Christian Insight Meditation - Selections
Chapter 1: Purity of Heart: The Teaching and Example of Jesus
“Blessed are the pure in heart,” Jesus taught in his sermon “on the mount, “for they shall see God.” For Jesus, the heart is more than the bodily organ that sustains physical life; it is the interior center of our being from which all life flows. The New Testament depicts the heart primarily as the source of our feelings, desires, and passions; of our thoughts and understanding; of our will and its choices; and of our moral and religious behavior. Accordingly, Jesus taught, as did the Buddha, that we must purify our entire interior life if we want the happiness of reaching our highest spiritual aspirations.
Jesus Demanded Purity of Heart
That Jesus demanded such inner purity is clear from his challenge to the Pharisees about ritual purification. “Listen to me, all of you,” he said, “and understand. Nothing entering from outside causes a person to be unclean; rather it is what comes out of the person that makes for uncleanness.”
Impurity Jesus later explained to his close disciples that ritual food leaves the heart unaffected. It simply passes through the body into the sewer. All foods, therefore, are clean. However, persons become unclean by what comes out of them. “For it is from within, from the heart, that evil intentions emerge: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, malice, deceit, indecency, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evils come from within. They make a person unclean.” The Buddha taught similarly: “Indeed, by oneself is evil done. By oneself is one defiled. Purity and impurity depend on oneself.”
To see God, our hearts must be pure, free of all evil. God is holy, and only the holy can rejoice in the divine presence. We cannot live before God with a heart filled with evil, with murder, deceit, envy, pride. We must first purify our hearts—our desires, thoughts, memories, emotions, and choices—of everything that might cause wrong behavior. As we gradually cleanse our interior life, we begin to know the happiness, the blessing, and the joy of seeing God. The Buddhist Dhammapada says, “Mindful of speech. Restraint of mind. Never allow your body to do harm. Follow these three ways with purity and you will achieve the Path.”
Seeing God In this world, seeing God does not mean physical vision, but experiencing God in the events of our daily lives. It means knowing God in dark faith and constant love. Yet experiencing God in faith and love in this world leads, as the apostle-evangelist John assured us, to seeing God directly in the life beyond this world. He wrote in his first epistle:
Beloved, we are already God’s children although what we are to be in the future has not yet been revealed. However, we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he really is. And those who thus hope in him purify themselves as he is pure.
Our true happiness in this world consists in embracing the purity of life we see in the teachings and example of Jesus, trusting that we shall be totally transformed in him when we finally see him face to face.
This happiness, Jesus reminded us, belongs not only to the pure of heart, but also to the poor in spirit, the gentle, the merciful, peacemakers, and to those who mourn, who long for holiness, and who suffer persecution for his sake. His teaching on happiness implies a connection between all these ways of being in the world.
Beatitudes The pure of heart are also poor in spirit. Just as no one who is pure of heart can be a murderer, an adulterer, or a liar, so the truly pure of heart also work for peace, show mercy, and strive for holiness. These are the qualities that bring us true happiness.
The happiness Jesus proclaimed is thus paradoxical. The things we naturally expect to make us happy—money, prestige, power, security, pleasure—make us very unhappy when they become our only desire and close our hearts to God. The Buddha also taught, “By giving up lesser happiness, one may have a greater one. Let the wise give up the lesser.”
Purity, meekness, and simplicity, on the other hand, bring happiness because they cleanse our hearts and open them for God, who alone makes us completely happy. The kingdom of God, therefore, belongs only to the poor in spirit, the meek, the mourners, and the peacemakers—to those who make room in their lives for God. There is no other way to establish the reign of God in our hearts.
Hardness of heart Jesus, of course, did not expect us to purify our hearts by our own efforts alone. He knew too well what is in us. He knew especially our hardness of heart, our sclerocardia, to put it in medical terms. Of all human diseases, hardness of the heart is the worst, worse even than cancer or AIDS, because it closes us to the Word of God and isolates us from God’s love.
We can be so absorbed in our own plans, desires, pleasures, thoughts, memories, and emotions that we exclude God from our hearts. As the divine physician who comes to heal us, Jesus’ primary focus was to cure the hardness of heart that prevents the growth within us of faith, hope, and love, and that excludes the transforming power of God’s love from our lives.
