contradictions.

Instances of hypocrisy, moral failings, or scandals involving church leaders have also impacted the faith of believers. When leaders or members of the church fail to live up to the values they preach, it erodes trust. While I prefer to live like a monk, I do not pretend to be righteous. I give myself license to be fully human, but choose to live like a stoic, willingly subjecting myself to a life of discipline.

So, I feel it is time. Meditation was my path back to my faith and my hope in posting this is to invite other Christians who feel anchorless to try this approach to meditation.

Below is a sample meditation:

Republished 5/23

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