The God-given faculty that makes us truly human, and potentially angelic, is the ability to contemplate. Calvin describes us as spectators in the theatre of divine glory and we were created to reflect, ruminate, and think upon Him, “glorifying and enjoying Him forever”, in the appreciation of His person and deeds. Meditation is the soul of the Christian life, which is meant to be deeply inward before it issues in external evidences and acts. True religion is heart religion – heart deep – observed the Puritans, and they weren’t original but simply emulating the psalmists who exhort us to brood upon the works and being of the Lord. It is in our thinking, wondering, and extolling the Lord that we most fulfil the purpose and promise of our humanity and arrive at the love, trust, and devotion that please Him. It is not mere information and the acquisition of knowledge, but meditation, that makes the Christian man and energises the life of praise and service.
If the contemporary Christian aspires to be “action man” with an inventory of achievements to measure and gain pleasure from, earlier Christians, just as productive, would remind us that meditation takes precedence and yields the lasting spiritual results, because meditation forms the godly personality and avoids the perils of mere performance and pragmatism that so dog the contemporary church. Authenticity matters far more than appearances and quantifiable statistics. The ways of God are normally slow and sure, and the practice of meditation is one of the means that contributes to substance, stability, and maturity in the spiritual life. Contemplation drives the seed of divine truth deep into the soil of the heart as prayer is offered for wisdom and holiness.
There is within Protestantism and Anglicanism a rich and fertile tradition of meditation to be discerned in so many astute guides of the spiritual life. It can be traced back to Puritans like Richard Baxter, and Anglicans such as George Herbert and John Donne, but ultimately it is eminently Biblical and anchored in the Psalter especially. Its great exponent soon after the Reformation was the Anglican Puritan Bishop of Exeter, Joseph Hall, satirical poet before conversion, preacher and theologian subsequently, and Church of England delegate to the Synod of Dort where the doctrines of grace were ably defended in the years 1618 –19. Hall’s desire was to cultivate within himself and promote within others a deep and sincere Scriptural piety and a devotion to the Lord that placed the heart above the brain, for knowledge of the things of God must be coupled with the affections (be affective). He derived guidelines from reformist influences within the pre-16th century church, but principally he followed the musings of the psalmists in devoting reflection to the three so-called books, respectively, of creation, the soul, and God as he has made himself known. Sometimes the inspired poets observe the natural world and notice the ways and wisdom of God on display there that evoke admiration and impart useful lessons. On other occasions the psalmists look into their lives reflecting on experiences and examining their state before God – their spiritual sorrows and joys and the Lord’s dealings with them. And often the writers of Israel’s hymns meditate upon the Lord, His nature, word, and works, preaching to themselves and encouraging themselves from the faithfulness of God and the favours they have received or been promised. The world, the soul, the Bible, rightly viewed and understood, have the power to draw us to God in humility, worship, and deeper confidence. All three originate in Him, instruct us, and unite us to God our Maker and Saviour.
Unlike some Roman Catholic advocates of meditation (but who can excel Augustine or Bernard?), Hall sits loose to method. It is the looking and lingering that matters, the feasting of the eyes of the understanding upon God and His accomplishments. It is simply a matter of being with the Lord, staying with the Lord, and waiting for Him to show Himself and the wonders of His truth. The powers of the soul are in action, the affections are excited, and the works of God are in focus, and the fruit of it all is a godly soliloquy, a little sermon addressed to the self for encouragement and reassurance.
The object in meditation is not to gain mastery over truth, but to be mastered by it in the sense of being overawed by the Lord: “I desire not to comprehend, O Lord; teach me to do nothing but wonder”. For Hall meditation was not a complicated exercise only for the spiritual elite, but “a bending of the mind upon some spiritual object . . . until our thoughts come to an issue”, that is, exclusive attention excluding distraction. More than anything else it was Hall’s delight “to walk forth into the pleasant fields of the Scriptures”. As he exhorts us to meditate upon the Book of the Scriptures he wisely advises: “Before we put our hand to this sacred volume, it will be requisite to elevate our hearts to that God whose it is, for both his leave and his blessing. It is not therefore for us presumptuously to break in upon God, and to think by our natural abilities to wrest open the precious caskets of the Almighty, and to fetch out all his hidden treasure thence at pleasure: but we must come tremblingly before him, and, in all humility, crave his gracious admission”.