Dying to Self
To heal our hardness of heart, Jesus called us to die with him.
Those who want to follow me must renounce themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. Those who want to save their life must lose it; those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, save it. What gain is it to win the whole world and ruin one’s life? And, indeed, what can one offer in exchange for one’s life?
The example of Jesus As Christian discipleship demands dying to self, so too does purity of heart. We cannot achieve the purity Jesus taught in his sermon on the mount unless we die interiorly. We die interiorly every time we refuse to let harmful intentions or movements of rage, envy, lust, injustice, avarice, pride, and slander take root in our consciousness, not allowing them a place in our hearts.
As these movements pass through us, the heart’s natural purity and simplicity emerges, grows stronger, and prepares us to experience God in new and unexpected ways. After a lifetime of dying daily to disordered internal movements, we one day die finally into the complete, never-ending, unchanging presence of God.
Jesus exemplified his teaching with his own death on the cross. Although public preaching, teaching, healing, and community-building were essential to his ministry, Jesus established God’s reign in the world primarily through his death and resurrection. Similarly, his reign becomes established in our hearts as we daily share his death and resurrection. There is no other way. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain of wheat; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
Teachings of the apostle Paul Recognizing the good that comes to the human family through Jesus’ death and resurrection, Paul increasingly emphasized union with Jesus in his paschal mystery—his dying and rising—as central to Christian living. In his letter to the Christians at Philippi, Paul challenged them in these words:
In your minds you must be the same as Jesus Christ: his state was divine, yet he did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave, and became as all human beings are; and being as all humans are, he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross. But God raised him high and gave him the name that is above all other names so that all beings in the heavens, on earth, and in the underworld, should bend the knee at the name of Jesus and that every tongue should acclaim Jesus Christ as Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Speaking for himself, Paul went on to assure the Philippians of his own commitment to the paschal mystery: “All I want is to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and to share his sufferings by reproducing the pattern of his death. That is how I can hope to take my place in the resurrection of the dead.”
The mind of Christ We assume the mind of Christ when we embrace the process by which Jesus emptied himself for the human family in his suffering and death on the cross. His self-emptying was not a denial or renunciation of his unique personhood, but nonattachment to the divine honor and glory he could rightly claim. Jesus thus entered freely and completely into the depths of human suffering. The Father did not abandon Jesus in his self-emptying, but raised him from the dead and restored him to eternal glory. Now all creation praises and honors him as Lord. Similarly, purity of heart involves a self-emptying that does not destroy our personhood; rather, it opens us to the fullness of life as we share the spirit of the risen Lord who is given to us.
The Holy Spirit purifies us interiorly for God. As we cannot pray without the help of the Holy Spirit, neither can we purify our hearts without the Spirit’s assistance. Paul reminded the Corinthians:
You know perfectly well that people who do wrong will not inherit the kingdom of God: people of immoral lives, idolaters, and adulterers. These are the sort of people some of you were once, but now you have been washed clean and sanctified, and justified through the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and through the Spirit of our God.
The Holy Spirit The Holy Spirit within us continually supports our efforts to put to death the self-indulgent passions and desires that cause our disordered behavior; moreover, the Spirit produces in our conduct the enduring fruits of interior freedom—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Thus, we imitate Jesus in his self-emptying, not as an ascetical practice for its own sake, but because it purifies our heart and opens for us the door to freedom, love, peace, and life everlasting. This is the mystery of Christian faith. This is our daily rhythm of life. Indeed, purity of heart, poverty of spirit, mortification, non-attachment, and self-emptying not only lead to eternal life; they are eternal life already possessed, a risen life under the Holy Spirit’s constant guidance lived here and now in this world, a life that promises joyous completion in the eternal vision of God.
Purity of heart, then, is like the little mustard seed in Jesus’ story that grows from a very small seed to a large bush providing shelter for the birds of the air. It is a hidden and humble activity, yet it brings us every blessing—happiness, gospel living, healing and transformation in Christ Jesus, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, eternal life. These permit us to experience God now in faith and to see God later in heaven.
Purifying the Heart
But how, precisely, do we purify our hearts? First, by our love for Jesus. Our hearts become pure as we listen to his words, practice his teaching, follow his example, and, most importantly, die daily to self-love in union with his death on the Cross.
