Listening to different groups of people I hear three words used to describe some of their practices. The religious (often conservative) use the word prayer, academics (often liberal) use the word contemplate, and mystics (not just Christians) use the word meditate. Sometimes there words are used interchangeably in popular culture, but my lived experience teaches me that these are not different words for the same practice, but rather three different practices. The trouble is, most of us just do one of these when we really need all three.
Prayer is many things, however at the core, prayer is paying attention. it is the act of paying attention to the needs around us. It is paying attention to gratitude. It is paying attention to the hurts and pains in the world. It is paying attention to what the still small voice of God whispers to us.
While prayer is using our peripheral vision to pay attention, contemplation is the practice of focusing on something. It is focusing on one scripture or one concern. It is focusing on what God is inviting us to do or become.
Meditation is the practice of letting go. If prayer and contemplation are about opening our eyes to different degrees, meditation is about closing them. Not closing them to the pain of the world or the concerns of God, but closing them so to empty ourselves. Meditation gives us access to our limitations and shows us how we are not in control or in what ways we are limited to effect change.
To pray, contemplate or meditate in isolation is not only difficult to do but we are missing out on the fullness of these practices. They each build upon one another and connect to one another. We pay attention, we focus, we release, only to pay attention once more.
Since we are just out of Lent, perhaps it is easier to pull the example of Jesus from Matthew 26 36-42. First Jesus prays (pays attention):
Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I go over there and pray.’ He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. Then he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.’
Jesus is praying and in doing so he is paying attention. He is paying attention to his situation becomes grieved and agitated, even to death. Jesus asks the disciples to “stay awake with me” to pay attention to what God desires.
The story continues:
And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.’ Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’
Now Jesus moves from praying to contemplating. He is focused on the real possibility right before him. He narrows his choices to two - let this cup pass or thy will. Additionally we wonder if Jesus frustrated with the disciples because they are asleep or because they are not paying attention? The story then makes the final turn toward mediation:
Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.’
Jesus lets go of a desire to control the outcome. He is aware of his limitations in the situation. He clears his mind through meditation and said “the same words” of release to God. Once this threefold movement is complete, Jesus remains frustrated, not at his impending death mind you but at the disciples who could not even do the first step to stay awake, pay attention, pray.