Over the past few weeks Dr. Joel Beeke and I have been teaming up to work our way through a portion of his massive new work A Puritan Theology. We have not been reading the whole book, but just the final eight chapters which deal with practical theology, the “so what?” of systematic theology.
This week we read chapter 55 which discusses the Puritans and meditation. I asked Dr. Beeke a few questions related to the Puritans and the way they practiced meditation.
TC: The word “meditation” has found use in true Christianity, in Catholicism, and in many Eastern forms of spirituality. Along the way it has been used to describe many different practices. What did the Puritans mean by it?
JB: In religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, meditation involves breathing techniques, posture, and chanting certain repetitive sounds (a mantra) to empty the mind and achieve a feeling of tranquility and connectedness with an impersonal divine being. Roman Catholicism has promoted meditation especially in the form of imagining the physical sufferings of Christ in a way that stirs sympathetic emotions, or repeating set prayers to Mary and the saints. The Puritan practice of meditation is quite different from any of these.
Puritan meditation engages the mind with God’s revealed truth in order to inflame the heart with affections towards God and transform the life unto obedience. Thomas Hooker defined it like this: “Meditation is a serious intention of the mind whereby we come to search out the truth, and settle it effectually upon the heart.” The direction of our minds reveals the truest love of our hearts, and so, Hooker said, he who loves God’s Word meditates on it regularly (Ps. 119:97). Therefore, Puritan meditation is not repeating a sound, emptying the mind, or imagining physical sights and sensations, but a focused exercise of thought and faith upon the Word of God.
TC: How deliberate were the Puritans when it came to meditation? Would they ensure they had time in their schedules for deliberate meditation, or did they consider meditation what happened through the course of daily life?
JB: The Puritans did seek to meditate throughout life, as a complement of praying without ceasing. Hooker said that meditation is “the main trade that a godly man drives”—his greatest occupation day and night (Ps. 1:2). Joseph Hall said, “Lord, … that man is truly holy, whose understanding is enlightened with right apprehensions of thee and heavenly things; whose will and affections are rightly disposed to thee, so that his heart is wholly taken up with thee, his conversation being in heaven; who thinks all time lost, in which he doth not enjoy thee, and a sweet and holy communion with thee; walking perpetually with thee, and laboring in all things to be approved of thee.” Thus Hall encouraged people to see all the world around them as a “stage” to see God’s wisdom and glory, just as Solomon learned from the ant (Prov. 6:6–8) and our Lord taught us by the lilies of the field (Matt. 6:28–30). Thus, Hall said, “There is no creature, event, action, speech, which may not afford us new matter of meditation.” This kind of brief meditation that takes place in the hustle and bustle of daily life they called occasional meditation. Several Puritans wrote entire books of examples of occasional meditation to teach their church members how to do this.