The Difference Between Meditation and Contemplation

A reader of my blog writes:

As someone new and aspiring to find a more contemplative lifestyle, I’m curious of one thing. Is there a critical difference between sitting time and ‘observing silence, acknowledging God is present’ versus ‘meditating on God, whether through a holy text, your experiences with God, or other characteristics of God’?

Thanks for your question. And the short answer to it is “Yes”!

You are describing a basic difference between meditation (as it has traditionally been understood in Christian spirituality which looks different from the popular/secular ideas of what meditation means) and contemplation (which, again, means something different in a Christian context than in a secular understanding).

Hopefully, by understanding the Christian meaning of these words, it will be easier to recognize how they are distinct in a person’s prayer life.

Christian Meditation

To understand Christian meditation, let’s begin with a different word: pondering. To meditate on God, or Christ, or one of the mysteries of the Christian faith, has a quality of pondering about it. Now, pondering (‘to ponder’) comes from the same root word that gives us pound, as in a pound of weight.  To ponder something is to weigh it. That can be meant literally (as in weighing something in scales), but it has a psychological sense of weighing something in our minds. So the Oxford English Dictionary says, “To consider, meditate, reflect; to think deeply or seriously on, muse over.” Notice meditation is part of that definition.

To meditate on how much God loves me is something different from simply observing silence, which takes us to a place deeper in our awareness than mere thought or feelings.

So we ponder God, or Christ, or the mysteries of the faith, by musing on them, thinking over them, considering them. There is engaged mental activity at play. Not necessarily a lot of words: we can ponder something in an emotional or “affective” way, as in feeling appreciation for God’s forgiveness or having a sense of love welling up in our hearts.

But the key to this kind of meditation is a process of cognitive, mental engagement. To meditate on how much God loves me is something different from simply observing silence, which takes us to a place deeper in our awareness than mere thought or feelings. And that leads us the Christian understanding of contemplation.

Christian Contemplation

Contemplation has been described as gazing wordlessly on Christ with love. That’s a pretty good definition, although I would suggest that the emotional awareness of love is still a meditative experience. But maybe it’s helpful to remember that meditation and contemplation are like two ends of a continuum: there is no hard and fast distinction separating them, although they are different. Think of it this way: in meditation, there comes a point when the pondering stops, and the focus of your awareness shifts from your thoughts and feelings to a more vast, luminous recognition of silence, within and between and beneath all your thoughts and feelings. At this point you are transitioning from meditation to contemplation.

In contemplation, we seek to make ourselves radically available for the presence of God. The key Biblical verse is Psalm 46:10: “Be still and know that I am God.” The stillness is not primarily a physical stillness (it’s possible to be contemplative while walking a labyrinth or along the seashore), but an interior stillness. Now, I should hasten to point out that we never find complete interior stillness — at least, not while we are alive! So it’s a misunderstanding to say contemplation is about “emptying the mind.” Think of it rather as “allowing the mind to rest” or slowing down the flow of thoughts and feelings so that we can begin to discern the silence that is always there, like the screen behind a film or the page beneath the printed word.

There is a strong Biblical mandate for accepting silence as a foundation for intimate prayer: in addition to “Be still and know that I am God,” there is “For alone my soul in silence waits” (Psalm 62) and “The Lord is in his Holy Temple, let all the earth keep silence before him” (Habbakuk 2:20). For Christians, our bodies are “the temple of the Holy Spirit” so I like to point out that we need to find the silence in our hearts since our own bodies are God’s temple!

Back to the Original Question

So… back to the original question: “Is there a critical difference between sitting time and ‘observing silence, acknowledging God is present’ versus ‘meditating on God, whether through a holy text, your experiences with God, or other characteristics of God’?”

I hope that you can see a distinction between Christian meditation, or pondering “whether through a holy text, your experiences with God, or other characteristics of God,” and a more contemplative practice which involves “observing silence, acknowledging God is present.” Now, for the final nuance of my reader’s question: is there a critical difference between the two?

Here’s how I understand this: is it important for everyone do include both of these types of prayer? Or is it okay to just do one or the other? Remember my point about meditation and contemplation being on a continuum. Just as there is no hard and fast distinction between these two approaches top prayer, likewise there is no hard and fast rule about what any one person should do in regard to these two practices.

I very much try to have both meditative and silent prayer on a daily basis. But I am blessed with the ability to find meaning and enjoyment in both kinds of prayer. Some people may find that one form of prayer really appeals to them, while the other is a real struggle. This reminds me of an old saying, “pray as you can, not as you can’t.”

So I don’t think there is anything wrong with recognizing that you naturally prefer meditation over silence (or vice versa). But I would caution anyone against being too rigid in their prayer practice: in other words, if you find you don’t like meditation, it’s okay to focus your prayer on a contemplative practice like Centering Prayer or the Jesus Prayer. But leave open the possibility that, at a future point in time, you may feel called to do something more meditative, like the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises or lectio divina. Always be open to the possibility that your prayer life might evolve over time.

Remember, the purpose behind prayer is to grow in intimacy with God, not to master a method or technique.

Because of that continuum, you might even find that you move from meditation to contemplation (or vice versa) in a very gradual manner, over time. Remember, the purpose behind prayer is to grow in intimacy with God, not to master a method or technique. Always keep your focus on that relationship, and the methods or styles of prayer that work best for you will sort themselves out organically. Of course, if you are having a challenge figuring out your best prayer style, find a spiritual director or soul friend with whom you can discuss your prayer life. Having another person join you in listening for how the Spirit is leading your prayer can be a true help as you seek to grow closer to God.

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4 Comments

    1. I think John Main’s Christian meditation is quite similar to Centering Prayer, which is described as “a receptive method of silent prayer that prepares us to receive the gift of contemplative prayer.” If we understand meditation in the light of the historical Christian understanding of the word (as found in the writings of saints like Teresa of Ávila or Ignatius of Loyola), then the prayer method that John Main taught would not be a form of meditation, but rather a form of silent prayer. However, Main is using “meditation” in the more popular understanding of the word, which it is applied to any kind of disciplined practice of fostering interior attentiveness. In that sense, both Centering Prayer and what Main taught does qualify as forms of meditation.

  1. Carl: I found your explanation of the distinction between meditation and contemplation quite helpful. The two terms are often used interchangeably in a lot of popular books on prayer. And I have found that very confusing. You helped clarify the distinction. Thanks.

  2. Many thanks for this explanation. After reading the question and your response, I realized that I had wondered the same…but without actually being conscious of it. I tend to get mired in the details and in doing things “correctly”, so the reminder of the true goal, intimacy with our Lord, was something I needed as well!

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