Since my time reading Dallas Willard in my early 20s, I’ve been interested in the practice of meditation. My diligence in the discipline has waxed and waned throughout my life, with periods where it had deep effect and others where I came up dry. Yet, my growing appreciation for Thomistic psychology has confirmed the potential value of meditation, and my desire to improve in it.
Recently I read through Edmund Calamy’s (1600-1666) The Art of Divine Meditation, and thought it might be worth sharing some of its contents. This post is by no means a complete summary of the book; it’s rather a set of the thoughts that I found particularly striking as I read it on my daily commute. I commend it to the readers as perhaps a place to begin with their own growth in the practice.
I will not cite the text formally, but everything that follows is essentially just a paraphrase of things Calamy says, in some cases only very thinly so, no doubt verging into direct repetition at times. In several cases I have moved material around from the sequence in which they appear in Calamy’s works. But, in other words, I claim no original thoughts in what follows, and commend Calamy’s text to readers.
General Thoughts about Meditation
Meditation is the life and soul of true Christianity. This is revealed in many ways. First, dwelling upon God’s excellencies inevitably kindles a flame of love for God, as well as fear of him. Indeed, meditation is an universal remedy against all sin, a help to all goodness, a preservative of all godliness, an armour against all temptations, and the want of it is the cause of all iniquity; it is thus necessary to meditate if we want to reform our lives.
Second, the importance of dwelling upon God appears in the cycle of forgetfulness that human life manifests apart from it. A man that thinks slightly of God, will love him slightly, serve him slightly. Slight thoughts of God will make slight impressions upon the heart, and slight impressions upon the life; slight thoughts will cause slight affections. For if our apprehensions are slight so will be our affections and actions, for our affections and actions follow our apprehension. Correlatively, the reason we don’t meditate is because we don’t love; you don’t need to persuade people to think about things they love (e.g., covetous people think about money, voluptuous men think about pleasures, ambitious men about honour, men in love think of women they love). As Calamy says, “where the love is, there the soul is”: he that loves good things will think of them very often, very long, and very deep. A man that is deep in love, deeply meditates about the thing he loves.
Biblical Examples of Meditation
Calamy gives various examples in scripture of what he means by meditation. One is Proverbs 6:6 which says “Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise”. Jeremiah 8:7 is a second: Even the stork in the heavens knows her times, and the turtledove, swallow, and crane keep the time of their coming, but my people know not the rules of the Lord.” A third comes from the sermon on the mount, Matthew 6:26-28a
Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin,
One way to define the idea is to say: meditating is a dwelling upon, or considering of things.
Reasons to Meditate
Divine meditation is a means to preserve and increase grace. The more we meditate on God, Christ, and heaven, the more we will love them; the more we will seek after it, enjoy it, etc. The more we look into them, the more we will look into them. In fact the want of frequent meditation is the reason why we love them so little. Further, the more we meditate on them, the more intimately acquainted with them we become. The more we think of God, the more intimate society we will have with him.
The plain-hearted Christian meditates in order to love and fear more, to prize more, to hate sin more, to love the promises more. Meditation is useless if it is not aimed at improving our affections and actions, if it only seeks to change ideas in the mind.
General Comments on Method
Divine meditation must be particular and applicational. This is because, as Aristotle says, fire in general doesn’t burn, this particular fire burns, etc. So confused meditation of God will do little good; but if we would get good by the practice of meditation, we must come down into particulars. We must meditate on Christ for the purpose of applying it to our soul, “this is mine, this is my portion”.
At the same time, don’t try to force yourself to feel something. Rather, we should wait for God to move us. Keep meditating, even if it is dull, until your heart is moved; don’t give up and stop meditating because initially it is dull.
Join meditation and prayer: ask God to humble your heart, even if it is just a short prayer. We must not meditate in our own strength, meditation without prayer is unprofitable. Also, we can use reading if we don’t remember enough, especially the Bible. In fact, meditation without reading leads many a weak Christian to error. Further, this reading isn’t done to simply finish a book. Rather, if while reading we find something remarkable, we should stop reading and meditate seriously about that thought.
