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A favorite text used over the centuries by godly people to describe the experience of prayerful meditation before the Lord with his Word was:
“My heart was hot within me, and while I was thus musing the fire kindled: and at the last I spake with my tongue, ‘LORD let me know mine end…’” [Psalm 39:3, from The Book of Common Prayer, 1662, cf. the KJV]
This translation has a distinct relation to the Vulgate [Latin] version of the Psalm used in medieval and early modern Europe in thousands of monasteries, convents and churches.
Why did this particular text seem to describe the felt experience of those who, in what was called the lectio divina, spent time in quiet before the Lord to ponder and pray over what they had heard/read in and memorized from the lectio continua [the continuous reading of the Bible and chanting of the Psalter] of the daily routine of the daily offices?
To answer the question requires that we explore what those seriously committed to daily meditation believed they were doing.
First of all, they placed themselves in the presence of God, confessed their sins and asked for grace and inspiration. Then from memory (perhaps assisted by the reading of a text) they recalled some particular Word of the Lord heard and read earlier. Using their powers of imagination, they pictured the original scene from which the Word came. At the same time with their reason and intellect they sought to understand it by approaching it from various angles and with differing questions. Then they sought by the truths of the Word of God to raise their affections – their desire, hope, love, and joy – towards God the Father through Jesus Christ. Here they often experienced the inner warmth, glow, of the witness of the Holy Spirit with their spirit. That is, the fire kindled as they mused and raised their souls towards God. And with the fire kindled and the heart warmed, their will was directed aright; and they were prepared to make resolutions and commitments to the Lord and engage in genuine prayer, where they knew that they were in touch with God the Father through Jesus the Lord and by the Holy Spirit.
The underlying belief was this: the whole soul has been and remains affected by the disease of sin and this is seen most clearly in the affections and the will, together with the imagination. Thus in meditation, the whole soul (memory, intellect, imagination, affections and will) is to be engaged in the presence of God with this Word; further, for there to be the real possibility of engagement with God and his truth, the raising of the affections has to proceed from consideration of, and pondering over, the Word and Truth of God.
The rule was not to begin with the affections since, for most people, the emotions can be as wild horses and not easily controllable! They need to informed, warmed and guided by the Word of the Lord before directed to embrace the Lord. “While I was thus musing [considering, reflecting and thinking about God’s revealed Word] the fire kindled” and I was alive before God, ready to converse with him!
Only when the whole soul is joined through its spirit, by the Holy Spirit, to the Father through the One Mediator, the Lord Jesus Christ, can there be real and true communion, in which praise, thanksgiving and petitionary and intercessory prayer can be offered.
When the meditation becomes genuine prayer to God and there is spiritual union and communion, then it may be said that meditation has become contemplative prayer; the whole soul is now focused on God and as it were gripped by the knowledge and sense of him. Then there is real spiritual worship and adoration.
This move from consideration to contemplation can occur also in the context of congregational worship. In this experience the person/soul loses all sense of the importance of self and becomes absorbed with the glory and the beauty of God, for God’s sake. And for a while, it may seem as though time has ceased, or that there is no time, only eternity.
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon MA., D.Phil (Oxford)