Think it through: discursive meditation

[The third of five occasional articles of variations on Lectio Divina meditation based on the book Prayer and Temperament by Chester P. Michael and Marie C. Norrisey.]

Discursive Meditation: a Short History

Developed over the first Christian centuries, the form of meditation known as Lectio Divinaincluded the elements of reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation. These elements are interwoven to make the prayer simple and spontaneous. The passion for analysis brought about by the 12th Century schools of theology began to emphasize more analytical and methodical meditation. A 14th and 15th Century renewal movement – the Devotio Moderna – reacted against the overemphasis of analysis in prayer and emphasized the last two elements of the Lectio Divina. By the 16th Century, the elements of the Lectio Divina generally were no longer interwoven. The term “mental prayer” (as opposed to liturgy and corporate prayer) was coined, and mental prayer was divided into discursive meditation, affective prayer (or affective meditation), and contemplation. In the last 400 years, grace-infused contemplation has been seen as the exception rather than the rule. It has been confused with phenomena such as levitation, visions, and private revelations, and has been associated with certain heresies such as Quietism in the 17th Century. Meanwhile, discursive meditation fit the rational approach to life brought about by the Age of Reason. This overemphasis on analysis and thinking in meditation lasted until The Vatican II Ecumenical Counsel in the early 1960s. Reacting to the inroads made by Eastern religions in the West, Vatican II caused many Catholics to rediscover their own contemplative tradition and theology as expressed by Thomas à Kempis, Francis de Sales, John of the Cross, and others.

Sadly, the pendulum has swung again and discursive meditation is underemphasized. Despite centuries-old warnings by John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, and others, many today are trying to reach advanced stages of prayer almost solely by means of special methods and without the needed spiritual maturity. With its emphasis on personal growth, discursive meditation helps to bring about maturity.

Discursive Meditation: a Definition

Discursive meditation is a thinking-oriented approach to meditation. One “walks around” a Scripture or truth, seeing it from many angles. One reasons with oneself, moving from the doctrinal to the personal. Reasoning may be based on the seven auxiliary questions: why, who, what, where, when, how, & with what helps. The lectio portion may be brief, centering on a virtue, a fault, or a spiritual truth. The exercise concludes in the oratio portion with suitable resolutions. This discursive meditation results in a change of behavior. (Some sources use the term “discursive meditation” to also include the Feeling-oriented personalization of Scripture that will be described in a future article on NF spirituality.)

[chart]Discursive Meditation and the Rational Temperament

Chester P. Michael and Marie C. Norrisey’s book Prayer and Temperament uses the four temperaments popularized by David Kiersey in his book Please Understand Me: the artisan, the guardian, the idealist, and the rationalist. (For the purposes of Slow Reads’s articles on meditation, I have renamed the guardian temperament the “practical” temperament, and I have renamed the artisan temperament the “free-spirited” temperament.) These four temperaments are extractions from Katharine C. Briggs and Isabelle Briggs Myers’s personality theory, and they fit well with historical personality archetypes.

“Persons of the NT temperament possess a very logical mind which approaches a problem with an orderly movement of thought from cause to effect or from effect back to cause. They gravitate to anything complicated, exacting, or challenging to the mind.” (Prayer and Temperament, page 80.) NT’s (rationalists) usually prefer discursive meditation because of its emphasis on thought and logic. This style of meditation may not come as easily to those of other temperaments, but it would benefit them as well as the rationalist.

A Discursive Meditation

Lectio: read verses on humility, including Matthew 11:28-29, Matthew 23:8-12, 1 Corinthians 4:7, and 1 Peter 5:6.Meditatio: Consider the lives of Moses or Mary (Martha’s sister), or other examples of humility. Perhaps consider Peter’s hard-won humility by comparing Matthew 26:33 with John 21:15-17. Who is the most meaningful example of humility in the Bible to me? Why? Who in real life? Why? When have I been humble in the recent past? When have I been arrogant? What’s behind my arrogance? What’s the purpose of humility? How if at all does humility reflect reality? How can I grow in humility? How did Peter grow in humility? Who can help me grow in humility? How can he or she help? Oratio: End your meditation with suitable prayers for insight and expressions of repentance. Converse with God about an appropriate concrete action step.

Further reading:

Merton, Thomas. The Ascent to Truth. San Diego: Harcourt, 1951, p. 177.

Michael, Chester P. and Norrisey, Marie C. Prayer and Temperament: Different Prayer Forms for Different Personality Types. Charlottesville, VA: The Open Door, Inc., 1991.