In this vein, we can dwell on the scriptures to find out how we are benefitted by heavenly things. Interest will facilitate divine meditation. In addition, making a custom of meditation will make it an easy thing, just as a new apprentice finds the trade hard at first, but afterwards easier, and likewise for someone with a new exercise regimen.
If you’re new to the practice, start meditating on easier subjects, and use many of them if you have to (if staying/repeating one is too dry). And don’t aim in meditation to study “speculations and notions”, e.g., when the slaughter of Revelation 11 will happen, or what Daniel and Revelation means in general, etc. Rather, pick out subjects that will help you be weaned from the world, walk humbly with God, kindle a holy fire of love in your souls to Christ, and make you more like Christ; an acute wit makes a learned man, but a holy life makes a good man.
The work of understanding is to blow up and increase, to kindle and inflame the love of God and Christ in the heart. The understanding should be like a nurse to the heart and affections. Just as the nurse cuts the meat and prepares it for the child to eat, so does the understanding prepare divine truths for the affections. The heart should be like the child that eats the meat, and digests it, and turns the divine truths into a holy life. These are the two faculties we must set on work, and we never meditate aright, unless the affections are raised as well as the understanding.
Specific Recommended Method
Calamy closes his discourse with some particular suggestions for how a Christian can meditate. The suggestions closely correspond to the faculties he has mentioned: the intellect and the affections.
As one might expect, he suggests opening with prayer.
He then turns to how we ought to approach the intellect in meditation, giving a harder and an easier method. The harder way is to focus on nine “logical heads”, which are commonplaces to enlarge understanding of your subject by consideration. He notes that not all of these will apply to every subject; e.g., God has no cause.
- Describe the thing
- Divide and distribute the thing (explain its extent, e.g., what is the extent of sin?)
- Consider the causes of the thing
- Consider its fruits/effects
- Consider its adjuncts/qualities and properties (e.g., sin is defiling, destructive, guilt-conferring)
- Consider its opposites and contraries
- Consider the things it’s compared to
- Consider the titles of the thing
- Consider everything scripture says about it
The easier way for weak Christians is as follows:
- What does scripture say about your subject?
- What have sermons you have heard said about your subject?
- Read a book on your subject, by picking out a few things in them and then meditating on them (don’t just read the whole book without meditation)
- Join meditation to application in particulars
- Consider the means to attain, or to avoid, the thing you are meditating on
He then turns to the other faculty, and gives six steps to raise the affections:
- Labour to get a relish and a savour of the things we meditate on
- We essentially have a conversation with ourselves to get ourselves to feel. We use persuasion, pathos, in arguments to ourselves.
- Complain before God about our lack of savouring
- Same as above, this time about lack of appropriate feelings; we want to get ourselves to really realize how bad this is
- Wish we had a supply of this relish and taste of the things we meditate on
- Express our wish in various words, thoughts, and ways, try to stir our hearts up in this way the best we can
- Confess our inability to get this by ourselves
- Petition God for help to get it
- We can base our request on promises like Ezekiel 36:26: “I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh.”
- Believe God will help us
- We remind ourselves, “Why are you worried, Soul? Trust in God!”
Last, we conclude with thankfulness for anything we received, and a resolution of heart to behave in a way fitting to our meditations.
I commend to the work to you, and the importance of the practice. To close, I’ll let Calamy have the last words:
For Meditation is the life and soul of all Christianity; it is that which makes you improve all the Truths of Christian Religion, (you are but the Skeletons of Christians without Meditation) it is as necessary as your daily bread; and as you feed your bodies every day, so you ought to feed your souls every day with meditating on your sins, or your Evidences for Heaven, or the everlasting burnings of Hell, or of the day of Judgment, the great account you are to give at that day, or of the joys of Heaven, or of the Promises, &c. We are every day assaulted with the Devil, therefore we should every day put on the armour of Divine Meditation, to consider how to resist the wiles of the Devil; we are every day subject to death, we are every day subject to sin, therefore we should every day consider how to prepare our selves for death, and every day consider how to resist sin. Meditation is nothing else but a conversing with God, the souls colloquie with God; and it is fit we should every day walk with God. Divine Meditation is nothing else but the souls transmigration into heaven; the souls ascending up into Heaven; now it is fit every day that we should have our conversation in Heaven.