John Chapman on meditation and contemplation

Writing in 1920 John Chapman reassuringly explores difficulties in meditation and contemplation with one correspondent.  And it makes sense nearly 100 years later…

He looks at what happens to the imagination when one is consciously involved in meditation and how for some people – the more unemotional and unimaginative people, there is no effect, whilst others may have all sorts of feelings.

This means that for most of us the imagination and the emotions must have something to do while we try to be focused on God. He says that if the imagination – the flights of fancy that can take us away from our focus when we are trying to be silent are not wilful, they don’t matter in the least. But if the will has to run after them, to bring them back, it has to detach itself from God to do so, and besides we often find the imagination is interesting and dwell upon the diversions with much pleasure. This is where using a word or a phrase can be helpful.

A contemporary analytical psychologist (Jungian) said to me that he believed it was impossible not to think; so some sort of activity will always be going on.

In the same way whom we are at any one moment is about how we feel… ‘Who am I? ‘How do I feel?’ The corollary of this is that if we can be silent and as far as possible ‘emptied’ of most of the constant thinking then it may be that we can become available – like Mary – a receptacle for God.

Chapman thinks that being aware of the imagination is central but it is about not moving to understand what is going on. This means not being attracted to the thinking part of our self and disconnected from the purpose of trying to meditate. He thinks trying to intellectualise or to understand contemplation is a contradiction in terms, and prefers what he calls analogical descriptions. Here are a couple:

‘I am in our Lord’s arms; so close to his heart but I cannot see his face.’

And the second:  ‘I am in a dark room; saying words – which mean nothing – to someone who is not there.’

Ideally one can’t put one’s mind to 2 things at the same time.

When we try to understand contemplation we can’t do it. Chapman reminds his correspondent that whilst it is ‘a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God… He is infinite wisdom and infinite love all the same… But if all this was explicable, it couldn’t be a contact with the Infinite!’