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Issue Date:  December 14, 2007

A history of modern contemplation


Contemplative prayer traditions are alive and spreading in the West and have been for the last four decades, resulting from a revival in interest in both Christian and Eastern meditation practices.

While the revival was not necessarily a direct result of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the council helped open doors to interreligious dialogue and spawned interest in Eastern religious practices. It was in October 1965, as the council was drawing to a close, that Pope Paul VI proclaimed Nostra Aetate, the “Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions,” which contained the following revolutionary paragraph:

“The Catholic church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these (non-Christian) religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.”

The council, in effect, gave permission to spiritual pilgrims, and some Western clergy traveled east. Trappist Fr. Thomas Merton, Benedictine Fr. Bede Griffith, Benedictine Sr. Pascaline Coff and Fr. Edward Hays, among others, traveled to Asia and began to share their experiences with Western Catholics.

Hays opened a prayer center, Shantivanum, incorporating Eastern meditation practices, near Leavenworth, Kan. The writings of Jesuit Fr. Anthony de Mello and Fr. Raimundo Panikkar spread interest in Eastern ways.

About the same time, Eastern contemplative practices were entering the West through popular culture. In 1968 the Beatles traveled to India where, with considerable fanfare, they studied transcendental meditation with its principal guru master, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Transcendental Meditation centers soon were appearing in cities across America.

Christian contemplative prayer, rooted in meditation, dates back to the Desert Fathers and Mothers beginning in the third century. These practices were widespread in the church, lasting until the Middle Ages when slowly they gave way to more vocal and formal prayer forms.

It was in the mid-1970s that a number of Benedictine monks, working independently in England and the United States, began investigating the practice of pure contemplative prayer. In 1975 Benedictine Fr. John Main began weekly meditation groups at his monastery in London and then, later, in Montreal. That same year Benedictine Fr. Thomas Keating started the practice at St. Joseph Abbey in Spencer, Mass.

Both men’s practices represented a major rediscovery of a lost Christian tradition, though there are subtle differences. Main’s efforts led to the formation of the World Community for Christian Meditation and Thomas Keating’s to the Contemplative Outreach. The two groups have collaborated for 30 years and maintain close ties.

Both practices involve the repetition of a sacred word or phrase. Prayer is viewed as an opening of one’s whole being to God, moving beyond thoughts, words and emotions.

-- ZumaPress/
Dang Ngo

Thich Nhat Hanh

Other contemplative practices began to spread in the 1970s, including Zen and Tibetan tradihons. A Vietnamese Buddhist monk and Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, popularized a form of meditation called mindfulness. In the 1960s he taught Buddhist thought at a Buddhist university in Saigon, and in 1965, during the Vietnam War, a group of his students issued a call for peace.

A few years later, Nhat Hanh traveled to the United States and met with Martin Luther King Jr., urging the civil rights leader to publicly denounce the war. Nhat Hanh also visited Merton at his Kentucky monastery, the Abbey of Gethsemani, near Louisville, Ky. After the visit Merton told his students, “Just the way he opens the door and enters a room demonstrates his understanding. He is a true monk.”

This monk-to-monk dialogue represented a breakthrough in East-West communication. Those bonds were knotted when Merton wrote an essay, “Nhat Hanh Is My Brother.” Later, Living Buddha, Living Christ became one of Nhat Hanh’s most popular books.

On the subject of mindfulness, Nhat Hanh writes: “The moment when you go back to your breath and you breathe mindfully, holiness is there, because mindfulness is the substance of holiness. God is there, the Holy Spirit is there at the same time.”

National Catholic Reporter, December 14, 2007

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