As someone who has written about spirituality for the last 10 years, I am often asked, “What is the difference between prayer and meditation?”
I hate to give a standard textbook definition, so I usually say prayer is a lot like bleeding your pipes; meditation is like being a body language expert.
Allow me to explain.
I grew up in a Dutch colonial house on Long Island, New York, about 20 miles east of New York City. One of the things I remember most about our old home is that it was fitted with a series of large, cast-iron, accordion-shaped radiators with odd claw-like feet.
Every autumn, we had to bleed the air from the pipes, meaning we had to open the valves in the radiators to let out all the air that had accumulated during the spring and summer, while the heating system wasn’t working.
It’s a pretty simple thing to do. You turn on the thermostat and then you use a special key to open a pressure valve on each radiator. As air is released there’s a piercing whistling, followed, sometimes a minute later, by hot water.
You then close the valve and move on to the next one. If you don’t bleed your pipes every year, it could make for a very dangerous situation. Worst-case scenario: pipes with air in their systems can clang and shake, which can lead to bursting and water damage. But even if it’s not that severe, it causes the heating system to run inefficiently.
We are all God’s creation, and God wants us to run as smoothly as possible. Sometimes, however, things don’t function properly.
Pockets of discontent, doubt, fear, illness and anxiety can creep into our faith system, causing us to rattle, shake and sometimes even burst.
Prayer allows us to open the valve, to let the air out, so that the waters of the Holy Spirit can flow through us in a continuous stream. The more we seriously pray — the more we communicate with God — the more efficient we become in our faith life.
This doesn’t mean that our problems go away, but we are often blessed with strength and insight to deal with them in a better way.
Meditate on this
If prayer is a way of opening ourselves and speaking to God, then meditation is essentially, as theologian Richard Foster notes, “listening to God.”
Meditation is learning to pay attention to God’s voice. It also helps us move away from an “it’s all about me” inclination, and allows us to cultivate a healthy amnesia of self. It’s a time to forget our worries, concerns and desires.
Meditation is simultaneously the beginning and the continuation of prayer. Yet many of us may have tried meditation and never heard anything. Not one peep from God. Not a word. Not even a clearing of the throat or a sneeze.
Some famous thinkers rationalize this by saying that God often speaks to us in silence. Well, that’s great, but that doesn’t do us much good. How do we know that God is there if his native tongue is silence?
Experts who study human relationships estimate that nearly 80 percent of all communication is nonverbal.
For instance, a friend asks your opinion about the guy she’s dating. She says she really wants your viewpoint. So you say, “Sure!” and you let it rip, pointing out all the guy’s flaws.
Your friend folds her arms, tightens her jaw and smiles the smile of a baby whose diaper needs changing. As you continue speaking, she nods and says, “Thank you, I needed to hear this.”
That’s what her mouth is saying, but what is her body language saying? That she hates you and she wants you to shut up.
If so much of the way we communicate is nonverbal, couldn’t God be communicating to us nonverbally?
Meditation, therefore, helps us understand the body language of God. By looking at the signs of creation all around us, by counting our blessings, by listening to the voices of others and paying attention to how those words affect us emotionally and intellectually, we can know the Lord better.
Few of us are ever going to hear God speak in dramatic tones. Most of the time his words come from places we’d never expect — a friend, a bird, a song on your iPhone, a billboard, a pothole, an illness, a disappointment — and when they do, we are on our way to a new revelation of God.
Where we least expect God
Some time ago I was in need of some serious spiritual nourishment. I was praying and meditating, and nothing — absolutely nothing — was happening and I was getting very frustrated.
I had heard that a favorite priest of mine was back from a long trip to Poland, and I was excited to hear him preach at the upcoming Sunday Mass. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I waited all week to listen to his words, which always brought me comfort and inspiration.
Sunday finally arrived, and I was sitting in the pew waiting anxiously for the homily. Just as the priest finished reading the Gospel and started to preach, a baby two rows behind me started to cry.
And he didn’t stop.
This baby had some set of lungs. I remember turning and looking at the parents as if to say, “Please take your spawn and leave! Some of us need to listen to this guy!” But good Christian coward that I am, I said nothing, and just tried to listen through the screaming.
I had a difficult time paying attention. I tried. I really did, but I couldn’t hear anything except the wail of this child.
I started to get angry. All I wanted to do was to get out of the spiritual dark place I was in, and my one salvation was this homily. And I couldn’t make out a single word.
When the priest was done, guess what? Yes, the baby stopped crying. I left church later that day feeling dejected and annoyed.
That night, however, I had a dream. In this dream I was standing before Jesus (or at least my image of Jesus — he looked a little bit like Michael Landon from the old TV show “Little House on the Prairie,” only with a beard), and I asked him, “What is the meaning of life?”
Jesus looked at me, smiled, opened his mouth, and out came the cry of a baby.
I woke up.
As I lay in bed with my heart racing, I felt strange, changed. I realized I had missed the sign of the Lord. I wasn’t in church that day to hear God in the priest’s voice. I was there to hear God in the cries of a child.
Though I can’t be certain, I believe that I wouldn’t have had that dream if I hadn’t spent so much time praying and meditating, even though those actions felt fruitless at the time.
So while prayer and meditation are two distinct spiritual practices, something they have in common is this: they ultimately help us to wake up.
Gary Jansen is the director of Image Books at Penguin Random House and the author of “The 15-Minute Prayer Solution.” His most recent book is “Life Everlasting: Catholic Devotions and Mysteries for the Everyday Seeker” (TarcherPerigree, $17).
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