Ancient traditions We can also learn from others. Long before the time of Jesus, the Hebrew Bible psalmist prayed, “A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me.” Like this ancient poet, we can purify our hearts by humbly asking God each day for this blessing in our lives.
In addition to prayer, we can learn the ancient practices of the pure in heart. Following his own enlightenment around the year 500 B.C.E., the holy man of India, Gotama, the Buddha, taught his followers the importance of purifying the heart by abandoning evil and doing good. He stated, “Strive quickly. Get insight. Purged of impurity and passion you shall enter the blessed abode of the saints.” Meditation, he taught them further, is the practice that cleanses the heart. “From meditation arises wisdom. Knowing this, conduct yourself that wisdom may arise.”
Meditation purifies the heart of disordered desires, hateful thoughts, harmful memories, fear, and other negative emotions. It replaces these conditions with sharp mental awareness, clear understanding, strength of will, and attentiveness to each passing moment. It develops wisdom and compassion, and finally opens one to ultimate truth, unconditioned being, or Nibbana. Over the centuries, the Buddha’s followers have preserved their meditation practices with such care and precision that they are now available to those who wish to use them in response to Jesus’ call to purify the heart.
Meditation and purification Christians, too, have developed effective methods for purifying the heart. The sixteenth-century Spanish Carmelite friar John of the Cross meticulously described in The Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night the progressive interior purification necessary for union of the entire person with God. He gave counsel on how to systematically purify desires, thoughts, memories, and emotions so that our hearts may be disposed to receive God’s love in contemplation. Contemplation purifies, heals, and, ultimately, transforms all of the human personality, both sense and spirit, and unites it with God.
John taught that only God’s love for us fully purifies our hearts and unites us perfectly with God’s will. Divine love makes us God by participation, enables us to experience God in this life through faith, and after death to see God and live forever in God’s presence. Nevertheless, through the faithful practice of meditation and continual recollection, we can attain a purity of heart, a poverty of spirit, and an emptiness of self that irresistibly invites God into our lives and frees us to receive God’s purifying and transforming love in contemplation.
Purifying our hearts and reforming our lives each day according to the gospel make us fit to know God. “It is not those who say to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ who will enter the kingdom of heaven, but those who do the will of my Father in heaven.” We try during daily mental prayer to empty sense and spirit completely and surrender ourselves totally into God’s hands as Jesus did on Calvary. This prepares us fully for liturgy, where we celebrate Jesus’ paschal mystery and apply its fruits to our lives.
Christian insight meditation The chapters that follow in this book bring these two venerable traditions—Buddhist meditation and the Christian spirituality of John of the Cross—together into an ascetical practice we call Christian insight meditation. This contemporary approach to purifying our hearts lets us know, as Jesus promised, the happiness of seeing God—first in this world by dark faith, then by direct vision in eternity. This practice aims, in the spirit of the beloved disciple’s first epistle, to help Christians purify their beings as Jesus is pure. Then their hope of seeing him and being finally transformed in him can be fulfilled.
In Christian insight meditation, regular attention to the breath develops a growing consciousness of the presence of the Spirit whom Jesus breathes upon us. It readies us to follow where the Spirit leads, even into unfamiliar territory. “The wind blows wherever it pleases; you hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. That is how it is with all who are born of the Spirit.”
The meditation discipline of staying in the present moment, refusing to give mental energy to thoughts of the past or the future, trains us for moment-to-moment attention to the here and now. This enables us to live fully in God’s presence as we involve ourselves in the endless tasks that make up our day. “Do not worry about tomorrow,” Jesus reminds us, “for tomorrow will have its own worries. Let each day’s problems be sufficient for the day.”
Close attention to present experiences also puts us deeply in touch with our beings. This brings understanding that helps us manage problem thoughts, emotion, and impulses. It results in better conduct, calmer minds, and greater purity of heart.
Although not all of us pray in the same way, the goal of all Christian prayer remains the same: continual communion with God and transformation of our lives in Christ. Christian insight meditation brings this. Before explaining this practice further, we look first at brief historical overviews of the Buddhist tradition of insight meditation and the Carmelite tradition of prayer.
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© Mary Jo Meadow, Christian Insight Meditation (Wisdom Publications, 2007)
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