The Practice of Puritan Meditation (Part 1)
The Puritans valued meditation on theological doctrines and key propositions of Scripture. They sought to fill their mind, imagination, consciousness and memory with God and his purposes. Richard Baxter (d 1691) is representative of the Puritans in seeing heaven as the foremost subject of meditation. John Owen (d 1683) particularly prized meditation ‘on the person of Christ, and the glory of Christ’s kingdom, and of His love’.
According to the Puritans meditation should be frequent and focussed. Adequate time must be set aside. William Bates comments that our meditations are like eggs which need to be kept warm in the nest, ‘if the bird leaves her nest for a long space, the eggs chill and are not fit for production’ but ‘holiness and comfort to our souls’ will be the result of regular time with God. At the beginning, meditation is like trying to build a fire from wet wood. Bates encourages us to persevere ‘till the flame doth so ascend’ (On Divine Meditation, 1700).
Meditation begins with 'consideration' or reflection on the chosen truth. Then by engaging in a 'soliloquy', we exhort ourselves, seeking to 'quicken the heart' (Richard Baxter). Meditation should conclude with prayer, for ‘prayer is a tying a knot at the end of meditation that it doth not slip’ (Thomas Watson). The Puritans valued praying out loud, in private as well as public devotions. Meditation must lead to ‘particulars’ ie concrete changes in behaviour (Edmund Calamy, The Art of Divine Meditation, 1634).
Sermons and reading can provide the material for sustained reflection, but Richard Baxter comments that though some are never weary of hearing sermons or reading, they yet have ‘starved souls’. A sermon may briefly refresh them, but unless it is properly digested, the benefits will be short lived. He compares the 7 or 8 hours needed for physical digestion with the time needed for spiritual digestion of an hour’s sermon. Meditation is not the ‘bare thinking on truths’ but the setting of the affections on God (The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, 1650). The Puritan Thomas White agrees, ‘it is better to hear one Sermon only and meditate on that, than to hear two Sermons and meditate on neither’ (A Method and Instructions for the Art of Divine Meditation, 1672). Thomas Watson (d 1686) described academic study as ‘a winter sun that hath little warmth and influence’, while meditation ‘melts the heart when it is frozen, and makes it drop into tears of love’.
You may find it valuable to set aside a significant and regular block of time for Scripture reflection, for meditation on God and on your own life and ministry. Practical guidance can be found in Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines (HarperCollins, 1991) and Adele Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook (IVP, 2005). Guidelines for Puritan meditation can be found in Peter Adam, Hearing God's Words (2004), 202-210 and Joel R Beeke, Puritan Reformed Spirituality (2006). The second instalment of this article will offer more practical suggestions from the Puritans on this style of prayer and reflection.
Jill Firth is assistant minister at St John’s West Brunswick.
She is an adjunct lecturer in theology at Ridley Melbourne. Jill also leads EFAC Victoria quiet days at Ridley. The next is on Friday 7 August 2009 and will feature some of the ideas from this article.
Quotations in this article can be accessed on line from Joel R Beeke, ‘The Puritan Practice of Meditation’, www.hnrc.org/files/Puritan Meditation.pdf and from Richard Baxter, The Saints' Everlasting Rest (1650) http://www.ccel.org/ccel/baxter/saints_rest.iii.XII.html (and sections XIII-XVII)
INSERT THIS AD IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWING THE ARTICLE
EFAC Victoria QUIET DAY
The Practice of Puritan Meditation: an introduction to Puritan meditation plus time for quiet reflection and prayer.
(registration and morning tea 9.30-10am)
Friday August 7, 2009
Ridley College Chapel
170 The Avenue Parkville
$30 includes lunch and morning tea
(or $20 BYO lunch, morning tea provided)
Register by Tuesday August 4th